Over the last decade in my quarter-century career as an IT Industry analyst, I focused extensively on the outsourcing of increasingly high-level IT functions to offshore employees. I examined, for example, how offshore tasks have evolved from basic maintenance of old, centralized, Cobol-based applications to the architecting of new-generation, distributed Java and .Net-based apps and a broad range of other high-level IT functions. I examined how application outsourcing evolved into business process outsourcing, in which offshore providers not only managed increasingly sophisticated processes (as from basic call centers though comprehensive financial and supply chain processes), but also developed deep expertise in architecting and transforming entire processes to make them more secure, accurate and efficient.
Although Application Outsourcing (AO) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) growth has (along with everything else in the business world) stalled over the last couple years, they promise to resume rapid growth as the recession ends and companies strive to institutionalize the efficiency gains achieved during the recession.
Emergence of KPO
However, the greater growth, and even greater workforce implications will come from a new generation of outsourcing—the outsourcing of a broad range of sophisticated knowledge-based processes in fields ranging from financial analysis and marketing management to legal research and the research and development of the newest generation of sophisticated IT, communication and pharmaceutical products. Even hip replacement and open heart surgery is now being outsourced!
This growth of Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO), which was originally launched on the promise of cost cutting, or “labor arbitrage”, is now being driven by something else—the rapid growth in education in emerging countries and the rapid decline in availability of developed country students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. It is simply becoming easier (not to speak of less expensive) to find, grow and mange such skills in emerging countries. (Note, that while the U.S. continues to lead the world in STEM PhDs, foreign-born students now account for more than half of all graduates. And since the U.S., through a combination of government policies and societal pressures, is making it increasingly difficult for foreign graduates to work in the U.S., more and more of these graduates are returning to their home countries—especially India and China—rather than contributing to the U.S. economy.
We have all seen, or at least heard of the rapid growth in offshore knowledge work:
- Virtually all of the major financial service companies have opened offshore financial analysis centers;
- All leading electronics and pharmaceutical companies have build large offshore research and development teams;
- Offshore hospitals, which perform increasingly sophisticated surgeries for 15-20% of the price of domestic hospitals—with free foreign vacations thrown in—are proliferating and U.S. insurance companies are increasingly referring patients to them.
These, however, are just the most visible tip of a revolution that has begun to touch virtually every aspect of knowledge work. And while the fruits of these offshore knowledge sources were traditionally available only to those very large corporations that had the resources, skills and patience to build and manage their own offshore centers, the emergence of third-party KPO providers is rapidly democratizing the offshore knowledge processing industry, making such services available to mid-size, as well as large firms.
The Emergence of KPO Service Providers
All of the leading Indian IT providers now offer some knowledge processing services. (Tata Consulting Services, for example, offers business intelligence and performance management services, Infosys provides legal research and litigation support services and Wipro is a leader in product engineering services). A growing number of Western outsourcing providers also provide KPO services. IBM BPO/KPO offerings include a broad range of horizontal (including supply chain management) and vertical (as for banking, insurance and healthcare) offerings. So too does Accenture, with cross-industry services including financial and human resource management and industry-specific, such as Clinical Trial Management and Pharmacovigilance.
But while most of the leading outsourcers have begun to enter this field, their progress and active marketing of these offerings has—not surprisingly—slowed during the recession. As of now, the industry remains dominated by business KPO specialists. Although there are a few multi-line KPO providers, such as Outsource2India, KPO Experts and Evalueserve, the vast majority are specialists. More than 300 Indian firms already provide horizontal or industry-specific vertical services in fields including legal research and litigation support (Lexadigm), market research (Progonsys), business analytics (C-BIA) to architectural and drafting (Indovance) services.
Although the vast majority of the larger providers focus on providing business services to large or mid-sized companies, the Internet, combined with the emergence of third-party offshore service intermediaries, are now making KPO services available to very small businesses (as for Web design and accounting) and even individuals (such as for English and math tutors to personal assistants).
But, when you talk about business KPO providers, the discussion should begin with Evalueserve, one the first and largest of India’s multi-line KPO providers. My next blog (February 28 blog) will look specifically into the growth of Evalueserve and the range of services it provides. My March 7 blog will examine the implications for U.S. corporations and knowledge workers and what students and employees can do to “outsource-proof” their careers.