The first BPO training academy in Sri Lanka, forging the way forward in the outsourcing industry, aims to train over 2,000 professionals by the end of this year.
An upcoming sector that has proved to be crucial in Sri Lanka’s post-war economy has been the BPO industry, which through its alliances with the West has been a vital source of foreign exchange into the country. Countries willing to outsource operations to other countries now see Sri Lanka as a viable option for such activity and this has led to a surge in work opportunities in areas such as call centres, telemarketing, financial accounting and other business operations from western countries to Sri Lanka.
Understanding the importance of strengthening the capacity for BPO needs in the country in order to meet this demand, the Lanka BPO Academy, the first institute of its kind in Sri Lanka, was established here in order to provide young BPO aspirants with internationally-benchmarked BCI Certification Training Programmes. Founder and CEO of LBA Yasas Abeywickrema discussed his reasons for coming up with this novel concept, the future of the BPO industry in Sri Lanka and his aspirations for the new year. Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Cassandra Mascarenhas
Q: What made you realise initially that there was a need for an institute if this nature?
A : We were interested in the outsourcing sector overall, not just BPOs but also in IT outsourcing. I personally have a background in IT outsourcing and then moved into consulting aspects of outsourcing. Due to a special interest in the Sri Lankan outsourcing industry, we did a lot of awareness building and conducted some research and one of the things we realised over time was that one of the bigger complaints was about human resource issues.
There were a lot of complaints about the lack of infrastructure, the ability of skilled people or the attitude of our people but these weren’t very big issues. However, what I did notice over a period of time was that overseas companies said that Sri Lanka is a good place to go but that they can’t find the resources that they need; not necessarily the skill, as people can be trained, but instead finding the numbers and this is worsened by being so close to India.
Q: Which specific area is the institute geared towards developing?
A: The customer service area, a vital part of call centres which is a part of the voice sector within the BPO industry, was a major area in which we were keen on training people. This is led us to start discussions with BCI, the BPO Certification Institute – it includes training for the voice segment as well as non-voice areas such as data entry, financial accounting and tech support as well as many levels of BPO starting from the entry level to leaders of companies. These discussions progressed well and the situation improving in the country at the time helped as well. A lot of overseas companies including BCI were interested in coming to Sri Lanka so the discussions were successful and we got the opportunity to bring global certifications to Sri Lanka though Lanka BPO Academy. It’s a very new venture; in a way it is a private company but it is a long-term project and we are in it for the long haul. Fired by our passion for the industry, we are very particular about the quality of the resources that we provide, which is why we were very keen on bringing BPO certifications to Sri Lanka rather than creating some training programme ourselves. Actually, the market was available and it would have made more business sense as there was no BPO training in Sri Lanka at the time, but we wanted to provide people with the best available – which is what we did.
Q: How has the response been so far?
A: We have been in operation for about two months now and the response from the corporate and retail sector has been good; especially the corporate response, which has in fact been excellent. A lot of senior heads tell me that this is at least five years late, but better late than never is what I think.
In the retail market, there is still some awareness to be built and the ICTA, the Government and SLASSCOM have taken measures to build awareness. But we believe that as the training company of the sector, we too play a large role in awareness-building. We have incorporated awareness into our operations; we like to be thought leaders about it. Awareness is what is important at this stage as India did it 20 years ago. It’s not about selling a course – it would sell automatically if we build awareness.
Q: Speaking of India, what role does it play on a global platform and how does it affect us?
A: I don’t think we necessarily have to compete with India; I believe in having a complementary kind of arrangement and use it to the benefit of both countries. India is a huge country with a far larger population and we can’t do the same as our numbers are much smaller. I think that the opportunity for us lies in the fact that the case has been proved in India and we can now go out to Western countries and say that Sri Lanka can do the same – use that model and implement it here. The other option is to work with Indian companies to encourage them to build their additional and backup locations in Sri Lanka.
In the IT outsourcing and BPO industry, one of the risks that companies face when they outsource to Asia is one of natural disasters and other human-related disasters. There are also a lot of outsourcing locations in India and there is a huge opportunity for us to offer ourselves as a second subsidiary location and act as a backup disaster recovery location. Big companies in India have already come to Sri Lanka for a variety of reasons and it does make sense as we are similar culturally and geographically and for a company based in Bangalore, having branches in Colombo and Chennai is pretty much the same thing.
Q: How would you say Sri Lanka has done for itself so far in the BPO industry and how much more needs to be done to reach our maximum potential?
A: A country such as ours, being close to a global BPO leader like India, has done well for itself so far on a small scale. The industry should grow much more as it can bring in a lot of foreign exchange into the country, offer professional work and not blue-collar work and give people opportunities to work in an international environment. Far more people need to be trained in order to obtain maximum benefit from such opportunities. There can be more collaboration on the Government’s part and we are very willing to work with it on such projects.
There are currently around 12,000 people in the IT/BPO sector and out of that about 6,000 to 7,000 are in IT and the rest in BPO. Estimates show that in five years, 25,000 trained professionals will be needed in total; 15,000 of this number in IT. The potential is enormous and it is available – if we want to grow to even 50,000, we can. However, it must be kept in mind that it also has to sustainable growth; there is no point in training people for non-existent projects. It must be sustainable and planned.
It’s not that we can’t find projects; it’s just that projects don’t come into the country because there are no readily available resources. In my opinion, the issue of undertaking outsourcing projects is one like the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg – do you bring projects first and then train our people or train our people and then bring projects? What makes sense for Western companies is for them to come into a country where the resources are already readily available.
Q: What are your plans and how many people do you hope to train in this year?
A: Our objective for the next one year is to train at least 2,000 and increase that in years to come. It can be done in different ways – train up people at companies, skill up people in certain small areas and then on top of that, offer the certifications. I think the reaction the response from the market has given us the confidence that we can do it.
Our global certifications are end-to-end; there is training in voice segment, business processing, financial accounting and tech support. We look to start from an entry level and then move onto managers and professionals higher up the ladder so anyone can come in at different stages according to their qualifications and skill up. We have also got requests from corporates to cater to their specific needs as well – the delivery part is very flexible depending on corporate needs and we add stages as needed.
Q: What strategy are you currently using to break into the market?
A: Well, we are still two months old. What we are doing at the moment is approaching private institutes, especially international schools, after which we will move on to the private and State schools and then universities and work upwards. Students are very receptive; it’s just that they are not aware of the benefits of the BPO industry and the opportunities available to them, but of course we will need Government support and support of the universities and other authorities. Finally, I advise the youth in the country to have an open mind, read widely and talk to a lot of people and understand what job opportunities are available instead of choosing blindly due to peer pressure and other external factors as the world is full of opportunity today.