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Offshore Outsourcing: Short-Term Gain or Long-Term Disaster? Part 2, Analysis

  Article published in DM Direct Newsletter
July 16, 2004 Issue
  By Russell Ruggiero and Rex Brooks

The case study mentioned in Part 1 of this two-part series is just one illustration of a continual and disturbing pattern of top-level American business decision making. This inference relates to American business and not to global or multinational corporate decision making. It is a difficult distinction to make since publicly traded companies tend to evolve into multinational corporate entities either by absorbing, being absorbed or merging with other publicly traded companies. The goal of Part 2 is to expound upon American business (companies conceived and incorporated within the United States) and the offshore outsourcing of goods and services.

Entire industries have fallen prey to a constant and troubling precedent. In simple terms, it is no more than the wholly expectable operation of the free enterprise marketplace, but in all of the instances we could cite of this repeating pattern exemplified by the conventional film camera industry, the essential cause is the same: Commodity costs. These costs are no longer viewed only as products but also as services. Offshore outsourcing costs are currently comprised of such core components such as education, labor, materials and R&D. Consequently, from a business perspective there are no fundamental differences between bauxite ore and software engineers. History has a habit of repeating itself. Entire domestic industries such as steel and textile and clothing are good examples of how the United States lost key revenue sectors to foreign competition because of their focus on short-term gains, rather than long-term market share and job stability. Obsession with shareholder value may be viewed as the primary culprit.

As the wars of the last two generations changed the economic landscape, so too will the new war on terrorism. It will accelerate change in some areas and remake the landscape in others. However, the inexorable move toward the rapid transformation of education and R&D into a commodity cost for the now-global marketplace will not change. This new development will make the longer-term picture of the global economic landscape difficult to recognize. It is the new piece in the repeating pattern of short-term bottom-line thinking as the determinant of business decision making. Recently on the evening news, a number of well-respected economists favored the outsourcing of such services as help desks of major software companies because this practice would enable American businesses to concentrate on what it can do best, which in their estimation cannot be done anywhere else in the world. Sorry, but the emperor has no clothes. There is nothing that America can do that cannot be done somewhere else; perhaps not better in some cases, but certainly at a lower cost. The process of offshore outsourcing is often justified by citing it as an example of a theory called "comparative advantage," but is it not really just the same old competitive advantage of a free market that goes back to Adam Smith that lives, thrives and or dies on Darwinian principles? Unfortunately, as John Rockefeller (early twentieth century) and Bill Gates (late twentieth century) have demonstrated, and now the early twenty-first century is showing us again, this deregulated, unfettered, supposedly "free" marketplace is quite vulnerable to monopolistic practices that tend to kill the market that fostered it.

Apparently, American business has not learned this lesson well enough, so it avoids it when it wears the cloak of innovation. This occurrence or reoccurrence may be directly attributed to the enticing nature of new technologies, which in most cases are often misunderstood by all interested parties (e.g., creators, distributors, consumers, etc.).

However, we need to look a little deeper at the justification for offshore outsourcing simply beyond mechanical market principles. There is a deception, which owes to psychological conditioning that we have fallen prey to in post-WWII America. We have been led to think of ourselves as the winners through our democratic form of government, and all the easily mouthed virtues of our freedoms as the natural result of human history where the "good guys" come home with the trophy in the end through the sweat of their brows, combined with the diligence of their efforts and innate goodness of their American way of life. This isn't to say that this deception has been anything other than unintentional and or self-inflicted. We don't look beneath the covers unless we absolutely have to. The time has come to face cold facts about offshore outsourcing.

Is the U.S About to Lose Another Key Industry to Foreign Competition?

The timing may be right for America to lose its domestic IT industry, including manufacturing as well as service components to foreign companies based out of China, India and Singapore. While it may seem that this assertion is the ultimate thrust of this report, the true import of what we have examined is that there is no comfortable middle ground between the goals of global scope corporations for bottom-line profit and national priorities for the common welfare. Unfortunately, the problem is not one that can be cast in simplistic terms despite the best efforts of politicians who attempt to popularize their positions in terms of down-home folksiness during election years. It is a highly complex state of affairs, and claiming that one's opposition is walking down a road to a disaster of one's own description and characterization won't help us understand the true nature of the intersection between national needs and international economics.

Because this is a presidential election year, we are unlikely to hear reasoned debate about this major topic, but we can say that, regardless of the positions staked out by the candidates themselves or their respective political parties, these positions will no doubt be cast in terms that are aimed at swaying undecided votes, rather than either clearly analyzing the situation or offering considered solutions. In a nutshell, a hands-off policy, one that in effect ratifies the status quo will inevitably yield or cede this industry to the current economic forces at play under the theory of comparative advantage while the currently voiced counter of solely deriding the current policy without actually offering any policy other than studying the situation will also yield up this industry. However, what is likely post election is that it will still take at least two years for the eventual loss of this industry to be virtually irresistible, at least in terms of short-term measures that can stop the current erosion. However, before any proposed measure, and or measures to halt the slide are to be taken, a number of key factors must be considered. For example, one of the chief arguments made in favor of the theory of comparative advantage is that defending against what appears to be probable consequences of free market practices such as less expensive short-term labor costs must be viewed as an unavoidable losing strategy over the long term. Set aside for a moment the counter argument that such costs would even out if effective negotiations ensured that trading partners would honor conditional agreements meant to increase the compensation for labor. The development of significant collective bargaining would, in time, increase the cost of labor and there by diminish that advantage, thus "even out" the proverbial and largely metaphorical illusion of a level playing field. The pursuit of a level playing field is a proverbial wild goose chase where the cost of living would make relative millionaires of factory workers earning commensurate compensation (the same situation applies to ecological, environment-conserving arguments). We also need not point out the hypocrisy of the American position that the world which accepted the Tokyo Accords ought to preserve the environment the way we do. The truth is, these are competitive advantages, not comparative advantages because there can be no valid comparisons. It's a dead argument and pursuing it achieves nothing, and, in truth, actually damages us to the extent that it distracts our attention from focusing on the real facts. As soon as we stop allowing ourselves to be misled, intentionally or not, we can look at these disadvantages as opportunities rather than liabilities.

Will Short-Term Strategies Lead to a Drain of Domestic IT Talent?

This denial is a symptom attributed to a difficulty recognizing that America will most likely never again have seemingly "bullet proof" industries supported by an apparently insurmountable lead in its scientific and information technologies. Education along with R&D has joined the bandwagon of commodities in the global marketplace, and the Internet has fueled this development at an astonishing rate. At the present time, a fairly common practice is for third-world nations to send its best, scholarship subsidized, students to United States colleges and universities, where they then live and work a few years after graduation to get a little seasoning in how education gets applied in the business world and then return to their own schools to duplicate the process of turning out information workers. Furthermore, such seasoning provides experience in the key IT battleground of business and offers unique opportunities for these bright young minds to develop new and important insights on how to apply their knowledge and experience as well as recognizing entire new areas of opportunities to attract offshore outsourcing contracts from United States based companies. If the current offshore outsourcing trend continues, domestic IT talent will be drained from three key areas that include college and university professors, students contemplating or enrolled in computer science programs, and a cross-pollination environment to cultivate new ideas and concepts. Listed below are brief summaries of each of the three key areas.

College and University Professors

Foreign seasoned professionals will form the basis of their home nations' bootstrapping information economies. However, it would not be surprising to find a "brain drain" occurring of our professors and post-doctorates, taking higher paying jobs overseas for these efforts in order to accelerate this process. As foreign countries prosper, it will only be natural for them to import our domestic professors and post-doctorates with more attractive salaries and perks, and such a drain will lower the education that we will be able to offer our own children. Part of problem with seeing this is that our domestic economists tend to think of labor costs simply in terms of factory jobs. However, in the information economy labor costs are now also factored into such costs as application development, call centers and maintenance. Add in collateral costs such as labor, prime real estate locations and materials for installation security, and this will continue to give countries such as China, India and Singapore large advantages.

Students Contemplating or Enrolled in Computer Science Programs

The dot-com bubble bust has cast a pall on the IT landscape and students contemplating or enrolled in computer science programs at domestic colleges or universities. For example, high school students contemplating careers may steer away from computer science programs because of both high costs and job uncertainty at the end of the completed curriculum. Prospective students long-term vision is to secure a job in a stable and growing industry. Unfortunately, the current domestic economic malaise and offshore outsourcing will likely curtail the number of prospective high-school students contemplating computer science programs at colleges or universities. In the same way, current domestic economic malaise and offshore outsourcing has created a dreadful environment for students graduating with computer science degrees in 2004.

Regrettably, these students entered their chosen curriculum at the height of the dot-com bubble and presently face a very inhospitable post-bubble, busted job market. Compare this to the IT-ascendant days of the 1990s when the Y2K phenomenon added a real-world baseline necessity to the dot-com bubble. This is what we mean by the vulnerability built into current American top-level management's decision making. The dot-com era was built upon a marketplace that fueled expectations of immediate short-term, relatively unearned profits without much understanding of the true basis on which the vaporware culture of IT awareness was built during the period when the very concept of the CIO was invented.

A Cross-Pollination Environment to Cultivate New Ideas and Concepts

The San Francisco-Seattle-Dallas-Boston cafe/coffee shop/diner IT culture, inadvertently fostered the dot-com bubble, but in the first high-tech wave of the mid 1980s the term "forward-thinking" was coined. Venture capitalists (VCs), software companies and hardware companies have all been active participants regarding this cross-pollination environment, which has spawned innumerable ideas and concepts over the last 20 years. Their shared goal has always been to find the next killer app or moneymaking idea or concept. The basic dynamics of this culture included a relaxed atmosphere, forward-thinking brainstorming and an entrepreneurial demeanor.

For example, the ideas of Software Company A could be overheard at a mutually attended establishment (e.g., caf, coffee shop, diner, etc.) by Software Company B, which could leverage some of the ideas or concepts of expounded upon by Software Company A. Likewise, Software Company B might be holding an impromptu marketing meeting at a mutually attended establishment on the features and functions of its new software which, in turn, could overheard by Software Company C - stimulating thoughts about new uses for their products. This eclectic and fertile environment is now in jeopardy because of offshore outsourcing. How so? If business process and R&D are moving offshore, then cross-pollination environments will be located in Bangalore, Dhaka and Shanghigh. Worse, this kind of cross-pollination usually requires a mixed demography of younger enthusiastic and energetic participants leavened by a sprinkling of older, more experienced, but not yet retired or socially ossified former pioneers still actively interested in such forward thinking creativity-sparking ideas.

If one or both sources are co-opted, it simply won't be possible to stimulate the development of this culture, the entire demographic must be reassembled and that can only be done by the next generation. It is a fragile and delicate process that has historically occurred by fortunate accident. We must create it intentionally now.

Will China, India and Singapore Become the Future IT Superpowers?

If current status quo remains in effect by both government and private sectors, then expect countries such as China, India and Singapore to be the IT superpowers in 2074.

The cultures of the aforementioned countries are far older than the United States, 5,000 years in the case of both China and India. Their time lines may be viewed in centuries, compared with only decades for the United States.

The way that this cultural continuity expresses itself in this context takes many forms, notwithstanding recent, revolutionary historical events that have served to traumatically "modernize" these cultures. These forms vary from the one child family policy of China to the rampant entrepreneurial free-for-all that characterizes India. However, the key concept in this series of developments is the fact that these societal transformations have been utterly traumatic.

This has served to sever the social ties to the immediate past of the colonial era of European imperialism and rapid, largely unplanned as well as unexpected industrialization. This has occurred while these societies were erecting new forms of national, regional and local governments in both urban and rural communities. And, of course, as for all of humanity, there has been no pause in technological development from industrialization to the current era of increasingly rapid change to information technologies. These harsh, abrupt cultural transitions from technologically backward societies to societies that must, of necessity focus on the future in order to simply survive, has actually forced these cultures to reinforce and emphasize the most appropriate values from their rich, enduring and sustaining long term historical viewpoints to bolster the flexibility required to make such enormous adjustments.

America should not and cannot underestimate the inherent wisdom and maturity of these Eastern nations regarding any economic, military or political dealings. Out of such unceasing change, these societies have understood the necessity of anticipating and preparing for the future, strengthened by their long histories with the keen knowledge that they can build their futures virtually from scratch. That is, they can build fresh in both industrial and informational technological theatres, without the encumbrances we endure from the remnants of our pioneering eras in both industrial and informational technologies. Revolutionarily advanced in their times, the vacant shells of old, outmoded factories are not dissimilar to anchors unwittingly cast out when we were busy staking out those virgin technological territories that served us so well. Hence we now wear our rust belt like an albatross around our collective necks while listening to our economists expound upon the advantages of outsourcing. This is not a very promising picture.

Leading outsourcing companies are currently experiencing growth rates in excess of 20 percent on an annualized basis. This rate is not likely to continue over the next 70 years, but at a 12 percent growth rate, $12 billion of outsourcing today will equal approximately $700 billion in the year 2074. With the proper investment, talent pool and education, a 12 percent growth rate seems to be an attainable and realistic number.

Of course, we would not paint so unvarnished and unremittingly clear a picture of the dilemma we face if we did not also wish to contrast it with a very hopeful and quite attainable future. However, the future we project comes with a cost. We must give up many of our cultural shibboleths, most painfully, the underlying incorrect assumptions of which our double-talking neo-conservative, politically motivated economists prate on about.

If you haven't guessed it yet, we think offshore outsourcing is just plain bad business. Worse, it is unnecessary even with the misguided policy that actually encourages and rewards it, especially conducted as it has been, merely as an anodyne to misunderstood and misapplied labor costs. Unfortunately for the cause of fostering simple understanding, the word "costs" has engendered a reflexive response to cut or reduce it, irregardless of how much long-term benefit as ROI could be generated by correctly understood and used costs. This is tied to outmoded thinking and poorly justified management emphasis on equally poorly toted bottom-line profits and profitability. One need only attempt to discover if economists and accountants can agree on the definitions of such seemingly straightforward terms as cash or assets to understand that there desperately needs to an adjustment in our understanding of economics.

As many companies have come understand, albeit, the hard way, cutting costs by offshore outsourcing, especially for call centers and help desks, can actually cost as much double or more than it was thought to save if or when these services have had to be brought back on shore, or closer to shore in order to simply stay in business. Entire functional areas, when done poorly or incorrectly, drive business away in numbers frightening enough that companies such as Bank of America recently brought these operations back onshore.

The most important point here is that the supremely capitalist India, and the pragmatic, though still nominally communistic China and the ever opportunistic Singapore are clearly well ahead of America in that they do not have these ingrained misunderstandings. Nor do they suffer from the effects of a recent history full of horror stories about dot-coms going bust or decades of economic history dominated by downsizing and merging as the most viable strategies of increasingly large and unmanageable corporate structures, struggling to obscure inefficiencies behind "structural impacts of downsizing" or "soon to be realized economies of scale following structural consolidation necessitated by absorbing recent acquisitions."

The In-Bound verses Offshore Outsourcing Numbers

A number of well-respected economists point to "in-bound" or domestic jobs created by foreign companies as a direct benefit of free trade, which ultimately counteracts the negative effects of offshore outsourcing. Unfortunately, published reports by well-respected organizations do not substantiate their claim. Case in point: The Bureau of Economic Analysis states in their most recent report (2001 latest complete figures available) that there are more workers employed by U.S. companies in foreign countries than U.S. workers employed by foreign companies. It is fair to say that the offshore outsourcing of low-paying jobs (e.g., application development, call centers, maintenance, etc.) has hastened since 2001, and that mid- to high-paying jobs in areas such as business-process and R&D are now moving in the same direction. A good example of the trend correlates to projected annual sales numbers by the leading Indian outsourcing companies (Infosys Technologies, Satyam Computer Systems, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro), which are all expected to top the $1 billion mark for 2004. Offshore outsourcing is now touching the entire spectrum of IT jobs at an accelerating pace. Unless real action is taken, more and more domestic jobs will be lost to foreign competitors.

What Can and Should be Done: Moral Responsibility

Before arriving at a solution, we first need to recognize that offshore outsourcing is a national problem and make it a priority. During an election year, talk is cheap and there will no dearth of trial balloons floated, position papers hoisted, talking points ticked off in debates up, down and across the United States. As a result, most "content" will be worth considerably less than the campaign dollars spent getting these messages across. In the safety of knowing how quickly election issues fade, we are, in fact, free to point out some very uncomfortable and politically unpalatable facts as we consider what actions can and should be taken.

The first logical question is: Can America actually slow or reverse the offshore outsourcing trend of jobs and industries as a top priority for political action after the election? Of course that answer remains to be seen. The corporate world is quite well known for ignoring anything not in its own interests, as top management happens to perceive those interests at any particular point in time, but it will adapt if those interests are forced to include new factors from outside the marketplace such as social or governmental requirements.

Before any action can be taken, we would like to point out the utter spuriousness of the inevitable whining cries of supporters of offshore outsourcing. Whining not withstanding, offshore outsourcing is a very serious topic that has generated pain and suffering for many domestic IT workers and their families. As the recent course of historical arguments from top business management and their allied economists show us, they sincerely believe we should cut corporate taxes, capital gains taxes and top bracket income taxes, whether there is a monumental surplus with a labor market unable to keep abreast of demand in what appears a once-in-modern-times chance to actually pay down the national debt or when there are record deficits during an actual recession followed by a jobless recovery that re-ignites long dormant inflation ... somehow managed in less than one short administration.

Of course, we are expected to believe that this miraculous reversal is entirely due to a recession engineered by the previous administration combined with the effects of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001. However, regardless of attempts to sway public opinion and mold public perception, it is doubtful that the underlying weakening of the United States economy will respond to public perception, so let's attempt to keep our focus there, keeping our eyes on the prize, figuratively. The fact is that once installed for the next four years, the next administration, unless it is the anointing of the current one, will produce a period of contention with a turnover of personnel in the politically appointed levels of governmental agencies. Regardless, the die will be cast, and only then can any real options be brought to bear.

The current tax policy can be viewed as the major driver with reference to the offshore outsourcing trend and should be addressed accordingly. For example, penalize the American businesses that offshore outsource and reward those who keep jobs in the United States. Additionally, reward American businesses that demonstrate the ability to excel under difficult or extraordinary circumstances. Taking necessary action on tax policy is a question worth pondering. In all honesty, we have seen time and again that our business leaders are quite able to adapt to new pressures, be they classical market pressures, or so-called regulatory pressures. Now is the time to recognize that regulatory pressures, like unionized labor pressures in the industrial era are just as legitimately "market" pressures as supply and demand. Furthermore, when improvement has been mandated, it has actually caused those areas to become opportunities for new profit centers for those who adapt best. Even as we listen to the cries of pain by our business leaders, it might be best to remember how often we have heard this pitiful refrain.

Eventually it will even stop inspiring one-sector economies such as timber towns in the Northwest if we can get their attention long enough to point out that once their forests are gone. They will still have to find jobs just like the textile workers in the South whose jobs were first displaced from the rag trade sweatshops of the Northeast in the 1950s and 1960. These jobs have now moved to South and Central America and further a field to locations such as Bangladesh and the Philippines.

We need some fresh ideas beyond mere tax policy; new ideas to provide incentives for truly innovative thinking; for reducing our ravening appetite for foreign oil; for building

entire new and integrated industries from raw materials to retail end points; for making opportunities out of the necessity for saving the environment; for improving our position in trade deals that demand fair playing fields and genuine improvements in foreign labor policies and trade practices. This does not mean imposing tariffs or stifling regulations, but if these actions are necessary to put some credence in our positions, then they should be taken. However the single most important factor that needs to be changed is the behavior of top management. A coherent methodology should be developed to encourage better decision making with less dependence on mergers and short-term quarterly reports.

Far-reaching changes are needed, and ways to make these changes must be explored. One answer could be legislative changes in corporate tax laws to prevent bonus compensation for top management, except when performance warrants it. Accordingly, the government should seriously consider introducing new corporate tax laws focusing on merit-based evaluations and compensation as solutions to the offshore outsourcing dilemma. In addition to corporate tax laws, Washington should take a closer look at visa quotes such as H-1Bs as an ancillary solution to the offshore outsourcing dilemma. While no panacea, imposed limits on visas could be used to help stem domestic job losses. Could there be devised means for shareholders to have better accountability, perhaps through new information channels that require some level of confirmation from shareholders for key decisions through feedback via the Internet? We need fresh and innovative thinking from both the government and private sectors. Our failure to address this crisis quickly will result in America losing another revenue producing industry.

If military and/or Iraqi war-related spending are taken out of the first quarter GDP number (4.2 percent increase), the economy is actually a good deal weaker than stated. In reality, America is still in a long-term recession, which has been combined with inflation and a decreasing job base. During the Ronald Reagan era, supply-side economists talked about concepts such as the Laffer Curve, which professes, "a rising tide raises all boats." Similarly, an ebbing tide lowers all boats; and however you slice it, perhaps even due to the so-called "jobless" recovery, we currently have an ebbing tide. It might be wise to look to our own recent past and, instead of decrying the dot-com bubble recognize that while perfidious opportunists were busily engineering scandals such as Enron and Tyco, the general economy and the high tech economy in particular were leading the way to prosperity unprecedented even in the annals of the incredibly wealthy America. The point is that there were good reasons for that prosperity despite the corruption that has been revealed. That was a rising tide, and as with all such rising tides, it raised all boats, worldwide and raised expectations worldwide, which our slide now is foreclosing. This side is also dashing expectations for our own immediate and long-term destinies. That observation, in turn, raises the question of moral responsibility. Don't we have a true moral responsibility to help our own country, and doesn't that responsibility, by extension, apply to a world, which thrives or shrivels, as do we? During the 1990s, did we not actually need outsourcing, simply to meet demand? Of course we did. We don't need it now, but if a time comes again, as times often do, we should not foreclose it.

Outsourcing, where needed, when needed, is not by any means an error in and of itself.

Loss of strategically vital industries is an error and remedying these errors is one step we can take, albeit carefully and without establishing new areas for future errors from too much governmental intervention in the economy. However, failing to resurrect entirely new, integrated materials, textiles and electronic components industries will be a grave vulnerability not simply to us, but to all of humanity worldwide. In the meantime, we desperately need an immediate, short-term adjustment for the long-term good of both the American people and the people of the world. It is a moral responsibility that we duck at our own peril.

Bottom Line

From a domestic perspective, there is no simple answer regarding the topic of offshore outsourcing. However, the ability to recognize the problem is the first step in treating the defined malady. Accordingly, a mechanism must be put in place to slow the loss of American IT jobs to foreign competitors. An analogy may be drawn between offshore outsourcing and Homer's Odyssey. The ship (The American IT industry) is being enticed (ROI) to come closer to shore by the Sirens (foreign competitors and shareholder value).

However, a choice between Scylla and Charybdis is, in fact, no choice at all. These alluring voices have throughout the course of history, lured many ships (steel, clothing and textile, etc.) to the rocks of destruction. As conveyed in this second great work of Homer, once a ship hits these rocks, the chances of returning to a safe port are slim to none. It is clear that if current status quo remains in effect by both government and private sectors, then expect countries such as China, India and Singapore to be the future IT superpowers. During 2004, a number of high-level pundits will be acting as mouthpieces promoting the theoretical benefits of offshore outsourcing. Most of these so-called "experts" will be relegated to "soapbox" status because their viewpoints are not unbiased because of their own vested interests. One finding cannot be disputed; America has lost many important revenue-producing industries to foreign competitors. Not just the "Old World" type, but ones heavily based on technology. Proof? All one has to do, is to examine the latest digital camera and chances are even if the "branding" is domestic, one will discover that a greater part of the core components are manufactured offshore by Asian companies. As Homers masterpiece illustrates, history has a very bad habit of repeating itself.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...

Russell Ruggiero is a senior IT analyst. He is the acting chairman of HumanMarkup.org. Ruggiero has authored more than 150 articles and reports for well-respected firms that include Gartner, Inc. and Source Media. He may be reached at rrugg55041@aol.com.

Rex Brooks, president of Stabourne Communications Design, has pursued an extensive and wide-ranging career in advertising art direction, corporate identity and graphic design. His ongoing interests have included the applications of computer technology in his field and applying concepts from the fields of psychology, sociology and advertising in the area of semantics and semiotics for the purposes of improving communications in digital information systems. This led to his involvement with OASIS in the HumanMarkup Technical Committee helping to create the Human Markup Language. He is the cofounder of the Content Development Working Group of the Web 3D Consortium and Humanmarkup.org, Inc. and serves as vice chair of the OASIS HumanMarkup Technical Committee. He is also actively serving on the OASIS Web Services for Remote Portlets and Emergency Management Technical Committees. You can reach him at rexb@starbourne.com.

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