At a time when a depressing array of significant geopolitical and economic challenges are casting shadows over many parts of the world - and when growing isolationism appears to be the order of the day within some of the world’s traditional heavy hitters - cooperation between countries and between like-minded business-facing groups has taken on an added importance. It was extremely encouraging, therefore, to find at the 2nd Polish-Ukrainian Outsourcing Forum (held in Rzeszow, Poland, towards the end of last year) signs of very healthy cooperation and alignment between two of the CEE region’s most prominent IT and business services players - each of which is currently in its own way struggling with some of those aforementioned challenges.
The one-day event (with a preliminary tour and dinner the previous day) attracted some 250 attendees - around half of whom represented Ukraine, ensuring that the show very much lived up to its title - and featured a well-considered selection of panel discussions and case studies examining the current status and future prospects of outsourcing in the two countries in question. While neither of the most prominent elephants in the room - the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine, and Poland’s current political uncertainty and apparent shift towards nationalism - were ignored by the panels, the tone was nevertheless one of pronounced optimism, with the successes to date of the outsourcing industry in both countries being both lauded and analysed, and prospects for future growth (and potential spanners in the works) placed under a variety of microscopes.
The conference had received solid backing from both public and private players in Rzeszow (the largest city in south-east Poland, with just under 200,000 inhabitants, less than 100km from the Ukrainian border) who see the benefits that outsourcing and business services companies have already brought to the area and keenly desire to grow that tasty pie and the size of Rzeszow’s particular slice. While not at this stage in the same league scale-wise as the likes of Kraków, it’s clear that the Rzeszow authorities are targeting this space with gusto - the retention of this event being indicative of their desire not merely to market the city but to learn from the experiences of their neighbours - and it was illuminating to hear from the Deputy Mayor and others about the steps being taken to ensure the continued development of a competitive, attractive offering.
Key to any such offering, of course, is talent, a topic which popped up time and again in both on-stage discussions and individual networking. Both Ukraine and Poland rose to outsourcing prominence thanks to the quality (and, of course, comparative affordability) of talent they have been able to supply, and the questions of how to grow, develop and, especially, retain that talent were eagerly addressed by attendees well aware that consistent success in this field is indispensable if a broader success (economic and social) is to be achieved. It was also reassuring to note that pretty much everyone questioned with regards to this topic appeared well aware of the importance of training new and existing talent not simply to meet the demands of today, but to be able to react to looming shifts in the nature of work in this space coming in the wake of, for example, process automation and AI-related technology. The generally optimistic air of the event was maintained as various speakers highlighted plans and structures within their respective organisations designed constantly to move employees up the value chain as technology claims the more repetitive, less stimulating tasks on the agenda.
This type of tech, of course, provides significant opportunities for both Poland and Ukraine thanks to the existence in each country of robust technology industries: a good proportion of Ukrainian attendees in particular came from the more software-oriented end of the space, where great joy has been found in recent years (indeed, one question providing food for thought was whether the country might be focussing too tightly upon software development and ITO more generally at the expense of possible gains in other subsets of the BPO multiverse). The region has traditionally been very strong in what we would now call STEM fields, and a key challenge now is to ensure that built onto those strengths are suitably enhanced capabilities in areas like marketing, negotiation and HR, in order that homegrown companies can thrive and compete against (frequently much bigger) foreign players. The nexus of trends such as AI, IoT and others is being felt and observed no less excitedly in Poland and Ukraine than elsewhere in the world, and it felt at this event that there is a genuine determination in some quarters that at the break of that wave these countries must not become mere talent pools for foreign companies, but must instead - or, rather, also - build their own powerhouses. The opinion was widespread in Rzeszow that success here will require - among much else, of course - a good deal more thought leadership and networking events such as this conference and others, along with elements such as industry standards and codes of conduct, more coherent and smarter communication with the rest of the global outsourcing community, and deeper links with and access to potential customers in traditional and new markets (all areas in which, not coincidentally, the GSA is doing a good deal of work in both countries).
In a world (business and more broadly) of finite resources and opportunities, two neighbouring countries striving for similar benefits from the same space are inevitably going to be, to a certain extent, competitors as well as potential collaborators, and the precise nature of any ‘coopetition’ (formal or otherwise) between Poland and Ukraine appears (at least as depicted at this event) still to be somewhat nebulous. One especially noteworthy issue is the currently more or less one-way traffic of talent from Ukraine into Poland: cities such as Rzeszow are clearly keen to attract good professionals from Ukraine, which is experiencing a steady outflow of talent (which one speaker in particular was very determined not to describe as a “brain drain”) thanks in part to the country’s eastern crisis, and despite the Ukrainian government’s attractive tax incentives aimed at keeping said talent within its borders. A number of Ukrainian companies have reacted by setting up regional offices within Poland itself, to keep emigres at least partly within Ukraine’s economic embrace if not its borders; how long the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach will last, and how successful it will prove, has yet to be determined, but in the absence of a prompt resolution to the country’s current travails, making the best of a bad job with regards to this exodus seems the only sensible option for now.
Walking around the historic centre of Rzeszow, and speaking to some of the attendees from the locality, the cultural connections between (especially western) Ukraine and this part of Poland were impossible to ignore: the region of Galicia has much shared heritage and at various times during the last millennium has been a single polity (usually under the control of other, larger powers) and though national allegiances hold sway it’s clear that there’s a degree of trans-national kinship felt here which is unusual, to say the least, across much of modern Europe. While each country is resolute upon its own path, the convergence of interests on display at the 2nd Polish-Ukrainian Outsourcing Forum - and, crucially, the determination of the attendees to capitalise on such synergies - suggests that sustained collaboration and strategic alignment could well pay off in spades for those driving the industry forward and for those new cohorts seeking to make their collective way up the career path. It will be very interesting to see if that determination, and the refreshing positivity which characterised the conference, will be maintained going forward.