Can a country with so much promise get its act together?
By Kirk Laughlin
Jamaica is – in the view of this online journal – currently the biggest disappointment of any nation in the nearshore sourcing industry. This country of 2.7 million, so deeply blessed with an abundant supply of English-speaking professionals, is squandering a major opportunity to become a more viable player in the outsourced services marketplace.
Imagine for a minute a promising high school or college athlete that has a formidable amount of physical talent to soar above his or her peers. Sometimes these gifted athletes fail to move on to the professional level because of some inherent lack of competitiveness, inability to honestly assess one’s own weaknesses, or basic lack of hunger to improve one’s “game.” Such is the case of Jamaica. Consider some of its attributes: A phenomenally beautiful island filled with wonderful, and friendly people; a long history as a holiday destination for US travelers; literally dozens of direct, daily flights to and from many US air-hubs; an increasingly stable democracy – and this is the kicker – a native English speaking population. (You can only say that about two other Nearshore services countries, and neither one of them is as well-known or as close to the US as Jamaica is.)
So why are we being so hard on Jamaica? Put simply – because we are convinced the nation could really be so much more.
Let’s be clear, Jamaica does have a call center/BPO industry that employs about 10,000 people and, in addition to doing an assortment of contact center functions, also includes some finance and accounting activities. One area of deep concern, however is that this industry, on the whole, has essentially stopped growing, or at least that’s the conclusion of a special government report which was published in March. The report made an explicit request to the government to step up incentives in order to encourage BPO expansion.
Also worrying is the grim looking state of the country’s macro-economics. The International Monetary Fund deemed recently that Jamaica will have the seventh slowest growth rate in the world through 2015, placing it in the company of Venezuela, Croatia and Equatorial Guinea.
Meanwhile the country’s investment promotion agency JAMPRO is trying to generate a story about the island becoming a hub for IT services. But scratch beneath the surface of this effort and you begin to struggle to see expansive evidence of this “trend.” And, perhaps equally disconcerting is the possibility that Jamaica is playing a game of “me too,” whereby it is striving to be on par with other IT services locations, but does not yet have the goods to stand by those claims.
Fact or Fluff?
On a personal level, we know the team at JAMPRO, especially those who are executing a “message” that may come from higher-level bureaucrats, to be professional and well-meaning. The risk we’re identifying here has nothing to do with personalities. It has to do with the fact that Jamaica is potentially quite vulnerable to be labeled as disingenuous – and faces the threat of having its IT message shredded apart by US CIOs, sourcing decision-makers and other investors trying to separate truth from fluff.
Jamaica does have some solid successes to point to in the call center area, and we’ll point out the best cases below. But, instead of just using this column to seemingly blast the country, we would like to offer up this set of recommendations to prod Jamaica to hew to a course that will truly get the country to the big leagues:
- Study, dissect, and enact the best parts of programs other Latin America and Caribbean countries have done to develop a truly meaningful IT-ecosystem. For example, has Jamaica ever initiated talks, or “learning missions” to hear from countries like similarly-sized Costa Rica to learn how that country built – brick by brick – its higher-value services resume?
- Put some passion into it. Every country needs a handful of passionate people who “represent” the industry by virtue of their own commitment or belief in the value of the products or services produced. From our view, Jamaica could stand to benefit from a few more leaders from the industry – both in private and public sectors – who are vigorous around their advocacy of the Jamaica sourcing story.
- Cut the red tape. On several occasions we have witnessed and also learned of frightening levels of bureaucratic gridlock, preventing Jamaica from actually being able to tell its story due to over-zealous budget restrictions or lack of setting clear requirements about how to enact export-driven campaigns.
- Get real about this very important moment. Let’s face it – what CIO would not want to go to Montego Bay to meet his or her development team on a regular basis? The upside for Jamaica is immense. But the government’s commitment to facilitating development of a higher-performing sourcing environment is probably the most discouraging reality of all. For example, why hasn’t the return-on-investment case been made to hire a sourcing promotions specialist to work full-time within the US?
There are other reasons we feel there is urgency around Jamaica stepping up its game. For one, a major development is underway in Montego Bay, called Barnett Tech Park, which is being purpose-built to support nearshore/offshore services operations. VistaPrint, which runs a captive center on this island, and its 500 employees are relocating to the Barnett facility.
Also, and following on the call for passion mentioned above, we have witnessed the senior leadership at Jamaica-based Global Gateway Solutions (GGS) – led by Mark Jones and Jackie Sutherland, to be part of a next-generation vision that elevate Jamaica’s perceived value. GGS has been one of the fastest-growing companies on the entire island and Mark and Jackie have begun to evangelize the Jamaica opportunity to a wider audience.
It’s time for Jamaica leadership to not gloss over the lackluster performance of the last number or years. From our view, the Nearshore community supports and will be applauding this much-needed turnaround.