Shield - Anger and Resentment in Distributed Teams

India has made a remarkable transformation in only a few years from "body shopping" centre, to a nucleus of IT research. But for one California maker of high-tech software components, working with a remote team in Bangalore had more drawbacks than benefits. Anca Metiu, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, describes the peculiar case of the Shield project, and how splitting a development team can make a mockery of "globalised teamwork".

by Anca Metiu, Lynn Selhat
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Bangalore, India is now a world capital in IT development. A decade ago, its main role was as a supplier of "body shopping" programmers to supplement foreign clients. Today, it is a leading centre of often state-of-the-art product development.

But while the quality of its technicians is generally beyond dispute, problems with time zones, the perception of competition arising from a developing country, and other discrepancies have, perhaps inevitably, caused tensions and disruptions between Indian IT professionals and their project partners in other locales, often based in developed countries.

Anca Metiu, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, describes the peculiar case of the Shield project, a suite of very high-tech, end-to-end software components used for tracking and protecting digital property. Created by Infotech of California, the Shield pilot development teams were split between its main offices in Los Angeles, and Bangalore.

In late 1999, project development manager Howard Chang had been selected for Shield largely due to his experience with distributed teams. From 1996 to 1999, 90% of the project's technical development had been done in India. The Bangalore crew had been responsible for part of the architecture design, all of the detailed design, and the coding of the three modules they originally owned.

But in late 1999, Chang was astonished to see that the majority of work was now being done in head office, mainly by newly hired American engineers. Asking why, he was told that the US team simply no longer wanted to work with their Asian colleagues. When asked, many said that, on the whole, they simply did not trust the Indians.

Chang was stunned, and more than slightly worried that the whole Shield project would unravel if goodwill and technical know-how between the sites was gradually to grind to a halt. He called for a meeting with the American team leaders to get to the bottom of the matter.

The case illustrates one of the key liability areas for major multinational industries like software design, where project outsourcing and effective communication between various players might naturally seem to be more easily and smoothly workable than in other sectors.

Chang's quizzing of the American technicians did not give him any clear answers. Most were very reluctant to state their grievances against the Bangalore team openly. There was even a great deal of disagreement amongst the engineers about the quality of the Indians' coding, and about how much they understood the overall objectives of the project.

But soon, the real key issues became clear. These revolved around the Americans' general feeling that they had far more personal and professional capital invested in Shield. The 12.5 hour time difference hardly helped to smooth any communications obstacles, either. Chang, however, was met with nervous silence when he asked what proactive measures the Californians had taken to resolve any such issues.

Coordinating such widely distributed teams obviously involves major -- and quite often not completely resolvable - hindrances such as geographic distance and feelings of professional commonality between groups who may perceive each other as competitors for visible and highly rewarded work. But Chang was well aware that other companies had succeeded in key areas where Infotech looked in serious danger of failing. Moreover, he had himself led successful collaborations between teams distributed between the US and Singapore.

Chang next consulted with the Indian team leaders, and was very disturbed to get a sense of how alienated they now felt from Shield as a whole, especially since most had initially been very enthusiastic. In fact, several had already resigned, citing changes in ownership of the modules the Bangalore crew had developed and a general lack of friendliness and respect from their US "colleagues" as having hurt and angered them.

The case concludes with Chang's proposed solutions for resolving the splits between the teams, and the not entirely favourable reception they received from the Los Angeles technicians. Chang was forced to reflect if he had actually identified the main sources of these very destabilising problems.


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