Sunday, November 16, 2008

BPO in India

I am back in Dubai again, and writing this post sitting at the lounge. This has almost become a routine, long absences from writing and then a resumption on my way back, or on transit, always at this airport lounge. By the last calculation, I have taken 42 Emirates flights this year, coming back to this lounge, therefore, 21 times in the past 11 months. This is indeed too frequent for my liking, but I increasingly like the writing practise I get at this airport.

I have chosen to read CHINDIA - a Businessweek collection on China and India, and the new marketplace in general. Interesting read, full of usual optimism and the usual warnings. Some new insights were revealing - for example, how the Chinese consumption pattern today is different from the consumption pattern of India. Though we don't see it, this book is cautiously optimistic about India, and goes on to postulate that India may have a better long term potential than China, primarily because of its large and growing working age population. The biggest challenge of India, as it was laid out, is integrating this population in the cycle of prosperity.

One gets the sense of loss on the Indian streets these days - the global recession has come to India, for the first time in history. The exuberance one noticed six months back is all but gone, Sensex has halved and clearly the property prices in Mumbai and other major cities have started falling. One also gets to hear about job losses, though it is not uncommon to see companies continuing to hire side by side. However, I noticed a certain softness in the wages recently, and dare I say, an uncertainty among the entrepreneurs starting new ventures. So, this integration in the cycle of prosperity may already be suffering a bit, and the Indian government must show a strong sense of purpose to get the country back on track together.

Also interesting was to read excerpts of Nandan Nilkeni's upcoming book on India - Imagining India - on the Times of India. Mr. Nilkeni is already the most-quoted Indian executive on the subject of new India, I found Tom Friedman and Edward Luce often turning to his words to depict the success and hope in India. Mr. Nilkeni has now decided to write about India himself, and reportedly received the biggest sum of money as advance ever paid to an Indian non-fiction writer.

That aside, he does not disappoint. If I can judge from the excerpts, this is well written and densely argued - talking about the idea and the possibility of India. Mr. Nilkeni, fittingly focuses on the issue of education, which is going to be critical if India has to maintain its lead in the service sector and move up the value chain. Mr. Nilkeni calls himself unelectable, but makes the argument fitting of a public intellectual. Days are not far when we should see a Prime Minister emerge talking about 'Education. Education. Education.' Well - will that really happen?

I have also recently read an interesting new book called Business Process Outsourcing. A short 200 page booklet published by SAGE, this is written by industry professionals and give a very good introduction to the industry, its opportunities and challenges, various sectors, roles, processes and invaluably some data. Though badly edited, and in line with the usual exuberance of Indian executives, has a 'million' written everywhere there is a number [often wrongly], this was an interesting read for me. I have seen this industry from the sidelines, and this gave a fairly well-rounded view, though I was forced to discount most of its numbers and 'research'. One point that jumped out though - party may be over for Indian BPOs, as the tax breaks come to an end in 2009 and India faces a severe manpower crunch. Not enough has been done to augment the labour force. The usual short-term business pressures in the sector did not allow strategic diversification and long term people development. This is going to bite the sector soon.

I also had an opportunity to attend an informal meeting of the entrepreneurs running Graphic Design businesses in Bangladesh, a nascent sector. One could see the frustration with manpower clearly there - there were talks about creating a curriculum to create professionals and also to follow certain norms about hiring. Indian BPO experience may actually be instructive for these entrepreneurs. Next time I am in Dhaka, therefore, I am going to carry copies of the SAGE booklet I just mentioned.

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