Editorial: The Best Sourcing of Information Architecture

The world has arrived at a rare strategic inflection point where nearly half its population living in China, India and Russia have been integrated into the global market economy, many of them highly educated workers, who can do just about any job in the world. We’re talking about three billion people.
– Craig Barrett, CEO, Intel

Many jobs that before were only performed in established economies – including white collar jobs – are moving to transitional economies: from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, from North America to Asia. Alternately called “outsourcing” or “offshoring” this trend is accelerating faster than most of us realize. While labor costs in India are among the lowest in the world, they’re even lower in China, and in fact companies in India are now outsourcing to China. User Experience companies like Critical Mass, Human Factors International, SonicRim and Zago Design have spread across countries and regions in ways that offer cost advantages and/or tap new markets. For many people in established economies, this can become a source of fear about the future.

When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me: “Finish your dinner, people in China are starving.” I, by contrast, find myself wanting to say to my daughters: “Finish your homework, people in China and India are starving for your job.”
– Thomas Friedman, Foreign Affairs Columnist, The New York Times

As I write, the 2004 American presidential campaign is in full pitch. It’s not politically acceptable for politicians here in America to speak to people who are losing jobs and present anything other than a plan to keep those jobs. But to economists, offshoring is the natural flow of trade in the modern age. Since the 1703 Treaty of Methuen giving mutual trade advantages to Portuguese wines and English woolens, countries have recognized their own expertise and opted to trade rather than compete in particular markets.

In the short term, this feels to many in established economies like we’re losing a market, like the jobs have been outsourced and are never to be replaced by other, comparable jobs. Government policies may stem the tide through tariffs, wage insurance, subsidies, and health care, but the economic reality is that these jobs have been “best sourced,” sent to where they give the most benefit to companies. It’s futile to think we can stop this flow of labor among markets; it’s more productive to understand it and find our place in it.

I believe there are still many information architecture (IA) opportunities for everyone – in established and transitional economies.

There is opportunity for those in transitional economies to go beyond programming jobs and integrate IA in their work, offering more services to their clients.

There is opportunity for those in established economies to consult to and teach those learning IA elsewhere in the world, such as individual contractors, design companies, and programming companies.

More broadly, there is opportunity as people holding low-income jobs in transitional economies move into middle-income positions and create demand for imported services and products that IAs and designers can create.

And there is opportunity in combining IA skills with other design skills to create new kinds of products...

The sun is setting on the Information Society even before we have fully adjusted to its demands as individuals and as companies. We have lived as hunters and as farmers, we have worked in factories and now we live in an information-based society whose icon is the computer. We stand facing the fifth kind of society: the Dream Society. Future products will have to appeal to our hearts, not to our heads. Now is the time to add emotional value to products and services.
– Rolf Jensen, The Dream Society: How the Coming Shift from Information to Imagination Will Transform Your Business

Our field is lucky, because we’ve been able to identify the trend before it affects us. Information architects and related designers should ask, “Who else can do my job? Who will companies want to hire? Given the talent base and economic environment of my region, what kind of work should I pursue?”

The greatest danger is waiting until we have the wrong skills for our particular market. If we actively seek out the future opportunity that exists, if we actively continue our educations, if we actively pursue research and development of new ideas, we can all thrive in the future world economy.

Join us to discuss this issue on our members mailing list.

Victor Lombardi
President, Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture

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