NBC's "Outsourced" -- More Truth Than Fiction?

NBC's fall season television lineup includes a new show called "Outsourced," with a plot line aimed at the heart of workplace angst, the offshoring of jobs.

"Outsourced" sets its stage quickly. The main character, Todd, who is played by actor Ben Rappaport, has taken a job as a call center manager at Mid American Novelties but arrives, on his first day, to an empty office.

The only other person in the room, his boss, spells it out: The call center jobs have been offshored to India. Todd is told that working overseas is his only choice. "If you don't, I mean, we are already the right size, there are no more positions here," the boss tells Todd.

"Wait, you are saying go to India or I'm out of a job?" Todd asks.

In a flash, Todd is in India to manage his team and is plunged into a world of cultural and communication miscues, and it expands from there.

Tech offshore workers, whom he meets briefly in a cafeteria, dress in suits and ties, and come across as the elite in this universe. An expat who seems to refuse to embrace all things Indian warns Todd about the food. The first hints of a potential love interest emerge.

This isn't a "Dateline" special about outsourcing -- it's a comedy. Its workplace plot line may be familiar, particularly if you've seen the 2006 movie "Outsourced," but it is nonetheless a show about outsourcing, and questions will abound.

Will it help humanize Indian workers for U.S. audiences, or reinforce stereotypes? Does the arrival of the show mean that Americans have accepted offshore outsourcing as routine? And how realistic will it be?

The answers will begin to arrive with the season premier on Sept. 23.

Photo: NBC
But among those who will be able to watch the show with a critical eye as a manager in India is Jeanne Heydecker, a marketing executive who moved to India 2007 and today lives near Delhi.

"One of the first things I noticed, coming in as a manager, was how intimidated everyone was -- no one would talk to me," Heydecker said via e-mail.

"No one understood individual accountability or the importance of sharing ideas with the boss. When I first had meetings, it was just me talking for an hour," Heydecker said. "I ended up bringing in a ball and throwing it to individual staff and forcing them to give me ideas, feedback. Brainstorming was a nightmare."

It took six months, but "once they got it, though, it was like sunshine breaking through the clouds after a long storm," she said. The staff loosened up. "They were brilliant people and learned quickly."

Another American expat is Dave Prager, who worked for an ad agency in New York that had an Indian office in Gurgaon. He went there in 2007. Prager said India is "an amazing place, but extremely challenging," with congested traffic and an environment that seemed to contribute to frequent illnesses.

"The work ethic is incredibly intense," said Prager, who said the Indians "work harder than I ever worked in New York."

Work ended only when the job was done. If the team was needed for a quality check or address issues, "no one on a team was allowed to go home until everyone was done," Prager said. The workday often extended to midnight.

Prager recently returned to New York with his wife, Jenny Steeves, for another job. Together they wrote a book that is being published in September in India about their experience, "Delirious Delhi: Inside India's Incredible Capital" (HarperCollins Publishers).

Americans expect greater things to arrive, but in India "they are reminded that tragedy is never more than a speeding bus away," Prager said. There is also lot of poverty in India, "and it's a constant reminder of why you are working."

Rohit Arora, an India native who is CEO and co-founder of Biz2Credit LLC, a New York-based company that connects small-business owners with lenders and service providers, believes the show's humor may be lost on Indian audiences, particularly in its portrayal of Indians doing mostly low-end call center work, "which is not the reality anymore."

Arora does some software development work in India for his firm but is opening a call center in Michigan, thanks to state assistance. "We are getting a very highly educated workforce in the Ann Arbor area, which I feel is going to make our company more competitive," he said.

Antonio Moreira, CEO of the Brazil-based outsourcing firm Stefanini IT Solutions, believes the show may help humanize the overseas workers. "I think the overall reaction to the show can be really positive; it's meant to build bridges with American people," he said.

Whether the show changes the perception of outsourcing depends on how it progresses, but it may help educate, said Roger Lall, executive-in-residence in marketing at DePaul University in Chicago.

The show "does have a potential to demonstrate the dynamics of global commerce, communications, international trade and transaction processing," Lall said.

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the show only captures one dimension of the outsourcing phenomenon.

"Most Americans support the economic development of lesser-developed countries like India; they support the expanded opportunities for workers in those countries," he said.

However, based on the 2006 movie and the trailers for the series, the show never addresses job losses in the U.S., arguably the most important dimension for Americans, Hira said.

"I don't think Americans are accepting of outsourcing as much as they feel impotent to do anything about it," particularly as politicians do nothing about it, Hira said.

When it comes to call centers, some believe the best option is the U.S. and not overseas. Joe Jacoboni, who founded and is CEO of Contact Centers of America in Orlando and is opening calls centers in the U.S., said he believes the show may help him make his case.

"Americans want to be supported by Americans," said Jacoboni, who added that it is difficult for people in India to understand the needs of U.S. customers. For one, he said, "we're direct and to the point, and we want to get it done and get off the phone."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Subscribe to the Today in Tech Newsletter

Comments