IBM software will help workers at call centers improve
Nov. 19, 2006
NEW DELHI - Even as Indian call centers have thrived in the past decade, helping
U.S. companies cut costs and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, they have
faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: Most Indian employees speak heavily
Now IBM Corp.'s India Research Lab says it has a way to help operators fix the
harsh consonants, local idioms and occasionally different grammar of Indian
English, often a source of frustration of those who call in search of tech
support and other information.
IBM, which operates large call center facilities here, has developed a Web-based
training technology that can help improve language skills of operators.
Although the technology was initially developed for its call-center employees in
India, it has broad applicability for individuals as well as in schools and
businesses, said Ashish Verma, who led efforts to develop the tool at the India
Research Lab in New Delhi.
The program evaluates grammar, pronunciation, comprehension and other
spoken-language skills, and provides detailed scores for each category. It uses
specially adapted speech-recognition software to score the pronunciation of
passages and the stressing of syllables for individual words.
The technology also consists of voice-enabled grammar evaluation tests, which
identify areas for improvement by highlighting shortcomings and providing
examples of correct pronunciation and grammar.
"Most of the existing solutions are available offline, where you listen to model
speakers and mimic their accents," Verma said. "In our case, we are analyzing
But many call-center companies in India said the new technology could prove to
be a supplement rather than a substitute to existing training programs.
"Online solutions and software can act as an aid in training an individual.
However, it is critical that this is supported by classroom training," said
Pradeep Narayanan, chief delivery officer at 24/7 Customer, a leading Indian
Narayanan said his company already uses software to help employees to improve
fluency and clarity of speech as well as undertake self-evaluations of their
"Such tools can be amalgamated as new modules into existing training programs.
They can never be a stand-alone solution," said Asutosh Malik, vice president
training at EXL Services, a New York-based outsourcing company that employs more
than 7,000 people at call centers in India.
EXL encourages its employees to speak English in an accent-neutral style and
uses a mixture of tools that include e-learning, accent samples and records of
conversations with clients. But the emphasis is "on learning through practice,"
Scores of Western firms routinely transfer back-office work to India, where
wages are low and skilled workers are plentiful.
When the outsourcing boom got under way in the late 1990s, companies tried to
ease Western fears of jobs moving offshore by training workers to use American
and British accents. Many of them often used fake western names.
However, with resentment in the West waning, most companies now are discouraging
their employees from faking accents or names. Instead, they are being asked to
speak clearly and avoid accents.
IBM's solution could help these efforts, but it isn't clear if the company would
commercialize the new technology.
EXL's Malik said IBM's tool could find a good market in India.
The need to develop the new technology was driven, in part, by IBM's own plans
to expand and hire more people in India.
Over the next three years, it plans to invest $6 billion in India, making it a
hub for its outsourcing business. It plans to hire more employees for all of its
businesses, including Daksh eServices, an Indian call-center company that
employs more than 25,000 people and was acquired by IBM in 2004.
"English has become the common language of the business world, so the ability to
communicate effectively in English can dictate success or failure in integrating
into the global business environment," said Dan Dias, director of India Research