Thomas Friedman, India, and the E2K Scare

Looks like Thomas "The World Is Flat" Friedman is up to his old tricks.

For those who missed it, in The Dawn of E2K in India, the New York Times columnist and pundit argues that the lift the Y2K crisis provided to Indian outsourcers could look like a blip compared to the opportunities that lie ahead in green computing and other environmentally-minded corporate initiatives.

Before I start laying into Friedman (again), let me say that I do understand the pressure of cranking out a couple columns a week, while hip-hopping the globe interviewing people. And, as often as not if we're talking about Friedman, being interviewed. And I get that there's only so much nuance one can cram into a 787-word column.

But it really seems like Friedman phoned this one in on his way to another love-fest with Charlie Rose.

Friedman’s column says that all this green IT stuff falls into the larger category of what he dubs E2K. "E2K stands, in my mind, for all the energy programming and monitoring that thousands of global companies are going to be undertaking in the early 21st century to either become carbon neutral or far more energy efficient than they are today," Friedman writes.

(E2K -- quite clever actually. Go on).

"India is poised to get a lot of this work," Friedman says.

O-kaaay.

Here's where Friedman’s Y2K comparison comes in. In the late 1990s, he writes, with Y2K looming, some companies reacted by doing some minimal retro-work to make sure their computers would remain operational come Jan. 1, 2000. But other companies approached the impending disaster more strategically; they saw Y2K remediation as an opportunity to replace their legacy systems altogether. This marked the beginning of the IT services boom in India, where low-cost outsourcing players were well-positioned with both the skills and the manpower to do that Y2K work.

Corporations are faced with a similarly pressing and provocative crisis today. While there’s no Y2K-type deadline, no drop-dead date to go carbon neutral, there is mounting pressure (impending legislation; heart-rending reports of polar bears drowning in their ice floes; that ubiquitous Al Gore) for companies to reduce greenhouse gas outputs. At the heart of those efforts is IT -- a key player in producing those harmful emissions in the first place but also a potential partner in innovation to reduce the corporation's carbon footprint.

No news there. There's not a smart IT vendor on the planet not working this new green IT angle to sell new or newly marketed solutions.

But India's outsourcers, Friedman argues, are again uniquely positioned to play the green card to its advantage. Major corporations (Friedman uses Dell as his example, though God knows why) are going to be hard at work taking stock of their total greenhouse gas outputs and developing plans to reduce, eliminate or offset all that junk they release into the environment. The real sweet spot will be convincing companies not to approach the problem tactically, but strategically. Don't just nip and tuck here and there to become more energy efficient. View this as a green business transformation. All that work, Friedman says, will require a whole lot of software, programming and good old man-hours. "Hello India," says Friedman. "Hello E2K."

Indian companies, like friends-of-Friedman Infosys Technologies and Satyam Computer Systems, can again provide that work at lower cost, he says. But there's more, Friedman writes: "To better compete for such business, (Co-chairman of Infosys Nandan) Nilekani is installing solar systems and other efficiency technologies at Infosys’s Bangalore campus. Satyam is planning to do similar things with its verdant Hyderabad complex, which already has its own zoo."

And their U.S.-based competitors? IBM seems to be moving into this space, too, says Friedman: "Big Blue knows that even if Indian companies do a lot of the back-room work, there will be lots of front-end jobs nearer the customers."

Which all sounds good. Friedman knows his way around an argument. There’s only one problem. It simply isn't... quite... true. Or accurate. Or timely.

IBM seems to be moving into this space? Apparently, Friedman didn't get the press release about Project Big Green sent out by IBM last May. Big Blue hasn't introduced any barnyard animals into the mix as far as I know, but it did pledge "$1 billion per year across its businesses, mobilizing the company’s resources to dramatically increase the level of energy efficiency in IT."

And as far as a back office in India, IBM's got a virtual army working for it on the sub-continent now. (Note to IBM: take Friedman on a tour of your Indian operations before he skips town.)

Now far be it from me to flak for IBM. There have been a host of such initiatives launched by other IT service providers, chip makers, and hardware manufacturers over the last couple of years. We'll have to wait and see whether any of these programs really bear fruit.

And I'm not bashing Indian companies. As Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, U.K.-based author of

Outsourcing to India: The Offshore Advantage and editor of the forthcoming Building a Future with BRICs: The Next Decade for Offshoring, recently shared with me, there is an Indian IT services company worth noting here. ITC Infotech, a smaller IT services company but subsidiary for the $4.75 billion Indian conglomerate ITC Ltd., is already carbon neutral. And, oddly enough, ITC Infotech hasn't done a whole lot of PR around their transformation.

But Infosys and Satyam? Not so much.

"Frankly, I don't see Infosys or Satyam leading at all in this space," says Kobayashi-Hillary.

Infosys and Satyam may not have an extraordinary green strategy, but they do have Friedman's ear, which for them is probably a far more cost effective strategy (if not exactly a carbon neutral one when you consider all the smoke they’re clearly blowing somewhere).

Then, there's the question of India's biggest IT services player -- Tata Consultany Services (TCS) There's no evidence to suggest that TCS -- the IBM Global Services of India -- has given green computing or corporate sustainability a second thought.

But Friedman doesn't clutter up his column with too many actual facts. And at the end, he borders on fear mongering: "So, mom, dad, tell your kids: if they’re looking for a good stable-growth career — green consultants, green designers, green builders are all going to be in huge demand. And if they can speak a little Hindi — all the better."

One of my colleagues here at CIO who knows much more about sustainable IT than I do points out that India does have an incredible opportunity right now. The country is a relatively green field when it comes to green power, and there are other opportunities for new ventures in sustainability not easily envisioned in the U.S. where we're weighed down by legacy power grids and other systems.

She makes a good case. Friedman, too, hints at that in some other recent columns. India has the opportunity to go its own way when it comes to issues like power and mass transportation. But, truth be told, the country is so busy cranking out incredible, low-cost products like the $2,500 car and the $2 cell phone, it’s not clear whether they’ll be too concerned with tempering the environmental implications of such innovations. Friedman's advice to India boils down to: do as we say, not as we do. Can India afford to be more environmentally conscious than the U.S. while it strives to grow?

We'll see.

But back to the issue at hand. There’s definitely an opportunity for all services companies, perhaps particularly those in low-cost or developing regions of the world, to develop software and processes and whole services enterprises dedicated to new businesses in "carbon footprint evaluation" or "emissions offsetting." But Infosys and Satyam are far from leaders in the green IT or corporate sustainability space right now.

What Friedman's column really tells me is that Infosys and Satyam are growing increasingly skilled at marketing to the global customer's needs (or fears) of the moment, whether via a Friedman column or elsewhere. And good for them. That's their right. In a "flat world," IT leaders and other business executives simply have to separate fact from fiction from a much broader population of hard-selling vendors. Only time will tell whether any IT services provider -- based in India, the U.S., or elsewhere -- can really help its customers become more environmentally friendly or whether its just a whole lot of nothing.

Ultimately, it's a good thing that Friedman is shining his particularly strong flashlight on environmental issues around the globe right now. But his attempt to tie his new pet project (saving the planet) to his old standby (India), is a stretch and may actually be contributing to the global warming crisis by generating more hot air.

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