Re-leveling the playing field

I am awash in Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

I didn’t want to start it. I have a stack of titles perfect for summer when the day is long, the light good and the time leisurely, including a formidable (and improbable) book club offering, The Way We Live Now, a 1,024-page tome by the prolific and lengthy Anthony Trollope.

But everywhere I go -- Savannah’s airport, the beach off South Haven, Mich., the Broughton Street Starbuck’s -- I see people bent over Friedman’s book.

It was the woman at the beach who convinced me. If she could sit there in that delicious Michigan air, 10 feet from that delicious lake water and stick her nose in this book of nonfiction instead of looking for Petosky stones or rocks with holes in them or decades-old pieces of glass we call glassies -- and then say she thinks the book should be required reading for all high school students -- well, right then and there, I moved it up on the list.

As with many of Friedman’s columns, the book is about the effects of globalization, the lightning-quick passage of business and what the creation of the Web is doing to level the playing field across the planet. It’s about what happens when a country allocates most of its resources to the military.

In Friedman’s optimistic way, he is encouraged that change can come from individuals, not governments or corporations. But the subtext is what happens when the U.S. government gets bogged down in war instead of internal infrastructure. When it uses fear instead of hope as a way to rally the masses. When greed for oil replaces common sense.

It’s about what happens when leaders in developing countries who have always valued education and learning -- can you say India and China? -- seize the day (and the software) and rub a few brains cells together.

We already know what happens when we dial for help with our computers. We reach a very polite, very competent, very low-paid, very satisfied worker in India. Right now there are about 245,000 Indians answering phones from all over the world or dialing out to solicit people for credit cards of cell phone bargains or overdue bills.

It’s not just because they work cheaper, Friedman says. it’s because they’re smart, ambitious, hungry and willing to do any amount of grunt work to work their way up.

Do you know many youngsters in the U.S. like that? I don’t.

But that’s not all. Did you know that in 2003, accountants in this country outsourced some 25,000 basic tax returns, maybe yours, maybe mine, to accountants in India? Not so many, you say. Except that in 2004 the figure jumped to 100,000 and that in 2005 it’s expected to be 400,000.

It’s all about a “work flow software program with a standardized format that makes the outsourcing of tax returns cheap and easy,” says Friedman.

The next time you’re in a doctor’s office listening to your doctor speak into a Dictaphone, it’s entirely possible his or her voice is being downloaded, digitized and transcribed by someone in -- you guessed it -- India. Then, two hours later - overnight , not the typical two-week lag time if someone in the next office were doing the report -- and at one-fifth the cost, the results are returned to the doctor’s billing file.

Not all the innovations are overseas. From Friedman I learned how the airline known as JetBlue has started to outsource its entire reservation system to housewives in Utah in a system they call, “homesourcing.”

I read about a McDonald’s off Interstate 55 near Cape Girardeau, Mo. - one of 12 McDonald’s owned by the same person - where the “voice” taking your order is in a call center in Colorado Springs, 900 miles away. Why? Lower costs, greater speed, fewer mistakes.

There’s a lot more. A whole chapter on Wal-Mart, of course. And UPS. How the brown company now repairs Toshiba laptops computers at a warehouse near its Louisville hub -- to save time and money. How it hooked up with Papa John’s pizza, Nike and Mail Boxes, Etc.,o schedule the delivery of supplies.

All very interesting, I’m thinking. Especially after I pick up Sunday’s New York Times and read about tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers who still lack proper body armor. All very interesting since the Pentagon has known about this problem since May 2004.

Here’s the kicker: the equipment is not expected to be ready for several months. Why? Because of delays in the Pentagon’s procurement system.

Earth to Washington, D.C. -- let’s get it together, guys. Because if you don’t, someone else will. w


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