Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Indians Are Coming

IN the Filipino imagination, when one hears the title being spoken, it would probably connote images of American-Indian braves riding down the hill and encircling a convoy of pioneers, shooting at them with their arrows as the settlers desperately try to defend themselves with their hunting rifles.

And then from out of the blue, to the sound of the bugles, arrive the cavalry to chase the bad guys and rescue the beleaguered pioneers to safety.

Today, however, it is Indians of the real kind who are coming.

Not the ones dressed in feathers and war paint, but those who actually come from the country of India.

They used to come to the West to work in its factories. Some arrived as health care professionals in search of greener pastures. But whatever they came as, they came for one thing—a better life. Then, India was a poor and absolutely difficult country to live in. People were escaping their poverty in droves, to the welcoming shores of the affluent West.

Today, they come with a different agenda.

No longer seeking the material comforts of faraway lands, they come to conquer. No, not conquest as in taking over countries and establishing dynasties or anything like that. They come to take over businesses, or establish their own in distant shores.

Forbes Magazine reports that the top 3 Indian billionaires are now worth more than their top 40 Chinese counterparts combined. And they go on further to say that in the world’s top 10, with the dollar going the way it is, there will soon be more Indian than American billionaires in the group.

This may not mean a lot to most people. After all, businessmen are businessmen, wherever they happen to be from.

Being Indian, American or Chinese may indicate more an accident of birth rather than anything of great significance, as they tend to share the same characteristics, drive and ambition, irrespective of where it is that they came from.

While this is partly true, it is not an entirely correct conclusion. It is significant that in today’s global economy, it is entrepreneurs from the erstwhile “Third World” who are advancing rapidly in terms of wealth and affluence.

It is even more significant for us Filipinos because the ones who are succeeding look and act more like us, than the white Westerners who used to be the ones we exclusively looked up to when it came to building and creating wealth.

When Lakshmi Mittal’s group took over France’s Arcelor, it was not unlike the braves riding down the hill and firing arrows at the hapless “les pioneers.” He came and delivered a clear and unequivocal message to France and the rest of the developed world-–our time has come, and we are here to stay.

And yet while Mittal Steel was busy snapping up France’s Arcelor, China’s Lenovo acquiring IBM’s PC business, and Reliance Industries rapidly expanding its portfolio of businesses overseas, our own Filipino conglomerates have been unusually insular, and sticking closely to the home front.

Alright, San Miguel is alive and well in Southeast Asia, Chow King now has outlets in many places in Jakarta, and the Indonesians now munch on the same Jack and Jill snack favorites that we used to enjoy as kids.

But these are nowhere near enough.

Encircling our wagons and waiting defensively for the braves to arrive does not anymore qualify as a viable and sustainable long term strategy.

In a world increasingly without borders, and in markets now devoid of nationalities, only those with truly great ambitions will succeed.

Published in Sun Star Daily, Saturday, November 17, 2007

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Ten Letters (Conclusion)

THE “Desperate Housewives” furor has compelled us to delay the conclusion of this series regarding our economy’s twin pillars of nursing and business process outsourcing (BPO) that we may weigh in with our views on the issue.

On reflection, the controversy that the episode generated has actually been a good opportunity to put the entire matter into perspective, and served as a reminder to our economic policy makers, just how fragile the foundations of our economy are at this present time.

As we have already discussed, cost and competence are key to maintaining our pre-eminent position, both in the export of healthcare, as well as the provision of BPO services.

Judging by our reaction to that offending line in the TV show, it seems that we are not as secure in the competence of our health workers as we ought to be.

If, for example, the criticism had been directed at the quality of say British, American or even South African health professionals, the comment would have probably passed relatively unnoticed. After all, why fret over something that is clearly untrue?

However, the fact that we collectively jumped up and down, and went to great lengths to demand a public apology from the show’s producers means we have ample reason to doubt our own true worth. We are clearly insecure, and not without good reason.

Judging by the Commission on Higher Education’s (Ched) own standards, the quality of our nursing education is greatly uneven across all providers. While there are clearly some outstanding institutions, there are also schools that are just riding the trend, and out to make a killing from the huge demand.

There is a very real danger that this could prove to be our undoing.

The scandal involving cheating during the nursing board examinations only proves that there are those nursing graduates who are not confident enough in their ability to pass the professional licensing examinations on their own merits, and had thus to resort to cheating to ensure that they do so. After all, to those who have undergone proper training, passing board examinations should not even be a major concern.

On the BPO front, though quality seems to be less of an issue, the means of ensuring it seem to be far from being the ideal solution.

In almost all call centers today, invariably most of the staff will be university degree holders, with some coming from the most prestigious of the country’s institutions. It is not uncommon, for example, for somebody coming from the University of the Philippines, De La Salle or Ateneo to be working in such places.

While this answers the need for quality in the short-term, by hiring “overqualified” staff into the industry, it is a problem in the long term.

Overqualified staff will clearly not be in it for the long-term, and will see this only as a short-term solution to a financial need, or further career advancement. Needless to say, in an industry where turnover is already high due to its nature, this creates an even higher staff turn, creating greater instability among the organizations concerned.

As for cost, call center operators with university degrees are likely not content to settle for subsistence wages for a long time.

The policy implications of these realities are clear.

Even as we need to train health professionals in even greater numbers, standards have to be better enforced than they are today, if those markets we currently serve are not to lose confidence in the skills of our exports. Today, this may be less of a concern as demand far outstrips supply, but this will not be so in the future.

As far as BPO is concerned, we have to stop relying on “over-qualification” as the means to ensure the workforce’s competence. Call center operators do not need to be university graduates (as they are not in most places around the world). Only if we strengthen our educational system across the board, can the BPO sector be assured of a constant supply of manpower that is fit for purpose, and happy to be where they are.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, November 03, 2007