The New Economics of Outsourcing

Efforts to send IT work anywhere but Bangalore are taking on added urgency as costs of doing work in India rise and the dollar sinks

Softtek, a Monterrey (Mexico) provider of IT services, added 30 new clients last year. Most of them had been using Indian firms for at least part of their outsourced IT. But they came to Softtek because they "were looking for something else," says Beni Lopez, CEO of nearshore services for the company, which has operations around the world.

Companies that traditionally rely on India for offshore IT services have been looking for that something beyond India for years, citing such reasons as high employee turnover and unreliable communications. But the search has taken on added urgency recently, especially for U.S. companies, as a weakening dollar has boosted the cost of IT services priced in India's rupee. Over the past five years the dollar has declined about 16% against the rupee. High real estate costs and expectations for tax increases also have diminished India's allure.

As outsourcing to India becomes more expensive, North American companies are more inclined to "nearsource," keeping work in the Western Hemisphere, where they can operate in a closer time zone. In years past a company could save 40% to 50% by hiring Indian firms to handle IT and other services, says Atul Vashistha, chairman at neoIT, a management consulting firm. Should the U.S. dollar continue its descent, that differential would shrink to 10% to 20%, he estimates. "If you're only going to have a 20% savings, clients start to think about time zone," Vashistha says.

Argentina's Time Zone Advantage

Kimberly-Clark (KMB) had time zone in mind when it hired Cognizant Technology Solutions in Buenos Aires to handle tech support for its SAP (SAP) software applications.

Kimberly-Clark was drawn by the available talent and the fact that the company has Argentine operations but also because geographical proximity and similar time zones make collaboration easier. "We picked Buenos Aires for a number of reasons, but we really felt from supporting SAP, it was the right place to be," says Kimberly-Clark Chief Information Officer Ramon Baez. The company also outsources application development and maintenance to Cognizant in Chennai, India.

How much longer the world's companies will have financial incentive to outsource to India is a matter of lively debate. India's "advantage as an offshore location is fast eroding—its attractiveness takes a hit with each passing day," analysts at Forrester Research (FORR) wrote in a January, 2008, report. Forrester catalogued some of the well-known challenges, such as increasing staffing costs, turnover and strained infrastructure (, 12/11/06). Yet, there are newer challenges as well, including the falling dollar and expected tax revisions that may increase the cost of relying on outsourcing providers.

India's Cost Differential Fast Eroding

Contracts are written in dollars, and as much as 60% to 80% of Indian service providers' revenue is in U.S. dollars, but more than half of their costs are incurred in rupees, according to an October report from Forrester. Indian outsourcing powerhouses like Wipro are feeling the squeeze. They've strived to cut costs, and now they're raising prices to keep margins from narrowing further. "We are relentlessly driving for higher pricing for our services and have seen price increases from our customers in the range of 3% to 6%, and our new customers are coming in at around 5% higher than our average," Wipro Chairman Azim Premji said on a conference call with investors on Jan. 18.

Duke University professor Arie Lewin estimates that the benefit of doing business, from a labor-cost point of view, in such locales as Bangalore, India, will disappear for some companies in three to four years. That's due to a combination of dollar depreciation, wage inflation, and other costs. Others say it will take longer. "Costs are escalating, so the level of labor arbitrage isn't as great as it used to be, but that's not to say labor arbitrage is disappearing, nor will it disappear in the next 10 years or so," says Sid Pai, partner and managing director of TPI India, a sourcing advisory firm.

Indeed, while costs are increasing in India, the country is generally less expensive than Latin America and most other locations, especially for companies that don't require high-end software developers. The average annual salary for an IT worker in the U.S. is about $75,000, according to a late 2007 report by Alsbridge, an outsourcing consulting firm. In India it's about $7,779 and in Argentina, it's slightly higher at $9,478. In Brazil, the annual wage jumps to $13,163, and in Mexico it climbs to $17,899. "The bottom line is that there aren't great alternatives with the scale, quality, price structure, and the lack of risk of India," says Stephanie Moore, vice-president at Forrester.

Spreading Out Work In Several Nations

Even Lopez acknowledges that Latin America can't approximate India's scale. Mexico, for instance, has about 500,000 IT workers and graduates an additional 65,000 each year. Last year in India there were more than 1.6 million IT workers employed; an additional 495,000 graduate each year, according to NASSCOM, an IT trade group in India. Instead, Lopez envisions Mexico and the rest of Latin America acting as a complement to India and other offshore locations.

Recognizing that it may not be a good idea to locate all outsourcing in one country, or even a single region, many companies spread work among several sites. On Mar. 31, Royal Dutch Shell announced a $4 billion outsourcing arrangement. The oil company awarded about one-fourth of the total to Electronic Data Systems (EDS), which over five years will handle computing services for 150,000 users in more than 100 countries. The bulk of the work will be done in 4 places, the Netherlands, Britain, Malaysia, and the U.S. While EDS has thousands of workers in India and some of the work could possibly be done there, the company is actually hiring 1,000 workers in Malaysia for this project, an EDS spokesperson says.

Increasingly, companies want a provider that can nimbly shift tasks and labor among its own global network of work centers. "The real question, if you're going to sign onto somebody for five to seven years, is do they have a vision for how they're going to move work around the network," says Kevin Campbell, group chief executive for outsourcing at Accenture (ACN). With more than 40 centers, Accenture has the ability to shift work as market demands change (BusinessWeek, 4/23/07).

Brazil is a Beneficiary

Indian providers, including Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Wipro, and Infosys Technologies are trying to build similar global networks as well. TCS made the decision to move into Latin America about six years ago and now has 5,571 workers in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay. TCS serves customers such as General Motors (GM), Goodyear (GT), and Motorola (MOT) from the region.

"Two-thirds of our customers use more than one location," says Gabriel Rozman, executive vice-president for emerging markets at TCS, adding that after the terror attacks of September 11, many U.S. companies realized the risk of outsourcing to only one location. Still, while the U.S. dollar has held fairly steady against the Mexican peso and Argentine peso in the past five years, it's dropped nearly 49% against the Brazilian real and nearly 39% against the Colombian peso. "We're not in great shape with [some] currencies in Latin America either," says Rozman.

The dollar's decline aside, even Brazilian firms are benefiting as companies spread their outsourcing around. "We're seeing increased demand, and it has been accelerating in the past three months," says Alvi Abuaf, president of North America for CPM Braxis. He says that the labor pool of IT workers is about 1 million in Brazil and growing at about 100,000 per year. Like Softtek, CPM Braxis positions itself as a complementary service to India. Adds Abuaf: "Latin America has been overlooked over the past two decades, but companies are realizing there is a viable alternative, and it's more viable today than it was before."

Already, Softtek is moving global delivery centers into smaller Mexican cities in an effort to avoid the competition for talent happening in places like Monterrey and Guadalajara. "The demand for talent is going to get bigger and bigger in the next five to eight years," says Lopez.

For more, see BusinessWeek's slide show.

Business Exchange related topics:Mexico BusinessIndia Offshore OutsourcingGlobal OutsourcingGlobalizationInformation Technology Expenses

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