During the recent Olympics in Beijing, 70,000 volunteers in the city of 15.5 million helped events run smoothly for 10,000 athletes and 6.5 million tourists.
The numbers are similarly monumental when U.S. companies
outsource to China components of complex information systems (IS). The Windows 2000 NT operating system, for example, required approximately 10 million lines of software code, said Gregory Rose, associate professor of business at WSU Vancouver. If you figure on one day for one person to write 15-30 lines, that could be a half million days — or more than a lifetime for five people.
“These systems are too large to be built by an individual or a small group,” Rose said. Consequently, components are outsourced — typically from the United States to places like Ireland, India or China.
But the failure rate for IS development has been shown to be upwards of 74 percent, Rose said. With research interests in IS innovation and global information technology, he worked with IS doctoral student
Yanjun Yu
to try to understand “what can be knowable to create better odds.”
They wanted to help both U.S. and Chinese organizations know their partners better in order to boost teamwork and productivity.
“We are trying to create cultural sensitivity in IS organizations,” Rose said.
Window of opportunity
Yu reviewed past literature and also spent summer 2007 in China interviewing software developers in order to collect factors that affected work quality and productivity. From these, she compiled online surveys completed by nearly 200 software developers in China and 200 in the U.S.
Data from the surveys will analyze such things as group success at dealing with the disruptions brought by technological change, innovation, cultural and even time-zone differences, as well as differences between the Chinese and Americans in ways of working and coping with change.
“We collect large amounts of information and then spend five or ten years analyzing it,” Rose said. “Technological change and the upheaval it can cause is a fast-moving phenomenon. We have a finite window to look at these things.”
Early results
Although they’ve only begun to look at their data, the results do show outsourcing has been a disruptive phenomenon for China, Rose said.
“They’re overwhelmed by innovation, trying to assimilate new tools, systems and ways of working,” he said.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing a return on investment of only 30 percent of what was expected. Outsourcing is not yet the panacea it was expected to be.”
Quantitatively, they are not seeing the differences between Chinese and American workers that were documented in studies from the 1970s. Rose said he is interested to see how age might influence the Chinese data — if the one-child-only policy and/or the weakening of Marxism in the last few decades might result in marked differences between younger and older workers.
Coping with change
“The Olympics were a wonderful insight to show the world what China is capable of,” Rose said. “Spending $41 billion on renovating an ancient city is like putting a man on the moon. It happens once in a millennium.”
Ongoing change is in China’s future as American IS companies continue to outsource there. Rose and Yu hope their work will help the Chinese see what they’re getting into and help the Americans understand how to be good international citizens.
“This is about group culture,” Rose said. “What makes a successful team? This is applicable whether you’re working in China or America.”