How do you go about introducing new software at a Chinese company? A discussion with Rudolf Siebenhofer, IT consultant, associate lecturer and IT project management expert on experiences and challenges of a software introduction at a Chinese company.
Michael Schenkel: Ni hao Mr. Siebenhofer. I’m very pleased to meet you. Steyr really is a nice place! How did you end up doing so much work in China?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: Well, that’s an interesting question. You see, I have a special bond with China, one that goes way back to the Cultural Revolution, around 1964 – I was only six years old then!
Michael Schenkel: How come?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: The story is quite simple. Since I was six years old I was able to pick up a lot of information about China from my father – and Radio Beijing, information that I had to put into perspective later of course.
But the passion for China, the language, the writing, the art and culture, stayed with me. When the opportunity to work for an international company – Siemens – at 18 different Chinese universities from 1986 on, I immediately took it!
It was me and my lab in Vienna in collaboration with Konstanz University that delivered the first mainframe computers able to process Chinese characters to China – long before Unicode came into existence. After that I returned to China many times for a variety of software projects.
Michael Schenkel: Recently you conducted a software introduction at the automobile manufacturer Geely in Hangzhou. Where in China is Hangzhou exactly?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: About 280 kilometers from Shanghai, or a 1.5 hour train ride. Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in China. In heaven there is paradise, on earth there is Hangzhou, a famous Chinese saying goes. And I tend to agree! In 2005 setup a software company there, and at the opening ceremony the current state president Xi Jinping, then governor of the province of ZheJiang, was my guest of honor.
Michael Schenkel: Impressive! Tell me more about your approach to the software introduction you are conducting at the moment.
Rudolf Siebenhofer: Well, the first thing to do is to sit down with the managers responsible and agree on the goals of the introduction. What transpired was that the customer had chosen to go a very challenging path, which was to implement the Automotive SPICE process at the same time as the tool in-STEP BLUE, and on top of that to do so for a product development project that had already started! Reaching SPICE Level 3 as part of a company-wide quality initiative was one of the input requirements of the top management, and this was communicated right from the beginning.
Michael Schenkel: Was the working language Chinese or English?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: I do speak Chinese fluently but English was more convenient in this case. Most of the Chinese project participants either speak or understand English anyway.
Michael Schenkel: What were your thoughts on implementing Automotive SPICE and new software at the same time, in an ongoing project?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: I certainly would have preferred to begin with a pilot project for the introduction of the process and the tool, which is what I usually recommend in my requirements engineering seminars. But I also love challenges; after all, my job is to tell my customers HOW do to things and not WHY IT DOES NOT work.
Michael Schenkel: So how did you start?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: I started by getting a general idea about the process know-how within the team and the experiences of the users regarding the new tool. In addition, it was important to analyze the customer’s IT environment, which was when the next challenges presented themselves. The IT department is located several hundred kilometers from the development department.
It was also important to understand the way in which project are organized at the client’s because training concepts had to be designed for the different stakeholders of the project. Mind you, the forerun was to be restricted to no more than 4 weeks; the basic training also had to be completed within 4 weeks, before the Chinese new year.
The fact that it was possible to synchronize many details in telephone conferences proved to be very beneficial.
Michael Schenkel: Can you tell me more about both the introduction and the training concept?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: Well, we designed an introduction training consisting of 10 consecutive days. Doing 5 days of training, then 2-3 weeks of practical work and then 5 more days of training would have been more ideal, but the challenge is to find solutions in imperfect conditions.
A particular challenge was the requirement of the customer to use an actual, productive development project as training scenario, with process owners administrating in-STEP BLUE, project managers, project managers for the development projects as well as the developers as the defined target groups. You see, the introductions were about software and hardware projects.
The development department responsible for a component consistent of about 60 employees, in a project type that also included suppliers.
Michael Schenkel: You hinted at the fact that users acquainted themselves with the software beforehand. Isn’t that dangerous?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: Yes and no. Had the customer made himself familiar with the environment he could have spared himself a lot of work needed for the creation of document templates. I have worked extensively with ISO 15504 and CMMI but even I had some Eureka moments. So there was a lot to rectify during the introduction.
Michael Schenkel: What happened then?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: We opted for what we called a Big Bang Strategy. Despite the fact that I would have preferred the SPICE project type „Improvement Project“, the customer wanted to get to know the maximum scope of the tool. ‘Well alrighty then’ I thought at first; later I learned that this approach is not unusual for Chinese companies.
Michael Schenkel: The users are Chinese people. The software is only available in German and English. Wasn’t this a problem?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: The company has international partner s and suppliers that only speak English, so this wasn’t really an issue. Also, the Automotive SPICE assessment was planned in collaboration with a team consisting of English-speaking assessors, so all of the document templates were designed to be English. In addition, the process documentation for A-SPICE and PAM 2.5 was only available in English.
IT administration was more of an issue since the server run a Chinese GUI; as a consequence, changing the configuration is much more difficult.
What is definitely needed for software introductions in international environments is an English reference system including Office as well as full Office integration of in-STEP BLUE, ideally on a multi-language Windows version (German – English – Chinese). Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 8.1 Pro (N.B.: and Windows 10 Pro/Enterprise) offer this.
For increased independency from the productive IT server during the initial training I also had a complete client-server installation on my laptop as well as a secondary laptop which was used to train and practice a variety of user scenarios.
Michael Schenkel: So the users were able to handle the tool quickly? How important are help systems in your opinion?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: (laughs) That’s an interesting question. many Chinese users are extremely pragmatic. ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’ is their credo. So they try, and try, and try, and then turn to the manual or help texts available. It is kind of exciting when 15 people in a training session fire their questions at you at the same time. For these kinds of situations my approach is to not provide the answer but to get them to think about why this or that cannot work that way or another. This way a user will learn much more. And if the online help provides the same exact solution to the problem the learning process is even more effective.
Michael Schenkel: Did you encounter any problems that you simply were not able to solve?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: For complex and powerful systems it is simply impossible to know each and every detail. The excellent support provided by the support team in Berlin was really helpful.
Michael Schenkel: And the time lag was not a problem?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: If you do it the wrong way, yes. If you do it right, no. On the contrary, you simply have to organize in such a way that the respective partner solves the problems while you sleep. You could say we solved the problems while sleeping (laughs)!
I have come to know this problem from my long-time occupation in China. If I send out an error notification at 8 a.m. it takes a long time for the issue to be worked on. If I do the same in China at 10 p.m. I am able to wake up for breakfast and have the problem solved.
Michael Schenkel: : I never thought about that. Sounds logical! Speaking of support: Is there a language barrier or a cultural barrier that you felt had an impact on the collaboration?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: Again, that completely depends on how you organize things. Phone calls are beyond all question, because of the time lag and the costs. E-mails are also problematic because they tend to produce pin-pong e-mails with little or no result.
This is why I placed an issue racking system at the customer’s disposal; it included a Chinese GUI. We agreed that any issues had to be documented by using SnippingTool+. This way I was able to understand problems and offer solutions more quickly. It worked like a charm.
Michael Schenkel: Sounds great. Our experience is that processes such as SPICE tend to cause opposition in some cases. What is your experience with regards to China?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: No, absolutely not. This is one of the reasons why process-based production usually runs very smoothly in China. If a process is introduced by the management it is followed. Simple. The problem is to get the employees to think for themselves in despite process definition and tool support.
Michael Schenkel: Last question: Do you think that Geely will reach SPICE Level 3?
Rudolf Siebenhofer: I cannot and wouldn’t want to answer this question. From process to employee qualification to tool support all prerequisites are in place. Still, at the moment I prefer to look for the provisional results we get about 6-9 months after the introduction. However, the software introduction is the easiest hurdle to be taken, in case there is a willingness to breathe life into the processes – on all levels!
Michael Schenkel: Thank you very much for this exciting conversation!
Rudolf Siebenhofer: You are welcome! Have a nice day here in Steyr. Xie Xie Ni! Zai Jian.
For more details and information on the topic of software introductions see How to Introduce New Software Successfully from the microTOOL blog!