Could This Work Anywhere Else?

Ilan Oshri

As I write this column, I am making my way back from Shanghai to Europe. My mind is occupied with thoughts about my visit to VanceInfo, a Chinese outsourcing vendor which is considered to be the Chinese Infosys. I visited two of their sites in China – one in Shanghai, which specializes in providing IT services, and another one in WuXi, which focuses on various BPO services. While at their Shanghai facility, I am impressed with the high standards and their client list, many Fortune 500 firms with operations in China. But then I think to myself, "Impressive, yes – but I have seen this before, in India, Brazil and Eastern Europe". I keep asking my hosts questions about employee motivation, their skills-base and well-being, only to discover that even these attributes have somehow standardized across the industry, regardless of the physical location of the vendor. My hosts suggest that we wrap up the visit at the Shanghai center and make our way to their Wuxi operations. I agree while thinking to myself that I would have preferred going to the French Concession quarter for a nice walk and a good meal instead – after all, it is a couple of hours drive to Wuxi and it is my last night in China.

On the way to Wuxi, my host explains that VanceInfo recently acquired Lifewood, an outsourcing outlet, and in fact Wuxi is one of Lifewood centers in China. When I asked about the line of BPO carried out in Wuxi, my host says: "Wait and see". I am getting curious, but prefer to relax for the rest of the trip.

When we get to Wuxi, my host takes me to the heart of their operations: a big room with 8 or 10 long tables on each side of the room. There are about 6 young Chinese on each side of these long tables, furiously typing on their keyboards while their eyes are fixated on the screen. OK, I think: what’s the big deal? Probably another BPO of some sort that requires data entry.

I politely ask: "What are they doing?" My host explains: "They are transcribing hand-written documents into templates. For example, this team is transcribing hand-written maintenance documents of a large airline in the far East". I get closer to the screen of one of the operators and after careful examination of the document I think to myself that it’s not an easy task as the handwriting is simply unreadable. As I am considering this, my mind drifts to thinking about the efficiency of such operations and the number of mistakes these young Chinese must be making as English is not their mother tongue and they are dealing with awful handwriting; how do they meet their targets?

As I consider how to frame my next question my host drops the bomb: "And they don’t know any English or any of the other European languages we transcribe here!". My first reaction is that it’s just not possible. My host senses my disbelief and suggests we go to the training room. In the training room we join 7 new recruits and their instructor. My host explains that the company recruits young Chinese who just finished high school, often from rural areas. There is ample supply of such young Chinese and they are clearly less expensive than University graduates. Prior to joining VanceInfo, they don’t speak or read any of the European languages this center is transcribing. So how do they figure out unreadable hand-writing and meet their targets? – some are in the thousands of keys typed per day!

At this point I am introduced to their training methods which include a booklet populated with letters that I find difficult to recognize. My host points at a letter and asks me: Which letter is that? I struggle, it looks like a "Y" but it is very curvy and there are more than 3 lines. In fact there are 8 curvy lines which make it even more confusing. It is an "X" my host says. Next, the instructor is testing the new recruits’ ability to recognize letters and words by projecting several examples on a big screen. I am struggling to recognize some of the letters or the words, but the new recruits seem to get them in most cases. So how does it work, I ask my host. How do you train a young Chinese in 2 weeks to transcribe handwritten documents in a language they never studied before?

My host, who is originally from India and has been living in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese, explains: "Chinese people learn their language by gradually acquiring more and more characters. The essence of the learning is the ability to visualize the character as a picture and recognize the patterns. By the time a young Chinese graduates from high school, they would have learnt close to 10,000 such characters (‘picture patterns’). It is different to how we in the Western world acquire a language, where reading is based on knowing letters and blending them into words. So what we do with our new recruits is simple: We introduce them to the European alphabet in the same manner as they were introduced to Chinese characters. We even developed our own representation of Roman letters that resembles Chinese characters, to help our new recruits relate to the Roman alphabet and to ease their learning process". I think about this approach and ask: "Do they learn how to read through this training?" My host says: "No, that is not the purpose of this training. We need them to recognize letters and words. If they make mistakes, the Quality Assurance team, which is more proficient in English, will pick these up and make corrections. We also use a team of language experts, based in Hungary, who watch such mistakes and build data dictionaries to improve the speed and accuracy over time".

I am still puzzled about the speed and accuracy of these operations so my host opts for a metaphor to explain how it works: "It is like playing Ping Pong. You play sub-consciously, the hand movements are controlled by the spinal chord not by the brain. So our operators are trained by professional Ping Pong players to experience this and apply it to data entry".

I am also introduced to their performance metrics, where they log the number of keystrokes per operator and how the team as a whole is doing, against their daily target. They also track the errors made by each operator at the end of the day. These parameters are important as they influence the operators’ compensation. All this data is available to each employee on a big screen, so they know, in real time, how they are measuring up against their targets.

By 9:15 PM we’d exhausted our host with questions and decided it was time to head back to Shanghai. As we drive through the streets of Wuxi towards the motorway, we see a group of girls from VanceInfo, just off their shift, walking to their nearby dormitories. I look at them and think that at least they don’t need to worry about being stuck in traffic on the way home.

The Professor’s Take-aways

  1. We keep talking about various barriers and obstacles that deter client firms from outsourcing work: One such obstacle is the command of the English language. True, some activities, like call centers, require such skill. But that is not always the case. When it comes to processing documents, the above story shows us that with creativity and proper execution, firms (and academics like myself) can move away from the mind-set that language is key. My suggestion is that instead of rejecting ideas to outsource on the basis of poor command of the language we should ask the question: what is the minimum requirement for language proficiency needed in order to ensure an effective service delivery?
  2. Be creative, no matter what the setting is. Always look for "out of the box" solutions, because you might find your "holy grail" waiting for you there. VanceInfo builds on the Chinese approach to learning a language in order to train young Chinese to recognize foreign letters and words. Have you considered what is unique about your sourcing setting and the characteristics of the people you recruit to unleash their productivity and creativity? What is your "ping pong" metaphor?
  3. Rethink what "talent" means for your operations. We tend to think that there should be a minimum requirement of skills to qualify for a particular job carried out in a service center. Many of us simply assume that we are always after the University graduates as the minimum requirement. But based on what I have seen in Shanghai and Wuxi, I say: We need to think again. Quite a few of the young Chinese in Shanghai who were developing software don’t hold a degree in computer science. They just moved up the ladder from IT support positions into software development. Similarly, quite a few of the Wuxi people who engage in higher level of transcription, on the edge of KPO, know little English and just have a high-school qualification. Clearly, going for the best talent is great, but sometimes it comes with unnecessary cost with little impact on the quality of the service.