Anthony as a Columnist, Writer, Web Entrepreneur, founder of InternationalStaff.net, stands apart for his remarkable cutting edge insight on number of issues. Straight talk with the CEO of International staff.net on his Journey with Web.
Joydip:, Tell me something about yourself, how you started your journey in the web as a columnist, writer and entrepreneur? And how you evolved as the web evolved?
In graduate school at Rutgers University, in a class on complex decision making, Professor Jon Van Til divided the students up into groups. One of the members of my group was older and always appeared highly stressed. He kept mentioning responsibilities outside of class. In the class exercises, he insisted that his approaches to complex issues were correct. He directed the work of a small state government agency. I always deferred.
Once the answers were announced, it turned out that my approaches to problem solving were the ones the professor had been seeking. Seeing that I could solve problems without being aggressive, this older student hired me to work for him.
The first projects that I was assigned to work on involved managing outsourcing projects, largely turnkey database projects with a vendor unit headed by two guys who had graduated from IIT Chennai. They always completed their work properly and on time. Sometimes, late on a Friday night, I would fax questions or comments to them. They would immediately revert back with the answers.
“These guys are great,” I kept saying, “they work like I do—all the time.”
I kept telling my friends at other government agencies about this vendor team and how great they were. My friends replied with tales of their own—about how they could never have their own in-house IT people complete projects quickly, cheaply or properly.
“Why don’t you let me manage your IT projects with these Indian vendors,” I offered. That’s how it started. Other agencies would forward funds to the agency where I worked and I would structure and manage the projects.
Everything went well until I became too proactive in arranging work for my favorite vendors. I helped them win research contracts that had originally been put together for the purpose of funneling work to vendors preferred by the project initiators who hoped to go work for those vendors at a later date. I came to work one day and found that my position had been eliminated.
I left government and set up an independent consultancy practice, but the two guys from Chennai kept calling and asking me to work with them. At first I said no. They founded their own engineering company and embarked on some exciting project work, then I agreed to join them. Over the next two and a half years, I gained experience working on the vendor-side of outsourcing projects, writing proposals, bid documents and helping to manage the creation and hand-over of deliverables. I was the only American-born person in their company.
The weakness of this new venture was sales. After two and a half years, new business stopped coming in and I left to resume independent consulting. But the younger of the two guys kept calling me on the phone, asking me to work with him. In 1995 we went to India together and then to Brazil and Venezuela the following year. In 1997 he arranged for me to move to Chennai, India, with some additional project work to be done in Malaysia. I found a software project that allowed me to shift to Kolkata in 1998.
Returning to the U.S. at the end of that year, I helped launch an online document management company, which I left in July, 1999 to become more involved in the creation of new IT products and services. After working on a legal-process-outsourcing (LPO) startup and doing some utility tariff consulting, I launched InternationalStaff.net on September 10, 2001 (the day before 911).
In 2001, there were only six commercial call center providers in India and American clients had not learned how to manage outsourcing projects for themselves. The outsourcing field has undergone profound changes since then, with clients no longer needing the types of external project-management services that InternationalStaff.net provides. As of May, 2009, I have only worked on one major call center outsourcing project in 2009.
Most of the call center projects that I have worked on have been small. They were placed at outsourcing facilities where they would take up less than half (usually about 20-25%) of a facility’s total capacity. These facilities have the advantage of being cheaper, but they also require training and consulting assistance to enable them to meet client expectations. This pulled me into consulting work.
Most of the call center outsourcing projects that I worked on paid on the basis of performance. Even when facilities meet all performance requirements, they can be reluctant to pay for brokerage and consulting services. The court systems in India are slow, I’m based in the U.S. and cost recovery is often impractical at best. Without the financial results I was expecting, I looked for other types of rewards that could lead to more challenging types of work.
In any organization, if you can communicate clearly, you can become the most valuable person on a team. At university, I studied for a journalism certificate, which is an occupation-oriented equivalent of a minor in English.
In 2004, I began writing editorials and commentaries about some of the unethical practices that were widespread in the outsourcing field at that time. None of the press outlets published what I sent them, perhaps because I was too strident and opinionated. Finally, one publisher suggested that I submit additional materials for publication, without payment.
The discipline of writing for publication did not immediately translate into an improved writing style. But over time, by paying attention to what contributes to effective communicators, my writing improved.
Two things that helped have been to study the Associated Press Stylebook and to write articles about how to communicate. Writing a primer on business rhetoric was helpful because it provided the opportunity to revisit the subject, which I had studied in the past but had not successfully applied since then. The primer now occupies the top search result on Google for ‘business rhetoric.’
Both my parents were scholars who produced a plethora of original, empirically based work. In one evening, I can pound out a short article with little or no empirical basis, publish it on the Internet, and have it reach more readers than my parents’ entire lifetime output. Some of what I write is OK, but in comparison to my parents I don’t measure up. When I travel, it is common for everyone I meet professionally to recognize me (from the photographs that accompany my articles). But I do not feel that I’m a success.
The first piece that received much attention was never published. It was a rapid-self-assessment technique for call centers to document their equipment, capabilities and management structure for potential clients. Appearing at the end of 2001, it provided a template for facilities to communicate with potential clients as they bid for work. The self-assessment technique is called a table of organization and equipment or TOE. It went viral in 2002.
The first significant empirical research that I published was in 2004 and began with a catalog of prices charged for different types of outsourcing work in different Asian countries. The price data was used to identify the variables that determined price differentials at different types of facilities.
Outsourcing is dependent on the availability of skilled labor at competitive wage rates. The centrality of labor markets for outsourcing clients and service providers was not reflected in the methodologies in use for labor market analysis. After working with pharmaceutical companies and assisting them in evaluating options for offshoring to India, I developed the first major new labor market analysis method that I know of that has been published in English in over 30 years.
The other didactic works that I’ve produced have applied techniques from structural linguistics to examine offshoring practices and in 2009 to forecast new service-provisioning systems for telecommunications companies. Structural linguistics lends itself to the telecommunications industry because it reduces complex structures to their most basic elements and then analyzes the relationships between those elements. Whereas modern linguistics often appears to make simple concepts appear complex, the goal of a good writer should be to dispense with complexity in favor of practicality.
Joydip: Talking about your company, InternationalStaff.net,
you say that you bring U.S. service standards offshore, rather
than adapting Americans to offshore standards, what do you
mean by that?
Americans have particular standards about customer service and dialectical (conversational) structures. We are not always very good at maths, but we often enjoy reading numbers—or brief statistical summaries of performance results.
In other countries, approaches to customer service have developed in response to technological conditions and incumbent communication patterns. In India, for example, terrestrial telephone systems have a habit of dropping calls. Call completion rates are correspondingly low. So Indian call centers were not initially concerned with inbound call completion rates. It was assumed that callers would simply keep calling back. Call-drop metrics were rarely collected in India before 2002. System design and component placement encouraged dropped calls, especially during peak calling times.
The outsourcing revolution has spread Western standards of metrics-intensive program management to countries that have served as outsourcing destinations for U.S. clients. Now in India, call centers and other outsourcers are often more focused on metrics than their clients.
Joydip: ‘Web enabled outsourcing. Global financial crisis is
disabling it?” What is the future of outsourcing in Post Crisis
The future of outsourcing is more opaque now than one year ago, thanks to currency fluctuations, a growing domestic market in India, and learnings from social media.
Currency changes have driven Indian companies to establish operations in many other countries, both to serve Western clients and local markets in those other countries.
The domestic market in India is making it profitable to focus inward. Having domestic service offerings allows customer service operations to select agents that are particularly suited to work with customers outside India. An exclusive focus on domestic clients avoids the costs and legal barriers to entering Western markets.
Social media is teaching us about the importance of constant communication. When a software or customer service operation is outsourced, that operation no longer contributes to the exchange of information that enables organizations to adapt and survive.
Service providers and clients will need to learn how to keep information flowing during outsourcing, so that all parts of an operation can continue to provide maximum value to an organization’s whole. Otherwise, clients may decide that it makes sense to pull an operation back inside.
There will always be a need for turnkey projects, but the future of outsourcing at the scale we know it today is in doubt.
A decade from now, software development and maintenance will have moved into the cloud. It will have become commoditized and widgetized to the point where large software development projects will become rarer than they are today.
Voice recognition technologies will reduce the need for call center services. Distributed work models, with more work-at-home providers, will become more popular throughout the globe.
General merchant operations will become increasingly rare, with outsourcing becoming more domains intensive. For example, a financial services outsourcing company may operate a call center but continue to think of itself as a financial services company rather than call center operator.
The companies and individuals who will do best are those who are not afraid to constantly reinvest time and energy in training and new knowledge acquisition. We can expect to see the rate of change increasing dramatically over the next ten years. Two types of people and organizations will emerge:
1. Those on the leading edge of change.
2. Those struggling to keep up.
You can decide which type of person to become. We all can.