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Outsourcing: Etherized Upon a Table?



For sixteen years as an analyst, I’ve been hearing one constant refrain from business process outsourcing (BPO) and contact center systems companies: at the end of the day, it’s all about people.


Even in the face of exponential technological change, AI, and automation, it’s been said clearly and insistently – it’s still about people.


Well, as I suggested in a piece on February 29 (which now seems a very long time ago), we’ve entered a new reality.


Now it truly is all about people. Like never before.


American Splendor


On Monday, March 23, as the coronavirus continued its stealthy spread, American President Donald Trump suggested the country may need to get back to work sooner than many expected. He doubled down the next day, saying he wants the American economy up and running by Easter.


But in a hyper-globalized world – despite economic morphine hits like the trillions of dollars in overnight loan drips from the Federal Reserve to large banks – bringing the U.S. economy back to life from its sudden shock is dependent to no small degree on the rest of the world, large parts of which are only now going into lockdown mode.


And many of those countries may not be willing to restart quite as quickly as Trump’s American bravado might like.


In fact, the same day Trump reiterated his ambitions, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered India into full 21-day lockdown. That’s 1.3 billion people.


And just today, March 26, South Africa followed suit, beginning its own 21-day lockdown.


Meantime, even China is still not fully up and running.


Regardless, the response to Trump’s gambit came in real-time via Twitter, with #GeneralStrike and #NotDying4WallStreet trending by mid-week.


Against that backdrop, particular questions hung in the air for the BPO and contact center systems communities.


How to keep as many people employed as possible, servicing customers?


More importantly, how to help save lives?


Preparing a Face for Zoom: Life in the First World


For our tribe of First World knowledge workers in the United States, the realizations came all at once these past few days: some may have carried the coronavirus back from recent global travel, others may have been exposed during our ever rolling global itinerary of conferences and events. The case of Biogen in Boston may be the most high profile example.


Still, for those yet not directly affected, many of us have been able to retreat home, staying safe at all costs.


Our connectivity gives us Netflix and Amazon Prime.


Suddenly, for a large number of us, everything is about working from home. We wile away the hours on Zoom chats, sharing group pictures of our remote happy hours.


Reveling in the cloud.


In our First World bunkers.


We have the resources (we think) to wait this thing out.


For many of us, that’s been the extent of our experience of this crisis. So far.


And that’s all well and good, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t mean that all those agents involved in the global contact center industry will be able to make such a seamless switch.


A Search for Readers


Back in the mid-2000s, I proposed that the BPO industry needed to be thinking hard about deploying the work-at-home agent model wherever possible. What I called homeshoring made compelling sense amidst a set of emerging trends that I articulated in 2007 for CEO Magazine.


More to the point, in one specific “Event Flash” from May, 2006, I discussed the very real risks of a global pandemic and the need for enterprises and BPOs to be prepared for such a seemingly far-fetched scenario.


Because even back then, a paradigm shift seemed to be hovering somewhere out on the horizon.


Unfortunately, it’s now clear that the BPO and ITO industries – among others – were not as prepared as they might have been when the coronavirus hit.


Still, some will protest that this was a “Black Swan” event. Who could have known? But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes clear in a piece this week:


…some people claim that the pandemic is a ‘Black Swan,’ hence something unexpected so not planning for it is excusable. The book they commonly cite is The Black Swan…. Had they read that book, they would have known that such a global pandemic is explicitly presented there as a ‘white swan’: something that would eventually take place with great certainty. Such acute pandemic is unavoidable, the result of the structure of the modern world; and its economic consequences would be compounded because of the increased connectivity and overoptimization.


He’s right of course. We’ve known of the potential dangers of pandemics for a very long time. In the late 1990s, Jared Diamond even published a best-selling book with a most memorable title – Guns, Germs, and Steel.


Apparently however, too many politicians and business leaders weren’t doing enough reading. Or perhaps some were simply too hesitant to act, even paralyzed, trapped in a certain way of thinking, lacking the imagination to wargame a pandemic flu scenario; Prufrockian in the sense that they did not dare to disturb their universe of The Way Things Work.


So today we’re seeing a global scramble to convert thousands of agents – from the United States to India and the Philippines and beyond – to the work-at-home model in real-time. Heroic efforts. And there will be success stories. But the struggles of making that happen will also be very real in many cases. In some countries, the smooth delivery of BPO and IT services work is sure to be impacted. Everything from squirrelly connectivity in the form of limited broadband availability to lack of laptops to unsuitable home working environments could present daunting challenges.


Business continuity planning was not what it should’ve been.


And now it’s quite possible that the sun is setting on the business world we’d grown so accustomed to.


The Deeper Tragedy


But what of all those BPO workers here and abroad in circumstances where they cannot work from home at all? Or all those individuals losing their jobs? The many who don’t have the resources to wait the coronavirus out?


What happens in the American ghettos, the South African townships, the Brazilian favelas, the Indonesian and Malaysian kampungs?


I was just in Mumbai the last week of January, just before the world shifted. What happens there now? As a Wednesday article on India in The Guardian this week notes:


…in a densely populated country where personal space is a luxury, the edict from the prime minister, Narendra Modi, calling for physical distancing and people to ‘forget what going out means’ seemed like an almost impossible and unenforceable demand. Communal spaces form the basis of Indian society, three generations of a family tend to live together or next door, millions gather together in temples, mosques and gurdwaras on a daily basis and 64 million people live in overcrowded and insanitary slums.


Images come like a flood. At the end of 2017, I traveled across Pakistan, from Lahore to Islamabad and Karachi. How will its healthcare system hold up if the coronavirus continues its relentless spread? Karachi is a city of roughly 20 million souls. It is said to have only 600 intensive care beds. Pakistan itself is reported to have a mere 1,700 ventilators and 15,000 N95 masks.


The mind reels. And a T.S. Eliot poem won’t stop whispering to me from some long forgotten classroom:


Let us go then, you and I,


When the evening is spread out against the sky


Like a patient etherized upon a table….


And ask ourselves a set of overwhelming questions.


What happens when the coronavirus sweeps through such neighborhoods, winding through certain half-deserted streets, curling through back alleys, licking its tongue into the corners of the evening, lingering upon the pools that stand in drains?


How are people to practice “social distancing” under almost impossible circumstances?


And even if we in the First World emerge from our bunkers in one or three or six months, what if the coronavirus remains deeply entrenched in some of those poorest places on earth?


Perhaps some kind of treatment or vaccine will materialize soon. Maybe Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that is a less toxic derivative of chloroquine, will be successful in clinical trials.


But if no scalable medical breakthrough happens, what then? What if the coronavirus still floats amidst the world’s poorest communities months hence, rubbing its muzzle up against humanity’s unlucky? How much tragedy will be wrought?


Forcing the Moment to Its Crisis


Even now, it appears our American military industrial complex is repositioning, taking over Covid-19 response in cities across the country. It seems we’re living through an event as significant as the Second World War. Could it be our annual American defense budget of over $700 billion now makes some semblance of sense?


Either way, already one suspects new patterns are being etched into our ways of thinking in the realm of business services.


As a piece in The Economic Times of India pondering the long-term effects of the rush to deploy the work-at-home model put it: “Over the next few months, IT companies will gain experience and realize what processes can and cannot be done remotely. Clients too, will gain comfort. ‘Over time, even if 20% of the work can be done from home, it would mean over one million people not needing to commute to an office daily, with the option of working from any city they choose to….’”


And back here in the United States, perhaps we’ll even begin to wonder how committed investors will be to persist with their offshoring blueprints, or how willing they’ll be to contemplate bringing some portion of previously offshored work back to the United States; not just critical production such as pharmaceuticals, but perhaps even assorted business processes.


Such disruptive questions could impact future investment in far off places. Calls could grow louder to bring work back to what since September 11, 2001, our leaders here in the United States have somewhat ominously come to refer to as “the Homeland.”


Meanwhile, what travel bans might we see persist? How difficult or even desirable might it be to jet off to some far-flung clime, as we, the entitled in the industry, have so often done this still young century?


Before this is over, could we see a backlash against offshore outsourcing – or outsourcing in general – the likes of which we have not yet seen?


Just this November, 2019, I argued that a small BPO backlash in the United States during the days of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 was a lot of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. The outsourcing model has been a resilient one these past decades, and that fact shouldn't be dismissed out of hand amidst this crisis.


Yet still one wonders could this time be different?


Are we as an industry at an inflection point?


Nobody can know for sure.


But as Prufrock suspected –


In a minute there is time


For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.


Image: from the Outschool website (Outschool.com)

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