Reflections of the South African GBS Sector in Lockdown

Ubuntu – An African term meaning”I am, because we are”

Our country has been grappling with the lockdown and its prospects for future growth for 6 weeks now. A tremendous amount has happened across our industry over this period, and whilst we have been apart, we have never worked with more unity and purpose both for our sector and for our country.

As I sit back and reflect on our industry’s front line people (our essential service workers), its leaders and the many companies that have endured through this period of lockdown, I am genuinely filled with gratitude for what people have done in service to our industry, and inspired by what the future prospects hold for us.  The purpose of this post is to express my gratitude to my industry colleagues for their phenomenal dedication and contributions, as well as to share a few of my personal reflections.

Reflection 1 –Unity

Over the last few years BPESA has built a tremendous community of members across the country as well as establishing partnerships at a national and local government level including with the likes of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (dtic) and The Presidency. BPESA has also participated and represented the industry as a priority sector in South Africa’s growth agenda in a national programme, the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI). It is during these challenging times and across this ecosystem that I have witnessed unprecedented industry unity amongst remarkable individuals, companies, and industry associations. It has been a united effort driven by a shared vision, passion and a belief  in the future of our industry and its people.

Reflection 2 –Resilience 

48 hours after President Ramaphosa declared a state of National Disaster, I sat alongside other sector representatives where we discussed with him how each sector would deploy safe workplace protocols and shared our thinking about alternative economic recovery strategies. However, when the first round of essential service lockdown regulations were published, our specific sector inputs were omitted meaning that large parts of our industry couldn’t operate at all during the lockdown.

Tens of thousands of jobs were on the line and many businesses in our sector faced a very bleak future. But within 48 hours our sector got a specific sector directive published which protected our industry and those of its international clients running essential services. It took coordinated efforts to achieve the government recognition and repositioning of our industry in a remarkably short space  of time. We not only managed to get people back to work, but also managed to get a special sector directive and advance South Africa’s global competitive position in the process.

Over the first four weeks of lockdown, our industry went from having no representation on the Essential Services Gazette to ramping up to 39,339 essential local and international workers in over one hundred different companies, across over 144 different physical sites in South Africa.

Reflection 3 – Innovation 

South Africa and its citizens are widely recognised for being resilient and innovative under stressful circumstances,  and it is no different for our sector. For many years our industry paid lip service to the subject of home-based agents, and many of us questioned our own abilities to ramp this capability up at scale. In many respects, what COVID-19 did was to force our hand. Within a period of less than two weeks, the industry had enabled  well over 25,000 home-based agents across South Africa and many operator CEOs have expressed  that it will be unlikely that their operations will revert back to a 100% office model. Most envisage that homeworking will be a permanent part of their delivery model going forward.

What’s more, we are starting to see the rapid deployment of video calling utilising alternative digital channels such as WhatsApp and various social media platforms.

The realities of the impact of COVID-19 on the broader South African economy has highlighted the critical role played by intermediaries such as BPESA. It has also emphasised the potential for cooperation and synergies and between complementary sectors.

A fine example of these synergies is the rapidly evolving partnership between South Africa’s various BPO/GBS and ICT stakeholders.  In a relatively short time, these interest groups have cooperated and collaborated to craft sound, sustainable partnership MOUs that will advance the interests of their respective sectors quickly.

Reflection 4 – Commitment  

Over these last few weeks I have witnessed incredibly inspiring work carried out by my colleagues in BPESA, by key government officials and by our partners. Our entire sector is indebted to a small band of dedicated and committed professionals that have achieved the seemingly impossible in the space of a few short weeks. The leadership and support provided by the BPESA Board and Exco has been humbling. It has certainly been a personal career highlight for me to serve alongside these remarkable individuals, during this historic time for the world, for our country and specifically, for our sector.

Reflection 5 – Growth

During the lockdown we are starting to see companies in our sector not only securing new business but also growing jobs and contributing meaningfully to the economy’s recovery.  Our industry has also been able to significantly advance its position on the global BPO/GBS stage.

Earlier this month we had the news that South Africa has been ranked, in a survey conducted by Canadian-based and globally recognised BPO analysists, Ryan Strategic Advisory in association with Knowledge Executive and CXOutsourcers as the 2ndmost preferred global BPO/GBS delivery location, with India achieving the coveted number one position. This is a remarkable achievement for the South African BPO/GBS sector.

There is no doubt in my mind that this award will further underscore the South African sector value proposition, and will lead on to significant growth prospects for our industry; to renewed FDI; to stimulated Impact Sourcing strategies and to the creation of sustainable, large-scale employment.

A few short months ago I engaged with local and global stakeholders at our Annual GBS Investor Conference & Awards under the banner of ‘’Re-Imagining 2030’’ as we celebrated the successes of our sector and our people through the annual conference and awards.  We were enlightened by thought provoking content, inspired by our top achievers, entertained by South African hero’s – the Ndlovu Youth choir and thanked by the many global investors who visited our shores and engaged with our industry. The biggest take-aways for them is that South Africa is the best kept offshore location secret and the industry collaboration between competing peers is unlike any they had seen before. Little did I know that this very fact would be our biggest strength as we embarked on this journey.

The South African BPO/GBS sector will need to sustain and advance our offering if we want to rise to the number one position. Unquestionably, digital will have to play a far greater role in our portfolio of service offerings and a resilient, agile, and dependable workforce of home-based agents will have a pivotal place in our industry’s future.

The broader South African BPO/GBS and ICT sector is indeed poised for greatness. The ability to roll with the punches of the invisible COVID-19 boxer enemy. The ability to muster industry and cross-sector collaboration… The deployment of hyperscale data centres such as those of Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure…The imminent release of the long-awaited increased broadband spectrum…The introduction of widespread 5G… Government’s unwavering support for the development of digital and future skills…These are the building blocks for greatness.

When we finally emerge from the  current crisis, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that our sector can and will advance towards our full potential as we continue to build on the hard won achievements that we have been enjoying in earlier years.

In Closing

It has and continues to be an extremely difficult and painful period for our industry, for our country and for the world.  Personally, I am inspired to realise that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought our industry closer together. It has unified us. It has made us stronger. It has tested our mettle, but, it has set us up to achieve massive success in the post-COVID world.  The world that we have the privilege to re-imagine and re-engineer.

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