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Bridgeheads

The term "bridgehead", somewhat accurately defines people who are able to serve as an interface to a professional team from a different culture in the context of multi-cultural global work environments.

In a technical world such as of software the role of culture is often underestimated. Understanding culture is key to understanding behavior, which in turn is key to getting things done together. Bridgeheads have a grasp of multiple cultures, which enables them to understand different lines of thought, and makes them ideal candidates for performing a bridging role in global work groups.

In most cases, however, Bridgeheads have professional experience in two cultures, and they are deployed at two geographically separated locations, working usually on phone, email or IM, speaking different mother-tounges (but having a common language of communication). The bridgeheads connect two teams working towards a single goal.

Two bridgeheads dealing with each other shield a vast amount of complexity beyond themselves. Depending on the size of teams, the level of complexity vary from minor to enormous.

Case Study

Consider for example a team of 4 German software engineers who are relying on a team of 8 software engineers for production in India with the ultimate goal of achieving an e-Commerce product release in the German market. Only one of the 4 German software engineers, Hans, has competence in software project management and has international work experience from UK where he worked for 3 years in a major UK bank.

On the Indian team, 6 of the software engineers are relatively junior with average experience of 3 years, speak no German whatsoever, and speak English with a thick south Indian accent. The other 2 Indian engineers, Kumar and Ashok, are MBA graduates with 4-5 years of careers behind them and hands on experience in software development. They however don't write code actively any longer, but rather participate in pre-sales pitches and manage projects. Both Kumar and Ashok have had experience in managing over 10 projects for overseas customers each, speak a refined English accent, but unfortunately no German.

In this example, we see that we have 3 candidates who qualify for playing the role of Bridgeheads - Hans, Ashok and Kumar.

On the German team, Hans has some international experience which puts him ahead of his 3 colleagues in interfacing with the team in India. It would have been ideal if Hans had previous experience from India, but we have to settle here for the next best thing - his experience from UK. It is quite likely and possible that his inter-cultural experience from UK and Germany has equipped him with the necessary soft-skills to deal with the Indian team.

On the Indian side Ashok and Kumar are ideal to be communication partners to Hans. They have a lot of things in common
  • international experience
  • common language they can comfortably talk in, and
  • management experience
Based on the profiles, Hans is the Bridgehead in Germany for the project and in India, both Ashok and Kumar qualify as Bridgeheads (providing redundancy in case one of them is too over-burdened by other projects or simply absent for a few days). Let's say Ashok and Hans agree to be constant contact-partners.

Typical roles the Bridgeheads play are:
  1. On both sides, the teams communicate issues first to the Bridgehead on their side.
  2. Deadlines are agreed between Bridgeheads - Hans and Ashok
  3. Bridgeheads are responsible for planing deliveries on their side and once decided, make a commitment to the counterpart-bridgehead.
  4. Status updates from India are sent regularly by Ashok to Hans. Hans then runs them by within his team in Germany to check if the project is going in the right direction.
  5. Any feedback from the team in Germany is given to Hans, who passes it on to Ashok, who in turn makes sure that the 6 of his developers understand the feedback. This way, Hans doesn't have to explain feedback to the team of 6, or a few of those 6 who are specifically responsible for implementing that part of the project.
  6. Course corrections are decided by team in Germany in internal meetings and passed on to Ashok via Hans, and Ashok makes sure that his team in India understands 100% what the team in Germany wants.
  7. Requirements are discussed and transfered between bridgeheads.
  8. If any personnel changes are to occur on his team in India, for example a team member quits, Ashok is to make sure to plan for replacement and generally ensure that no interruptions in the project occur. Ashok also communicates these changes on the team to Hans, although nothing is expected from the latter in terms of dealing with the situation at an operative level.
Shielding Complexity

One of the very significant contributions of a bridgehead to the project is to simplify complexities that lie within the teams on each side, so that they don't effect either the team on the other side, or the overall functioning of the project. In the above case study for example, Ashok was responsible for rectifying the situation when a team-member quit, by replacing the person and hence the competence level.

Since the bridgeheads meet and talk to each their teams almost on a daily basis, they are in a better position to identify problems on their side and also device solutions to overcome them. This would not be possible for a remote project manager, for example Hans, who might infact learn of problems and complexities when it is too late to deal with the situation.

Implication of Bridgeheads on Project Budget

Bridgeheads bring a vital competence to benefit of successful implementation of globally distributed projects. A non-trivial cost-overhead is associated with incorporating this competence in projects, usually in the form of a higher billing rate for bridgeheads. This has to be taken into account during project budgeting. Typically bridgeheads cost 20-25% more than technical (offshore or onsite) resources.

Typical Profile of a Bridgehead

We've tried to profile a bridgehead accurately in the above case study. The key competence he brings to the project can be summarized as:
  1. Inter-cultural experience and cultural sensitivity to maximize performance of his team as well as the counterpart team
  2. Sufficient technical background to manage the project.
  3. Sufficient management experience to handle his team, project schedule and deliverable

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