16 August 2005

A global strategy for India

The Indian strategy for the global market seems to be to occupy the position of the most coveted supplier of low-cost knowledge workers. By knowledge workers I mean IT-trained persons with the ability to communicate in English. It’s a resource India has in surplus and, from what I can see, the world needs it.

I’m not sure if this has been a well-thought-out strategy for the last twenty years, but for the last twenty years, India has been supplying the world – mainly the U.S. market, of course – with low-cost IT-trained persons who could communicate in English. These were mostly programmers, and a few higher-level systems professionals. Twenty years ago, it used to be called ‘body shopping’ and companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Infosys were its main propagators. There were many others, big and small.

Body shopping (a term the industry didn’t like very much for its negative undertone) evolved to offshore assignments, and later paved the way for BPOs. More importantly, it established India’s strength as a qualified supplier of IT professionals for the developed countries. At a cost they couldn’t refuse.

In the last ten years, with IT adopting the role of a business process enabler, and supported by telecom infrastructure, the opportunities – and, therefore, the demand – for the knowledge worker has sky-rocketed. Although the focus is still on IT-enabled services, the knowledge worker today doesn’t necessarily have to be a programmer. A quick look into a call centre will tell you that you just need to be able to speak English fluently and know the fundamentals of computer operations to be a part of this industry.

But, it doesn’t have to end there – and that’s the magic of this strategy. The strategy bandwidth now includes knowledge workers and skilled professionals from other service sectors. Professional skills reach into areas such as engineering, design and analysis services, healthcare, clinical research, pharmaceuticals, financial services, construction … apart from the usual call centre and data processing services. Besides these, many more areas are likely to evolve over the years.

Most of these services will be delivered from India to other locations instantaneously through IT and telecom connectivity. However, there’s going to be an influx of business opportunities where the customers will come to India to consume services on offer. For instance, people will visit India for medical treatment at low costs compared to what’s available in developed countries.

This is going to create a double income for India – first, from the consumption of the service; and also from tourism as millions of people will be arriving in India to consume these services. The swing is going to be away from exporting services from India, and into importing customers for local consumption.

What this means is that India has to prepare itself to produce these low-cost skilled professionals by setting up educational and vocational institutions. Keeping in mind the fact that the service areas are quite widespread, there’s plenty to do here. Moreover, India has to invest heavily in infrastructure… IT, telecommunications, airports, railways, local transport, hospitality services, medical centres and shopping facilities. This also means developing manpower for these infrastructure industries… creating employment opportunities never before expected in India.

Maybe, there’s an Indian way, after all.

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