Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will Services Truly Go Global?

Mr. Joseph Sternberg edits the Wall Street Journal Asia's Business Asia column and recently wrote an editorial entitled Now Comes the Global Revolution in Services.

Of course this has been a feared development by many in the US economy, since our services sector is so large. The first such globally competitive service which probably comes to mind is call centers.

Sternberg wrote,

"Asia has been a big winner from the development of global manufacturing supply chains. Japan and the four tigers—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—showed how cheaper shipping could create opportunities for factories far from the intended market. As supply chains have grown more complex, the benefits have spread. Components now travel from Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan to a factory in China, where they're assembled before hitting the shelves of an Apple store in New York as a finished iPhone.

Even as the manufacturing supply chains continue their evolution, a new question confronts Asia: How to profit from increasingly sophisticated supply chains in services? Despite all the political hype in the West about the ills of outsourcing and the perceived ubiquity of overseas customer-service call centers, services supply chains are still in their infancy."

It's thought-provoking to realize how the economics of various manufactured and assembled parts of goods such as an iPhone make it affordable to ship the incomplete item around so much of the world simply to take advantage of lower labor costs. Sternberg then contends,

"We're heading for a day when a Malaysian architect will sketch out a new office tower for London, a Philippine architect will prepare detailed renderings, and a Chinese engineer will assess the structural soundness of the designs. Or a specialist firm in Bangalore will administer health benefits for a Kansas company. Indeed, such things already are happening on a modest scale.

That's particularly apparent on the infrastructure front. Ask experts what a government needs to do to develop a services- outsourcing industry, and the first answer is usually "provide more reliable electricity" or "lay fiber-optic cable." True, but more important will be the human intangibles. Educating a sufficiently skilled work force—no small task in itself—is only the start."

Sternberg's example sounds simple enough. But will it really occur? Are language barriers really so easy to overcome that complex building design will be piece-parted out as he describes?

He concluded with this passage,
"Manufacturing supply chains applied modern transportation technologies to a millennia-old principle that if someone in a neighboring village can make a good more efficiently than you can, you should buy it from him. Service supply chains derive a new principle—that you no longer need to be geographically near the person providing you a business service—from modern communications technologies. Now countries need to figure out how they fit into this trend, and how to profit from it."

Personally, I believe Sternberg is far too optimistic about the globalization of high value-added services. Especially services involving high levels of complexity.


Well, for one, globalization of product manufacture and assembly has a simple test. Does the resulting product function at a competitive price? The proof is easy to see.

Services aren't so simple. The success of a globally-designed building or other complex system using services provided in so many countries and languages might not be apparent for years. And they tend to be one-off projects, rather than, like products, things of which millions are sold and used.

Even the lowly call center has seen a reversal of outsourcing overseas from the US. Too many problems with language and basic service quality levels has resulted in some firms regaining an edge by relocating their call centers back in the US.

Then there's the recent comments of Boeing CEO Jim McNerney on CNBC. In answer to questions concerning the Dreamliner's continuing delays, McNerney confessed that the firm had overreached with its design outsourcing. He said that they won't be doing that again, focusing instead on more onshore engineering and design.

If one of the most sophisticated engineered systems we have, a modern jetliner, has failed to be reliably designed and produced globally on time, what are the prospects for equally-sophisticated systems? At least the Dreamliner results in a testable product on which quality control may be performed before it actually goes live in its initial commercial flights. And Boeing has been building such systems for decades.

I think it says a lot that they got the mix and management of global design of the various parts and subsystems of their newest jet fouled up, and are planning to move back to more centrally-sourced services in the future.

Thus, it's my guess that Sternberg's concerns and visions are very premature. And a big chunk of US exports in the service-based sector remains somewhat safe for a while.

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