Even as Indian call centers have thrived in the past decade, helping U.S. companies cut costs and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs here, they have faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: Most Indian employees speak heavily accented English.
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 speech.''
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 outsourcing company.
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 language skills.
''Such tools can be amalgamated as new modules into existing training programs. They can never be a standalone 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,'' Malik said.
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 underway 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 are now 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 Lab.
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