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Brain gain, the BPO way

Kavita Nair | April 07, 2005

A pregnant pause greeted Kristina Hermanns, 27, when she told her mother she had an offer to head a team in India for information technology and business process outsourcing firm Tecnovate eSolutions, a subsidiary of the London-headquartered online travel agency eBookers Plc.

The German travel agency employee had gone to Dublin and worked for eBookers, where she heard of the Indian company.

Her mother did come around, and she eventually said: "Go for it. You might never get a chance like this again." Her friends too echoed her mother's sentiments.

They added that if they did not have responsibilities in Germany, they too would have grabbed the opportunity. So Hermanns, who loves to travel, packed her bags and headed for New Delhi in October last year.

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She has a one-year contract with Tecnovate eSolutions and says: "I am in no hurry to go back."

Hermanns is in good company. Helen Beattie joined the Mumbai-based BPO company WNS in October 2003 as head of human relations at the company's knowledge services division and is now the division's assistant vice president.

She had worked at management consulting firm Mckinsey & Company in Australia for nine years but quit in 2000 to set up her own outfit in Australia. She had been to India when she was at McKinsey and loved the country.

In 2003, she received a call from WNS asking her whether she'd like to work at the company's investment research unit. She decided to give it a shot. India and BPO had been much talked about and she had always wanted to work at a BPO to experience it. So after she checked up on the company, she moved to India.

Hermanns and Beattie are among a small but growing group of foreigners who work in India's BPO industry.

Says Kavitha Reddy, associate vice president at temping company TeamLease Services: "There's been a steady increase in the hiring of foreigners. We ourselves have been hiring more foreigners for BPOs."

The 7,000-people-strong WNS has at least 60 foreign employees, double the number six months ago. The figure will only burgeon.

TeamLease has been witnessing an increase in interest from foreign students who come down to India to study in universities such as New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, Bangalore University, and the Chennai-based Anna University.

Many foreigners are lured by the attraction of living in a country that is increasingly viewed in the overseas media as dynamic. What better way of living in and experiencing a nation than to work in the BPO industry? The experience also looks good on a CV.

Says Hermanns, who joined Tecnovate in 2003: "Having been a team leader in a company in India looks great on a European CV. It suggests that the person has the ability to go anywhere and work."

Lifestyles in India too are changing dramatically. Atul Sharma, human resources director at Prudential Process Management Services (PPMS -- Prudential's BPO company), points out that the entertainment after work hours has improved.

How are foreigners allowed to work in India? Obtaining a visa is not difficult because Indian rules and regulations are far more relaxed than, say, in the US.

To be sure, some BPO companies have for long employed foreigners. Captive outfits like PPMS and Scope have done so as part of their strategy. At any point of time, PPMS has 20-25 foreign employees, mainly at the supervisory and functional level.

"International mobility of talent is a key focus for Scope as well as for the other players," says Sreeram Iyer, group head for global shared service centre at Scope International, Standard Chartered Bank's BPO outfit.

Reddy explains that BPOs have been hiring foreigners mainly in three specific areas --training, transaction and migration processes and in quality management. A lot of BPO and call centre companies have started emphasising training. Here the Indian accent is neutralised, which is an important from a customer perspective.

In order for a process to get transitioned, training is required. Instead of sending 150 Indians overseas, the parent company or the client sends someone for a period of six months to a year. The third area is the implementation of things like six sigma practices.

There's little doubt too that Indian BPOs have steadily been winning more and more business from European companies. This has lead to the growing importance of multilingual capabilities, both in voice and data.

Companies that have focusing on multilingual capability -- French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Italian -- in India include Infosys BPO subsidiary Progeon, Oracle, Hewlett Packard and IBM's BPO.

In addition, industry observers claim that BPO companies in some cities seem to be zeroing in on specific language -- German dominates Mumbai, Italian and Russian dominate Delhi, Japanese is dominant in Chennai and French in Bangalore.

Tecnovate began offering non-English speaking capabilities in 2001. It started with a team of four from Finland. Today 10 per cent of the company's payroll strength of 1,000 are foreigners. The company offers services in nine languages -- French, German, Swiss German, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish and English.

Tea Westerlund was a student of cognitive psychology in Finland. In 2002 she saw an eBookers ad on the Internet seeking people for India. Westerlund had no clue of what BPO was nor did she have any idea about the company. She wanted to work abroad.

Three years down the line she leads a 10-member Finnish team and is in no hurry to go back. "It's so much more exciting here. The poverty makes me unhappy, but people are happy here and are enjoying life for the moment."

Explains Prashant Sahni, CEO, Tecnovate: "Many people take a break and want to travel. What we say is: "Don't touch your savings. Our company will fly you down here at our cost, provide health insurance, a guest house and even funds to decorate your home, in addition to the local salary.

"We save on training costs as these employees can start functioning on the first day. So what we save in training, we pass it on to these employees. We also involve clients in the recruitment process. These employees get a chance to work and get an opportunity to see the country. We get people who can start working from day one and clients are happy."

Plus, of course, the company gets employees who are familiar with their own countries, something that can help generate additional revenue. Attrition, too, is less of a concern. Tecnovate offers a one-year contract to these employees and Sahni says that at least 30 per cent of them stay on.

Though the cost of hiring foreigners is perhaps not low (executives at Tecnovate and Evalueserve, the business intelligence, market research and intellectual property services firm, however, say that they offer local salaries), BPO companies would have had to fork out more on training a huge number of Indians in foreign languages.

Iyer of Scope seconds this view. He adds that the value and best practices these expats bring to the table are significant.

Still, Ashish Gupta, COO, Evalueserve, perhaps best describes the situation when he declares that a war for global talent is on.

"What we have begun to see is the global integration of the workforce. And as the sector grows, this number will only expand," he adds.

Iyer sums it up when he says: "As organisations grow, they will have seek talent wherever it is available."

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