The ‘M’ Way

Time + People = Money

MphasiS Limited is an Indian IT services company that employs more than 10,000 people in several Indian cities and locations abroad, and which generated over Rs 750 crore (about $170 million) of revenue in 2005. The company primarily provides financial and banking software services to customers in the U.S. and other countries, and it also has a rapidly growing business process outsourcing (BPO) business that provides backend services such as call centres. This company represents the dominant section of the IT industry — software services outsourcing – a highly competitive business in which the supply of high quality and low-cost services is key to attracting and retaining customers. In this business, Indian companies get contracts with companies abroad to develop, implement and maintain various types of information technology systems. Much of the work is now carried out ‘offshore’ (a shift from the earlier stage of the industry in which Indian engineers worked ‘onsite’, or at the customer’s site), and teams of software engineers in India work remotely with people at the customer site, communicating through computer and telecommunications networks. As a service industry, Indian software companies strive to be customer oriented, and they compete with one another for contracts on the basis of cost, quality, and customer service. The Indian IT industry is well known for the long hours that software engineers often put in. This is due to several factors: First, because the business is highly competitive, Indian service providers are under pressure to keep costs down, primarily by squeezing more working hours into the day. Second, Indian teams have to coordinate with customers across time zones, which often means staying in the office late into the evenings in order to attend international conference calls. Third, software development and implementation projects are governed by strict but often unrealistic timelines, which generate periods of high work pressure as deadlines loom or last-minute crises erupt. The ‘M’ Way depicts the high-pressure and customer-centric work culture of the software outsourcing industry. The film was shot within a single project that builds and maintains a financial and banking services website for a major American company. It focuses on two teams within that project – the software development and quality assurance (‘QA’), or testing, teams. Activities must be tightly coordinated within and between the teams, as well as with people at the customer site, with whom engineers are in communication on a daily and even hourly basis. Work is regulated by fixed deadlines and targets within a minutely planned project cycle, and both engineers and managers have to put in extra effort and time whenever it is required to keep to the timelines. But the timely completion of ‘deliverables’ is only one of the company’s goals: it also needs to ensure that it performs according to the standards set by international quality certifications such as CMM Level Five, which MphasiS has achieved. According to the ‘processes’ mandated by such certifications, software development, testing and other tasks are governed by clearly defined processes in order to ensure consistent quality, and there are complex system of monitoring, measurement of parameters, reporting and feedback at different levels. The film conveys the flavour of work that is controlled so closely by these processes and systems, and interviews with managers and employees provide insight into their experiences of working in this high-pressure atmosphere. The film also focuses on the theme of people management. In software services companies, it is the workforce – the people who do the coding, testing, management, and other activities – who are the most critical ‘resources’ (as employees are known in the business), and good ‘resource management’ is crucial. The company strives for optimal utilisation of each employee’s time by monitoring and measuring his or her activities and productivity on an hourly and daily basis. In order to motivate employees to put in the required effort, team leaders and project managers attempt to build a sense of camaraderie and mutual obligation among team members. The film depicts this process through team meetings and other interactions, as well as a training programme to teach teamwork and time management. Moreover, employees are encouraged to identify with the company and its goals — especially that of customer service — through the frequent invocation of the company’s ‘mission, vision and values’. They are even exhorted to be like ‘English butlers’ in the pursuit of better service to the customer. The ‘M’ Way points to several issues of theoretical significance. First, in the software services industry, work is being redefined and reduced to measurable quantities of time, effort, productivity, and output, mimicking in many ways the old Taylorist system of factory management. While contemporary management rhetoric, to which Indian IT companies also subscribe, emphasises employee empowerment and self-motivation, the ‘new workplaces’ located in the outposts of the global economy appear to be reinventing the hierarchical and top-down systems of management and control over the work process typical of the ‘old economy’. In companies such as MphasiS, contemporary management techniques based on teamwork and individual responsibility for ‘deliverables’ are deployed in order to squeeze the maximum work out of employees, but these are not balanced by the flexibility and autonomy for employees that are promised by managements. Instead, in the software outsourcing industry, quality processes and the pressure to comply with customer demands have introduced ever more exacting and intrusive methods of control, surveillance, and evaluation. A second striking feature of the outsourcing business is also a throwback to the era of classical industrialism: despite their sophisticated labels as ‘knowledge workers’ and ‘IT professionals’, software engineers (itself a misnomer, according to some) appear to be increasingly deskilled due to the introduction of factory-like ‘process-driven’ software production systems. From being a highly individualised craft industry in which computer programmers work individually and idiosyncratically, writing software has become highly routinised: engineers are required to put together ready-made modules and produce code according to fixed norms, reducing the scope for creativity or even thought. This is all the more so in the case of the Indian outsourcing industry, which concentrates on the ‘low end’ of software services such as maintenance and testing — tasks that are too routine and unchallenging for highly trained software engineers. In this system of production, employees become mutually replaceable units whose contribution or ‘performance’ is measured only in terms of the amount of time they put in, or the number of lines of codes they can write in a day. The slogan seen in a poster at the company, and taken as the sub-title of the film, succinctly conveys the essence of this industry: ‘Time + People = Money’. MphasiS and its work philosophy represent a significant face of the new global capitalism. Although popular discourses in the West suggest that the balance of economic power is shifting to China and India, software services outsourcing appears to be just another chapter of an old story, in which the international division of labour is being redrawn to accommodate the interests of dominant economic actors. High-tech services move offshore to take advantage of low-cost labour in other countries, but the centre of economic gravity remains relatively unchanged, and the new workforces that are created (no matter how well paid they may be, relative to others in their own society) continue to be subordinated to the demands of capital.