Offshore engineering and cultural differences

When in southeast Asia, do as the southeast Asians do.

By John Stauffer, PMP, SSOE Group

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When working with offshore engineering (OSE) teams in southeast Asia to assist U.S. engineering, the keys to success are to understand the team and define the project as much as possible. The result is clarity, with a reduction of ambiguity and thus confusion that would otherwise arise from cultural barriers or lack of experience. Assessing the level of detail needed in the project helps to determine whether it is appropriate to hand off to an OSE team.

A shift, however, is beginning. Rather than being a way merely to save money on U.S. projects, OSE teams offer the means to truly expand globally as contractors start to understand what that expansion means in a particular area.

Thus, to be successful, working with OSE teams on projects constructed in their own countries will require even more depth in:

  • understanding the team and its cultural differences and field experience
  • assessing the level of detail required
  • providing sufficient detail to correctly complete the job.

Understanding the team

The No. 1 concern in understanding an OSE team is cultural differences. It is hazardous to assume that everybody everywhere works the same as people do in the United States. Increasing interaction with China, India, Malaysia, and other southeast Asian countries will likely make the differences more apparent. As a result, a goal as simple as completing a project phase by the end of the month may have a very different interpretation in another country.

Dealing with hierarchy is another major difference. Subordinates in other countries are careful about asking questions, for example, because they don’t want the boss to look as if he or she failed to provide the right information in the first place. On one project in India, for example, a drawing was missing a dimension and was marked to show that that dimension needed to be added. The staff in India drew a line showing a dimension, but copied it exactly as was requested without numbering it. The difference in understanding arose because culturally teams in India are expected to do exactly what they are asked to do and not make their own decisions.

Cultural differences greatly impact how the team receives information and, therefore, how it’s provided. The U.S. leader is in charge, so the OSE team won’t do anything they deem disrespectful. They will avoid putting the leader in a position of appearing not to have done the job correctly, even if the leader left out a piece of important information. This is changing as teams in India and other southeast Asian countries are becoming autonomous, but progress will require time.

Cultural differences impact communication in other ways, too. An example involving ground compacting for a new building in India demonstrates this. The drawings provided showed the proper specifications. To complete the job in the United States, dump trucks, bulldozers, and compactors would have been brought in to level the soil to the required degree. In this particular instance, the job was approached with wheelbarrows to carry out soil, which was then manually compacted with handheld power tampers. The lack of cultural understanding had a costly result. Through partnering with the client, SSOE was made aware of this situation, to help with future offshore projects.

Lack of field experience

A high percentage of offshore staffing is well-educated, with many holding master's degrees in engineering. This makes them very experienced in running theoretical calculations. The shortcoming with a lot of time spent in school, however, is that these workers often have much less experience in the field. As a result, they potentially have less understanding of a project's real impact or demands.

In addition, the frequent high turnover rate within OSE teams can also lead to a lack of available experience. Turnover is increasing as southeast Asia grows into a more competitive market and higher pay rates are available. The staff on the job one day may not be the same the next, and it can’t be assumed that all team members are current on project information. Those with field experience may ask the right questions, but those lacking the necessary experience more likely will not know how to request needed information, leading to issues.

The building with the settling foundation is also a good example of the problems that can develop when a team lacks field experience. It was assumed there were construction managers on the work site, as there would be in the United States, who would know about soil compaction and the steps required. In reality, the team on the ground didn’t have the same experience as their U.S. counterparts. Unaware of this, the U.S. engineers provided a North American level of detail, assuming the construction manager was knowledgeable of normally accepted practices in the United States.

Even working with teams that have been used before, it’s important to have an open discussion about the staffing plan. If a single point person is offered, find out what kind of support he will have and whether his team will be available throughout construction. If a single point person is not offered, it’s critical to get one. When a project’s leadership is changing frequently, costs can quickly escalate and end up tallying as much as if a U.S. company itself undertook the job.

Assessing the level of detail

The amount of detail needed determines the return on investment (ROI) of working with an OSE team. When preparing details to send to get the work done, think of the OSE team’s viewpoint, having never seen the site, not having pictures, and not knowing the client. Give the team permission to ask questions, in order to determine the necessary level of detail. Ask them whether they have everything they need and what else you can provide to make the job successful. Once you understand the OSE team and its skill set, judging a project's value is totally situational. If a detailed project can be sent over with no special problems and no extra effort, ROI will be high. When a site job in the United States is a quick and simple $20,000 project, but takes $10,000 to detail it, take pictures, get clarifications, provide field work, and prepare laser scans and background to send overseas, 50% of the total value will have been invested and the ROI will be low.

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