Bangladesh’s ‘Virtual Talent’ is its opportunity

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Martin Conboy

By Martin Conboy

Notwithstanding the recent terrible tragedies inflicted on the citizens of Bangladesh by the criminals associated with ISIS, the world cannot abandon one of the poorest countries in the world. Now more than ever Bangladesh needs international support and friendship.

International companies should still come to Bangladesh to do business, but they must do business in a fair way, in an ethical way that helps the country. Unlike the garment industry that is manually intensive and mostly women with little or no education, the outsourcing sector attracts well-educated people and pays much higher wages comparable with competing ICT/BPO nations like India and the Philippines.

The Bangladeshi workforce is traditionally renowned for their quick learning abilities. The workforce, especially, has historically strong abilities in mathematical and logical analysis processes. Bangladeshi students regularly appear as winners in a number of programming and mathematical competitions globally. “STEM” is the new global outsourcing buzzword. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

There are clouds on the horizon and alarmingly the offshore model for competitive advantage will be obsolete by 2018 as 43% of outsourced services leverage smart machine technologies – Gartner, a leading international research house.

Gartner says that for more than a decade, the use of offshore business models has been a “go to” option in sourcing strategies, but the analyst firm now maintains that the rise of smart machines will send organisations “back to the drawing board with regard to their long-standing arsenal of sourcing approaches”.

“Smart machines are not future fantasy, they are commercially available. According to Gartner’s analysis of external sources, more than US$10 billion have already been purchased through more than 2,500 technology companies,” said Frances Karamouzis.

“For the business and IT services industry, this translates to a new source of fuel for the industry – namely ‘virtual talent’. It’s faster, cheaper and more predictable.”

The industry association for the outsourcing industry (BACCO) has been tireless in its efforts to carve out a niche for its fledgling outsourcing industry and the recent terrorist setback will only spur them on to try even harder to get a seat at the international BPO table.

Though India and the Philippines dominate the IT-outsourcing, BPO (Voice) and shared services markets, the search for affordable and skilled talent now stretches to practically every location in the world. Except for countries in the grip of war or some major disaster, every nation has the opportunity to compete in the global market for skills even Bangladesh.

Global demand for high quality, lower-cost BPO services, combined with operational and cost improvements in international telecommunications is allowing more and more countries to compete and participate for outsourcing projects. Numerous countries have made inroads into the market, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore in Asia; Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania in Europe; and Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Mexico in Latin America.

The ICT/ BPO industry in Bangladesh is relatively new in comparison to other business sectors and the Bangladesh government is very well aware of what BPO- ICT has done for The Philippines, lifting it from abject poverty to be the second fastest growing economy in Asia after China with a growth rate of 6.8%.

Bangladesh’s opportunity is that the world outsourcing market is shifting to non-voice knowledge processing from voice related low-end transactional-based activity. The good news for Bangladesh is that the future is ‘virtual’ and its visual and digital.

The Bangladeshi workforce has higher competencies in English compared to countries like China and Vietnam; however, the language proficiency is to some extent skewed towards professionals with better schooling. I am sure that there are many other things to consider including business grade English skills, and cross cultural training to improve ‘soft skills’ that need to be addressed very quickly so that Bangladesh can move forward while its window of opportunity is open.

Interestingly the Philippines government recently signed into law Republic Act 10844 creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), thus giving the BPO/ICT sector a seat at the executive table of government.

The DICT is mandated to formulate and implement policies that will promote the development and use of BPO/ ICT, establish a free internet service that can be accessed in government offices and public areas, and protect the rights and welfare of consumers and business users to privacy, security and confidentiality in matters relating to ICT, among others. I would encourage the government of Bangladesh to do something similar.

As the demand side of outsourcing continues to shift to non-voice back office work such as software development in animation, gaming and Big Data, the digital savvy young people in Bangladesh who have taken advantage of platforms like freelancer.com, Odesk, eLancer and Guru.com will come to the fore.

Currently over 300,000 young Bangladeshis have voted with their feet and are actively participating and competing for employment and project opportunities offered by these freelancer platforms. It is estimated that 30,000 new ‘micro sourcers’ per month are joining these platforms and being rewarded with work and projects that see them earning more than they would in regular employment.

Many of these young people will be self-taught and thus there is a need for up skilling and proper training so that they can pitch for more complex and high-value work whilst at the same time offering quality. This is exactly where the global BPO industry is headed and Bangladesh can be a serious player with a digital savvy workforce showcasing their visual and digital talents.

I believe that the Bangladeshi talents are better suited for visual communications like web design, web development, animation and other digital related skills.

It’s part of the Bangladeshi DNA to trade and be entrepreneurial, why not encourage this inherent characteristic and let the market decide how it wants to use the new information super highway channels as have the micro sourcing group referred to above. In my view, Bangladesh would be best served by offering free Internet high speed broadband access to its people and allowing people at an individual level to participate in the knowledge economy in any way that they see fit.

Bangladesh needs to be more innovative, there is a need to create businesses in software, in innovation, in all those areas some of the other types of jobs that were mainstream had in the past just won’t be there.

Bangladesh needs to become a STEM outsourcing destination

A recent study by Ilan Oshri, Professor of Globalisation and Technology at Loughborough University in the UK, highlighted how quite a number of US and UK companies had re-shored work in the past three years. These companies were leaving high volume transactional activity with offshore service providers but bringing higher-value elements back home.

In summary, there is a magnificent opportunity for Bangladesh to start to play to its strengths and become a serious player in BPO, by not trying to be a ‘Me To’ call centre ‘Voice’ player, but rather by unleashing the intellectual and entrepreneurial power of its young and tech savvy workforce and looking for opportunities in the new and very fast growing virtual digital sector.

If the government can play its part by making access to the Internet free or very low cost they will be rewarded by creating an environment that will create income for many of their citizens which in turn will create a trickle down multiplier effect for their economy.

[Martin Conboy is the founder and former president of The Australian BPO Association. He was voted into the top five most influential and respected people in the global outsourcing industry in Nov 2014. He is well recognised as one of the leading voices of the outsourcing industry and its role in facilitating outsourcing success throughout the Asia Pacific.]


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