International information technology: The importance of the liberal arts for IT

Can your IT department communicate with overseas partners?
Can your IT department communicate with overseas partners?

I work in IT at a large corporation, and this week I had to confront the practical problems of working across multiple languages and cultures. Our company operates on all continents (except Antarctica, as far as I know). The company is divided roughly into four divisions: Far East (eg, China, Malaysia, Japan), Central (eg, Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Africa), South America, and North America.

After speaking to various IT leaders in the regions, I’m beginning to hear the problems they’re experiencing, namely, that the countries of their respective regions are not communicating with one another and that North America is not communicating effectively with them. Creating an IT team among four leaders, one from each area, challenges any desire to align people along the same goals, unless communication and empathy lie at the core of our interactions.

Differences among the regions

In North America, IT is pretty straightforward. We have a service desk overseas, and the rest of IT is in the US. So if someone has a problem, he or she calls the overseas service desk, and if they can’t help, the call or the issue is escalated to the US IT department.  We all conduct IT support in English, except for one of our extended team who works in Spanish.

In region 1, language differences contribute to confusion. (For the sake of discretion, I will not identify the regions in this post, unless the phenomenon is generic to that region.)  One service desk exists for all of this region, and it provides service in English. English, however, is the native language neither of the callers nor of the service desk. The help sessions, therefore, tend to be awkward. Some folks in this region work around the system by calling in to the local country IT organization directly, bypassing the service desk. This workaround helps because it allows people to receive IT help in their native language. Two issues that arise from this system, however, are 1) local IT organizations end up spending their time on individual associates’ problems and not on bigger IT issues and 2) if the issues are serious enough, they have to be escalated to North American IT, where we only speak English, and some of the description and notes on the problem may be in another language.

In region 2, language and culture inhibit communication among groups. Our company has operated longer in this region than in region 1. Through the history of the company, each country has functioned nearly autonomously. As a result, each country has its own way of dealing with IT issues, creating IT “silos” who don’t necessarily work with each other. The general help desk in region 2 is in a single country and follows the rules of the country where it finds itself. On the one hand, the service desk functions as such; they provide decent service. On the other hand, it doesn’t communicate much with other IT organizations, including IT in the US.

Need to overcome these communication barriers

IT in the regions and IT in North America, therefore, do not align. Each country’s citizens would rather speak to their own country’s IT in their own language. North America would like to create a uniform IT policy for multiple reasons.

  • The company could run more efficiently, for example, if the whole company supported a single piece of software for a certain job, rather than different software for different areas, since any software interacts with the rest of the system in unique ways. The IT environment gets unimaginably complicated without uniformity.

  • The regions function better when they communicate with North America IT because when central IT decides for some change in the IT environment, the regions can participate and adapt quickly.

  • When the regions run into problems, such as a big backlog of associate issues, North America can only help when they understand how the regions function and can understand the problem description and notes that they read.

Criteria for success

Communication lies at the center of a solution for my company’s IT woes. If IT were to work efficiently and smoothly for the technology users, we would have to succeed in these two areas:

  1. Associates would be able to receive good help in a language they can understand;
  2. IT would work closely among the regions.

Even though IT is located in North America, it cannot operate as the only center. It must partner with the other regions and must lead the pursuit to fulfilling, effective cooperation. To this end, it has to appreciate:

  • the diversity in each region,
  • the difficulty in communicating constantly in a foreign language, and
  • the consequences of its actions for those outside of North America.

For example, I admitted to our associates in Europe and Asia that while I spent a lot of time in Europe, and so I understand the cultural distinctions between northern and southern Germans, I couldn’t tell the cultural distinctions between Filipinos and Vietnamese people.

I do, however, deeply feel the frustration and exhaustion of communicating entirely in another language. I believe, though, that the vast majority of IT folks in North America have not experienced this madness; receiving, let alone giving, step-by-step advice in another language can drive you crazy.

Through my travels and study of other languages, I have seen the consequences of the actions of North America in other countries. I have discussed the coming of US missionaries to the former Soviet Union in the 90s, for example, and the involvement of the US in Lebanese politics. Folks in Ukraine and Lebanon feel frustrated that they must passively accept the consequences of decisions made in Washington, DC.

Successful cooperation among the regions thus necessitates deep and broad experiences of other cultures and languages outside English-speaking North America.

Liberal arts and IT

Every large corporation will inevitably run into the tensions in IT that I have described in my company. Every human wants to communicate easily in his or her own language and to have a say in decisions that affect them. Empathy with those outside the US and the desire to communicate with them will determine long-term success. Those who work in IT, therefore, cannot limit themselves to a technical education. They must immerse themselves in the liberal arts. They must learn to think outside of their own culture to see how one’s actions affect others, they must avail themselves of opportunities to travel, they must learn another language. Not only will this help the company’s bottom-line by increasing efficiency, but will enrich the lives of those working in IT and the associates they are assisting.

What do ineffective intercultural IT teams cost international corporations?  What are practical ways that we can prepare our IT teams to work with overseas partners?  How can we ready tech-minded people to communicate in difficult situations?

Photo credit: x-ray delta one / Foter / CC BY-SA

A Money-Mouth Situation

somalia-days
somalia-days (Photo credit: burningmax)

As I just moved to Minnesota, my linguistic situation has changed dramatically.  Significantly, I’m personally confronting some of the major topics I blog about: overcoming fear and learning languages in everyday situations.  Time for me to put my money where my mouth is. Despite a good situation, fear is impeding my language progress.  I moved to the ‘burbs in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but within 48 hours of arriving, I found that three doors down lives a Persian family from Tehran.  And they don’t speak English so well.  I’d been excited about such a situation in the abstract; now, in the concrete, I’m afraid.  The typical questions go through my head: What will I say?  What can we talk about after the first 5 minutes?  In our first exchange I feel like I already went beyond what I’m able to do.

I know the solution, though I haven’t acted yet–Just go talk to them, ask “What?” a lot, learn something.  These people were so excited to meet me on that first day, and demonstrated typical Persian hospitality.  When words didn’t work, they held my hand and patted my back.  By getting over my fear I will do everyone a favor.

I’m really excited to start a new language: Somali.  In my new job, the opportunity has arisen to learn Somali in everyday conversation.  The system is working well.  I’m starting by using phrases I can use multiple times a day.  I learned how to say “Good morning,” but not “Good evening,” because I don’t see him in the evening.  I asked how to say, “How was your weekend?” because that will come up more times.  Because we’re doing IT work, I learned to say, “Is the computer ready?” and “Are you ready?  Let’s go!” as we move from task to task.  Then he taught me, “Wait a minute!”  So we have mini conversations every day.  So even though my vocabulary is small, I maximized the practical.  I cannot say, “The table is yellow,” because we have no yellow tables in our office.  So far, so good.

A lingering danger is the plateau.  I’m at the plateau in Farsi, and am losing motivation.  I’m in the early, quick-learning stages of Somali, so I’m easily motivated.  I need to focus on staying motivated in Farsi as I pick up Somali.

Any suggestions for staying motivated?  (I know that’s supposed to be my job, but any help is appreciated.)