Though India and the Philippines dominate the IT-outsourcing, BPO (Voice) and shared services markets, the search for affordable and skilled talent now stretches to practically every location in the world. Except for countries in the grip of war or some major disaster, every nation has the opportunity to compete in the global market for skills.
Global demand for high quality, lower-cost BPO (Business process outsourcing) services, combined with operational and cost improvements in international telecommunications is allowing more and more countries to compete and participate for outsourcing projects.
The nations of Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia are doing their best to attract business to their countries. According to UNCTAD (United Nations Conference for Trade and Development), five countries accounted for 95 per cent of the total market for offshoring in 2004 — India, China, Canada, Ireland, and the Philippines.
Since then numerous countries have made inroads into the market, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore in Asia; Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania in Europe; and Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Mexico in Latin America.
The global market is experiencing geographical diversification as new locations compete and become viable for offshoring. This diversification is a result of multi-source strategies being adopted by service providers and by competition among destination countries.
The same search for talent is encouraging the movement of shared service centres and captive outsourcing operations from developed markets such as North America and Western Europe to new and emerging markets. Due to its time zone, South America has seen significant growth from North American corporations while Eastern Europe’s growth is fuelled from Western European Corporations.
The ICT/BPO industry in Bangladesh is relatively new in comparison to other business sectors. The Bangladesh government is well aware of what BPO- ICT has done for the Philippines, lifting it from abject poverty to be the second fastest growing economy in Asia after China with a growth rate of 7.8 per cent. In the Philippines it is generally agreed that every dollar that the country earns has a multiplier effect of 3 to 1, in Bangladesh that multiplier effect is 11 to 1.
The Bangladeshi workforce is traditionally renowned for their quick learning abilities. The workforce, especially, has historically strong abilities in mathematical and logical analysis processes. Bangladeshi students regularly appear as winners in a number of programming and mathematical competitions globally.
What is also helping is the reverse brain drain. There are lots of experienced and internationally experienced Bangladeshis repatriating home and really adding to the intellectual horsepower of the ICT-BPO community.
Bangladesh is unlikely ever to do better than India, the Philippines or the fast rising Mauritius across the entire range of outsourcing offerings, which also include all kinds of information-technology services. But the advantage of Bangladesh is that the world outsourcing market is shifting to non-voice knowledge processing from voice related low-end transactional-based activity. The good news for Bangladesh is that the future is visual and digital.
The Bangladeshi workforce has higher competencies in English compared to countries like China and Vietnam; however, the language proficiency is to some extent skewed towards professionals with better schooling. I am sure that there are many other things to consider including business grade English skills, and cross cultural training to improve ‘soft skills’ that need to be addressed very quickly so that Bangladesh can move forward while its window of opportunity is open.
As the demand side of Outsourcing shifts to non-voice back office work such as software development in animation, gaming and Big Data, the digital savvy young people in Bangladesh who have taken advantage of platforms like freelancer.com, Odesk, eLancer and Guru.com will come to the fore.
Currently, over 250,000 young Bangladeshis are actively participating and competing for employment and project opportunities offered by these platforms. It is estimated that 30,000 new ‘micro sourcers’ per month are joining these platforms and being rewarded with work and projects that see them earning more than they would in regular employment.
Many of these young people will be self-taught and thus there is a need for improving skills and proper training so that they can pitch for more complex and high-value work whilst at the same time offering quality. This is exactly where the global BPO industry is headed and Bangladesh can be a serious player with a digital-savvy workforce showcasing their visual and digital talents.
I believe that the Bangladeshi talents are better suited for visual communications like web design, web development, animation and other digital related skills. It’s part of the Bangladeshi DNA to be entrepreneurial, so why not encourage this inherent characteristic and let the market decide how it wants to use the new information super highway channels as have the micro sourcing group referred to above. In my view, Bangladesh would be best served by offering free internet high speed broadband access to its people and allowing people at the individual level to participate in the knowledge economy in any way that they see fit.
Recently Telstra (Australia’s biggest Telco) CEO David Thodey said that call centre jobs across a range of sectors will not exist in five years because of the surge in internet and smart phone applications.
Mr. Thodey said that he understood the “enormous costs” to local communities caused by taking away call centre jobs in Australia. “More and more you’ll use an application on your phone and you’ll use the web to interact with us, so the future of call centre jobs is less in the future,” he said. “We need to be more innovative, we need to create businesses in software, in innovation, in all those areas, and some of the other types of jobs we’ve had in the past just won’t be there,” he added.
When it comes to customer service, there will always be a role for a live conversation with a company representative. Yes, the rise of self-service options decreases the quantity of interactions that need a live conversation (as the tools get better and consumers get more comfortable with them).
But, there are always going to be cases where self-serve tools fall short, meaning, the transactions that end up with a live agent are going to be more complicated.
How much will automation impact the level of off-shored outsourcing and BPO? According to the Everest Group, North American companies believe automation gives them the ability to bring their work back on shore. A similar trend seems to be prevalent in the UK and Europe. Automation reduces the advantages brought about by labour arbitrage, where software robots are even cheaper than wages in developing countries.
The desire to bring work back onshore is being driven by companies that operate in highly regulated industries with substantial compliance requirements.
A recent study by Ilan Oshri, Professor of Globalisation and Technology at Loughborough University, highlighted how quite a number of US and UK companies had re-shored work in the past three years. These companies were leaving high volume transactional activity with offshore service providers but bringing higher-value elements back home.
The higher value tasks were those that were more likely to drive positive benefits to the corporation, while the simpler tasks are primarily lower-value, transactional rules-based activities.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) allows tasks and business processes normally done by humans to be automated. It’s particularly effective for tasks and processes that are repetitive, rule-based and of high volume. Tasks that are also generally great, candidates for outsourcing.
A software robot can cost around a tenth of a full time worker in the US, UK or Australian, or roughly a third of a full time worker in India. The marginal cost of additional software robots is minimal, if not zero.
In summary, there is a magnificent opportunity for Bangladesh to start to play to its strengths and become a serious player in BPO, by not trying to be a ‘Me To’ call centre ‘Voice’ player, but rather by unleashing the intellectual and entrepreneurial power of its young and tech-savvy workforce and looking for opportunities in the new and very fast growing digital sector.
If the government can play its part by making access to the internet free or very low cost, it will be rewarded by creating an environment that will create income for many of their citizens which in turn will create a trickle down multiplier effect for their economy.
The writer is the founder and former President of the Australian BPO Association. He is well recognised as one of the leading voices of the outsourcing industry and its role in facilitating outsourcing success throughout the Asia Pacific.