August 06, 2003

Language counts

WashTech, a technology worker's union from Washington State has received an audio file of a recent IBM-internal presentation about their plans to move many jobs offshore.

The gist of the presentation is: It's cheaper to use people overseas. Other companies are doing it. We have to as well (despite "significant employee relations concerns").

One thing that struck me as I was listening didn't have anything to do with offshore oursourcing, but instead with the decline of computer customer support service.

The suit in the audio repeatedly refers to "call center" functions.

If management's view of this function is, as this language implies, that it boils down to answering the phone, it's no wonder that getting someone to actually help you solve a problem via a customer support hotline is so hard.

I think this is the same phenomenon we've seen with the advent of the term "IT" (Information Technology) to describe what used to be system administration and user support.

When it looks like all an employee does is answer the phone or technologize information (whatever that was supposed to mean ;-), it becomes easy for some pointy-haired twit in his rosewood-panelled office to say "hey looka! those suckers over there will do that stuff for a third the money we're paying these whiners over here!"

I mean no disrespect for the workers in India and other locales who are picking up all this work. They're smart folks. They have good skills. But the other thing that's going to happen is that people who've been doing their jobs here for years will be asked to train their replacements in days. How much domain experience is going to get thrown out in this process? I expect to see the companies using these tactics churning around internally reinventing their product lines. You're going to see old problems coming back into products and new problems that would have been easily avoided by people who understood the application domain.

I'm not just making this up. Over on Joel On Software, Joel recently did a piece on finding real estate for his company in NYC. In that very interesting article, Joel talks about an exodus of companies moving from NYC out to the suburbs of Connecticut in the 50s and 60s studied by William Whyte [link to Joel's Amazon store -jy] who, in Joel's words:

...showed that these companies all tanked after the relocation. With, I believe, but one exception, companies that left New York City to be closer to the CEO's house in Connecticut or Westchester had dismal stock performance compared to companies that stayed in Manhattan.

The dismal stock performance probably came from the fact that when you relocate more than a couple of miles, some employees' lives would be too disrupted to make the move, so you lose a lot of employees, and all the institutional knowledge, skill, and experience that comes with those employees. While I was working at Viacom one of their companies, Blockbuster, decided to move from Florida to Texas after they hired a new CEO who lived in Texas! What a coincidence! Only a small portion of the employees made the move. For years and years the business press watched agog as Blockbuster made mistake after inexcusable mistake, re-trying all kinds of ideas that had failed only two years earlier.

Now would be a fabulous time for someone with deep pockets who's actually interested in producing useful products and giving gainful employment to smart people to hire up all this brain power that's being thrown away by the big dumb behemoth companies and get some products in the pipe that will be ready to pick up the slack when the IBMs and Microsofts start faltering in the wake of this miscalculation.

Posted by jeffy at August 6, 2003 01:04 PM