Working with Cross-Cultural Documentation Teams

Irma Humby

Documentation Manager

As I sit sipping my latte in the Global Peace Factory café in Frisco, Texas, accessing their free wireless network, I realize how truly amazing the internet is, and how much it has changed the way we live in this place we call Earth.

When I started as a technical writer for a global company in 1981, “global” meant something different. Sure, we had sales, marketing, and support offices around the world, but we never interacted with those other locations on a daily basis. We did not call any of our coworkers in those places (the toll charges were outrageous), we did not know their names. My daily interactions were with engineers, writers, editors, typesetters, and illustrators in my office, down the hall, or in the next cubicle (sometimes at headquarters in another state). My, how things have changed in 30 years!

How Do You Do?

Since 2001, I have had the pleasure of working with many talented writers, engineers, and managers from India. To prepare for working with team members on the other side of the Earth, my company sent me to a class, “Working Globally,” which focused mainly on working with people from India.  The objective of the course was to learn about cultural differences in the workplace—understand the differences, work with a team knowing those differences, and know what is socially and professionally acceptable.

One of the first things I do when I begin working with a team in India is to find a safe, common non-professional topic that everyone can talk about. This “breaks the ice” (is that a North American colloquialism?).  I may ask where they went to school, whether they have children, or whether they have traveled to the United States (I have not traveled to India). When there is a common non-professional chat before “getting down to business,” people feel comfortable and non-threatened.

So, “getting down to business,” what have I learned while working with cross-cultural documentation teams?

What Time Is It?

We all know that a 12-hour (or more) time zone difference makes us all weary. Who stays up late? Who gets up early? The best solution is to alternate. When having regular doc team project meetings (which there should be), and depending on how long the project is, alternate the meetings, so that one team gets up early for the meeting for two weeks and then the following two weeks, the other team gets up early (some like to call this “sharing the pain”).

When a doc team member is part of a larger project team (as is standard for documentation), ensure the project team lead knows there are team members in another country that have time-zone differences.

Access to all the Information

When the documentation team includes remote workers, make sure all members of the team have access to email aliases, wiki pages for project/product information, applicable specifications; invite them to all project meetings, and if they cannot attend, make sure they get meeting minutes. Highlight areas in the meeting minutes that may affect documentation (schedule changes, team changes, project changes). Sometimes projects are highly confidential and not everyone on the team can get automatic access to information. If this is the case, let the project manager know that your documentation team members need access to all information that should be documented in the product documentation. Find out when the project kicks off, so that when your team meetings begin, all access has been granted.

Kick Off!

When a project is developed and managed in multiple locations, planning and execution are key to the project’s success. When the doc team has remote members, a kick off is one of the most effective ways to get everyone started and on the “same page.”

A kick-off presentation (the kick off is one hour, so less than 15 slides) should contain the following important items:

  • New and enhanced features in the project release
  • Schedules (alpha, Early Field Trial (EFT), First Customer Shipment (FCS), the schedules that apply to your organization
  • Key team members (product manager, program manager, engineering manager, alpha/EFT manager)
  • Affected docs/doc strategy
  • Links (URLs) to important project information (specs, project wiki, email alias)
  • Access to the project doc wiki and email alias
  • Doc team status meeting schedule
  • Doc plan location or doc wiki
  • Writer assignments

Keep on Track

After the kick off, hold weekly doc status meetings; if applicable, record the meeting. Send the agenda to the team one or two days before the meeting, and ask the team to send agenda topics. Send the final agenda a few hours (sometimes it could be the previous day) before the meeting. Include the following topics in the weekly meetings:

  • Milestones (doc reviews, building books, EFT, FCS); track how the doc team is progressing
  • Issues that writers encounter (getting information, contacting SMEs, not enough bandwidth); include action plans to mitigate project risks
  • Changes in the project (doc team leads should attend the weekly project status meetings and share the information in the doc project meeting). Changes might include schedule updates, added features, removed features, project issues with schedules, development delays
  • Assignment updates
  • Track previous and current defects and update the docs for the upcoming release (hint: publish on wiki and include the assigned writer)


The final weeks before the project release (first customer ship-FCS) are the most stressful and meeting milestones are crucial to the success of the project. On the doc wiki or in the doc plan, closely track the following FCS deliverables:

  • Build and check in final online help
  • Build final documentation
  • Print applicable documents
  • Complete release notes
  • Publish docs to customer-facing locations
  • Notify project team when final documentation is available
  • Prepare for localization

Communicating with team members on a regular basis, sharing information, and overcoming obstacles are the keys to a successful project release. Keep the “global” door open at all times. Do not forget to celebrate!

About the author

Irma Humby has won multiple awards from the Society of Technical Communication during her 30-year career as a writer, editor, project manager, team lead, and manager for technical documentation. Irma has worked on cross-cultural teams located in India, Canada, China, Australia, and multiple European countries. Irma works for a multi-billion dollar global company of unified communications in Dallas, Texas, where she resides with her husband and two of her three children.


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