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Outsourcing: India in danger of being dethroned?

By Rachael King, BusinessWeek
August 02, 2007 15:25 IST
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In 2000, when employment-screening service provider HireRight was looking for a low-cost locale for software development, the Irvine (Calif.) company turned to an unlikely destination: Estonia. The Baltic nation hasn't traditionally been thought of as a hotbed of tech talent, but it presented HireRight with a pool of well-educated, tech-savvy workers; a modern telecommunications infrastructure; and costs that were 2.5 to 3 times lower than they'd find in the US.

"It's very easy to do business in Estonia. We didn't have any roadblocks at all," says Stefano Malnati, vice-president for engineering at HireRight.

The secret's out. Estonia has become a target of several other companies hoping to take operations offshore at the right price. Internet calling company Skype has set up shop in Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, home to the largest office of the eBay subsidiary. Estonia has become such an attractive destination that this year it made its debut at No. 15 on A.T. Kearney's list of the top 50 global offshore outsourcing locations, beating out more established countries such as Russia, Argentina, and Canada.

Very competitive market

Estonia is just one of many countries learning from the example set by India, which remains the top outsourcing destination on A.T. Kearney's list, and the country is eager to carve out a piece of the bulging market for offshore outsourcing services.

The global market for shared services and outsourcing is expected to grow to $1.43 trillion by the end of 2009, from $930 billion in 2006, according to a report released this month by consultancy Frost & Sullivan. Globally, companies spent about $233 billion on IT outsourcing in 2006.

Offshoring upstarts are making so many inroads, in fact, that by 2012, they'll significantly dilute India's dominance, says consultancy Gartner. The consulting firm says that by 2010 about 30 per cent of Fortune 500 enterprises will outsource to three or more countries, from less than 10 per cent today.

"So many governments have realized what an opportunity this is and there's a lot of effort being spent in promoting their countries to the market," says Johan Gott, manager of A T Kearney's Global Services Location Index.

The jockeying has become so intense, and the field so wide, that the big challenge facing many new entrants isn't just getting established as an offshoring hub but hanging onto that distinction. Since 2005, when A T Kearney last compiled its list, it has added 10 new countries, including Latvia, Uruguay, Mauritius, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Morocco, Senegal, and Ukraine. Four of those countries ranked in the top 25 in the 2007 list, released in March.

Lowering the bottom line

Becoming and remaining an attractive outsourcing location depends on a number of factors, including language and education skills and the reliability of a nation's telecommunications infrastructure. At the heart of most outsourcing deals, though, is lower cost.

So when A T Kearney puts together its list, it gives a 40 per cent weighting to the financial attractiveness of a country, taking into account the cost of wages, infrastructure, and taxes. Vietnam and Pakistan, for instance, are even more financially attractive than India, according to A T Kearney. Conversely, high costs are the primary reason that countries including Ireland, the US, and Canada are slipping in the rankings.

In fact, the recent appreciation of certain foreign currencies in relation to the US dollar has begun to affect corporate decisions to outsource or set up their own operations in certain countries. US companies have long outsourced work to Canada, where they've enjoyed a similar business environment along with a 20 per cent reduction in labor costs because of the exchange rate.

But the appreciation of the Canadian dollar has wiped out most of those savings and some U.S. companies are wondering why they should go to Canada if they can get the same thing locally without having to cross a border, says A T Kearney's Gott.

Besides costs, considerations include the education and language skills of workers, the availability of labor, and attrition risk. A country's economic and political environment and the quality of its infrastructure also factor into outsourcing decisions.

Some emerging countries may not appeal to US companies as outsourcing destinations but may find markets in other parts of the world. For instance, the appeal of Pakistan's IT workforce of 90,000 people has been overshadowed by post-September 11 security concerns.

"It's fallen off the radar screen of US buyers," says Frances Karamouzis, vice-president for research at Gartner. Other analysts say there is still a market for Pakistan's services in the Middle East. And countries such as Senegal and Morocco are becoming attractive places for French-language call-center outsourcing for Francophone Europe.

Infrastructure is key

HireRight found it easy to do business in Estonia in part because of its political and economic environment, as well as its infrastructure and cultural affinity. Estonia has invested significant resources in improving its technology infrastructure since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. During the late '90s, the country began modernising its telecommunications infrastructure and providing Internet access and computer labs for schools.

Estonia's Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, also former members of the USSR, have undertaken similar initiatives. Since the late '90s, there's been a conscious effort on the part of all three governments to use technology to transform economies, according to research from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

"Most countries were trying to attract tourism and build a manufacturing economy, but locations like India have shown them that you can have a vibrant services economy that is more vibrant than a manufacturing economy," says Atul Vashistha, chief executive of management consultancy and co-author of the book The Offshore Nation.

Building a vibrant services economy, though, often takes buy-in from the government. India, for instance, knew it needed to overcome cumbersome government policies and procedures and poor communications infrastructure to become a successful outsourcing destination.

In 1991, it created an autonomous agency known as the Software Technology Parks of India under the Ministry of Communication & Information Technology. The agency helps provide the technology infrastructure for companies that want to do business in India and serves as a liaison between government and industry. It also helps provide tax breaks and other incentives for doing business in India.

Kenya's TEAMS

Government support is crucial, given the significant investment in communications systems and liberalisation of the telecom sector. Kenya, for instance, is trying to become a destination for business process and IT outsourcing. The Kenyan government has worked in recent years to liberalise its telecom sector, which has lured more operators and helped drive telecom services prices down by 70 per cent in a short time, according to the World Bank.

Yet the country relies on satellite connections to link to the rest of the world. That makes it costly for outsourcers to do business. "Lack of high-capacity bandwidth connectivity has limited Kenya from exploiting its full potential," Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya's Minister for Information & Communications, said in a July speech at the Kenya College of Communications Technology. So Kenya's government has collaborated with the United Arab Emirates to install The East African Marine Systems (TEAMS), a submarine cable from Mombasa to Fujairah in the UAE that will give Kenya affordable high-capacity bandwidth.

Kenya will need to address not only telecom issues but also the readiness of its labor force. "If I wanted to have 150 people there tomorrow, it would take six or seven months to hire that amount of skilled people with business acumen," says Gartner's Karamouzis.

In many of these emerging outsourcing countries, the lack of available labour could eventually hinder growth. In fact, that's one of the challenges facing HireRight in Estonia. "The talent pool is not very big," says HireRight's Malnati, who says that HireRight now sees more competitors for talent.

Yet, instead of pulling up stakes and moving to another destination, HireRight is trying to maintain its low attrition rates by giving Estonian employees incentives such as inviting them to spend time at its headquarters in Irvine.

A winter trip from frigid Tallinn to sunny Southern California, Malnati says, can do wonders for employee retention. And the interest from more companies like HireRight may even boost Estonia a few rungs in the outsourcing rankings.

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Rachael King, BusinessWeek

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