Culture

Don't mention the 'O' word!

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says that IBM is going to great lengths to avoid using the "offshoring" word.

In a memorable episode from the English comedy series, "Fawlty Towers," the besotted hotel owner, Basil Fawlty, played by actor John Cleese, suffers a massive concussion. When a group of German tourists turns up at the inn, Fawlty explicitly warns the hired help not to reopen old wounds by making any reference to "the war."

Naturally, temptation wins out and he ultimately winds up performing a syncopated goose-step through the restaurant to the mortification of his foreign guests.

Like poor Fawlty, IBM these days finds itself forced to employ the oddest of circumlocutions to prop up the pretense that plans to shift thousands of high-paying programming jobs overseas are anything but.

I find that awfully curious. That a global company such as IBM is trying to save money by exporting jobs to Asia and Latin America is hardly a showstopper. The only real news is the size of the number of jobs affected, expected in this case to number in the thousands.

Somebody in upper management apparently believes this is a political hot potato.
But somebody in upper management apparently believes this is a political hot potato. Ever since this story first began to leak out late last year, IBM has shucked and shimmied and done whatever else it can in order not to mention offshoring.

Pardon my sarong, but why on earth not?

Since IBM won't talk about any of this, I can only surmise that some bright bulb in PR concluded the best way to handle the issue is to ignore it and pray the questions will just go away. That is precisely the wrong approach but entirely in keeping with the considerable effort IBM is investing in spinning this story the "right" way.

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal got its hands on internal documents outlining how IBM intends to recast the upcoming move. A draft script ordered up by the HR department tells managers to inform affected employees that "this is not a resource action." Elsewhere it cautions them not to be "transparent regarding the purpose/intent," adding that the "terms 'On-shore' and 'Off-shore' never be used."

The memo also advises that anything written to employees should first be "sanitized" by human-resources and communications staffers. Since somebody was in make-believe mode, they might as well have thrown in a good word or two about inflating Sam Palmisano's golf handicap.

All this begs the larger question of why Big Blue is going to such extraordinary lengths not to face up to facts.
All this begs the larger question of why Big Blue is going to such extraordinary lengths not to face up to facts. On the surface, the company is simply doing what's in its best interests. According to the documents reviewed by the Journal, IBM expects to save some $168 million annually starting in 2006. But this is about more than IBM. Accenture plans to double its work force in India this year to nearly 10,000. (In smashingly Orwellian phrasing, the company refers to offshore transfers as "arbitrage of labor.")

So why the spin?

A couple of reasons. In an election year, one of the other major parties--or both?--may play to voters by decrying the loss of skilled jobs to other parts of the globe. An image-conscious company like IBM naturally is anxious not to wind up starring in any campaign commercials this fall. What's more, any big offshoring announcements could pry open the door to further unionization. With few exceptions, unions have failed to make major headway with computer and software companies. That could change because American jobs are clearly at stake when U.S. companies go searching for less-expensive skilled labor in other regions of the globe.

But this issue isn't going to get resolved because of slick public relations. Offshoring didn't start yesterday. Just speak to folks who lost their jobs when the textile industry picked up and moved to Asia or when electronics manufacturers began shipping positions overseas. IBM and the rest of the tech crowd are going to follow in the same direction. The time's long gone when we could assume there was a God-given right to an American job. Protectionism will only make things worse.

As for a possible solution--that's fodder for next week's column.