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Southeast Asia: How Do You Optimize Working with Offshore Engineering Teams? (Part I)

When working with Offshore Engineering 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 confusion that would otherwise arise from cultural barriers or lack of experience.

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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 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.

Working with OSE teams on projects constructed in their own countries will require even more depth in the following key areas to be successful:

  • 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 number one concern in understanding an OSE team is cultural differences. It is hazardous to assume that everybody works the same as workers in the U.S. Increasing interaction with China, India, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries likely will make the differences more apparent. As a result, as simple a goal 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 because they do not want their boss to look like he or she failed to provide the right information in the first place. On one project in India, for example, a drawing that was missing a dimension 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 is provided. The U.S. leader is in charge, so the OSE team will not 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 he or she 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 U.S., 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 worksite as would be in the U.S., who would know about soil compaction and the steps required. In reality, the team on the ground did not 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 U.S.

Even working with teams that have been used before, it is 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 is critical to get one. When a project’s leadership is changing frequently, costs can quickly escalate and end up costing as much as if a U.S. company itself undertook the job.

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