Can-Do IT in Colombia


By Samuel Greengard

I just spent the last three days in Colombia. No, I wasn't kidnapped and I didn't meet Juan Valdez or the world's shortest man. I did spend a lot of time talking to corporate executives and touring contact centers and other facilities in Bogota and Medellín.

Like many up-and-coming nations, Columbia's nascent IT and BPO industry is thriving. Over the last few years, a spate of companies--including IBM, HP, Unisys, SAP, Wyeth, Direct TV and Convergys, have set up operations here. Despite a lingering (and lagging) image of drug lords and guerrillas hiding behind every coffee sack, Colombia has transformed itself over the last 20 years.

The country now boasts the fourth largest economy in Latin America and has emerged as the most "business friendly" country in Latin America, according to 2010 World Bank rankings. In fact, the crime rate in Medellín is lower than many U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C. and Detroit.

This environment is attracting foreign investment "There are lower service costs but this isn't the primary driver," says Diego Martinez, HUB Manager at SAP Latin America. "An excellent infrastructure, favorable geographic location, stable democracy and an educated workforce are all key factors."

Harvard Business Review described Colombia as an "Entrepreneurial Breeding Ground" in its June 2010 issue.

Make no mistake, this is a country undergoing a remarkable transformation. But what I find remarkable--and I've seen the same thing in other places like Vietnam and India, is an optimism and enthusiasm that's sorely lacking in the U.S. Instead of finding reasons why something won't work or generating excuses about why a system or project won't fly, people find a way.

For example, when HP scouted Medellín for a global service center location in early 2010, ACI, the city's economic development organization, collaborated with Universidad Eafit to provide 32,000 plus square feet of space while HP builds out facilities that will not be completed until 2012 and contain nearly 120,000 square feet of space. The two organizations--recognizing the synergy of collaborating--cut through the clutter that typically exists in the U.S.

Frankly, I'm a bit embarrassed and chagrined by our nation's lackadaisical attitude. You've probably read Thomas Friedman and, yes, the world is flat these days. But when I see people eager to head to work in the morning, newspapers (in India) printing sample questions for professional certifications and degrees (accounting, engineering, you name it), and executives applying real creativity to IT and business challenges, I can't help but think we've missed the ship.

Are we getting fat and lazy? Time will tell. But if my visit to Colombia has taught me something, it's that IT and business need fewer bean counters and more creativity if we want keep the cup more than half full.