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How creative and innovative can technology “made in China” be?

By Julia Kotlarsky and Rong Du

Working environment that encourages creativity and innovation, where employees can take time of what is supposed to be their ongoing projects to develop their own ideas, creating open and comfortable physical spaces for employees to interact informally, and private cozy places to relax or focus, games room, gym … are you thinking Silicon Valley? Google?

As much as this resembles what we know about “most creative companies” such as Google, Apple and alike, this is what we have seen in the Offshore Delivery Center (ODC) of ThoughWorks in Xi’an, China.

Working environment is just one side of the story. The most remarkable aspect of what we have seen was – several teams working around long oval tables, and a huge screen at the far end of each table where we could see yet another team in another country sometimes working independently and sometimes “getting together” with the team at the office we were vising. Apparently, the teams on the screens (as each local team had a counterpart team they could interact with virtually) are client teams, are all based across the ocean (in APAC area). Each team from ThoughtWorks Xi’an is collaborating very closely with corresponding client’s team developing technologies that address client’s core business and strategic objectives. We were told that interactions between teams in the office and those on the screens are regular “stand-up” sessions that are part of Agile methodology.

As we learnt, such close interactions between the ODC (ThoughtWorks Xian) and their client is a norm. With this particular client ThoughtWorks Xi’an has a collaborative relationship for over 6 years. There are several inventions that were “born” and many innovations have been introduced to the client’s business model. Eager to learn how it is possible, we learnt that ThoughtWorks Xi’an is recruiting those who have passion for technology, and who is a perfect fit with their company culture.

Having been to several client-dedicated ODCs of major Chinese service providers where the typical picture would be – security and lockers outside dedicated area where ODC personnel is required to leave all personal belongings, cubical, and where interactions with the client are typically limited to team leader/manager level, the difference we saw in ThoughtWorks Xi’an was astonishing.

Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the image of China and re-assess its potential?!

Despite growing number of R&D in China, the extent to which such centers are able to exercise creativity and freedom to invent is portrayed to be rather limiting. Offshore R&D centers are usually seen as an “extension” of a parent firm that taps into China’s extensive pool of resources. The notion of “made in China” is a commonly accepted stereotype associated with low costs of assembly-line type of work for large Western companies.

What we have seen in ThoughtWorks Xi’an challenges this stereotypic impression and demonstrates that truly creative and collaborative technology development work can be done from China and, more specifically, that truly collaborative work arrangements are possible between ODC in China and an overseas client.

Does this mean that other Western technology companies should consider bringing doing their creative work from China?

Could Chinese technology service providers learn how to engage more closely with their overseas clients, in order to move up the value chain?

Answering these questions could help Western as well as Chinese companies to embrace China’s true potential in search for competitive advantage.

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