Highlights the achievements of pioneers who put India on the world map of BPO
THE BACKROOM BRIGADE: Seetha; Penguin Portfolio; 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 375. Statistics, no matter how rosy, can sometimes obscure the real achievements that crafted the numbers. The Indian Information Technology industry tends to be almost blasé these days when it talks about outsourcing or IT-enabled services, comfortable in the knowledge that 70 per cent of the world's outsourced work ends up in this country. But how did this happen - within the short span of a decade? Not because the government created the environment which made India the preferred offshoring destination for some of the world's most demanding and quality-conscious players. Who discovered the hidden potential of the unheralded, humble Indian worker, to take up tasks that the rest of the world found either too boring or too demanding - and then to enjoy doing it? While there is no shortage of books on the Indian outsourcing phenomenon, most of them are angled at professionals abroad who need a quick guide to the scenario and possibilities here. The Backroom Brigade fills a large void in the saga of Indian IT: it highlights the achievements of a dozen individuals and institutions whose pioneering zeal and commitment to this country, against all odds put India on the world map of business process outsourcing (BPO). The author is a seasoned Delhi-based business journalist now writing for the Mumbai daily newspaper, DNA.
The story begins in 1993, when executives at American Express found that their nascent credit card operation in India cost much less than anywhere else in the world, while delivering higher quality service. John MacDonald, the U.S.-based AmEx comptroller, decided to press home the advantage: he decided to locate the company's service centre for the Far East in India. The business leader for the operation was Raman Roy - who went on to become one of the iconic figures of India-based outsourcing, having created operations for GE Capital, Spectramind, Wipro and finally in 2005, his own company, AccessIntellect. Roy and other early players in India like Roy Marshall of World Network and Services (WNS) and Pramod Bhasin of GE Capital had to contend with nightmarish bureaucracy before they got the infrastructure they required - telephone and data lines - to connect their India operations to the global grid. Just one day before a team from Amazon was due to visit the Gurgaon operation of another leading ITES player, Daksh, executives were persuading civic contractors to pave the rutted approach road and cover the overflowing drains. But for those who braved such obstacles, the rewards were out there: Amazon's prestigious contract saw Daksh increase its head count from 20 to 225. Bizarrely the stranglehold of babudom has eased only marginally. In 2004, Raman Roy still needed to obtain 37 separate clearances before he could start a BPO operation in Pune.
The medical transcription business has its own story of intrepid pioneers - like Gurjoy Singh Khalsa - who set up HealthSribe in the U.S. in 1991, with an offshore centre in India. Down South, Jayathirth (Jerry) Rao helped create one of the largest call centre operations at MPhasis. Interestingly, one Indian company, HCL, went in the reverse direction, setting up a large operation in Northern Ireland, mainly for British Telecom business and proving the quality of Indian leadership in the BPO business where it mattered most. Mainstream IT companies like Infosys and Wipro initially kept out of what they perceived as the low end ITES business. "They felt it would be like a five star hotel serving idli or vada," explains K. Ganesh who helped create CustomerAsset (It later became ICICI OneSource). But if enough idlis were sold, it became as profitable as gourmet stuff - as they soon discovered.
Creation of brand
Seetha rounds off her book with a tribute to the other key element of the Indian outsourcing saga: thousands of nameless call centre agents (sometimes derided as cyber coolies) whose dedication to duty and quality of work, has helped create the Indian brand. The savage attacks on the Indian outsourcing services in recent years, by American politicians with their own parochial agendas, has subsided: Ambassadors for Indian IT like NASSCOM's Kiran Karnik, lived out suitcases for months as they barn-stormed the world's business capitals to repair the damage. But quality will always show. This informative, well researched and deeply moving book has a telling example reproduced from the Wall Street Journal: An American online lender, e-Loan, gives its customers a choice: They can press '1' to reach an agent in India, in which case their loan application will be processed in one day. Or if they feel patriotic, they can press '2' to reach a U.S.-based agent - except that the application will take two or more days. Nearly 85 per cent routinely press '1'.