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NOT ALL MNC BACK-OFFICES ARE SWEATSHOPS

Backroom boys
Q. What on earth would prompt anyone in his senses to quit a job with a company like Andersen in times like these?

A. A better job.

WHEN 24-year-old Vikram Suri walked out of Andersen a few months ago, he joined Evalueserve, which had just opened shop to service high-end back-office operations. Suri is just one among several optimists who are betting that the future lies behind the scenes.

Backing this belief are figures generated by Nasscom research, which show that back-office operations raked in Rs 950 crore and employed 15,000 people last year. Estimates for this year are pegged at Rs 1,350 crore and 19,000 jobs. "Clearly, if the nineties were marked by the migration of software professionals from the East to the West, this decade should see the shift in business processes and jobs from the West to the East," says K. Pandia Rajan, managing director, Ma Foi Management Consultants.

"Inclusive of all high-end activities like technical writing, R&D and design centres, the industry could provide 50,000 to 60,000 jobs in the near term," he adds.

And the revenue involved is not insignificant either. Michael Dertouzos, director, MIT Laboratory of Computer Science, US, anticipates that if roughly 50 million English-speaking Indians put their mind to "office work proffered across space and time", they could each earn $20,000 a year. This makes a total of $1 trillion– twice the current GDP!

The inside story
What is it? Back-office work refers to the non-core activities that a company outsources to stay focussed on its main line of business. But these functions are not inconsequential as the term may mislead you to think. While jobs at the bottom of the ladder involve tasks like data entry, hotel reservations, airline ticketing and service centre activity, there are plenty of high-end jobs as well, like data verification, claims processing and after-sales and in-house administrative support. At the high-end, there’s also demand for ‘specialised’ skills like legal transcription, medical records management, payroll processing, research, and technical writing.

Why India? As more corporations begin to focus on their core competence, all secondary business is being delegated. "Purely transactional and peripheral activities can be outsourced," says Sanjiv Pallikal, managing director, Reach Management Consultants. It is evident that India’s vast pool of English-speaking and skilled manpower will continue to be a big draw.

More important, in a recession, Western economies will try to cut costs wherever they can. And costs here–fixed and variable–are much lower than in the West. Needs no genius, then, to know why companies in the US and Europe are willing to transfer their business processes here.

The signs. MNC banks like American Express, ABN-Amro and HSBC have already set up units. Housed in a sprawling 85,000 sq ft complex in New Delhi, the Amex Financial Centre-East (AEFC-East) was set up in 1995 and provides financial processing to Amex businesses across the world. "From 600 employees in 1998, we are more than 1,000 today, and we expect the number to grow steadily," says the centre’s official spokesperson.

Similarly, Stanchart proposes to recruit close to 2,000 people for its back-office operations over the next 18 months. HSBC, which employs 650 people in two centres in Hyderabad, will take on another 550 by end-2001. Most other MNC banks have similar plans, with the World Bank the latest to set up a back-office unit in Chennai.

The openings. While banking and financial services will doubtless dominate this sector, big names in other industries are also in the picture. Ford Business Services Centre (FBSC) in Chennai, for instance, handles the receivables, reconciliations, and accounts payables for Ford’s worldwide operations.

Independent outfits are mushrooming too. Mumbai-based eFunds International has four centres which service companies in the US in areas as diverse as data entry, revenue accounting, customer data maintenance and call centres. "We are growing fast and will be recruiting on an annual basis over the next few years," says Raju Bhatnagar, vice-president, business process management, eFunds. Chennai-based Ajuba Solutions, with 225 employees on board, plans to add at least a 100 more by the year-end.

At the higher end is a company like Evalueserve. With 60 employees, this Gurgaon-based company with marketing offices in the US and Europe offers knowledge-driven consultancy, and has clients in areas like insurance, banking, venture capital, market research and biotechnology.

Your resume
The qualification. The academic qualification depends on the nature of the job. The thumb rule is that for ‘routine’ functions, companies look for graduates or post-graduates with a couple of years’ experience. However, FBSC for one prefers to recruit freshers at the entry-level so that they can be suitably trained in-house.

Companies that offer ‘specialised’ services look for technically-trained personnel. For example, Barry Wehmiller International Resources, a global leader in packaging, employs diploma-holders or graduates in mechanical engineering for its back-office design centre here.

Evalueserve specialises in expert knowledge services like custom business process and research. "These knowledge services require a high acumen for analytics and problem solving. We look for undergraduates in engineering and post-graduates in management from the premier colleges," says Ashish Gupta, country head and vice-president (operations), Evalueserve.

Equally important could be social skills. Says Jaya Awasthi, head of HR and training at Evalueserve: "Client management skills are important as 20 per cent of our operations staff has direct customer interface." Interestingly, a majority of back-office outfits do not ask for high-end software skills. Plain-vanilla computer knowledge is considered an advantage, while domain knowledge is an added value.

For entry- and team leader-level recruitments, written tests are held to measure your aptitude for logical thinking, data analysis and problem solving.

The training. By and large, it’s on-the-job training given by individual employers. With customer interface across continents the main business, overseas rules and regulations, and process and client management are the main training areas. Minal Chavali, a company secretary, joined Ajuba Solutions as analyst after four years in ITC and two years overseas. "For me, the challenge came from handling high volumes in data analysis with speed and efficiency," she says.

Chavali and her team also undertook a rigorous in-house course on overseas medical insurance. "We were made to learn the procedures and systems right from when a person goes to the doctor till his claim is processed. We learnt where we fit in, our job and responsibilities," she says.

Some companies also send employees for short-term training to the parent company abroad. At Barry Wehmiller, most field engineers and assistant managers are trained for three-six months overseas.

The hierarchy. Organisational structures are flat with few managerial layers. There is usually a team leader who manages anywhere between 10 and 30 people, and it typically takes two-three years to make it to that level.

An assistant manager or senior team leader is akin to the traditional supervisor, production and quality control manager rolled into one. The onus of putting systems in place, delegating work, keeping error rate low, and improving speed and efficiency is on this level. Typically, this means five to 10 years’ experience. Krishna Kumar, a commerce graduate, joined Barry Wehmiller six years ago after working with a publishing company. He now heads the "expert system" division, which basically prepares problem-solving software tools for field engineers.

At senior levels, management expertise is required to facilitate trans-border migration of business processes. With 15-20 years’ experience, employees at this level are quality- and process-oriented, good at people management, and can handle international businesses with all its cultural nuances. Romi Malhotra heads the Global Shared Services Centre in Stanchart today; his earlier job entailed setting up GE centres in India.

Your payback
Remuneration. Salaries compare favourably with other industries. "On an average, it could range from Rs 60,000 per annum at the operative level to Rs 12 lakh per annum (cost to company) at the cross-functional manager level," says Pallikal.

Of course, highly specialised services like the knowledge centres and research outfits employing Ph.Ds pay salaries ranging from Rs 2 lakh per annum to Rs 25 lakh-plus. Employers like the World Bank pay tax-free salaries.

Pays also vary within the same level, based on experience and the complexity of work. "For instance, simple data entry by a fresher would be substantially different from handling collection for delinquent accounts," says Bhatnagar.

More important, pays and incentives are strongly linked to performance. With Fortune 500 companies among their clients, these businesses have tested carrot-and-stick systems in place. For good performers, vertical mobility is fast and satisfying. "Associates (which is the entry-level position) are expected to take on leadership positions within two years of joining," says Gupta. Sumeet Chander, a PG diploma-holder from IIM, worked for four years in services marketing in the UK and India before joining Evalueserve as senior associate. Within three months, he was promoted to team manager.

For Anil K. Sehgal, a qualified chartered accountant and now team leader at AEFC-East, what’s been most satisfying is the work culture. "Interacting with overseas companies and a pool of professionals makes the work environment stimulating," says Sehgal.

Job mobility. Contrary to the belief that back-office operations restrict horizontal job mobility, HR service providers are upbeat. "With the industry slated to be the next wave in IT solutions, more companies are likely to enter the arena," says Rajan.

Also, as a source in ABN-Amro points out: "Backroom operations of MNCs have produced fine managers." The experience of working in an MNC and learning its processes add value to your resume, which other industries might be willing to pay for. "The challenge for the employee lies in upgrading skills or ensuring multi-skilling, so that he acquires individual worth and value over a period of time," advises Pallikal. Says Pradeep Bhutani, commerce graduate and team member at AEFC-East for five years: "It’s as strenuous and demanding a job as any other, but it’s been a learning experience for me. There is enough growth within the organisation, and other such companies are also looking for accounting professionals."

Agrees Bhatnagar: "In an outsourcing firm, an employee is quite likely to be handling back-office work for two completely different industries, say mutual funds and insurance. This enables him to gain knowledge in two areas, which not only broadens his horizons but creates openings for him in those domains." As Vikram Suri of Evalueserve says: "Learning and exposure always drew me to consulting, and here, it’s consulting-plus."

The downside. The challenge of working with overseas companies is often accompanied by high pressure. Lower-end jobs call for speed in repetitive tasks. "We can’t take a break during work hours," says an employee with a leading MNC bank. Working with international clients means late hours or shift duty.

Higher on the ladder, an important aspect of the job is that one might have to work across a wide spectrum of services. While this adds to your career profile and learning curve, it calls for hard work and effort not quite comparable with the regular corporate world. "Employees take on these jobs lured by the MNC tag, and in a few months, some are back looking for ‘cooler’ avenues," says a spokesperson from a leading placement agency.

But if you are willing to pick up the gauntlet, it looks like boom time for back-offices, and you could be getting in at just the right point. n

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With Narayan Krishnamurthy in Delhi