The future of outsourcing
“Outsourcing is moving backwards; it is tired and outdated”.
“I see no future for the major outsource providers: they have become trapped in out-tasking.”
These are just two of the comments I have recently heard during conversations with experts in the outsourcing field. There is no doubt that many client organizations are questioning the value of outsourcing and that many providers are struggling to make a decent margin. Add to this on-going questions about the integrity of the provider community and there appears to be a volatile mix of negative sentiment.
Managing internal relationships is hard; managing external relationships is even harder. And few organizations have yet grasped what it takes to build productive and sustainable relationships with an external partner. Providers are often caught in the dilemma of customization versus standardization; the former appears responsive, but actually adds dramatically to costs and to risk of poor performance.
So is outsourcing in decline? Will its use become more selective and more limited?
I believe that outsourcing offers many potential benefits, but realising these will take a continued shift in attitudes and behaviors. A few things that need to be addressed are:
- Establishing requirements: clients must know what they want and express it clearly. This requires engagement with the market to establish and evaluate capabilities. Needs must be properly documented to avoid regular disagreements over scope and goals. Current measurement and motivation systems do not help; they should be altered to rewards based on results, not on getting a contract signed.
- Executive sponsorship: client organizations must appoint a sponsor with experience of developing or managing contracts and supplier relationships. Too often, those in charge may be technically proficient and understand the subject area, but they often fail to test the commercial issues or capabilities of either organization and thus end up with the wrong supplier, or inadequate internal competencies.
- Use of third parties: if a third party is really needed, they should be very carefully controlled. In my view, third party involvement has been one of the major causes of value erosion in outsourcing. If they act as an expert mediator or facilitator, there can be major benefit. If they act as a partisan representative, they distort negotiations and performance, often creating an adversarial environment.
- Outcomes: if the only goal is cost reduction, then out-tasking existing activities may be fine. But if the aim is continuous improvement or innovation, it will be achieved only through focus on outcomes and continued discussion as these evolve. That means the parties must focus on what is to be done, not on how to do it. If the supplier is not expert in the field, why are they being hired?
- Governance and performance management: good relationships need the right structure – and this needs to be provided through an appropriate form of contract. The adversarial, risk-consequence focus on many contracts and contracting processes means that the parties lose their fundamental business management tool. After so many years, it is remarkable that there are so few examples of good performance based / outcome based contracts which integrate ‘the contract’ with ‘the relationship’. Yet given the factors above, perhaps this is not surprising ….
So can the industry survive and prosper? This depends on significant shifts in the way that outsourcing is approached and handled. Meanwhile, Shared Services will increasingly represent a dynamic alternative.