India’s Sourcing Leaders: The new Phoenicians?


The Phoenicians were the greatest entrepreneurs of their time, dominating the trade of the ancient world and founding colonies throughout the Mediterranean.  We will never see the likes of them in the modern business world, where a nation of business hungry folk could possibly develop their own real estate within today’s Global 2000 organizations through savvy barter of their own wares.  Or will we?  Deborah Kops investigates…

India’s Sourcing Leaders — the New Phoenicians

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At a sourcing conference cocktail party in Singapore, I was chatting pleasantly to a gentleman who– Indian by nationality, Kenyan by upbringing—was leading a global sourcing strategy team in Dubai for one of the largest of multinationals. As he politely tried not to blow smoke in my face, I had one of those eureka moments— I was speaking to a Phoenician!

(Be patient with me, readers…I’m drawing an analogy in order to make a point. Perhaps a little history lesson might be a diversion from treatises on governance or the consolidation of the outsourcing industry. I’ll try not to be too much of a bluestocking.)

For those of you who are not familiar with Phoenicians, it’s not a dirty word. Phoenicians —the “red people”—that dominated the regions proximate to the Mediterranean from the ninth to the six centuries BC, were a significant cultural and political force. They grew rich trading the commodities of the time—olive oil, wine, timber and precious metals, and were unmatched city builders, developers and stonemasons, hydraulic engineers and superb mariners.

But their greatest contribution was as globalizers of the only region that mattered in the ancient world. As developers of the modern alphabet (yes, without Phoenicians who knows how you’d be reading this), and acting as cultural middlemen, the Phoenicians disseminated ideas, myths, and knowledge. As a result, the Mediterranean arguably became the first example of a world economy.

So much for togas, olive oil and wooden ships. When I talk to the likes of an Anirvan Sen of GE, a Jay Desai of Northern Trust, a Vinoo Mehra of Colt, or any number of executives from the likes of  Genpact, Accenture, Infosys or EXL,  I am chatting with the progenitors  of those ancient globalizers. Born in India, perhaps degreed in the US or Europe, climbing the career ladder in a range of industries, holding a breathtaking number of increasingly challenging positions in multi-national corporations, these folks are the true evangelizers of process globalization, whether they are on the buy or sell side, or even advising and warning as consultants. Builders of outsourcing companies and shared services platforms, masters of process excellence, spokespersons for global delivery—they do it all. And today they are found in Indian-legacy outsourcers, global outsourcers, consultancies and a myriad of corporations.

The Bottom-line: our Indian industry colleagues play the role of globalizer so well

Common ways of working. Although often castigated as being too “Indian” in approach, their shared, monolithic code of conduct actually supports implementation of globalization. Whether located in Manhattan, Manchester or Mumbai, our Indian colleagues know the  handshakes and the rules when they work together, and have the ability to cut through the chase to get things done. In effect, the sourcing industry benefits from  a common way of working.

Take this a step further, dear reader. Contrast the results when an American, a Brit, a German or a Swede (or all of the above) work with an Indian to source processes. First, they have to study Culture 101, spending sufficient time to understand that when a German says no, he means that the case for change has not been made, or that to a Brit, a meeting is not where decisions are taken. Overlay an Indian on the other side of the table, and you get a cultural stew of nuance, decision-making style, sense of timing, and hierarchy. But with a number of savvy Indian leaders in the room, with shared experiences, it is generally possible to develop a commonality of understanding, bridge the cultural divide and keep moving on.

-World citizenship. As a group, the Indian members of our industry have substantially more experience working globally than our country compatriots. Perhaps they left at 18 to study in the US, the UK or Switzerland, quickly absorbing local ways of working and living, knowing that Yankees and Red Sox are the ultimate in sports rivalries, that May is the time to eat spargel in Germany, or that passing out red envelopes to children is the done thing at the Chinese New Year. Cultural understanding and experience are underrated attribute in the sourcing world; the ability to straddle and translate two or more cultures is golden to the implementation and operation of a global operating model.

–Strong networks. Global operating networks are even more successful when they are underpinned by effective professional networks.  Our Indian colleagues went to college and university together, and have many shared experiences; their ability to collapse the proverbial game of “seven degrees of separation” into two or three is awesome. Seemingly, everyone knows who has what expertise, who is looking for new talent, where the latest innovations are occurring, and who is developing leading-edge applications. Now you might think that this is a bit of an over-the-top characterization, but in an increasingly more complex world, networks matter; often, they are the best way to get things done quickly and efficiently.

Deborah Kops, HfS Research Fellow

Deborah Kops, Research Fellow, Sourcing Change Management, HfS Research (click for bio)

–Understanding how destination economies really work. Despite many trips to places such as India and The Philippines, most of us never develop a deep understanding of their inner workings—specifically cultural values, acceptable mores, and how to get things done. Because they do not evaluate a situation through a wholly western lens, our Indian colleagues are able to bring a level of local understanding which is so critical to global sourcing success.

Some say that we’re entering the age where it’s very cool to be a non-Indian in the outsourcing industry, or in the words of one of my sourcing industry headhunter friends, “ American companies  want Americans. Indian companies want Americans. Everybody wants Americans.”  And to my mind that’s a good thing; after all, successful globalization involves leaders from all cultures and geographies, not to mention that every decision can’t be made by dialing +91. But I’ll place my bets that our Indian friends cum/Phoenicians will continue to play an outsized leadership role the sourcing world.

Posted in : Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), IT Outsourcing / IT Services, Sourcing Locations, sourcing-change



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  1. Deborah,

    Really great article! While the Indians clearly have taken the mantel of the “Phoenicians of IT outsourcing”, do you see them doing the same with BPO, or is this a tougher challenge for them?

    Paul McCullough

  2. Interesting post. We Indians were born with the entrepreneurial gene that is perfect for the sourcing world – we are networkers, globalists and relentlessly chase down every deal 🙂


  3. Paul, BPO or ITO, or indeed any other “O”–it makes no difference. I think it’s not a stretch to say that Indian sourcing professionals form the spine of our industry for the reasons I mentioned. However, I suspect you are onto something about the substance–not the form–of BPO. The ability to have some level of propinquity with a customer is a far trickier wicket when dealing with business processes.

  4. Gaurav, amen! I am amazed how Indians break the 7 degrees of separation rule and take it down to 3 or 4. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. Excellent article. Yes, we Indians are special. I guess we had lost it a bit in the past. After a longish hibernation, we are back 🙂

  6. Deborah, fantastic article. You seem to weeve the story so well that the facts look very obvious and almost matter of fact but nobody in the past seem to have these thoughts together. Yes, indeed the analogy reference is very strong.
    I have seen Indians across the globe to have an almost natural instinct that when they see another Indian, they would break out into a smile whether you are in Bergen op zoom or in Kuantan or be it Fort Myers in Florida. This unarming attitude does help to get Indians closer even in distant lands and network, and help to become world citizens.

  7. Interesting read. It is true that Indians are there across industries and geographies making a mark.This isn’t a phenomena of the recent past, but has been in existence ever since globalization hit the country. The leaders in country term it as brain drain.

    Ameicans wants Indians, since they realize that India is a big buyers market for white goods or FMCG or any other industry because people know that if you miss India you miss a major opportunity. Indians wants non Indians, since they believe that to be a seller you might want more Americans and Brits to get the acceptance.

    Funny world!

  8. Hi Deborah,

    I agree with your opinion regarding Indians ability to network and amalgamate across cultures, this quality could be one of the highest in comparison to other cultures.

    Having said this, in my opinion Indian outsourcing Industry has to loose the Indian tag and become a global player along with exploring newer geographies to flourish in this game.

    I always draw a comparison that IBM one quarter revenue is more than the annual revenue of India’s top outsourcing corporation.

    Mrinal Singh

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  9. Insightful piece Deborah!

    Being an Indian myself I agree with most of what you have posted. Also there is lesson for the rest of the readers of HfS – what you have marked as headings is something everyone can practice and be successful in the globalized flat world!

  10. Mrinal, thanks for the IBM comment. sort of puts the industry into perspective. agree with your comment that indian companies need to loose the india tag, but i don’t see much (although there is some) progress there in the main. when the website pages with the executive team look like an IIM yearbook, it speaks india, not global. when the pursuit teams are comprised of Indians, not locals, it speaks india. when the indian players do not assume the market mantles of global firms, it speaks india. when the culture is monolitic, it speaks india.

    the point i am making is that the network and similar ways of working have been a catalyst to globalization, for which the industry is better off. now it’s time to change. thanks for prompting this comment.


  11. Hi Deborah,

    You bring about a unique insight, agree with your IIM analogy. In my opinion some corporations like TCS and Cognizant have successfully leveraged global manpower. The problem in my opinion Indian corporations face is how to integrate employees from different cultures inside their organization and to move up the value chain by taking on more consultative approach that is moving away from generic service offering like Infrastructure support and application development and maintenance.

    In my opinion Igate with its business outcome based engagement has taken an innovative approach and the recent acquisitions by some corporations to bolster platform based solutions are steps in that direction.

    Mrinal Singh

    Web Presence
    twitter: mrinalasingh Blog:

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