Offshoring usability

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Working with a global lab team in China

Tom Plocher

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"Offshoring" has such negative connotations in the US that I prefer to describe what we do here at Honeywell Labs as "working with global laboratory teams." There are three reasons for a technology company to start a global lab in a particular location. First, it might want to position a lab close to some special world-class talent in a particular technology. This usually means a university, from which they can draw both talent and technology. Hewlett-Packard comes to mind when I think about this model. Second, a lab might be placed in a country that represents a large future market, with the idea that the lab will infuse the needs and requirements of that market into the company's overall research and development strategies. Think Nokia and Motorola. Third, there is tremendous pressure in the US to reduce the costs of research and development. Labs in developing countries are a way to reduce costs. So, why does Honeywell have a lab and human factors team in China? There is probably an element of each of these three factors.

For some years, we have had a close relationship with Professor Kan Zhang's Engineering Psychology Lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). His students have served as interns at our lab in Minneapolis. One intern returned to CAS to become a professor and continues to do human factors research with us. But it is our lab in Beijing that provides the day-to-day personal contact and support that makes this university connection an extremely productive working relationship. Our engineers actually work on site at CAS for some amount of their time, which benefits both organizations.

Our China Lab certainly provides a window into the China market. They have worked with our Asia-Pacific marketing department on a number of successful projects aimed at understanding Chinese user experience and product needs. As members of our global project teams they provide insight about how a technology or product concept might be extended to reach an even bigger market, e.g., China. They broaden our thinking.

Finally, I would be kidding everyone if I didn't admit that cost effectiveness was extremely important to me in assembling global project teams. I work in a business with relatively short research and development cycles. We can't take years to do things. Yet, like everyone in American industry these days, we do not exactly have lavish funding. Working with a lab in China means that I can at least double my technical progress in a year without exceeding my budget. And, they work while we sleep (and vice versa)! How cool is that?

What are some tips about working with human factors team members in China?

1. Traditional Chinese society is based on relationships. If you don't have relationships, you won't get anywhere. Relationships don't get established in one trip. They develop incrementally, which takes time. Be patient. Make good on all your promises and commitments so they have no reason to mistrust you. Introduce them to your colleagues in other parts of the world. You will be appreciated for your connections.

2. Not arguing with you does not mean that they agree. Americans are so argumentative, this is hard for them to understand. But sparing each other public embarrassment, such as that associated with "losing" an argument, is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. So, in meetings, Chinese often will not argue with you. This is particularly true if they view you as an authority. Unfortunately, I qualify for that title on age alone, not to mention what it says on my business card. That said, I find that my Chinese colleagues are much more willing to argue technical points within the privacy provided by email. Also, the more they are exposed to our American R&D culture, the more willing they are to engage in technical discussions. Bringing our China lab members to our Minneapolis lab for short six- to eight-week stints has been a great way to build their confidence.

3. Start with modest goals. Insist on weekly reporting. My China Lab colleagues have been eager to manage project costs and work incredibly hard to stay on schedule. That said, on your first attempt to work with a human factors team in China, you might want to start modestly, see how they do, and then give them more challenging tasks. I also get weekly reports and frequent code shipments so our vision for the project does not drift in different directions.

4. Value their intellect. One way I let my China Lab colleagues know that I value their intellect is to brainstorm ideas with them. Together we have written numerous patent applications that resulted directly from our exchange of ideas. We share the credit.

5. Be aware of the changes in Chinese culture. China is changing so fast that trying to understand it can be a challenge. In any given week I might interact with people in their 40s or 50s who are still pretty traditional in their values and attitudes, young people who are quite Western in their values, and "sandwich generation" people (in their early 30's) who share some of both. Understanding with whom you are interacting sometimes can be difficult. Be socially and culturally flexible.

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Tom Plocher
Honeywell Labs

About the Author:

Tom has had a long career at the Honeywell Laboratories in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he is a staff scientist. He has conducted research and development for a wide range of applications, from radar imagery interpretation to robotic vehicles to (more recently) commercial and consumer products. Tom is keenly interested in how technology can be applied to improve the safety, health, and independence of older adults. He is one of the founding members of the new nonprofit Center for Aging Services Technology (CAST), which provides technology education and advocacy in Washington on behalf of both industry and academia. He also is interested in improving information systems and situation assessment for emergency response personnel such as firefighters. Recently, his research with local firefighters resulted in Honeywell's innovative new first-responder display product, FirstVisionTM. Tom received his MS degree in psychology at Yale University in 1975.

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