Americans have largely accepted outsourcing, but have legitimate concerns over inefficiency and poor qualityWider Angle | S.Mitra Kalita
In 2005, I was at a wedding in Ohio and someone seated at my table—a software tester—had nothing nice to say about offshoring. She hated the lack of control over team members in India, their hesitance to ask questions and a time difference that didn’t allow for instant communication. She quit her job in frustration.
Earlier this month, I was at a wedding again, this time in Maryland, and happened upon even more Americans who deal with India on a regular basis. After initial pleasantries about “all the changes in India” and an eventual shedding of inhibition, they largely had the same complaints.
The last few years have been filled with news of Indians moving up the value chain in contracts awarded, creating an assumption that initial “back-office” tasks were performed to relative US profit and satisfaction.
While surveys gauging productivity and client opinion might show such, the ground reality, shore to shore, team to team, worker to worker, actually yields a fair amount of discontent. My admittedly anecdotal discovery comes as Indian services providers fear a strong rupee and skyrocketing salaries will mean work lost to competitors in China and Mexico, Russia and Eastern Europe, Vietnam and the Philippines. And this is precisely why teams in India and the US separated by thousands of miles—and the more immeasurable rift of misunderstanding—need to begin a blunt dialogue.
I figured I’d get the ball rolling this week with some thoughts from The Americans, all of whom I promised anonymity in exchange for raw, no-holds-barred honesty.
“There is no entitlement with US businesses. We’ll drop India for China the same way we dropped the US for India in the first place,” one manager told me from his perch at a technology company that is a household name across the world. “Heck, it’ll be easier as there will be no internal backlash.”
He’s had mixed experiences with offshore teams, specifically praising the cost savings and access to a large labour pool. Often, though, he finds a lack of accountability. “The crappy companies come in after a horrendous project, blame my team when it was clearly their fault... and then ask to take over our entire operations,” he says. “They want the end-to-end business, but they do nothing to gain my trust that they can handle it.”
Turnover, many American managers agree, remains a significant problem. One told me that just as she learned to pronounce someone’s name, it was time for a replacement.
“It’s great for their careers and I totally understand why they do that. But it puts an added pressure on us onshore folks,” said a manager in North Carolina. “We’ve just spent time and money on technical training, only to have to start over now. I don’t know how that’s supposed to make our business more efficient.”
This particular manager said she was training three Indians offshore and one American onshore at the same time in the same task. “The person in the US was able to complete more work, which was of a better quality. I don’t think she was smarter than the others—the India team was far more educated and had more technical experience. The US person was not afraid to ask questions and used her time more wisely.”
For too long, critiques of offshoring from the US have raised the defence mechanisms and insecurities of Indian workers, who decry the westerners as bigoted and closed-minded. In these 13-odd months before US presidential election, services companies have been devising strategies to fight anticipated anti-outsourcing rhetoric from politicians. Yet most of the people I talked to in recent weeks have accepted the model and rarely begrudge Indians taking jobs. Rather, they had legitimate concerns over the quality of work and an overall lack of efficiency.
To be sure, workplaces that rest on the offshore model have been aware of and obsessed with fixing these problems for years. But the changes have not kept pace with, say, the rupee, which continued its sprint yesterday.
One strategy consultant outside Washington, DC, epitomizes why Indians should urgently address their shortcomings. His business process outsourcing unit operates in the US, India and Ukraine. “They are younger in Ukraine, a lot sharper, more dedicated, work less hours but produce the same or more, take pride in their work, no attrition problem, no 20%-every-year demands,” he said, conceding that scaling up was a problem, but would not be elsewhere.
As for that wedding guest who first raised the red flag, I tracked her down this week through Facebook. Thankfully, she told me, she no longer deals with offshore teams. But she stays in touch with the people from the old organization and had bad news: “Quality has gone down and they lost too many customers for the particular project. …They are sunsetting the product.”
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