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Foreign exchange

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This second article in the outsourcing debate questions whether it is really the way to go?

Outsourcing seems like a quick and simple way of buying into a more productive and globalised operating network. But how easy and efficient is it? After all, I worked in an architectural office spread over three storeys and the lack of internal dialogue between floors - even though we communicated by intranet and internal phone system - was such that unless we instituted regular face-toface meetings (on the middle floor), then drawing schemes would often go haywire. Effectively, there became a laziness in cohesion and an inability to see the big picture. Impose that scenario over not three floors but, say, three continents and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

Over the years we have come to know of many technical fixes to the inherent fragmented nature of architectural education and practice;

design and build, QA, Egan, partnering, consultancy, etc. And the beauty of them all is that none of them has really made a blind bit of difference to the situation on the ground.

We still have a linear, labour-intensive, wet-trade prevalent, drawings-based production of buildings in this country.

Outsourcing is the latest in the long line of ideas that tries to address the inefficiencies in the system, but to a certain extent represents and exacerbates those very inefficiencies. In their latest book Why is Construction So Backward? (Wiley 2004, pp192), James Woudhuysen, Stefan Muthesius, Miles Glendinning and Ian Abley examine the reactionary consequences of over-precaution, overprotection (as well as the over-statement of environmental problems) as the barrier to real progress in the industry.Whether offices are located in Bali, Bombay or Brixton is a second order consideration.

However, there is something to be said for cheap labour. Architectural firms going abroad - just like call centres in the '80s that went to Bangalore - can benefit from the fact that Indian labour is even less expensive than the north-east of England.

However, let's not pretend that this is a particularly dynamic business case.

When National Rail Enquiries decided to relocate 'overseas', it was on the basis that the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) believed that it could save £10 million per annum, primarily on wage reductions.

Chasing one's tail to improve margins by searching out cheap labour says a lot about the parlous state of some businesses, if that is all they can come up with. Instead of improving profitability by focusing on a vigorous investment and accumulation process, they scurry around for ideas to save money, penny-pinch and generally scrape the bottom of their business barrel.

Criticism of ATOC's decision on the basis that quality would decline if core jobs were outsourced is a Little Englander mentality from those who have obviously not experienced the so-called quality of the existing UKbased rail enquiry service. Similar criticisms relating to outsourcing architectural services are misplaced.

Technology is technology and the ability to draw in a variety of CAD packages is as high or, in some developing countries, even higher than it is in this country. An Indian friend who is studying in the UK is applying for a position with the British Consulate in Mumbai and, apart from the fact that all applicants have to have a PhD, she is competing for the job with four million other applicants. It is crazy to assume that technical standards would be anything other than as high in the outsource country.

However, it is inevitably the case that increased managerial intervention and control would be necessary if that technical skill isn't to go awry in production terms.

Back in the UK, it is true that staff might have a better job satisfaction if all the crap gets shovelled over to some minion in the Third World, but since a large proportion of architect's day-to-day activity is basic crap anyway, maybe the junior practice staff may find themselves out of a job.

After all, profit margins will only increase if the cheap labour from abroad displaces 'expensive' labour over here. The notion that staff can use their time more productively is premised on the office's workload increasing to fill the vacuum. Unfortunately, this appears not to be a believable, or a stable long-term forecast of the real economic future for construction, and so job cuts would be on the cards.

There are examples of where such outsourcing has worked, and is working - whether it's Gehry and Libeskind outsourcing to Dundee and Manchester, or Atlas Industries, a technology company based in Vietnam that does the majority of its work for the UK architectural sector.

Undoubtedly, this market will continue to grow, with Third World countries competing to keep their own labour costs competitively low, but in the grand scheme of things, this is not something to be proud of.

Brad Eastlie is an architect who has worked regularly in south-east Asia

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