Dragon Claws and Tiger Paws: The Hackers of Globalization

What’s all the fuss about globalization being either good or bad, manageable or inevitable? Globalization is but a fuzzy measure of how globally connected, integrated, and dependent you are on others in terms of economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and not the least ecological interchange. Last time you ever poked fun at that goofy Icelander for believing in his wights, elves, and huldufólk (“hidden people”), for he’ll come right back at ya, by closing his country’s banks – turning a whole bunch of UK depositors into such huldufólk – and shutting down your airspace for weeks on end (and all you can do is sue Thor for spewing volcanic ash and other forms of Icelandic ectoplasm, including Björk, over your Fatherland). (Though on that note, the brave pilots of Deutsche Lufthansa must be congratulated for being the first to face the pulverized magma, proudly living their corporate motto that the “Hansa is flying even when the birds are walking.”)

No, globalization would be a simple and straightforward matter if we just called it global trade (and indeed, if it was just that: worldwide import/export), and if it wasn’t for such complicating factors as the vast inequalities accentuated but perhaps not caused by putting us all on an economic Mercator projection, an equal free-trade footing. In the good old days, it used to be fair and equitable: you’d send a nutter like Marco Polo off on his Silk Road to scam the Kublai Khan with some cheap Venetian costume jewelry, and the fool would come home with spaghetti – home being Italy, mind you! Let’s call this one “Bucket A”: arguments for or against the notion that the world’s haves and have-nots will benefit very differently from the effects of globalization. If the upper left-hand corner of your paycheck says “The World Bank Group,” you’ll likely be a naysayer, arguing that global inequality has risen as a function of increased globalization for a number of factual reasons that are measured in something called the “Gini coefficient,” and the explication thereof would stretch the scope of this blog as much an A-Rod-professed monogamy. Know that your blogger – like most civilized people – categorically condemns the exploitation of impoverished workers and joins with militant fervor in the persecution of all exploiters of child labor (if you can, check out our friend David Arkless’s and his company Manpower’s support of http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/ – a rather worthwhile cause!).

Some of the other, softer, and more academic arguments brought forth by the anti-Davos crowd (rash boarders, by and large, who eschew après-ski and raclette with Angelina Jolie) have to do mainly with agriculture subsidies in rich countries (thereby lowering the market price for poor farmers’ crops), the non-existence or at best weakened state of labor unions in destitute regions, and – oh behold, the Bugaboo! – the rapid growth of offshore outsourcing. In “Bucket B” we shall lump all arguments either in favor of or opposed to the notion that globalization will revert all “things” back to their normal mean. And all these things are purportedly economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and perhaps even ecological in nature (you can appreciate how complicated a well-rounded treatment of globalization can get – and most of them alas are as cohesive as Destiny’s Child). Think of it as the global equilibrium point, where say a big media company in the States is outsourcing all of its IT development to India, where the Indian IT developers – because of these two interlocking economic trends called global wage arbitrage and purchase price parity – are making a respectable middle-class living, allowing them in turn to tune into, as it so happens, their client’s satellite TV channel to watch the admittedly timeless episodes of Rachel and Friends, thus sending about $1.50 in revenues back to Burbank, California for each $1.00 spent on outsourcing. The labor savings and the incremental foreign revenues are strengthening the firm in the U.S. such that it can afford to hire more domestic workers. A spiraling win-win scenario, or so it would appear, were it not for the pesky competition all now filing into Bangalore, tilting the local supply-and-demand ratio towards ever inflating wages. Over time, as you would expect, the Bengaḷūrus will be able to command the same level of pay as the good folks back home in Burbank. That’s what “mean reversion” means in this case: everyone’s making the same rupees and watching the same TV shows (where the largest common denominator will, thank heavens, also be the lowest one – watch out Slumdog, here come Jessica Simpson’s hair extensions).

Aforementioned Buckets A and B deal with resource re-distribution and societal re-shaping, respectively. It is perhaps intuitive that according to the KOF (ETH Zürich) Index of Globalization, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden rank first among the world’s most globalized nations (and that despite ABBA!), while Iran, Burundi, and North Korea are plotting away in impressive isolation. Cynics will contend that although the driving forces behind globalization are well understood, corporations (mostly again in rich countries) are in the driver’s seat, and thus it is hardly surprising that globalization will follow a corporate, and almost by definition, opaque agenda. Others point to the “avengers” of globalization, those that are part of a nation’s diaspora, the reverse exodus of Western-trained workers back to their country of origin (such as the legions of highly educated and very successful Indians in Silicon Valley, for example, returning home to start new businesses in India). And of course, there are those who watch Roy Rogers movies on TCM and eat lots of apple pie and claim that the United States will never fall behind, because we – and nobody else! – have the monopoly on innovation. (I’ve got something innovative for you, and it’s not the Xbox 360: here in the States we’ve got more massage therapists entering the workforce every year than computer scientists; and we’re now graduating more social workers from our colleges than engineers – of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with massage therapy or social work, quite the contrary, but you shouldn’t then wonder why someone moved your cheese all the way from Chennai, or why there are as many Indians on the list of the top-ten richest people in the world as there are Americans.)

I’ll close with a contention that may well be controversial: our conception of globalization is about as relevant today as Paul Bremer’s last lecture in the Sunni auditorium at Baghdad University on why “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Globalization has been a decidedly Western concept ever since the Greco-Roman world established trade links with the Parthians and the Han. It’s pretty evident that the Chinese and the Indians – the only two countries with more than a billion people each which together make up nearly 40% of the world’s population – find our notions of global connectivity, integration, and interdependence about as quaint as a Quaker’s chuckle. Bucket A, Bucket B, pro or con, it really doesn’t matter. You might as well try to explain to an Indian “classical” musician the difference between Mozart and Miles Davis or insist to a Chinese that opera is all about stout white men crooning Verdi. Give it another 30 years, and China will produce 40% of the world GDP, with the U.S. (15%) and the EU (5%) lagging emphatically behind. With Chinese economic hegemony and supremacy in hardware, and India’s leadership in software and an unrelenting focus on scientific and technical education, and a potential coming together of two powerful allies at the purposeful exclusion of the United States, the economic, political, and social constructs of the West have lost their relevance as far as the Dragon and the Tiger are concerned (notwithstanding the tragic reality that both countries will still have to lift hundreds of millions out of abject poverty.)

Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you or your company be thinking about establishing an offshore presence in either India or China. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has a ten-year history and successful track record of doing business in both countries and helping our clients successfully navigate some of the challenges of globalization.

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The Death of Distance

His capacity for industrial-strength enlightenment and satirical polemicism (against both church dogma and state institutions) never in doubt, Voltaire nonetheless could be a bit of wuss: “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Now, who would say such a thing in IT? Of course, if you were a prolific pamphletist and public intellectual in mid-18th century France, and an outspoken supporter of social reform and free trade and other revolutionary vices, you’d be hedging your prose and poetry, too, sufficient to make the chief-topiarian of Versailles blush. Think of some of the more benignly erroneous misproclamations by established authorities in the field of technology:

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” – David Sarnoff’s associates (obviously prior to pioneering American commercial radio) in the 1920s
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson of IBM, 1943
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” – Popular Mechanics on the relentless march of computer science, 1949
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” – Prentice Hall editor-in-chief, 1957
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates, 1981

We get the point. Though I feel compelled for the purpose of this blog to add one more mispronouncement, this one from John Doe, Chief Information Officer at DJI, Inc. in the mid-1990s: “Getting IT done means everybody must sit in the same office.” And, truth be told, this one is perhaps the hardest myth to debunk, even with the relative passage of time that saw “India Inc.” vaulting onto the world stage a decade ago as the remote fix-it destination for all-things-Y2K (and without whose legions of highly skilled coders and bug-fixers, even mighty Microsoft’s Windows 2000 may have only shipped in the second quarter of 1901).

Let us first settle on some familiar terminology. The notion that you, as an IT manager sitting in an office in say Bloomington, Indiana could be working with a programmer sitting in an office in say Bangalore, India, I call (for the sake of simplicity) “remote staff augmentation.” This programmer could be working for your firm’s Indian subsidiary or for an Indian software house, or he or she could be a freelancer – what matters is that you will be managing and collaborating with that particular resource as if he or she was sitting in the cubicle down the hall with you in Bloomington. The only difference between another local, Bloomington-based colleague (the employment mode set aside) is, and as the blog title would imply, “distance.”

There’s an immediate, important distinction between this form of remote staff augmentation and (to use the catch-all phrase) ‘outsourcing.’ When you outsource an IT project (and to simplify greatly), you write up requirements for what needs to be done, and you give these requirements to somebody else, typically a professional IT Services firm, and then this firm “goes off and does it” and only comes back to you when the job is done to deliver the finished project. Where these outsourcers go to do the work is really up to them, but they could be staying on your premises, they could be driving back to their head office in Indianapolis, or – like most do – they could be “shipping” the work to their own colleagues in India. Again, what matters is not where the work is executed, but that you, the client, has asked a services provider to do it for you. Now ironically, although outsourcing is in everyday parlance and popular opinion inextricably linked with the concept of ‘offshoring’ (thank you, Lou Dobbs!), outsourcing a project, even if the project is executed for the most part offshore, has little to do with “working remotely.” If you wish to successfully outsource a project, you must understand vendor management; if you wish to successfully engage remote staff, you must be able to work with another human being who is in a different physical location than you.

Managing across distances – including geographic, time-zone, and cultural ones – can at first be thorny and outright costly for the uninitiated. The catchy phrase “Death of Distance” used to express the industry’s conviction that ever-falling telecom prices and the whole-sale commoditization of the communications sector would level the playing field for the global world of work. If the cost of pipes (or rather fiber optic cable) was cheap and the price of piping bits from place A to place B nominal, then surely, and voilà, moving work to people, as opposed to moving people to work, was feasible now that distance had succumbed to high-speed fiber.

However, even though communication infrastructure is essentially no longer an explicit cost item in the “remote working” equation, other key factors constitute ‘implicit’ cost items (also sometimes referred to as the “hidden costs of offshoring”). These steps in the engagement process or links in the sourcing chain are: counter-party discovery (individual / facility), HR and system setup, knowledge and work transition, as well as resource and project coordination. Since these are components that take up – at a minimum, that is to say if nothing goes wrong – time and know-how (in other words: money), we can now fathom a ‘true cost’ equation for what it costs an IT manager at place A (e.g., Bloomington, Indiana) to engage a programmer at place B (e.g., Bangalore, India), namely:

  • Programmer’s wage at place B + discovery cost + setup cost + transition cost + coordination cost.

As a commonsensical look at the above ‘cost stack’ would reveal, these implicit costs – in the absence of significant process capabilities and/or efficiencies of scale – might render an otherwise inexpensive (say offshore) resource as, if not more expensive than say an onshore IT worker. Common sense (and believe me, ten years of experience) would also suggest that you might want to seek a process expert or a volume aggregator to help ‘squash down’ each of the cost stack items  so as to optimize the value of remote (and often onshore-offshore) staff augmentation. Ah, but then common sense, as Voltaire used to observe, may just not be so common.

In my next blog I shall introduce two additional variables that will impact the overall cost of engaging a remote staff: first, whether the collaboration is synchronous vs. asynchronous (i.e., whether there is meaningful time-zone overlap or not), and second, whether the remote resources are being managed ‘stand-alone’ vs. as part of an onsite-offsite distributed team.