In India, globalization’s working 24/7

India 2005

By Michael Hirten

June 10, 2009

The road to the new world economy - a very bumpy ride for us Americans - is awful, absolutely awful.

It's four lanes wide, choked with ox carts, scooters, bicycles, busses, cars, trucks and people - anything and everything that moves.

Moves slowly, that is.

But just off the main road, whether in New Delhi, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) or Bangalore, and behind the guarded gates of sprawling California-style technology campuses, are the new engines of global commerce: electronic cities.

And their inhabitants are eyeing your job.

It's not personal; it's business, managed without regard to borders. This is the new and powerful realm of the modern, stateless corporation.

Some call it outsourcing. But the term doesn't fully capture the magnitude of the changes reshaping our world.

Most of our experience with outsourcing (unless we've lost a job) comes from telephone calls or computer messages to financial institutions or technical support centers in India, Ireland or the Philippines.

But this is only the veneer. Underneath, inside the gleaming office parks, are nimble, billion-dollar corporations ready and increasingly able to provide inexpensive, high-quality workers to businesses seeking to lower costs and increase profits.

Because that is every business on Earth, watch out.

During a two-week visit to India with the International Reporting Project, I met with the executives who own and operate some of India's biggest and most successful outsourcing firms. They are billionaires, and not by accident.

They recognize that the knowledge and information economy now operates at the end of a digital phone line or fiber-optic cable.

Their pitch is couched in the jargon of corporate speak, with terms like "leveraging existing assets," "mitigating risk" and "strategic differentiation."

But don't be fooled. Global business in developing countries such as India can marshal hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of highly skilled professionals who are just as competent, just as hard-working, as professionals here.

But they earn so much less.

A top engineer in India may earn the equivalent of $10,000 a year and have a very comfortable life. Here, that same engineer would earn $50,000 or more.

It's the same with other professions: doctors, accountants, software designers, information technology specialists and engineers of every specialty. In a tightly wired world, it is as easy to communicate with an expert in India or Manila or Moscow as it is with someone down the street.

During the 2004 campaign, the issue of outsourcing gained some traction. And clearly the threat of political backlash against lost American jobs worry service providers in India.

But the move toward freer trade, whether in goods or services, is too strong and the benefits too compelling to retreat.

What do you find in Wal-Mart or Target? Products made overseas - anything and everything. The quality is good and the price is low.

The same recipe applies to intellectual goods.

India, with its huge, well-educated, English-speaking, English-thinking middle class, is particularly well positioned to win in the global knowledge business.

Just a generation ago, the communications infrastructure was so creaky here you could barely get a telephone.

Now, who needs land lines?

Everything is digital, with fiber-optical networks linking even the smallest villages. Tie all of this to low-cost transcontinental cables and location doesn't matter.

Brains in Bangalore are ready and willing, 24/7.