ET Article

This article was published in the Economic Times on Apr 20, 2012.

*********************************
Four Myths About the Indian IT-BPO Industry

From zero to over $50 billion in 20 years. That’s been the meteoric rise of the Indian IT-BPO industry. For an industry of such significance, to India and the world, it is not very well understood outside the industry. Perhaps because it doesn’t manufacture a physical product. Or perhaps because it is such a new industry. After all, 20 years isn’t very old as industries go. The automotive industry is about 120 years old. Even the mobile phone industry, at about 30 years old, is older.

Whatever the reason, there exist a number of myths about the industry. Here are a few that deserve to be busted.

Myth #1: The industry is doomed because wages are rising rapidly and the labor arbitrage is going to go away.

This myth implies that labor arbitrage—the difference between the wages in India and advanced countries like the US—is the only thing propping up the Indian IT-BPO industry.

In 2009 the average US IT worker’s annual income was $77,200 in 2009 (Source: Janco Associates) versus $ 12,100 for an Indian IT worker (Source: ZDNet). That is a pretty big gap. Since then wages in India have grown, no doubt, but the rupee has also fallen against the dollar, mitigating the wage increase to a large extent.

Just to give you an idea of how big that gap is, assume that the US IT worker’s salary will remain constant. Also assume that the Indian IT worker’s salary in dollars will increase by 10% every year. It would take almost 20 years for the gap to be closed.

Of course, it is wrong to assume that wages in the US will stagnate and wages in India will keep rising interminably. Wage increases in the labour market, like any other market, are driven by demand and supply of IT workers. As the galloping growth in the Indian industry settles down to a steady trot and as private engineering colleges increase the supply of engineers and other IT workers, the acute shortage of workers may become a thing of the past.

Myth #2: China/Vietnam/Philippines is going to usurp India’s services throne.

As India becomes more expensive, are other countries going to undercut us and gain market share?

For sure, India is no longer the only act in town. The Philippines, particularly, has done quite well predominantly in voice-based BPO services. In 2010 it did $7.2 billion in IT-BPO services, which was 4.5% of the country’s GDP. The same number for India was 3.7%.

That said, The Philippines and Vietnam are relatively small countries, smaller than the single Indian state of West Bengal. They don’t have the scale to threaten India’s preeminence in the industry.

China has the scale. And its government would love to get the higher wage IT services jobs. But India has some inherent advantages—the most important one being a higher education system that is largely English-based. And it has a more subtle advantage in how comfortable clients feel with level of IP protection in India as compared to China.

Myth #3: Indian IT companies are no good because they don’t make products.

Actually they do. My company, Infosys, has a core banking product—a classic licensed software product—that does quite well. But, in the larger scheme of things, it is true that there is no Indian IT company that derives significant revenue from products.

I don’t think this bothers most companies. They have a solid business model —high growth and profitable. Why should they get distracted with what is really a different business? The enterprise software business requires entirely different skills, not just in product management and engineering, but also in executive row.

The financial model for enterprise software requires big upfront investments in product, sales and marketing. IT Services is not a high capital intensity business. The two don’t mix very well, which is why you will rarely find both business models in equal measure in the same company. IBM is an exception to this rule, but then IBM Software runs like an independent company and has the scale to be successful by itself.

While salvation for the Indian IT industry may not lie in building a licensed software business, that doesn’t mean that it should just stick to ‘work for hire,’ where all IP is created for and retained by the client. There are opportunities where retained code or other IP go into Solutions or Platforms which allow the service provider to differentiate itself and increase average bill rates.

Myth #4: There is no innovation. Indian software companies just keep flogging the offshore model.

In the 90s the offshore model itself was new. Before 1990, the SDLC (software development life cycle) was never broken up and allocated to people in different time zones. (Well, almost never. Texas Instruments was an early innovator in this area that we mention in our book.)

Today, an SDLC that spans many time zones is commonplace. But in the early 90s the pioneers of the offshore delivery model were breaking new ground. They were innovating.

Today, the offshore delivery model is embedded in many enterprise services. Every new service that is offshored has its own challenges and requires its own innovation. Startups like iYogi (consumer tech support) and Indegene (marketing services for pharma companies) are successful because they brought innovative approaches to offshore new services.

That said, in core enterprise IT services, the offshore model is showing its age. All service providers offer offshore application development and support or SAP implementation services in an offshore delivery model. Given how much of the revenue comes from these core services, they cannot afford to have them commoditized.

Innovation and owned IP is the only way to stave off the dark forces of commoditization. Indian service providers are investing in buying or building IP and capabilities to address big business problems from digital marketing to managing closed book annuity operations.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 Comments

Rules and Rituals

chain

Matt Richtel investigates the mystery of why laptops and not iPads need to be pulled out of bags for the X-Ray machine at airport security.

From the New York Times

What’s the distinction between the devices? Similar shapes, many similar functions, the tablet is thinner but not by much. Is the iPad a lower security risk? What about the punier laptop-like gadgets, the netbooks and ultrabooks? What about my smartphone?

Richtel contacts the TSA and security experts, but doesn’t really get a good answer. The TSA said that it had its reasons but declined to share them saying that “the agency didn’t want to betray any secrets.” Another security expert called it “security theater”, implying that making passengers go through some inconvenience makes it look like the government is taking their security seriously!

The problem of course is that electronic devices come in all sizes. Rules are best applied to clearly defined categories. Categorization of devices based upon size is just not practical. There has to be an easy way for TSA and passenger to unambiguously agree on the categorization that then leads to the application of the rule “the device comes outside the bag for the X-Ray machine”.

Is it a laptop? (Y/N) is an easy way to categorize. Is it more than 1 cubic foot? (Y/N) will just not work.

The real world presents a lot of ‘continuous functions’. Sometimes you have rules based upon categories like single/married or male/female that are clearly defined (more in some states than in other). But most of the time you categorize by drawing a line on the graph of a continuously varying function like age. You can vote when you are 18. You can drink when you are 21 etc.

What is the right age at which you can vote? Actually age may not have much to do with it. Education, mental maturity may have more to do with it. But those are harder to measure or indisputably agree on. So age is the best proxy.

The voting age does differ from country to country, so obviously there isn’t one right answer. But once it is in place, a rule like the voting age, just digs itself in. It becomes very difficult to change. Status quo itself has inertia. Additionally, there may be vested interests that are pushing at it from both sides. It becomes very difficult to change. Greece’s early retirement age, for instance (55).

Rules like clean categories. If the real world presents continuous functions, rule makers chop up the continuous function to create clean categories. Once these categories are created, they are very difficult to change.

There is another property of rules. You can always add more. They are very much like things carved in stone. You can’t erase them, but you can always add more.

It’s tax season here in the US. The US tax code is a labyrinth of rules and loopholes and rules to close loopholes that is impossible to deal with. Everyone agrees that it is far too complex. But somehow law makers keep adding more deductions, more rules to the tax code.

The most interesting thing about rules is how they eventually become rituals. Rules endure, and outlive the rule makers. On the way, generations of rule makers keep adding more rules, but they never take anything away. One day the rule makers no longer know why the rules exist. But they keep enforcing them. They have become the priests and the rules, rituals.

Here’s a Zen story that hits home

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

I recently met the CIO of a leading news media company. He said that over time their Marketing department had added so many “special offers” for their newspaper that they now had 1200 of them in their system. Nobody really understood all of them. But they were afraid to remove them. Why change something that wasn’t broken? Apparently there was a rogue link in some forum which gave readers a free 3 month trial period even if they were current subscribers! But that was a small price to pay.

Businesses, especially big business, has its share of rules and rituals. Some of it is necessary. Some of it isn’t. The cost to business from unnecessary rules is enormous. It slows down progress. It gets in the way of much needed change. It saps the energy of people. They end up spending so much of their passion attacking and defending rules and justifying exceptions, which could be used constructively.

The only way to keep business agile is to constantly subject its rules to the sunlight of logic. Why do we have this rule in place? Did we make this rule when the conditions were different from what they are today? Do we completely understand the costs of this rule and have we weighed them against the benefits? Does anyone even remember why we have this rule?

Like zero based budgeting, we should be talking about zero-based rules.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 7 Comments

Why This is Emphatically Not the End of India’s IT Services Story

Fred Giron at Forrester has a provocatively titled post out Is This The End Of India’s IT Services Success Story?

Thankfully it is not the end. Once you get past the title, Giron’s post itself does not point to a doomsday. And I doubt that his eventual research note on this subject will either. Mostly because it just isn’t true.

Giron describes the impact of IP based Solutions on the industry as ‘transformational’ and even ‘disruptive’. I think we can safely say that it will not disrupt the industry. At least not in the new-business-model-hollows-out-old-business-model sense that Clayton Christensen used the word.

I don’t even think that it will be very transformational.

The composition of revenue in the IT Services industry changes slowly. While the frontier along which value is created and companies compete, shifts quickly, the bulk of the revenue will still come from a set of slowly commoditizing services. IP-based Solutions will form that frontier but there will be other services there as well. And while the action will be thick on the frontier, requiring new skills and capabilities, back in the heartland, it will be business as usual.

What that means is that even though there may be great value created by IP based Solutions it will take a long, long time before it has any effect, if at all, on the growth rates or employment generation by the industry.

In our book we take a pretty close look at the challenges faced by the Indian IT Services industry from commoditizing services and rising client expectations and do some prognostication of our own.

In a chapter called “The Quest for Higher Bill Rates” we closely examine the different ways a Solution can create value for the clients and the service provider. Also, what does it take for a service provider to be successful at selling Solutions.

In another chapter “New New Thing” we take a look at the trends in Enterprise IT – Cloud, Big Data among others – and their impact on the industry, both negative and positive.

The central problem to solve for the industry is how to stave off commoditization. The solution to this problem, in one word, is Innovation. Sometimes innovation will come in the form of IP-based Solutions. Sometimes it will be in the form of a new Service, say marketing services for pharmaceutical companies. And sometimes it may be a new way to serve a certain market (Japan, anyone?)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

Everything’s a Game

I recently crossed a 100 miles per gallon with my Chevy Volt. For those of you who live in “advanced” societies that follow the metric system, that would be 42.5 km per liter.

If you fell out of your chair at that number, that’s probably because you don’t know that the Chevy Volt is an electric car with a back up gasoline engine. A full charge takes me about 30 miles after which it switches to the petrol engine. So if I keep driving on my battery, the mileage keeps improving.

I crossed a 100mpg after some effort. I charge the car using a standard 110V outlet which takes 10 hours for a full charge. Which means that I have to remember to plug it in at night, otherwise the next day I’ll be driving on gasoline. I now regularly forget to charge my iPad, but almost never, my Volt.

So when I crossed 100 mpg, I was naturally quite thrilled about it. I posted this tweet

To which I got some responses that were humbling. Like this one

https://twitter.com/GeorgeRobison/status/170950408829800449

After which I joined voltstats.net and kept at it. My mileage is now 104mpg.

Why would I spend any time pushing my mileage up? And then joining a website with a bunch of people who are similarly engaged? I get nothing out of the deal. Yes, there is some satisfaction on doing my bit to save the planet, but anything over 17mpg (my previous car) would have been an improvement. Why go for a 100?

This behavior, that would make no sense to economists, is driven by what is called gamification. Apparently we are all wired to play games.

There’s a lot of action around gamification of the enterprise. SAP is investing in this area. Salesforce.com bought a company Rypple that uses gamification to improve employee performance.

Outside of the enterprise Stackoverflow uses badges and so on to reward certain activity. My daughter does Math exercises on Khan Academy, which awards badges after you win a certain number of points. It certainly keeps her going without much complaint. We offered her a reward for every 10,000 points. But she has never claimed it. Achievement is its own reward?!

But I wonder if the psychology at work here is the same thing that makes us play silly games, board games and basketball? Does that capture what is going on here?

I think there is something else at work here. If you can measure something and if you can influence it, that something automatically becomes a challenge, a contest. Is it the overachiever in you that compels you to better your best score (or someone else’s)? Or is it your playful, game loving side? Perhaps they are all at work here – play, achievement, competition – just in varying proportions for different people.

Whatever it is, we will see more and more of it in our companies. For a game to be successful, the measurement of outcomes should be largely driven by game play not by random or extraneous circumstances. As life gets more digitized, such opportunities will keep popping up.

Ten years ago, you could never have had a contest on how many friends you had. Now I can say that I have more Facebook friends than you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Strange Name Discrimination

Researchers have found that the easier it is to pronounce your name, the better your chances of getting promoted.

From The Telegraph

The team of American and Australian scientists concluded that the easier a person’s name was to say, the better their success was in the workplace and the quicker they were promoted.

In a fiver year old post I drew the very same conclusions. From My Secret Starbucks Name

All things being equal, in Sales, you can be under a major handicap if the client is unsure about how your name is pronounced. A guy I know had the following email signature – Niraj (knee-rudge) Sharma. He was a top Sales rep at Infosys. Others have to take even stronger measures. There was a guy I had some business dealings with in New York, whose parents, in an inspired moment nearly half a century back in India, had named him Bhuleshwar Gandhi. In New York, when he wisely decided to change his name, he decided to not succumb to sentimental half-measures – he changed his name to Bill Grandee. I suspect that was a turning point in his career.

The research studied the effect of last names. In my opinion, first names matter more because you need to use them over and over again.

The average Indian first name is tough to pronounce in western markets. If you contrast Indian first names with typical American first names there are key differences in design and intent. American names are short and the nick names are shorter. The nick name for every first name is pretty standard. David is Dave. Timothy is Tim. Robert is Bob or Rob. American first names are designed for an easy “user interface”.

Indian Hindu names, on the other hand, are designed to be unique and beautiful. When parents name their children they want other parents to ask them the question “What a beautiful name, what does it mean?”

Also, the Hindu names are always in Sanskrit – the language of the gods. It is as if, it doesn’t matter if mortals can’t pronounce it, as long as the gods can.

By the time my daughter was born, I had a keen appreciation of the value of a short, familiar name. My wife and I named her Lori, which is a familiar American name. It also happens to be a Hindi word that means lullaby. In Sanskrit lullaby would be Alolika. Which is a non-starter. She would have been called Aloo by all, which means potato.

But even with her name, we couldn’t resist the temptation of an honest-to-goodness Sanskrit name. So we snuck in a middle name, which she will probably shorten to an initial all her life.

In this new world that is fast globalising, my advice to Indian parents is to please be kind to your children and name them with simpler two syllable names.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 12 Comments

Is Simplicity a Winning Strategy?

If such an award existed, Ron Johnson would be a Hall of Famer retailer. He was instrumental in making Apple Stores what they are today – the biggest sales per sq ft of retail space and a wake up call for the rest of the retail industry. Now he is the CEO at J C Penney and he’s shaking things up there.

Mr. Johnson is currently meeting the media, rolling out his new strategy for J C Penney (the video interview is worth watching). There’s a new brand identity, a major redesign of stores which will now be organized around stores-within-stores for major brands. But the thing that struck me as particularly bold and perhaps risky was a fundamental change in pricing strategy.

J C Penney is moving to what they call “Fair and Square” pricing. There will no longer be the deep discount sales that its customers have come to expect.

Why are they doing this? In Mr. Johnson’s words

Pricing is actually a pretty simple and straight forward thing. Customers will not pay literally a penny more than the true value of the product. And as I have been watching the department stores for the past decade, I have been struck by the extraordinary amount of promotional activity, which to me, didn’t feel like it was appropriate for a department store. My instinct was that it wasn’t a good thing.

Last year J C Penney had 590 sales events. A whopping 72% of their sales came from merchandise discounted at least 50%.

From this, they are moving to where there will be only three kinds of prices – Everyday, Month-long Value (back to school type sales) and Best Prices (clearance).

This is a pretty gutsy move.

An HBR blog post is down on the timing of this strategy and thinks Penney should wait for when its new brand and stores vision has been fulfilled.

Quite simply, J.C. Penney lacks the differentiation to make this pricing strategy successful. J.C. Penney’s products are fairly homogenous. When selling a relatively undifferentiated product, the only lever to generate higher sales is discounts. Even worse, if competitors drop prices on comparable products, J.C. Penney’s hands are tied — it is a sitting duck that can’t respond.

In my opinion the new pricing strategy is an inherent part of the new J C Penney strategy and can’t be disassociated from the store makeover and the new brand identity.

Undoubtedly this is a risky gambit. But is it the right strategy? At the heart of it, the new pricing strategy is about simplicity.

Customers like simple, stable pricing. A busy housewife would love to be able to do her shopping at the Penney store near her place of work on weekdays, instead of fighting for parking space at the mall near her home on the weekend when the sales are on. When she is in the store, she can confidently buy any product with the assurance that its price isn’t going to be halved the next sale.

There is another aspect to simple pricing that Penney won’t be able to control and that is to ensure that prices on merchandise are the same everywhere. Apple does this very well on their products. When I buy from Apple online or in an Apple store, I am pretty certain that I don’t need to do any comparison shopping on the internet.

Customers like simple pricing. But they also like low prices. We don’t know where Penney’s prices will end up, but if 72% of merchandise is sold at 50% or more off full price, we can safely say that there is a lot of headroom below full price. Will that be enough to keep their customers or not is the key question. How they withstand the pressure of weekend sales from competing department stores must be giving sleepless nights to Penney executives.

After years of weekend sales, customers now expect them. They expect to see those flyers in their mailboxes with astonishingly low prices. How will Penney pull in the customers? Local marketing will probably have to completely change.

Besides the fact that customers like simple pricing, there are other benefits to having a simple pricing strategy. Highly volatile prices create highly volatile demand. Volatile demand creates its own set of problems. From store work force scheduling to inventory management. High volatility in demand results in either stock outs or higher inventory costs or both.

The fact is that simplicity in product and pricing results in simpler business operations.

Take Southwest Airlines for instance. From an earlier post The Virtue of Simplicity

Southwest Airlines is a company that I truly admire. The genius of SouthwestAirlines is in how they have become the most important airlines in the US by simplifying it for their passengers and for themselves. In the morass of complexity that is the American airlines industry, Southwest Airlines is a shining beacon of hope. Not only is their pricing dead simple, everything about the airlines is that way. They fly only Boeing 737s. This simplifies, crew scheduling, training, aircraft maintenance and spares. They have only one class – coach class. There is no seat assignment. It’s first come first serve [Update: This has changed but in a uniquely Southwest fashion]. And their frequent flier program is a tribute to simplicity – 8 round trips and you get a free roundtrip to anywhere they fly.

I hope J C Penney is successful with ‘Fair and Square’. Taking a leaf out of the book of their neighbor in Dallas – Southwest Airlines – might be just what the retailer needs.

And then we shall hope that this might inspire banks, telcos and cable companies to adopt simpler pricing strategies. And pigs will fly.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

Offshore: The Book is Out

My book on the offshore services industry, co-authored with Gaurav Rastogi, is now out in both print and Kindle versions.

In India a print version of the book, published by Penguin, is available in major bookstores and online at Flipkart. In India the book is called Offshore: How India got back on the Global Business Map.

Outside India the Kindle version of the same book, but with a different sub-title, is available from the Kindle website. Offshore: India’s Services Juggernaut


The Facebook page for the book can be found here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments