The world moves on these days faster than you can say salut or ciao. Just last year, learning Chinese was all the rage in India. Yes, you can still do it and it will give you a leg up in the job market. But it’s a knowledge of European languages that seems to be the flavour of the season.
The reasons are many. First, as salaries in India increase, Eastern Europe begins looking more attractive. More importantly, a wave of European jingoism is sweeping the EU. Its public face is the differential treatment for European and Asian doctors. But it’s becoming evident elsewhere too.
Increasingly, companies are opting to outsource to countries like Romania and Poland rather than India. According to an A.T. Kearney survey, central and eastern Europe are very attractive destinations. The Czech Republic is in the Top 10 (see chart), while Bulgaria (15), Slovakia (16), Poland (18) and Hungary (19) are keeping it company in the Top 20.
Plus, of course, there is a question of markets. Indians may be well up on English, but a large part of the world speaks French or Spanish. Voice operations in these languages are easier to handle from Europe.
Knowing French, Spanish or German will, of course, make it easier to get jobs. But there is more to it than just that. In an earlier age, Indian BPO companies would have faded away after their hour of glory. Today, they are aggressively setting up operations in Eastern Europe or trying to take over established units.
India’s largest BPO, Genpact, has set up centres in Hungary and Romania. Wipro is all set to start in Romania. And Progeon, the BPO arm of Infosys, is also eyeing these markets.
“Look at it this way,” says the CEO of one of these companies. “When any company sets up a unit in one of these countries, it will have to send some of its Indian staff to start operations. If you know the language, you start off with a huge plus.”
The sceptics will ask the obvious question: yesterday it was China, today, it is Romania; how many languages can one reasonably learn' Besides, if you are a linguist of such ability, surely you have better things to do than fiddle around in a BPO.”
The CEO of a software development centre of an IT major has this reply: “When the China office started, I was sent to China because I had picked up some Chinese. When the Japan office started, I was sent there too. I knew a few words of Japanese. But, more importantly, I had acquired the experience of setting up an office in a new geography. Today, I’m an obvious choice if anything new is planned.”
HR professionals in the BPO sector warn that if we keep on tomtoming our English skills, we run the danger of losing out large swathes of the world. Companies themselves aren’t sitting back. Even the industry associations are becoming proactive. The National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) has signed a deal with SACCCOM (South African Contact Centre Community).
The industry is not going to lie back and allow others to trample all over it, says the CEO quoted earlier. “Most Indians know at least three languages. Add a fourth and you’ll have a full four-wheel drive. You’ll go places.”