Sunday, April 10, 2005

Middle Management in America and Outsourcing

I have consulted for over seven years in the US. The mix has included a representative sampling of what constitutes coporate America - the brash, startup operating out of a basement to a staid, process obsessed Fortune 10 and everything inbetween. While the verrticals and experiences have been varied, time after time I have seen how inept middle management has been a key contributor to outsourcing . While there are incredibly smart people in the highest levels of the organization and equally competent people deep in the technical trenches, middle management is more often than not steeped in mediocrity.

A stray dud or two high up or down near the grassroots does not hurt a company quite as much a fleet of ineffective middle managers. Many of these managers run multi-million dollar projects in big sized companies and fail miserably on all counts, cost, time and quality. In time senior management sees the merits of outsourcing the whole deal. I have seen this scenario repeat itself in many companies that I have worked for. I am now to the point where I can tell well ahead of time when a project is outbound.

Having been in middle management positions in both India and the US, I see the difference in management style contribute to the failure of managers in the US. In India the brief for the middle manager is to make it happen no matter what and do whatever it takes. It's a free for all and not at all pretty. The accountability is direct. In this country one is told to escalate what one cannot fix. Often times an escalated problem swirls in a black hole and dies unresolved.

The onus at that point has shifted from the middle manager though he or she could still get fired for non-performance. The "make it happen no matter what" is what I have found to be more empowering when managing at that level. Even a mediocre manager will fare a lot better. Middle managers in US are emasculated in that they have no real support from anyone to get the job done. A cog in the wheel as the organization makes them, can take you only so far.

In the US it is enough to communicate and manage expectations around cost, time overruns and employee attrition. In India the middle manager has no choice but to work around all of those issues and make the numbers in the end. You can communicate all you want to whoever you want but you still get asked "What are you doing to make it happen ?" Not having an answer is not an acceptable answer.

Given the nature and demands of the job, it takes a certain type of individual to succeed in India. Very often the same traits are useful in higher level positions too so movement happens upwards.

In the US middle management is typically where assorted management failures are lumped until their eventual demise from the organization. They do not have the attributes or qualifications to move up. In fact there are absolutely no qualifications required to be a middle manager in the US which is why it attracts largely mediocre talent sans personality.

In the US I have found myself treading very gently where personal relationships could get hurt in the process of getting the job done. I would have never thought about that in India. No one does. Here I will wait a week for someone to respond to my flagged, high-importance, read receipt requested e-mail before I dare to call and leave a message. In India I would have acted in twenty four hours.

Anyone here could take off on an unplanned summer vacation for a couple of weeks trashing the project plan and budget as they soak in the Outer Banks sun. In India vacations are planned over a year ahead and are subject to cancellation up to the last 24 hours.

Sure, in the Indian outsourcing world there is no great work life balance, people work 16 hours shifts and burn out in their early thirties. But when you add all the hours India gains and the ones the US looses in doing what they do or do not do it all adds up to make a case for why a $2M project should be run in India for a quarter of the cost.

1 comment:

buckwaasur said...

wow...loved this article...neat comparison...i always felt that the reason why middle management was inefficient in the US was coz the managers were not promoted up from the trenches as in india...

thanks for a few more perspectives to add food for thought...:-))