By Tarun George
How bad must a situation become before you write a letter to the President? Well that’s the US work visa process for you. Around this time last year, a group of Indian and American IT companies sent a letter to President Obama, asking him to intervene in an immigration policy, which they claimed, was seriously hurting their businesses. The firms backing this appeal were not only the Indian heavy-hitters like Wipro, TCS and Cognizant, but also global giants such as Accenture, eBay, HP, Intel and Microsoft. The fact that the letter was signed by the US Chamber of Commerce only underscores the seriousness of the issue.
A year later, companies are still facing issues in transferring human resources across their international operations. A new report by Information Services Group (ISG) says businesses must try a different, more proactive approach in dealing with visa processing delays. We chatted recently with author Jim Hussey, Global Lead for Transition Services at ISG, who has been closely engaged in the issue.
Visa Delays = Transition Delays
As political pressures and security fears have tightened up US immigration policy in recent years, the processing time for H1 (regular work visa) and L1 (intra-company transfer visa) documents has been increasing. As a result, firms are finding that their transition plans and operations schedules are becoming ever more unrealistic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the outsourcing industry, which relies heavily on a service delivery model. When a client first hires a provider, the common practice is to bring some of that provider’s people onsite to learn about the business and the specific function to be performed. This is known as the ‘knowledge acquisition phase’, and is usually where visa delays cause the most issues.
“The client side puts together a detailed plan and transition schedule, which relies heavily on resources coming to the customer’s location,” says Hussey. “The customer is expecting five to fifteen individuals onsite to start knowledge acquisition, but only about six or seven actually show up. The customer is then told that there are visa delays.” Hussey has watched this series of events play out time and again. The result of course, is that clients must abruptly recalibrate their transition plans, straining their relationship with the providers before the work has even begun. “The customer is now wondering whether they made the wrong choice, whether they can trust the provider, and whether they should have gone with someone else.”
The issue, as usual, is a lack of acknowledgement of the risk and impact of visa delays and rejections. “The customer assumes the supplier will manage it, and the supplier assumes their HR organization will manage it,” says Hussey. As the ISG report states, firms have tried implementing contingency plans such as staggering their visa applications throughout the year to account for delays, and hiring more locals rather than relying on foreign talent. But the problem remains, and they will need a more proactive solution.
How to Prevent the Relationship Breakdown?
According to ISG, the best ways to address the uncertainty of the visa process are preventative measures on the service provider side:
- Get your sales team in line, and manage client expectations: “So often, the sales teams put forward an aggressive delivery plan on a very condensed timeline, which does not take into account visa processing delays,” says Hussey. “It’s really a competitive thing. As soon as the client starts questioning the timeline, the sales people immediately shorten it.” But in their haste to edge out the competition, they are hurting their delivery team, which is responsible for actually providing the services. Instead, being transparent about realistic timelines ensures that you won’t later have a frustrated client on your hands.
- Create a time buffer by working remotely at first: “Much of transition planning and the initial stages of knowledge acquisition can be done remotely. But providers have been hesitant to address that with clients,” says Hussey. “If a knowledge acquisition phase is seven weeks, the provider could suggest that the first two weeks be focused on remote learning.” Since the published timeframe for the L1 visa process in India is two weeks, this creates a cushion against any visa delays.
- Leverage technology during the remote phase: During these first two weeks, Hussey suggests using web-based tools like Live Meeting to train human resources through recorded sessions. That allows the planning phase of the transition to begin even without them being physically present onsite. As he says, “It’s usually not the technical component of service delivery that is lacking in the provider’s team; it’s the functional component.” In other words, they need to be brought up to speed on how the client operates the business. Through clever use of technology, this can be accomplished effectively and remotely.
Of course, all this is dependent on the customer agreeing to the two-week buffer. It’s a greater focus on quality and risk management than time, which Hussey says is the mark of a mature client. He’s about to support the transition plan of a major customer in the coming month, and the provider’s team is based in India. Hussey is already in conversation with both the client side and provider side, to convince them to implement the above advice.