Rosemary Batt, Alice H. Cook Professor of Women and Work
Call Center Industry: Shifting Work and Boundaries
Professor Rosemary Batt, Alice H. Cook Professor of Women and Work, says her most recent project focuses on the globalization of service work. Along with colleagues in Germany and the UK, she has coordinated an international study of the emerging Call Center Sector. Call centers are technology-mediated service and sales operations that have become the major channel through which companies interact with their customers. The industry has grown dramatically around the world as the result of advanced information technologies and the falling costs of telecommunications. “I started this project four years ago, and since then it has spread to include 45 researchers in 20 countries. That is because of the importance of this sector everywhere for firm competitiveness and job growth,” she states. The research results are detailed in “The Global Call Center Report: International Perspectives on Management and Employment” (www.ilr.cornell.edu/globalcallcenter).
This study is unusual because it compares the simultaneous growth of an emerging sector in both developed and developing economies, with countries as different as Germany, South Africa, Canada, and India all viewing call center jobs as a solution to unemployment. Notably, in all countries these jobs are primarily filled by women.
“We started with a simple question,” says Batt, “How important are national institutions and business strategies in shaping the quality of jobs and service in this emerging sector? In this technology driven industry, are management practices converging towards one model of employment? Or do institutions and norms still matter in shaping divergent outcomes?”
To answer this question, each country team administered an identical national survey of management practices and employment outcomes, supplemented by extensive field research. This produced an international database of 2,500 work sites covering employment of nearly 500,000 workers.
“Through our collaboration and three rounds of international conferences, we have produced insights that no single country team could have generated alone,” reports Batt. “For example, media accounts conger up images of call center jobs all flowing to India. In fact, these centers emerged in virtually every country at about the same time – since the mid to late 1990s. The sector is growing everywhere, not only in India.”
Other findings include the importance of national institutions in shaping management practices, including the role of education and training, employers associations, trade unions, and works councils. Managerial choice in business and HR strategies also matters. While call centers have a ‘sweat shop’ image, they vary dramatically in the quality of jobs, pay, and service, both within and across countries.
“Over the course of the next two years, we will be publishing a series of scholarly papers and books analyzing the global development and dynamics of this important source of employment around the world,” Batt notes. “It has been a fantastic experience to work with the researchers from around the world who come from very different disciplines and have distinct assumptions.”
“I believe that especially in today’s interconnected world, it is not sufficient to examine work and employment practices in one country,” Batt continues, “U.S. multinational corporations, and their counterparts based in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, are competing with each other around the globe; and it is important that we understand how and why they operate with different approaches to management and employment.”
Today’s labor markets are increasingly global. A bank teller who used to work in Philadelphia is now a call center worker in Phoenix, San Antonio, Ontario, Bangalore, Dublin, or Manila. Companies are able to shift work instantaneously, so there is a need to understand management and employment systems as they cut across networks of organizations and geographically dispersed communities.
International research is challenging and exciting, as the unit of analysis and the boundaries of organizations keep shifting. Professor Batt also emphasizes the value of working with the visiting fellows who come to the ILR School every semester. She sees it is an opportunity for everyone in the ILR community to broaden their understanding of management and employment around the world. Visiting fellows come with different assumptions, a different teaching style, and most importantly, a wealth of knowledge to share. “The ILR School has faculty expertise in Human Resource and Organization Studies and Labor Relations covering every region of the globe,” remarks Professor Batt. “Now, we are moving to the next level – institutionalizing our international work so that it is integrated into every aspect of teaching and research, even when the focal point is not international.”
- Rosemary Batt