Lived experiences of offshoring : an examination of UK and Indian financial service employees’ accounts of themselves and one another
journal contributionposted on 23.01.2009 by Laurie Cohen, Amal El-Sawad
Any type of content formally published in an academic journal, usually following a peer-review process.
This article is about employees’ lived experiences of offshoring. Focusing on the accounts of individuals in a financial services company operating in the UK and Mumbai, India, it examines the ways in which respondents constructed and positioned themselves in relation to one another in the stories they told. We argue that in their accounts our respondents mobilized discourses of culture and cultural difference to describe and justify this positioning, with particular reference to ‘the language barrier’, work ethics and notions of competence. We draw three broad conclusions. The first is empirical and concerns the benefits of in-depth case study research for developing understandings of this emerging sector. The second conclusion relates to respondents’ use of cultural ascriptions to justify certain existing patterns of behaviour and to foreclose discussion of alternatives. The third conclusion highlights the deep sense of ambivalence that permeates our dataset, proposing that within this ambivalence lie possibilities for resistance and change. This paper is about employees’ lived experiences of offshoring. Focusing on the accounts of individuals in a financial services company operating in three centres in the United Kingdom and one in Mumbai, India, it examines the ways in which Indian and UK workers account for one another, and considers these understandings for organizational practice. In the last five years the growth of business outsourcing and offshoring has generated fierce debate. On a macro level, while some commentators have described such arrangements as providing both source and destination countries with opportunities for prosperity, flexibility, security and freedom (Friedman, 2005), others see India, China etc. simply as providers of cheap labour, and this form of modernisation as ultimately leading to even greater inequality and deprivation (Mishra, 2006). With regard to India in particular, with some notable exceptions (eg, Mirchandani, 2004, 2005; McMillan, 2006) commentators are similarly divided, with arguments that the technology enabled sector is offering high wages and unprecedented career and life prospects to aspirational young people (NASSCOM; Dossani & Kenney, 2003) set against a view of Indian customer service workers as ‘cyber coolies’, ‘insecure’ and ‘vulnerable’ casualities of the new economic order (Ramesh, 2004). While important contextually, our paper does not aim to take a position in this highly polarized debate. Rather, our interest here is in employees’ lived experiences of these new forms of organization. The literature on customer service sectors highlights relationships with customers as central to employees’ experiences of work (Korczynski, 2002; Mirchandani, 2005). However, in our data it was the dynamics between UK and Indian employees that emerged as a defining feature of this transnational setting. In this paper we interrogate the ways in which respondents constructed and positioned themselves in relation to one another in the stories they told. We argue that in their accounts our respondents mobilised discourses of ‘culture’ and especially of ‘cultural difference’ to describe and justify this positioning, most specifically with respect to language issues, work ethics and their implications for organizational practice, and notions of competence. We suggest that such data provide rich insights into how work is made sense of, legitimated and enacted in these putative organizational forms. A distinguishing feature of our study is the structure of our case study organization. As Taylor and Bain (2003) have explained, outsourcing and offshoring are generic terms, used in diverse, sometimes overlapping ways, to denote a whole range of organizational arrangements from contracting out to a third party based overseas (described in India as ‘business process outsourcing’, or BPO), to the wholly owned subsidiary (in India termed the ‘captive’) (see also Mitter, 2000 and Dossani & Kenney, 2003). The organization we studied is a captive, which means that although the Indian operation has its own management structure, UK and Indian employees work alongside one another and are all considered to be part of the same, highly reputed and long-standing UK financial services company. Whereas the BPO sector is based on short-term, transactional client/service provider relationships, in a captive the relationships between India and the UK are much more complex, with business processes wholly based in one site, with others operating across sites. This matrix structure creates spaces for wide-ranging interaction and the development of multifaceted relationships between the UK and Indian staff. Turning to the structure of the paper, following this introduction we will consider key debates and perspectives in the literature on offshored customer service work, then focus on the Indian context in particular and the ways in which this has been written about in the West, as well as in the Indian popular and academic press. We then turn to our study, briefly describing the case study organization and our research design. The empirical discussion examines respondents’ ascriptions of culture and cultural difference with respect to three permeating themes: the ‘language barrier’, work ethics and organizational practices, and notions of competence. In the discussion we draw three broad conclusions. The first is empirical and concerns the benefits of indepth case study research for developing understandings of this emerging sector. The second conclusion relates to respondents’ use of cultural ascriptions to justify certain existing patterns of behaviour, and to foreclose discussion of alternatives. The third conclusion highlights the deep sense of ambivalence that permeates our dataset, proposing that within this ambivalence lie possibilities for resistance and change.
- Business and Economics