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Article by Mohan Babu

Hi-tech gadgets: Necessity or fashion?

Automation that works in the west may not really be suitable for the overpopulated countries in the east where the prime concern is to suitably engage the unemployed, writes Mohan Babu

Dignity of labour in the west has a different meaning, as opposed to what we are used to in India. Here one has to service one’s own needs; servants and domestic help is largely unheard of. Starting from picking up your bags at the airport, to bagging your own thrash, and cleaning and maintaining the house and apartment, one is responsible for everything. Here most people, regardless of their position or status, drive their own cars, take out their own trash, walk their dogs, put the laundry and dishes in washers and dishwashers. I don’t mean to imply that there is absolutely no domestic help available in the west. However, the cleaning services can be prohibitively expensive and not affordable for day-to-day maintenance and servicing.

Any service that involves human labour is expensive. Minimum wage laws in the west ensure that even the most menial jobs are paid “minimum wages”. Incidentally, the Federal minimum wage, last raised by the US Congress in 1997 is currently set at $5.15 per hour. Most states also have their own state statues that allow the minimum wage to be greater than the Federal rate, for example in California, the current minimum wage is set at $6.25/hour. No wonder, even mundane services involving humans are expensive, for example a haircut at the local barbershop can cost upwards of $15.

The shortage of skilled labour along with the high costs involved in employing humans has ensured the automation of most mundane tasks. Most businesses try to minimise the human element as much as they can. For instance, most parking lots are automated, with cameras instead of humans monitoring enforcement. Interestingly, a novel, but controversial idea, currently being tried out in a number of cities across the US is the ‘traffic ticket by mail’ concept. A number of traffic lights have been fitted with video cameras and motion sensors that not only detect vehicles trying to jump the signal, but also capture their license plate numbers and automatically generate and mail traffic tickets that are hard to dispute. The flip side of this is that the hard-pressed police officers avoid the drudgery of manning the traffic signals and are happier using their skills for other police-work.

Life without domestic help can be tough, especially in nuclear families where both partners work full time. To aid in household chores, gadgets like vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washers and dryers are de rigueur. People with huge lawns and yards also invest in automated lawnmowers and snows ploughs, and take the time and energy to maintain them. Gadgets are generally designed to be user-friendly and automatic requiring little human input or intervention.

The advent of technology and proliferation of tools of communication like e-mails and instant messengers has not only changed the way we communicate but also had an unintended consequence — vanishing of the tribe of stenographers/typists. This is especially true amongst younger executives and professionals who are becoming comfortable with the Internet, e-mail and the use of word processing software tools, finding it more convenient to type up a note themselves, rather than dictate it to a steno. Of course the role of stenos are getting expanded, for instance in our group we have one steno/pa/office manager who help about 80 people including the senior manager, all the managers, leads and professionals.

Automation that works in the west may not really be suitable for the overpopulated countries in the east where the prime concern is to harness the human potential and employ a burgeoning population effectively and productively. In India, I find it particularly amusing that some people take pride in having all the household gadgets and a horde of servants to operate the gadgets! Most Indians who visit the west are enamoured by the gadgets; little realising that the gadgets are just tools without a personal touch that human services provide. Some people do not realise that in the west it is the necessity and convenience that leads people to use gadgets and not merely fashion alone.

One area that is not really susceptible to automation is the hospitality industry and other service sectors that require a “human face”. Those in the hospitality industry, especially in the west, value the importance of the human touch and are wary of automating the front-end of operations, hence we still see receptionists, bellhops and doormen greeting visitors. Interestingly the push for automation in the west has lead to a renewed interest in outsourcing, especially in labour-intensive technical areas.

Case in point, a number of Indian companies have successfully set up call centres to handle calls for their clients in the US who need to service the needs of their customers in real time. Call centres require a whole army of trained and articulate workers to perform a task that can be quite repetitive and companies in the US find it extremely hard to train, motivate and retain workers for their call centre operations.





About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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