A Post-Visa World?

In a recent discussion about global IT services, one of my clients mentioned that we are essentially living in a post-visa world when it comes to India-US business. (Thank you, you know who you are!)

There’s always been some uncertainty about the availability of visas for Indian employees to travel to the US, but the current visa challenges have reached a level the industry hasn’t seen before.  Not knowing whether your key team members can get visas for onsite coordinator roles or the business analysis phase, best done with the team in one location, creates major risks for global IT projects.  With the current political climate in the U.S., I don’t think there’s going to be any relief on this soon.  The implications for global IT outsourcing providers and companies with significant captive operations in India are stark: It’s time for US employees to take on these roles and international rotations.

Basab Pradhan, the head of Global Sales at Infosys, pointed out a couple of years ago that having local employees in the buyer’s country (usually the U.S. or the U.K.) is going to be increasingly important for global outsourcing providers, for a couple of reasons – it’s key to building the key competitive differentiators of domain expertise and industry relationships, and it’s an increasingly important aspect of managing the business and political risk of anti-offshore sentiment.  But the big Indian outsourcing players – Infosys, Wipro, Cognizant, TCS  – have not made major strides in their recruiting and retention of U.S. employees.  Pradhan’s article talks about some of the challenges – additional costs for travel and bench time for U.S. employees, the perception that the Indian companies are unwelcoming to US employees.

Fundamentally, though, I think it comes down to the difficulties of working across cultures, and learning a new business model, that of the global IT team.  Indian employees are very motivated to work through these challenges – these are top jobs, in a fast-growing industry with long-term career opportunities. They are usually willing, even eager, to take on the personal and family sacrifices required to move to another country for months or years.  (This is so much the case that many companies provide relatively little support for the moves in this direction, compared to substantial “expat” support for other country relocations.)

American employees are usually not so motivated.  I am making gross generalizations, of course, but in my experience, American IT employees are often reluctant to learn how to work effectively with India-based teams.  I’ve had clients specifically ask me to assure them that they will not have to make early morning or late night calls to India.  Many colleagues have told me how difficult it is to work with Indian teams, without apparently recognizing that this is not an intrinsic issue with Indian teams, but with management of any virtual, cross-cultural, globally distributed team.

When it comes to the “knowledge transfer” phase of IT projects, it would often make more sense for an American employee to do a three-month on-site rotation in India, but I’ve heard of only a handful of cases where this approach was considered.  To be sure, it’s not easy to move from the United States to India for a few months or a year – moving from any developed economy to a developing economy has many more challenges than the other way around.  But in a post-visa United States, I believe U.S. to India rotations are going to become increasingly important to the success of global IT projects.

Global IT services companies will be better positioned for success in delivery, and increasingly, in selling, if they have the capability to fill on-site consulting and coordinator roles with domestic employees and manage knowledge transfer rotations in any direction.

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