The next decade will bring remarkable changes in the way office work is done. Perhaps nowhere will change be more profound than in countries such as India, where improved network access and smart technologies could make it possible for certain tasks to be divided among people working outside major city centers, including in rural areas.
Xerox is one of many companies researching this trend and developing the technologies that will pave the way. CTO Sophie Vandebroek described some of the efforts of the company’s two-year-old Xerox Research Center in India with Technology Review’s chief correspondent, David Talbot.
TR: Offshoring is already a big business in India. What’s coming?
Vandebroek: India today has large office buildings where you might find 3,000 people coming to a crowded urban area to perform tasks like document management or to staff a customer-call center. They have low incomes and sometimes commute for hours. It is better to spread that work into the villages—better for business efficiency, for sustainability, and for improving the health and happiness of the employees and their families.
Xerox employs ethnographers to study such problems. What’s an example of what they’ve discovered?
One involves distributed manufacturing. In Chennai we studied a mass-producer of baskets and other woven goods. A rural coördinator would go around all week to the villages where the products were made, and on weekends he would enter production data into an Excel spreadsheet back in Chennai. He needed a way of entering and accessing data with his mobile phone in real time.
Such technology doesn’t exist already?
If you are somewhere with sufficient bandwidth and a smart phone, you can access databases and even enterprise resource management systems. Innovation in the developing world is often about doing more with less; in this case doing specific things with less bandwidth on more phones. The new tool enabled access to only the specific real-time data he needed, which had been entered in Chennai.
Are such innovations applicable outside of the developing world?
If you can do things in a simpler and more efficient way, it’s always good. In the medical field, for example, there is a lot of innovation on low-cost devices that nurses can use in villages. Similar low-cost technologies could be used by people in the developed world to report their own medical information from their homes.
How can you break up the tasks of those massive offshoring centers and do it in villages, especially if the work involves sensitive financial or health information?
You need to do it securely, and in a way that can withstand breakdowns in village power and cellular or Internet connections. We are in the middle of crafting the solutions. For example, if the job involves managing your health-care payments—900 million health-insurance payments are processed by Xerox every year—we make sure we split the job, so that no one person knows your name, your medical condition, and your Social Security number.
How soon can such office solutions be widely implemented—and what’s the ultimate vision?
My hope and goal is that this works and is scalable. We are initiating a pilot with one of the startups in the Indian Institute of Technology Madras’s Rural Technology and Business Incubator. If it is successful, the future of work in India and in all developing nations will be radically different. It will allow people to make a living in their village and create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world.