Alternative offshore model emerging in India

Foreign companies aiming to take advantage of India’s less-expensive IT and back-office employees often take one of two routes — they set up their own operations in the country, commonly referred to as “captive centres,” or they outsource work. But new market research suggests there are cost benefits to turning over software development or business processes to an outsourcer rather than setting up a subsidiary.

Forrester Research Inc. found that hidden costs raise the baseline expense per person per month at a subsidiary to US$4,944, compared to the baseline cost of $4,231 per person per month to hire an outsourcer. A number of companies are shutting down their captive centres and turning to outsourcers, said Sudin Apte, senior analyst and country head for India for Forrester.

“Captives centres run as cost-centres and cannot be as competitive as a vendor offering services,” Apte said. The size of the captive centre also matters. “My experience suggests that generally the minimum economic size for a captive operation is about 1,000 staff,” said Siddharth Pai, a partner at outsourcing consultancy firm Technology Partners International Inc. (TPI) in Houston. A smaller staff means the expenses of real estate, infrastructure and other overhead keep the cost per person at levels too high to appeal to the parent company, he added.

More than 60 per cent of the captive centres in India are struggling with escalating staff attrition and costs, according to Apte. Most of these centres have been set up with the expectation that they can do the work more cheaply than outsourcers as they will not be paying vendor margins. Money saved on the outsourcer’s margins is outweighed by the inefficiency of the captive operation, he added.

Because they usually don’t do leading-edge work, subsidiaries spend more than outsourcers to attract and retain staff, according to Forrester. Conversely, outsourcers provide staff growth opportunities and the chance to work on a variety of projects from various customers, Apte said.

As the Indian subsidiary does not have processes in place for offshore development, it has to rely on staff skill to get the work done, and hence hire more senior and expensive employees. “Captive centers are hiring people with an average of eight to nine years of experience for low-end work for which vendors would use staff with an average of two to three years experience,” Apte said.

Outsourcers such as Symphony Services Corp. are benefiting from the shift away from setting up captive centres. Symphony, based in Palo Alto, Calif., offers outsourced product engineering to software companies. Over the last 18 months, the company has integrated seven captive centres into its own operations, said president and CEO Gordon Brooks. About 1,000 staff from these captive operations have been absorbed by Symphony’s operations in India, he added.

“Part of the reason this is happening now is that Symphony and others are getting to scale,” Brooks said. “So there is a viable option for a lot of these companies to take under-performing centres and transfer them to us.”

The definition of core activity is changing for software companies, said Ajay Kela, chief operating officer and managing director of Symphony. For product software startups, for example, product engineering is progressively becoming non-core, with the focus shifting to thinking up the product, getting it to market and then marketing it, Kela said. Some of Symphony’s customers are startups that lack in-house engineers, he said.

Despite data in favour of outsourcing, a large number of multinational companies continue to invest in their own Indian operations and more companies are setting up subsidiary development centres in India. Semiconductor and systems vendor LSI Corp., for example, has about 1,000 staff working at its development centres in India. Outsourcing is not an alternative to a captive centre when the work being done is leading edge, because outsourcers may lack the depth of knowledge in the area, and often they rotate staff among projects from different clients, said Rajiv Kapur, managing director of LSI Technologies India Pvt. Ltd. The company, however, turns to Indian outsourcers to supplement its own staff.

“Outsourcing is more suitable for current and prior generation products,” Kapur said. “The decision to do in-house or outsource is not about cost alone, but about the ability to succeed.”

Typically, clients tend to want to build their own operation rather than outsource when the process they are considering taking offshore is closer to their own revenue generation such as product design, Pai said. As a result, some foreign companies are likely to have Indian subsidiaries and also use outsourcers in the country, Pai said. Forrester expects 20 per cent of captive centres to take this “hybrid” approach. Large companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are already using this offshore strategy in India.

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