Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It Takes An Outsourced Nation to Hold Me Back

Yet again, the Monk is back. This time, I have a somewhat valid excuse: Dell's wonderful outsourced refurbished computer department.

See, our family doesn't do laptops well. In five years, we've gone through three of them. Part of that comes from living in the dust/mold bowl of Guatemala, part of it comes from the "convenience" of being able to do email while eating ribs (gooey rib sauce is not good for an operating system, apparently). A bonanza of a Christmas when I received Madden football (good looking out Drew!) and a used I-Pod obviously led to our Toshiba laptop committing suicide rather than putting out the required processing power.

Luckily, one of our best friends in Hyde Park is a super-technofile (and a woman: raise your fist and march around Carol Haney!). So one Sunday after church Sarah and Carol spent some time ordering a wonderful refurbished computer from Dell. Just so you have a sense of chronology, this was early January. That Thursday, a box arrived from Dell Computers. Actually, two boxes came. With two monitors. One for a fellow in Louisana, and one for a guy in New York. Hmmm. The next day, two CPU towers arrived. Interesting. And the following day, two sound bars arrived. Now, maybe you're thinking, great Jack, you're a masters-soon to be doctoral student, you can certainly afford two computers. What's the problem?

Unfortunately, that was the attitude of the lovely Indian folks we talked to and talked to and talked to on the phone for the following week. Between staticy phone lines, stress causing me to fall into my New York accent and difficulty understanding Hindi-accented English, the fit hit the shan so to speak. To be succinct, our credit card was charged for 2 complete computer systems we did not order. And the outsourced Dell help could not get what the problem was or why we weren't checking our email.

Carol was gracious enough to lend us her tablet pc with a monitor and keyboard, so we were at least able to check email for the time being. But it did cramp my blogging style a bit, as it lacked the processor speed, etc. to do this justice. The happy ending is that we got a computer (ordered through the University: they're sucking me in further!!!) and the Monk is back.

The bigger point is that I'm not alone in being frustrated with outsourcing. There is an inherent contradiction between the dominant business model operating in the American economy and the desire for employees to "add value" to their work. The dominant business model says that to be competitive, American companies must ruthlessly cut costs, especially the costs of front line workers. Which is why wages for front line service workers have stagnated, many companies manipulate the hours and days worked of employees as if they were widgets, not people with lives, and companies like Dell outsource tech help and other customer service positions. The major problem with this focus on competition through cost-cutting (and not competition through quality) is that you can't treat labor like a commodity and expect them to add a lot of value to their work.

Cattle, soybeans, crude oil and corn are commodities. You raise them, mine them, extract them, and then put them into a process that adds value to them. There is little an ear of corn can do to add value to itself on its own. It makes sense for companies to reduce the cost of commodity inputs since one ear of corn or one bushel of soybeans is relatively the same as any other. People generally don't work like that, especially if you want your employees to provide cheerful, competent customer service. For companies to pay people poorly, schedule them haphazardly so they have no idea when they'll be working from week to week, provide them with little benefits or power over their work lives and to then expect high quality work is just dumb.

I want to be clear that the phenomenon of outsourcing is a complex one and my critique here is limited to the specifics I've outline above. I'm much more concerned about the business model and the quality of front line service jobs that facilitates outsourcing, not outsourcing itself. Well, it's good to be back. Peace

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