Now, outsourcing bug bites the US

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Economic Times on 1 January 2006

It is in the name of innovation that America’s biggest and brightest technology companies are outsourcing their most seemingly mundane processes to companies in places like and Delhi. What they fail to realise, however, is that the nations to which they are sending this work are not simply the beneficiaries of employment for mid-skilled labour; they are the future winners in the global contest for innovation leadership.

In short, America is keeping the jobs that unskilled, uneducated, and uninspired people can perform, and giving away the ones that encourage or demand thinking, self-improvement, and inventiveness. Rather than imitate or emulate America’s reluctance to learn technology from the inside out, the nations currently being asked to do what appears to be the technology industry’s grunt work must realise that, soon, they will be the only ones who understand how any of this stuff really works, and the ones holding the true keys to any future innovation.

While so-called first world nations are busy re-branding film content as videogames, repackaging Asian-made processors in new boxes, or finding new ways to charge for last decade’s pop music downloads, so-called developing nations are writing the code, manufacturing the chips, and even performing the customer service on all these goods and services. If anything, America’s workers and executives are taking on the role of surrogate consumers. They do focus groups and other research, then try to imagine what product people might want to buy. But that’s where it stops. Most of them have no skills to actually develop, code, or manufacture the thing.

Because computers and networking aren’t just new manufacturing technologies; they are also new media. Those who understand how they work are not mere labourers - they are also the only ones who know how to truly read and write in the new global society. Indeed, for the first time in the four centuries since the industrial age began, those who have mastered basic bricklaying - core processes and competencies - will be uniquely qualified to innovate for the future.

A truly new videogame, for example, will not be the result of some creative professional in Hollywood purchasing ancillary rights to a comic book character, but a programmer developing a new way to exploit the polygon engine in a game console. And that programmer will have to be someone who understands game development from the inside out.

Similarly, anybody spending time online can come up with a wish list of fantasy Internet applications. Only those who have spent hours familiarizing themselves with transfer protocols, packet switching, or data compression will be capable of marrying these dreams with the possible - or the yet-to-be possible.

This sort of expertise isn’t limited to manufacturing, but extends to customer relationships. Any company can throw a bunch of computer components into a metal box. Except for lowering margins, the only competitive advantage such a company can earn is through offering better customer service. Yet again, firms once famous for offering their own high quality tech support are now jobbing out this work to the phone banks of India.

American companies aren’t doing this because they’re stupid. They’re simply stuck in a business model forcing them to attend to the short-term needs of their shareholders rather than the long-term needs of their businesses. In order to keep next quarter’s profits maximized, they’ll hire cheaper labor abroad even if it means losing touch with the skills that used to define their advantage.

Computing and networking are different. Being a computer worker means being the person who knows how to program it or put it together - and thus the only person who knows how to innovate it further. Someone simply managing a computer company (or, worse, a dozen firms to which he has outsourced) is actually at the bottom of the competency hierarchy, absolutely dependent on others to tell him what is happening, what needs to be done, and what is even possible.

As an American, I can’t say I’m proud of the fact that my country’s managers are in the process distancing themselves from pretty much every industry capable of innovating new creative solutions to tomorrow’s high technology challenges. But as a fan of decentralization, I’m intrigued by what innovators from some other countries might do with the future while they are the ones in charge of defining it.

Winner of the first Neil Postman award for Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Rushkoff is an author, teacher, & documentarian