The world is flat. So what's our problem?

Budgets are tight everywhere but take a lesson from one Indian outsource giant, where employee education and retraining remains a corporate priority.

This is shaping up to be quite a winter of discontent. Mass layoffs at home and mass demonstrations abroad have combined to foster a seething desperation around the world that would have warmed the cockles of Dickens' Madame Defarge.

But shouting "off with their heads" only gets you so far. Whether we like it or not, the deterioration of the global economy has forced companies everywhere to take hard looks at how well they generate value. Especially in the Internet age, where your competitor may only be a mouse click away.

Infosys co-chairman: Nandan Nilekani

We Americans were first to figure this stuff out. But that was a fleeting moment in history. The rest of the world has since caught up-and in many cases surpassed us. Case in point: the success of the overseas entrepreneurs who have built multi-billion dollar outsourcing operations that have since become so integrated with the United States' technology industry.

The New York Times' Tom Friedman was spot on in his 2005 book "The World is Flat" when he argued that inexpensive and ubiquitous telecommunications have helped to foster international competition. So it is that in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble burst, companies like Infosys have been able to grow exponentially. (One should note that Infosys derives over half of its revenue from on-site and near-shore assignments in India.)

But this is more than just a low-cost game. When I spoke earlier this week with the company's co-founder and current co-chairman, Nandan Nilekani offered a piece of advice that every U.S. company would have heeded-had they had the opportunity for a do-over.

"All of this global growth the past few years gave us a pass on making fundamental reforms," he said. The boom times, he continued, essentially papered over the cracks in the system "that should have been addressed."

Nilekani advocates a back-to-basics approach where companies invest in their most precious asset: their human capital. How's that for a role reversal? But Infosys has taken the lessons of America's great success in high-tech to heart and spends millions of dollars annually on corporate education programs that ultimately produce a better trained cohort of employees.

Infosys spent about $400 million to build its campus in Mysore, India, where it teaches around 13,500 company "students." The follow-up course work includes yearly refresher courses. It's a coveted place to work. Infosys received 1 million applicants last year for 25,000 job postings.

Infosys may be a proverbial one-off. In a deep recession that sometimes appears close to slipping into a depression, you won't find many companies, big or small, eager to invest big bucks on education and training. Not when budgets are getting slashed and the visibility about what the next quarter may bring is opaque.

But one day--and I can't predict when--all of this will end. One wager, though, I will make: when the economic miasma lifts, watch companies that had the means and the will to invest in the best trained workforce money could buy. They're going to be ready to kick butts and take names.

 

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