When are we going to start taking India seriously?

When are we going to start taking India seriously?

Summary: Think India is one big call center? Think again. Quickly.

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Raise your hand if you watch Outsourced. Go ahead. We won't make too much fun of you for sitting in your office or your cubicle or on the train raising your hand. It's OK. The show is actually worth a few chuckles at least. Unfortunately, we tend to laugh at the caricatured Indian characters who perpetuate the stereotype of backwards, clueless, call center operators. The real truth, however, is that India is a massive economy with a whole lot of very smart people and major public investments in infrastructure.

I got to thinking about this when I took a job as marketing director for an Indian company called WizIQ. The company was actually founded in the States, but has grown into a major enterprise with Indian funding and the requisite headquarters on the other side of the world. My job is to show US schools and universities what many international markets have already discovered about this cloud-based virtual classroom application: It's extremely cost-effective and it works as well or better than its American competitors.

This isn't to say that it doesn't have any US users. On the contrary, teachers and professors from Harvard to small rural school districts are using WizIQ to improve their abilities to reach students and collaborate. But this isn't about isolated champion users. If it was, I'd post it over on my Education blog. Rather, it's about more widespread American attitudes to a country that stands to be as much of a competitor for US jobs and global marketshares as China. In fact, its relatively open economy and democratic government give it a long-term competitive advantage over China.

When I took the job with WizIQ, I think my wife was convinced that, instead of a paycheck, I'd receive bags of cardamom and saffron. One of my kids asked about their currency and then wondered how we'd spend rupees. We had to have a talk about how India's economy is neck and neck in terms of size and importance with ours and China's. How they use real money. And how not everyone is like the wonderfully polite but otherwise bumbling characters on Outsourced.

Yes, there is extraordinary poverty in India. There are major class divides. Of course, these exist in the US as well. It's just that in India, the relatively small upper class of wealthy, highly educated individuals constitutes 80 million people. Yes, that is well over a quarter of the US population.

Did you know that an Indian car manufacturer, Tata Motors, now owns the British luxury brands of Land Rover and Jaguar? It's ironic enough that an Indian company now owns two of the brands most closely associated with British wealth and the monarchy after so many years of British colonial rule. To add insult to injury, Tata bought the car brands from Ford.

As I'm finding, listening to the sounds of busy streets in the background on conference calls or the sound of squawking exotic birds if one of my new colleagues is talking to me on a mobile phone, India is unlike anything most American's have ever experienced. And yet, in many ways, it's remarkably similar. And within these similarities, there is no lack of drive, initiative, creativity, skill, or money to make great things happen.

It's time we realized that not only is our earth very, very flat, but that India needs to be taken very seriously. Not because we're sending call center jobs to Bangalore, but because companies in New Delhi and Mumbai are using the same call centers as Dell and Visa to deliver high quality products and services at very low costs. Because big, successful Indian companies are making a lot of money, despite the global financial crisis. And because Indian startups are innovating like crazy, taking advantage of some very new market dynamics to compete in areas ranging from health care to computer science to education very effectively.

Welcome to 2011, folks, the year we realize that India can either be a powerful source of partnerships, synergy, and growth or a competitive threat that far too few people anticipated.

See also:

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software, Outsourcing, IT Employment

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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66 comments
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  • India

    India does not matter anymore, most call centers are moving to Manila Phillipines where the people are more like Americans- they eat pork, they like pop musis and they enjoy American television. Travel to Manila and you will feel like you are in the US.

    Too bad most high end jobs are also going there, leaving most of us here to just 'supervise' work and not really gain much experience..
    Hasam1991
    • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

      @Hasam1991 Yes, Call center jobs are leaving India, but more skilled jobs are replacing them.
      jlit99
      • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

        @jlit99
        You'd be surprised.. I work for a IBM type company and talent is cheaper in Manila with same skill sets
        Hasam1991
    • Not sure you're assessing the situation accurately.

      @Hasam1991

      Then I'm even more surprised that you would work for IBM. Manilla has no where near the population of India, and will never be able to produce the high caliber of skill-sets that India can in the quantities required by MNC. I don't know what India you have gone too, but in India they listen to rap music, eat chicken and pork, and watch American TV shows just as well. The main disconnect you may have is in understanding how many NRI (ex-PATS) are now C-level and VP level executives in Fortune level companies around the world. While there were initial problems with red-tape in India those have been dissolving rapidly. Growth in Manilla, is once again, a result of a huge demand for workforce and the need to tap it wherever it may reside, India's IT sector still dwarfs Manillas 15 to 1.
      Ajay.A.Desai@...
  • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

    Good post Chris, but India's level of influence on the world economy is not as "slam dunk" as you make it sound. Not sure if you've been there, but clearly India is in dire need of an upgrade in infrastructure. Outside of a few pockets like Delhi and Bangalore, India is still very much third-world. Also, whether it is India or China, their primary customers are Americans and American companies. The threat you speak of can only manifest to the point that both countries are comfortable with tweaking their best customer. In terms of innovation, I might rank China ahead of India, and clearly, in the tech (read software) space, American companies ahead of them both. WizIQ is interesting, but what about schools using Elluminate or Wimba (ie. Blackboard), WebEx or GoToMeeting? Who holds the market? And finally, competitive advantage of lower labor costs is diminishing quickly.

    Chris, I'm not trying to downplay India's strengths in any way. Personally, I'm originally from the region. But, beyond the obvious and oft-discussed, that India is a fast-growing, innovative and strong economy, I don't see any accelerated new competitive threat.
    b4hoops
    • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

      @b4hoops
      I completely agree.
      Ram U
    • Indian will always be 3rd world

      @b4hoops

      1st, 2nd and 3rd world country are relic of the cold war. 1st world being Nato aligned, 2nd being Soviet aligned and 3rd being unaligned. Typically unaligned nations were poor and developing nations but not all were.

      So saying they are 3rd world doesn't mean much as a 3rd world nation can be a developed nation.
      voska1
      • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

        @voska1
        You've got me on the semantics. But, the point still stands, most of India remains highly under-developed.
        b4hoops
      • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

        @voska1 Output what a nation has to trade is the real deal now.
        Altotus
      • You're killing the english language.

        @voska1

        Please stop! 1st & 2nd world has nothing to do with political alignment. It has to do with available and developed resources (you know, the old-fashioned kind like food, water, oil, technology, etc). When you start to talk about 3rd world and below (and yes, there is a 4th and even a 5th), you're talking about countries that lack resources to the point where development is difficult (5th = IMPOSSIBLE). India has plenty of natural resources, but the population is so huge that any development takes forever. Even multi-billion dollar investments only affect tiny percentages of the population. Those call-centers for example --- noone is going to tell us that a few hundred buildings crammed full of phone operators suddenly qualifies a country of 1.5 billion people as "developed"?! So, in a sense I agree with your assessment that India will probably be 3rd World for a long time, but please don't murderize the language by equating NATO vs. Warsaw Pact as 1st and 2nd. That's just not so.
        rock06r
  • The problem with Indian Call Centers is ....

    The cultural difference really impacts here. I have friend who is from India, moved here when she was 9. So I got good explanation on the differences in culture. The key one is here the customer is always right, that concept doesn't exist in India. There's give and take in every conversation. The idea the customer is right is even when they actually are makes no sense to them.

    Like if you have contract that say you pay $100 but you get a bill that says you owe $123 and you call to complain. The fact that you are right because under the contract you should be be paying $100 doesn't matter. So you might get them to set the bill to $112. You are starting you bargaining at $100 and they at $123. You should meet in the middle depending on how good at haggling you are. At that's how this friend of mine explained it. To me that makes no sense because the haggling already occurred when I singed up for the contract. So that's a problem when you deal with Indian Call Centers.

    I had that exact problem and hit a impass. I wasn't budging and neither was the guy in Indian when I was calling about mistake on Internet Bill. I ended up talking to someone in country and they saw the problem and fixed it. It was simple mistake on thier end as I had tried to explain to the Indian guy the night before. So I told my friend about and she recognized immediately what was going on and explained it to but it seems really odd to me as I must seem to those in India.
    voska1
    • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

      @voska1 The phenomenon you experienced was not bargaining but a lack of authority. Most call centers don't authorize their low level staff to bargain and negotiate. They stick to a standard script. Most Indian call centers employees don't have the authority to make exceptions
      waasoo
      • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

        @waasoo ...and it's that script that infuriates myself and so many others when dealing with people in these call centers.
        Lack of flexibility is a serious detriment to customer service.
        jmwells21
      • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

        @waasoo is exactly right. They don't deviate from the script and they aren't given the right to do so. I think this says something about their culture as well.
        pkthn_parker@...
    • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

      @voska1

      I thought only middle easterners did that;)
      mejohnsn
  • Competition is good

    If Indians can offer great products and services at a cheap price, in the long run, that will only be good for economic conditions...as long as free trade is working for everyone. They make money, they buy stuff, we make money, we buy stuff...it's the engine of capitalism at it's best. However if their efficiency really isn't efficiency...but arbitrage, then we aren't really gaining anything. Our government needs to be vigilant at working towards a level field for our workers so we CAN compete.
    bmonsterman
    • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

      @bmonsterman

      Do you still believe in Austrian School Economics, too? Even after Keynes proved how fundamentally wrong they are?
      mejohnsn
      • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

        @mejohnsn,
        I'm not sure how you got Austrain School Economics out of my post. I thought I was coming from more of a Classical view of economics perspective.
        bmonsterman
  • Are you kidding?

    I worked for an Indian company as a senior level IT executive for several years. Based both on my own experience and with colleagues I've compared notes with... They are usually cheap as hell, and don't want to pay for anything. I'm always after a good deal and watching a budget of course, but they beat their vendors into the ground to the point they can't make money from them, and so there is no vendor relationship nor are their vendors there for them when a big problem happens because of it. They tend to underpay everyone (in India) and there is constant turn over and under staffing. 80% of everyone is under experienced, lacking advanced skills, and they generally have no analytical skills to speak of. They can code up a storm, but can't architect / engineer a hill of beans on the application front.<br><br>They have no concept of quality control and testing. Every single thing I've personally seen "built there" is screwed up and fails. I am not even kidding when I say, I watched a 50 man software development effort over multiple years costing many millions of dollars go up in flames and lose the company droves of customers. This happened even as through the project the whole U.S. engineering team told the Indian executives in charge on both sides of the pond, "the way you are doing this will not work... please listen to us on how this needs to be constructed". However, they ignored them. They are good at front end web design (graphic design, HTML, and UI)... but, unless you have all architecture done in the U.S. up front with monster, step by step, "how-to" coding documentation along with U.S. architects going over there to watch over construction in my experience you are royally screwed if they build it.<br><br>Beyond that I also saw their managers as back stabbers always trying to grab power and ownership of everything while always shifting blame, and micromanaging like no one you've ever seen. India a threat? I sure haven't seen that. And, I think as the cheap labor paradigm starts to fade away their factor will also fade way without significant changes. As those of us with long time IT backgrounds know... experience, analytical thinking and problem solving skills are everything.
    SomeTechExec
    • RE: When are we going to start taking India seriously?

      @SomeTechExec Great insight, and not surprising at all. I hope this entire article wasn't a glorified way for Chris to promote his company WizIQ.
      b4hoops