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Staying On Top: The Challenge to India’s Leadership in Off-shoring

Posted by Hemant Puthli on August 28, 2009

In a recent (August 2009) article in the McKinsey Quarterly (accessible by clicking here, and then clicking on the shortened URL link mentioned in the archived tweet), Noshir Kaka et al. suggest that Innovation will be a critical success factor for India to maintain a leadership position in the globalized business / technology services industry. Here’s an extract from that article:

Indian business and technology services companies needn’t stand by passively and watch their global market share decline. Innovation will be the key to maintaining and even expanding their market share. Business models that continue to focus on low labor costs won’t suffice.

While it is true that “business models that continue to focus on low labor costs won’t suffice”, in August 2009 this cannot be a epiphanic revelation! This is yesterday’s news, not thought leadership. Most companies foresaw this many years ago, and (as the McKinsey article suggests) turned to Innovation (among other strategies), hoping to leverage it to create a sustainable competitive advantage for India as a destination. All Indian ITO/ITeS industry majors have been chanting the Innovation mantra since then. (Show me one Indian company of some standing in the global business / technology services space that does not lay claim to ‘Innovation’ as its key differentiator at its web-site or in its brochures.) Several companies have been relentlessly trying to institutionalize Innovation in everything they do, in a bid to maintain their market share in the face of competition — from within the Indian market as well as from companies based in the other BRIC countries (and their corresponding regional neighbours in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia / South Asia / South-East Asia) and also emerging destinations such as Egypt (and, potentially, other West Asian / African countries). However, the very act of institutionalization makes it a replicable commodity, just like any other ‘best practice’. Which means others can do it too.

My comment to the article (not visible at the site at the time of writing this post) is reproduced here below, and what follows subsequently is an elaboration of the rationale behind my argument and an elucidation of my point of view on the subject.

India’s competitive advantage (beyond wage arbitrage) has always been scale and process maturity. Other destinations simply cannot match the ability of Indian companies to offer large pools of talent to dip into (in terms of breadth as well as depth), or to ramp-up their teams quickly. Besides, a lot of non-Indian companies are still struggling with the challenges of managing process quality in very large projects. However this is not a sustainable competitive advantage. China has the potential to match and surpass India’s strengths in terms of both scale as well as process maturity, given the size of their literate population and their culture of rigour and discipline (which is being applied even now, for example, to learning English as well as learning large scale process management). But other than China, there aren’t too many countries that represent a real threat to India. Innovation is a buzz word, in my opinion, and though this may sound counter-intuitive, it is a fairly commoditizable and replicable attribute. It does not represent a sustainable competitive advantage. Talent pools from the countries / cultures that presently constitute off-shore destinations (or aspire to join the club) are equally good or bad at learning, practising and delivering on the promise of innovation. There is nothing unique about Indian ingenuity that makes Indian talent intrinsically and significantly more innovative than the average knowledge worker in, say, China or Egypt or Eastern Europe or even Latin America!

Clients based in North America and Western Europe (the predominant ‘buyer’ markets) have been tapping into India as a destination for well over a decade, and by now have a good understanding of the issues and opportunities that India represents. They know where the trade-offs are: while on the plus side, as I have argued, India offers a wider range of skills, better scale and better process quality, the down-side comes primarily in the form of higher attrition, greater geographical distances and time-zone differences, cultural incompatibility and to some extent lack of infrastructural robustness. Attrition can be a major problem for clients who have invested time, cost and energy in transferring knowledge. Secondly, while it is true that India enjoys the advantage of a large educated and English-speaking resource base, one must also remember that cultural compatibility is not just about being able to speak a common language (which itself is debatable in the first place, since a lot of the knowledge workers who originate from smaller towns in India cannot really boast of fluency in English, not to mention American colloquialism). Thirdly, while time-zone differences of up to 12 hours do offer the advantage of having someone, somewhere, working on a project 24×7, they do not solve the problem of logistics (when professionals on either shore need to travel great distances to the other shore) and the problem of disrupted daily routine (when professionals on either shore need to be on conference calls at odd hours in their work day).

Comparatively, Central and South American destinations are closer, by way of both time-zone compatibility (in terms of virtual meetings / conferences) as well as geographical proximity (in terms of travel) for North American clients. The same goes for Eastern Europe in the case of European clients. Also, clients find better cultural compatibility in dealing with teams in those destinations, and business communication between client and provider teams is relatively easier and smoother. Language barriers are not significantly higher than when dealing with India, and in many cases may even be lower. Also, attrition is comparatively much lower in most of these destinations. The only disadvantages these destinations have are: skill mix, scalability (especially in terms of ramp-up time) and process maturity. And that is where India has been scoring. Of all competing destinations, China is the only one that has the capability (not to mention the will!) of outstripping India on these fronts. Through concerted efforts in strengthening infrastructure (power, telecoms, etc.), in fighting attrition, in broadening and deepening the pool of trained and qualified professionals, and in imparting cross-cultural and soft-skills training to its resources (a la finishing schools), India can hope to keep the No. 2 slot if / when China overtakes India (may just be a matter of time). Perhaps this is a more pragmatic goal for India as an off-shoring destination.

That said, the opportunity for Indian companies to maintain their leadership position lies not in trying to fight the up-hill battle of keeping India as the most preferred destination. In fact, it lies in not confining themselves to India as a destination. Again, this is not an epiphany — in fact it is not even news. Most of the top-tier India-based service providers (including those founded by entrepreneurs of Indian origin) have already started the process of building (or in some cases, consolidating) ‘near-shore’ hubs in Central and South America, Eastern Europe and other regions. A few have done this through organic growth, but most have done so through acquisitions of stake in local players, to whom Indian companies offer stability, scale, leadership in process maturity and access to other markets, in return for a better presence in the local / regional market, a ready local client base, and the ability to provide a multi-locational offering to their global clients. Leading Indian companies have already figured out that globalization is no longer about staying in India and offering ITO / BPO type of services to the world, as clients have increasingly started demanding lower attrition rates and flexibility in terms of location and time-zones, over and above range of skills, scalability and process maturity.

India as a destination will lose its leadership position in a few years — at the very least, the gap between India and other destinations will start closing rapidly (it already is) as they ramp-up and start competing. Innovativeness is not a special gift that is unique to India-based talent pools and believing that it is so can at best be termed as misplaced patriotism (at worst, it is a kind of jingoistic denial of reality) on the part of Indians. Innovation is a great value proposition and I am not suggesting that it should be abandoned altogether (especially because others will start offering it too!) The smart thing to do, for service providers of Indian origin, is to focus on developing a global delivery footprint (not just sales offices) and the ability to provide the right mix of capability, capacity (i.e., scale), team stability and cultural compatibility, and process excellence, at locations preferred by the client — on-site/ off-site/ near-shore/ off-shore. And as the adoption of globalization shifts to the mid-tier client base, focus on forging strong partnerships with clients to achieve the distinction of becoming an extended team of the client organization. Cultural compatibility and responsiveness to changing client needs are key. Innovation will just be a hygiene factor.

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