Is IT offshoring ready for “Designed in India”?

There’s an interesting article in India’s Business Standard newspaper this week, about the impending plans for the World’s Largest Democracy(TM) to promote itself not just as a place where things can get made or services delivered, but as a centre of excellence for design. “Designed in India, Made for the World” is the tagline, and the stated goal is to follow a similar path to countries like Japan, whose companies have moved from being perceived as low-cost manufacturing centres to purveyors of high-quality product.

Nice aspiration, and its not for anyone to question the principle. It does make me wonder however what the implications might be for IT offshoring. I’ve written elsewhere about how experiences have been seen as variable – and I mean variable as variable, not as a euphemism for variable-to-poor. Some people we have spoken to have had very good experiences of outsourcing development to offshore third parties, whereas others, less so. So, where’s the truth?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between – with the necessary checks and balances in place of course. A few months back I attended an event organised by India’s National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), in which the subject of recruitment was brought up – largely because of a couple of high-profile incidents (such as this one) about how under-vetted staffers were doing dodgy things with customer data. However this is far more to do with general best practice, than anything specific about a given geography.

One bone of contention has been around the subject of design – software design, in this case. It is generally agreed that a well-documented design, passed to an offshore agency, will generally lead to a higher likelihood of good code. Some of the more negative people I have spoken to have complained how designs have had to be spelt out in detail before they can be ‘offshored’: while this is again more suggestive of collaboration issues than anything else, it does beg the question – what if the aspiration of being perceived as a design centre of excellence was also applicable to software?

The question is whether there is an opportunity for any companies, anywhere in the world, to pip others to the post in terms of having a reputation for offering highly usable, scalable, elegant and secure yet bespoke IT systems. Right now, software is still perceived as being difficult to do – organisations have to choose between packaged applications which don’t totally fit their needs, or hand-crafted applications developed internally or externally, with all the baggage that comes with them. My question – or dare I say speculative challenge – is whether there is a middle ground to be found between the two, that enables custom software applications to be delivered in a commodity manner.

Thinking about it, it’s not necessarily that much of a leap of faith. We already have ISVs that offer customisable platforms, we have SOA to support decoupling of application elements and standardisation of interfaces, we have a number of platform technologies available in commercial or open source flavours, we have web services, mashups and composite applications. The middle ground is there for the taking, so given its current desire to move on from a reputation as a subcontractor to becoming a global industry peer, why not India.

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