Culture Clash

Culture Clash

You don't need a degree in anthropology to negotiate multicultural IT projects. But as this IT exec discovered, having one sure doesn't hurt.

When colleagues learn that my graduate degree is in anthropology rather than business or computer science, they're usually puzzled. They assume that I've changed careers, or that studying human cultures is an interesting but frivolous hobby - like, say, building model ships.

In fact, over the years my expertise in anthropology has turned out to be one of the most valuable tools in my management kit. It's particularly helpful now, when more and more IT projects are becoming collaborative endeavours at locations around the world, involving people of vastly different backgrounds.

Consider my experience at Moody's Investors Service. I joined the credit rating agency in 1993 when it was embarking upon a major expansion outside the US, as well as undertaking an ambitious strategy to replace legacy mainframe processes and stand-alone desktop applications with a more efficient global data architecture. Today, Moody's publishes ratings and research electronically in real time on its Web site. Its analysts gather information about market conditions affecting companies, governments and debt instruments wherever people issue bonds to raise capital. Its internal systems integrate financial, HR, marketing and workflow operations in offices on every continent except Antarctica.

As an IT manager, one of my responsibilities was serving as the liaison between the central systems development group at the US headquarters and the developers and end users in other countries. That meant leading project teams of staff members, consultants and vendors who were multinational, multiracial, multi­ethnic, multireligious and multilingual.

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

You might think that a multicultural IT project is much the same as any other. After all, developers who employ the same programming language can usually decipher each other's code even if they don't speak the same human language. English now unites the IT world as Latin once united the Roman Empire. Yet in my experience, multicultural projects almost always generate conflicts. And that's because people from different cultural backgrounds have different notions of leadership. In sum, global workers have varying attitudes about the importance of deadlines, the flexibility of rules and even the need to write things down.

At Moody's, these cultural differences hampered our ability to conduct software testing and engineering process audits. Effective quality assurance requires an independent perspective and an open acknowledgment of defects. Until the mid-90s, in a largely homogeneous American development environment, the dynamics of QA methodology depended on three very American values. The first was the egalitarian ideal of social intercourse - the way distinctions of rank are supposed to be minimised in our daily interactions. The second, emerging from the first, was the informal give-and-take Americans learn in school as they're encouraged to express opinions, challenge other students (and sometimes even the teacher) and brainstorm solutions. The third was the "tell it like it is" approach to conflict resolution, in which criticism may be expressed, ideally without shame or fear of reprisal.

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