When are we going to start taking India seriously?

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

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.

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