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India pictures

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Closing out our entries from Laurie Bassi’s multi-week speaking trip around India, here are a few photos from her journey.

The “Maximizing Your Return on People” Tour…

Laurie discussing India’s economic future with “the man in the street” (or perhaps just negotiating the price for a mid-day snack)…

Lots of construction/building activity evident…

The colors of India were breathtaking…

India vs. China

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Who will be the next great economic superpower – India or China?  This is a topic of open and frequent debate in India. 

Indians summarize the major advantages that the Chinese have over them as (at least) threefold:  a controlled, orderly society; greater investments in infrastructure; and a large surplus of cash.

Indians, on the other hand, have a considerable language advantage (many more Indian people speak much better English than do Chinese people, a big advantage in a business world where English is typically the common language).  In addition, India has a much more under-employed economy, whereas labor shortages are already emerging in China

And then there is the issue of China’s much more controlled economy vs. India’s wildly chaotic economy.   (Indeed, some Indians openly yearn for a bit more Chinese-like control and planning in their economy.)

In the end, I think this last factor is the key that will determine which of the two economies will win the race to superpower status.   Will India achieve greater growth through chaos than China does through control? 

Still a lot of unknowns, but based on what I’ve experienced during my visit here, I’m placing my bet on India.

India – first-hand observations on offshoring

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The meeting was supposed to start at 9:00 p.m., but because of the horrific Bangalore traffic and other vagaries of India, it didn’t get started until 10:40.  No problem, our hosts assured us.  Their shift didn’t end until midnight, and there was another shift after that.

 We sat in the office of BrickWork India, talking with five bright, young, U.S-trained Indian entrepreneurs.  At some point during our meeting to learn about their business model, I got a glimpse of the impact that they and others like them will have on the US economy in the years and decades ahead.  It’s going to be huge and potentially disruptive.

I’ve written before on offshoring – in particular about Alan Blinder’s views that an additional 30-40 million U.S. jobs could potentially be lost to offshoring in coming years.  Sitting in the office of BrickWork India, I found myself wondering whether Blinder’s estimates were too low. 

These are impressively-trained folks, they know the American way, and they report they can solve some of your most vexing problems while you sleep:

– Working late to get a PowerPoint presentation perfected for a morning meeting?  No problem – pop it over to the folks in India, and they say they’ll have it waiting for you when you arrive in the morning. 

– Got some complex spreadsheet work that no one on your staff has the time or skills to tackle?  BrickWork has the necessary skills available.

– Need help getting your social media strategy to work?  The folks in India can knowledgeably handle just about every aspect of that for you for a fraction of what it would cost you in the United States.

– Just published a book and found that your publisher is not going to lift a finger to promote it?  The folks at BrickWork have a cost-effective solution for that too.

– Need a 3-D animation for a branding campaign that you are about to launch?  Handled.

Now does all this work as smoothly as described?  I haven’t tried it myself, so can’t speak from first-hand experience – but it’s certainly clear that companies like BrickWork India have a broad range of skills available.

And what’s particularly striking to me is the array of tasks that these folks can handle; they are going higher and higher up the skills spectrum. 

For example, it’s not just legal research that they can do for you (work that would typically be done by a paralegal or junior associate).  They can also handle a wide array of standard legal contracting issues and processes.  This work is done exclusively by lawyers in the United States.  In other words, Indian outsourcing is now beginning to reach into one of the most highly paid positions that requires years of post-graduate schooling.  It is, as Blinder would say, an “impersonal service” – one that can be delivered remotely with little if any loss of quality.  In this case, by US-trained lawyers working in India at a fraction of the price of their US counterparts. 

That’s a big deal if it can be deployed successfully.

India – advances for women

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Last week was a dramatic and important week for women in India.  On March 8 (International Women’s Day), the Upper House of Parliament narrowly failed to pass the “Women’s Reservation Bill.”  The bill is designed to reserve 33% of positions in gram panchayat (the village assembly, which is a form of local village government) for women.  But after a good deal of horse-trading, the bill was passed on March 9 – by a vote of 186 to 1!

The next day (I was in Chennai, India), the women with whom I spoke were absolutely ebullient.  They believe that having an increased presence of women in these assemblies will result in a significant shift in attention to the needs of the disadvantaged and downtrodden. 

In my first week here in India, I have been struck by the growing role that women are playing in “first-world” business.  Although they are still a minority and are significantly under-represented in senior positions, they are a visible and vocal presence.  But their role remains very tradition-bound in the villages.  And that is why this new legislation is so important.

In their beautiful saris and other forms of Indian dress, women here often look like jewels as they float down the dusty streets or congregate in the markets.  It is astonishing the degree of beauty and serenity that they add to the chaotic cacophony called India.  Even very poor women, working at construction sites, shoveling dirt into a bucket and then hauling it away on their heads, somehow do this in a sari that continues to look pretty darn good.

I marvel at their stamina, and what it must require of them to do all that they do: from working as the lowest-paid laborer, to raising their children, and feeding their families.  And there are literally hundreds of millions of them.  As this power begins to be unleashed, India will become an even greater economic power than it already is.  The potential is both evident and awesome.

India – views from the “man on the street”

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So here I am – with my Blackberry – in India (along with one-sixth of everyone else in the world). 

As a labor economist, one of my favorite ways to collect information on what’s happening wherever I might be is to ask taxi drivers.  They are “in the know” – they interact with dozens of people every day from all walks of life, and they have time to talk.  So from them you can get the well-informed view from the proverbial man on the street. 

This is especially true here in India, where the scope of traffic jams is truly astonishing.  So there’s plenty of time to talk, the drivers like to do so, and for the most part they speak pretty good English (which has major economic implications in and of itself).

So as I sit with them in the midst of polluted, congested streets in cities that have grown far too fast, I’ve been asking them all one simple question: is life better now than it used to be?  Without hesitation, their answer has been YES.  Then something of this sort invariably follows: “More people have jobs now, and wages are higher.  Life is getting better…”

Despite all the congestion and pollution, people are optimistic.  These problems – while very, very real – are, to some extent, symptoms of success.  And there are some hopeful and creative efforts underway (especially here in Mumbai, where I am at the moment) to deal with the city’s most severe problems (slums and pollution).

So there’s a strong sense that India is on the rise, with benefits that are evident and tangible to a great many of its billion people.  The country’s tourist slogan is INCREDIBLE INDIA. 

Indeed.

Liberating People Capabilities: Lessons from India

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Next week I’ll be taking my first trip to India, on a whistle-stop, five-city seminar tour.  In preparing for the trip, I had the good fortune to interview the SVP of HR, Mr. Mahalingam (“Mali” for short), at Symphony Services (a large India-based technology company).  I wanted to understand how his views of the “people side” of the business compared with that of HR folks here in the United States.

Mali said a few things during the course of the interview that really stuck with me, including:

  1. HR is not a strategic player.  HR IS the strategy.
  2. We are very focused on “liberating people capabilities.”
  3. We are investing extraordinary sums in employee training.
  4. We are acquiring technology companies in the U.S. and Europe.

Hmmm… I don’t think I’ve ever heard an HR VP in the U.S. say either #1 or #2.  That, in combination with #3, probably goes a long way to explaining #4. 

Unless you live your life under a rock, it’s not news that India is a rising super power.  But when you sit and think about the implications of what Mali is saying, you have to conclude that India’s capabilities may develop even faster than most of us had imagined. 

Stay tuned.  More observations from India to come…