It’s been an “interesting” time in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where I live) in the past week. Every day the front story above the fold of the Boston Globe has been about one aspect or another of the controversy around the arrest of a black man, Harvard Professor Louis Gates, by a white man, Cambridge Police Officer Tim Crowley. And every time I open my iGoogle news page, one of the top 5 news stories is related to it.
Out of all the commentary I’ve read, this comment by Donna Brazile stands out for me:
“No one wants to talk about race,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and ABC News consultant. “He [Obama] does not inject race into the conversation regularly because it clears the room. There are designated times, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day or when we have a large gathering of black folks, like at the NAACP recently, but that’s about it.”
When I read this remark, it struck me that in the seven or eight years that I’ve worked with or in the Indian outsourcing industry, I can’t think of more than a handful of times when race has been mentioned. We have conversations about cultural differences, regional differences, multiple religions, and different communication styles, but no one wants to talk about race, and when it is brought up occasionally, it often clears the room.
I don’t think that’s because race is an insignificant issue. Race – however we define it – is a major element in the history of both the U.S. and India and, as the recent news coverage shows, continues to be a controversial and emotional topic in U.S. politics.
I think this is a blind spot in our conversations, and one that we can ill afford. The root cause of outsourcing engagement failures almost always lies in the relationships between the organizations and team members, and rarely in the contract or business process definition. Developing a shared understanding of the business, culture and environment, across both the outsourcing client and the outsourcing vendor (or distributed locations in a shared services model), is key to a successful business relationship and engagement. And recognizing the differences in those cultures and environments — from the business model, corporate culture, language, communication practices, to holiday schedules, phone service and weather — is part of developing that shared understanding.
When outsourcing projects go bad, there is almost always finger-pointing about the other side, and it usually includes remarks about “Indians do this…” and “Americans think that…” While the issue is often not racism per se, I think it’s impossible for us not to be intertwined in our racial histories in one way or the other. If we don’t recognize and acknowledge this, it’s difficult to have open, productive conversations about what’s going on, and if we can’t discuss it, it’s almost impossible to fix it. Given how much we invest in making outsourcing engagements work, can we afford not to talk about race?