Running an IT shop is still a very labor-intensive job, whether a company does it in-house or hires IBM or one of its competitors to do some of it. IBM has a team based in Bangalore trying to change that by finding ways in which common IT management tasks--like ensuring that security software on a server is updated in real time as new threats arise--can be broken down into components and handed off to machines. The upside for IBM: "We'll be able to serve more customers without having to hire another 100,000 workers," says Mahmoud Naghshineh, director of services delivery research at IBM.
Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam helps IBM CEO Sam Palmisano feel at home
Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP
But even India, where programmers typically are paid 40% to 80% less than their U.S. counterparts, is becoming more expensive. Tech wages are going up about 15% per year, and the competition for people is intense. Automating operations there will help IBM keep costs in check as it grows. There's a benefit for customers, too. The first step to automation is standardizing activities that make up a task. "When you standardize, quality goes up," Naghshineh says.
At an IBM service center in Bangalore, researchers are testing automation scenarios. Two major IBM customers from the West, one in financial services and the other a manufacturer, are the guinea pigs. In one project, researchers are applying the kind of automated remote-provisioning methods commonly used to manage PCs to more complex midrange servers. They're seeking ways in which new workflow software from IBM's labs can coordinate the operation of existing software--including IBM's Tivoli line--so it can work as a unit to perform a complex task like database creation.
The Bangalore center also is testing new portal technologies that offshore systems administrators could use to more quickly resolve problems at a client site, such as a network outage. The system will draw on advanced search technologies. "All data will be pulled together based on the problem at hand," Naghshineh says.
These moves aren't without risks. One is that IBM faces a backlash from its U.S. workers that could hurt productivity. "While Sam Palmisano is excited about IBM tripling its investment in India, IBM employees [in the United States] have increased concerns and anxiety that their jobs will be offshored that much quicker," says a spokesman for [email protected], a group that represents current and former workers. An IBM spokesman says the India investment will have "no impact" on U.S. jobs.
If IBM isn't firing American workers in large numbers, it's not hiring many, either. Its U.S. staff is less than 150,000, around half of the company's employees. Yet the question facing all of its workers isn't only where work might be done, but how much might be done by machines.