Q&A: Oscar Sañez, CEO, Business Processing Association of the Philippines
SSON: Oscar, what is the purpose of BPA/P, and how does the Association operate to achieve that purpose?
Oscar Saòez: The Business Processing Association of the Philippines was created in 2004 by members of the BPO industry, in order to present a single face of the industry to the world. Prior to this, there were several organisations that had been representing various sectors in offshoring and outsourcing in the country. It was apparent that there was a strong need to have a single industry body representing all the interests of these organisations in terms both of marketing the industry externally, and internally to be able to address many of the common challenges and opportunities that the industry was facing at that time. So there was an effort to consolidate several of these small organisations, and a single umbrella organisation – BPA/P – was formed.
Quickly after that the BPA/P board elected to create a full-time management team to do a couple of things: one, to develop and own a strategic plan to guide the growth of the industry short- and long-term; and the second was to have a fully dedicated team to be the leaders responsible for getting all the stakeholders committed to executing the strategic plan as it was developed. This is now called the "roadmap" for the industry which BPA/P is leading and working on with all the stakeholders.
SSON: BPA/P is running a successful scholarship program for advanced post-graduate training. Can you tell us a little about this and why it will benefit foreign companies looking to source to the country?
OS: Basically the BPA/P roadmap covers three major subjects, of which talent development is one. The scholarship programme falls under the initiative of ensuring talent development sustainability over the next several years, and is a programme that we have created in partnership with the government. We found there was a significant segment of the graduate pool that needed some kind of a completion course or supplementary training programme to ensure that we have a large available pool of talent, particularly in a couple of areas: English-language proficiency; and IT proficiency.
The industry tested a training programme a year ago to supplement the recruitment programme that was already in place. We had a very good experience with supplementary programmes that were being run in vocational schools as well as in independent training companies that were members of BPA/P. We approached the government and asked for support so we could train a lot more young people into the programme and convert them into full-time hires. The government responded positively by providing a budget of close to $10million this year, to be able to train about 50,000 young people into the programme: of course we don’t foresee all of them passing the completion course but at least 40,000 should pass and therefore get recruited into our pool this year, so if we’re able to convert them into full-time employment that is at least 40,000 additional available to us.
SSON: You’ve mentioned a degree of official support there: how closely does BPA/P work with the Filipino government?
OS: We work very closely and very collaboratively with the government, particularly on three levels. One is with the educational agencies of government, and the scholarship programme is a good example of how we have collaborated with TESDA [Technical Education & Skills Development Authority] which is the vocational institute government body coordinating group which works with us in providing supplementary training for young people here.
Another agency that we work with is the Board of Investments, which is the government’s investment-promotion group, as well as the attached agency to that which is the Philippine Economic Zone Authority: the body which supervises the IT parks for setting up BPO sites in the country. What we have done with them is work together on streamlining our investment promotion processes, including trade missions abroad as well as with investors who come to the Philippines, so we have a simplified communication process – a one-stop-shop mechanism if you will – so that when investors come in we have the private sector (which is BPA/P) working closely with key representatives of the board of investors on our overall presentation of industry opportunities. This is done very well; we have received a lot of positive responses.
Then lastly we work with the Office of the President through the Commission of ICT. This is the government body that coordinates with various telecommunications and software companies to support the overall regional development of what the government calls the Cyber Corridor: the ICT infrastructure which links Manila with the rest of the key cities in the country. Part of what we have in the roadmap is a way in which we can accelerate the development of new sites for expansion of BPO companies outside Manila, and we’re able to work with various ICT bodies within local government councils outside Manila to prepare them for investment. These ICT councils have simplified for us the work in getting all the key stakeholders in one place; property developers, the telco companies in each region, local government units and academia are able to work together to create new sites for expansion - and get investors to consider these places as potential new sites. So we have worked very closely with government on this effort and it’s given us a lot of positive gains for investment promotion.
SSON: So significant collaboration with government – but BPA/P is a purely private-sector organisation?
OS: We are purely a private sector group consisting of BPO players themselves as well as key vendors in the industry. The support we’re getting from government is more for collaboration and coordination, as well as the scholarship support - which is not only financial support, but also the way by which we are able to distribute scholarship vouchers to young people: the government then reimburses them directly on those expenses.
SSON: Moving on: the BPO sector in the Philippines is a great success story - but it’s not all plain sailing. What do you see as being the biggest challenges to the sector and how do BPA/P and big industry players intend to overcome or avoid those challenges?
OS: OK. There are a couple of big ones as far as we’re concerned. Firstly, though we have been able to successfully promote the Filipino BPO industry because of our available talent and the quality of our talent, we’d like to be able to accelerate our growth and the big challenge for us is how fast we can make our talent available in front of us because of the remarkable growth-rates that we have seen and will continue to see over the next few years. There is a big, straining demand for talent and we would like to make sure that we’re able to sustain that talent both in terms of quantity and quality - and not only in Manila but outside as well. And the challenge lies in making sure the system is responsive enough to the demand.
Right now we do face competition from the growth of other sectors - for example tourism and medical services – and the demand from outside the Philippines for OFWs [overseas Filipino workers] is also increasing. So we’re competing in the universities for talent that is required by other countries poaching talent from the Philippines, and by other fast-growing sectors. So a challenge for us is ensuring that we’re able to promote career prospects for the industry in many of these universities.
The challenge also lies in increasing access to more universities beyond the traditional sources that we recruit from, as well as being able to tune the curriculum programmes of many of the universities to be more in line with the requirements of our industry; for example, ensuring that we do have high-quality English-language and IT proficiency programmes made available early on in the university years. This is why in BPA/P we do have a director who is devoted to talent development challenges; she leads university partnerships to ensure that we’re able to get universities to respond more closely to industry requirements, as well as developing new training standards and skills-assessment methodologies that we’d like to implement at university level, so that we are able to sharpen our recruitment much more. That is our biggest challenge.
Another area would be related to what I said earlier about assimilating new site development. Right now most of our BPO population - about 80 per cent of the activity - is in Metro Manila. We would certainly want to see a lot more activity happening in new cities. In the same way that India has created Bangalore and Hyderabad and Chennai, we certainly are looking forward to at least ten more cities outside of Manila and Cebu to be able to host new companies. This will create a lot of positives: one, we will be able to access more talent available in those places; and secondly we should be able to have a lot more support from a wider range of resources available to us, whether it’s local government units or chambers of commerce in those places, or universities and the academic sector. So we do face strong challenges but at the same time we know that because of our roadmap we’re already able to implement a lot of initiatives to be able to address them.
SSON: Conversely then, what do you see as being the biggest assets of the Philippines in terms of BPO and how does your organisation leverage those assets to expand and enhance the sector?
OS: Certainly the most important asset is people. We are hearing more often from our locators here that they’re discovering a lot more capability in the Philippines than we had seen initially. For example, we are already very well known for our voice services in BPO: the quality of English-language proficiency and of the Filipino customer service agents is very well talked-about in the industry now, and I think part of that is the training as well as the culture and the western orientation of the Filipino people. But we have seen a lot of growth beyond that: it’s been particularly very evident in areas such as finance outsourcing, IT, engineering services and creative arts - particularly in animation and gaming - and we are seeing double-digit growth as well in those sectors. The captive centres here (the HSBCs, the AIGs, the P&Gs, the Citigroups, the JP Morgans) are expanding over the next two years particularly in areas like finance and HR outsourcing. And this is already booking a lot of new office space, even in the Metro Manila area.
Another important asset for the country is the strong infrastructure, and a cost-model that is very sustainable. We’re able to sustain talent with the developing progress we have there in combination with the quality infrastructure we have in terms of telco, and new expanded office sites, and we’re able to at least maintain the cost model in a way that does not create unnecessary inflation in wages or in office-space rentals because we’re able to create more capacity. So the combination of talent and an attractive cost structure, as well as new opportunities we’re seeing in the other new sectors which I mentioned, are all strong points for the Philippines with huge potential for growth in the future.
SSON: Is it realistic to expect the Philippines to compete against bigger players (in particular, obviously, India) in outsourcing sectors other than BPO: KPO, LPO for example? And if so, what is required for the country to compete on those terms?
OS: Certainly we do recognise that India will continue to remain very very strong, particularly in areas like IT and software development. But certainly there are also niche areas that will continue to be providing growth opportunities for the Philippines. Voice and non-voice BPO will continue to be big. We certainly don’t think that we can beat India in the strong points that it has, but we see the opportunities around new niche areas like KPO, legal outsourcing, and engineering outsourcing – in which India will remain really huge but in which the Philippines will start gaining some foothold. We see great value in being number two or number three in those sectors; they’ll continue to be contributors for growth in terms of the kind of overall credibility and capability that the Philippines has in the BPO space. So there will be a place for the Philippines, a continued strong position moving forward.
SSON: To what extent have recent currency fluctuations impacted upon BPO in the Philippines, and how far can foreign companies looking to source to the country truly rely on the stability of the peso?
OS: We were seriously affected last year when we saw an 18.5 per cent currency appreciation. That affected us - particularly the small players who did not have a lot of financial leeway to be able to support that gap. But many of the big operators were actually able to improve and grow their operations because we saw a lot of room for improving operational efficiency here. The peso is largely going to stay within what you would call a single-digit fluctuation, given the kind of interventions we’re seeing currently in ensuring that there’s enough investment going on in the right places of the country.
We see that last year’s appreciation was more of a correction - one that is not going to affect us in terms of being an annual event. What we are seeing is that because of better projections around FDI and foreign remittances we’ll see a more stable peso over the next three, four, five years. Plus we’re more conscious now of making sure that our operational efficiencies are in place to be able to withstand fluctuations over the next few years.
SSON: Are you confident of the security of data and intellectual property rights in the Philippines?
OS: We are confident that we are addressing the issues of data privacy and intellectual property very well. For one, we have in place data privacy guidelines drawn up by industry in partnership with the Board of Investments; as well, the multinationals that are here are guided very much by US laws on data privacy and recognise the importance of these principles. The other thing is that BPA/P is leading a very active effort in partnering with Congress to pass a single Data Privacy Bill that supports the APEC Privacy Principles. This is at an intermediate stage of development already and we see the bill passing late this year or early next year. We are also actively communicating with all the key stakeholders on the APEC Privacy Principles to make sure that we support the principles and ensure that our people are trained and our contracts are safeguarded because of the kind of accountability and responsibility that we do have in processing data.
In terms of intellectual property we work closely with the BSA [Business Software Alliance] group to ensure that our member-companies sign off on the intellectual property rights agreements - and at the same time we are also working with government on strengthening the IP law, as well as on a new bill that will ensure a stronger penalty provision for intellectual property rights violations. So moving very actively in this area, we feel that this will all contribute to strengthening our data privacy and IP requirements.
SSON: Finally, what are your ambitions for BPA/P over the next ten years?
OS: We think that we will continue to see strong growth over the next ten years in a couple of areas. We’ll continue to be strong in the BPO space, both voice and non-voice. The other thing that is happening is that we still see growth in higher-value services and that we will play a very important role in supporting the requirements of not only the US market but even many of the European and Australian markets that today are still largely untapped. The good thing about the Philippines, like I said earlier, is that while we’re seeing dramatic growth at the moment we’re able to create a lot of continuous capacity. It is very important that we maintain our cost structure as well as our capacity model.
We’ve seen what has happened in India and that there is benefit in being number two, and because of India’s experience we are able to anticipate issues like overheating growth - issues that affect things like supply - and to anticipate the requirements of investors so we don’t get into an inflationary situation, whether it’s in one city or many cities in the Philippines. We know that there are still a lot of untapped niches, as well as the trend towards multi-sourcing that will allow the Philippines to participate in a lot more geographies as well as a lot more verticals and horizontals in the BPO space.