Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
09:48 AM
Jim Ditmore
Jim Ditmore

Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails

IT doesn't compare to a security guard force or a legal staff. It's part of your core intellectual property.

Another frequent reason for outsourcing is to achieve cost savings. While most small and midsized companies don't have the scale to achieve cost parity with a large outsourcer, nearly all large companies and many midsized ones do have that scale.

Nearly every outsourcing deal that I have reversed in the past 20 years yielded savings of at least 30% and often much more. Cost savings can be accomplished by an IT outsourcer for a large company for a broad set of services only if the current shop is mediocre. If your shop is well run, your all-in costs will be similar to those of the best outsourcing vendors. If you're world class, you can beat the outsourcer by 20% to 40%. A recent example: General Motors' new CIO, Randy Mott, is looking to reverse the company's dependence on IT outsourcing and improve time to market and quality, all while keeping costs in check.

Realize as well that any cost difference an IT outsourcer can deliver typically degrades over time. Consider that the goals of the outsourcer are to increase revenue and profit margin, so it invariably will find ways to charge you more, usually for changes to services, while minimizing the work it's doing. While the usual response is that the customer can put terms into the contract to avoid this situation, I have yet to see terms which ensure that the outsourcer does the "right" thing throughout the life of the contract.

One dysfunctional, $55-million-a-year outsourcing contract I reversed a few years back was for desktop provisioning and field support for a major bank. During a surprise review of the relationship, we found warehouses full of both obsolete equipment that should have been disposed of and new equipment that should have been deployed. Why? Because the outsourcer was paid to maintain all equipment, whether in use in our offices or in a warehouse, and it had full control of the logistics function (here, the critical intellectual property). So the outsourcing vendor had ordered up its own revenue, in effect. Furthermore, the service had degraded over the years as the vendor hollowed out its initial workforce and replaced it with less qualified people.

The solution? We immediately insourced the logistics function and established quality goals. Then we split the field support geography and conducted a competitive bid to select two vendors for that work. Every six months we evaluated each vendor's quality, timeliness, and cost. We gave more territory to the higher-performing vendor and took away territory from the lower-performing one, which was on notice for possible replacement. We maintained a small team of field support experts to keep training and capabilities up to par, update service routines, and resolve problems.

The result was far better quality and service--at a 40% lower cost. These results are typical with similar actions across a wide range of services, organizations, and locales.

When I was at Bank One more than a decade ago, working under CEO Jamie Dimon and COO Austin Adams, they supported our unwinding of the largest IT outsourcing deal ever consummated at the time. Three years into the contract, it had become a millstone around Bank One's neck. Costs were going up every year and quality eroded to the point where system availability and customer complaints were the worst in the industry.

In 2001 we cut the deal short--it was scheduled to run another four years. During the next 18 months, after hiring 2,200 infrastructure staff and revamping the processes and infrastructure, we reduced defects (and downtime) to 1/20th the levels in 2001 while reducing our ongoing expenses by more than $220 million per year. This effort aided the bank's turnaround and allowed for the merger with JP Morgan a few years later.

As for having in-house staff do critical work, Dimon said it best: "Who do you want doing your key work? Patriots or mercenaries?"

In Proper Moderation

Like any tool or management approach, outsourcing is quite valuable when used properly and in the right circumstances. As an executive leader, you can't focus on all company priorities at once, nor would you have the staff. And in some areas, such as field support, outsourcing provides natural economies of scale for many companies.

When outsourcing, ensure that your company retains critical IP and control. Or use outsourcing to augment your capacity, or to leverage best-in-class specialized services.

Since effective management of large outsourcing deals is nearly impossible, do small deals. Handle the management like any significant in-house function, establishing SLAs, gathering operational metrics, reviewing performance with management every three to six months, and addressing problems. Stipulate consequences for bad performance and rewards for good performance. Use contractors, including cloud providers, for peak workloads. With these best practices and a selective hand, your IT shop and company can benefit from outsourcing and avoid the failures.

What experiences have you had with IT outsourcing? Do you see companies getting better at managing and using these services? Let us know in the comments section below.

New outsourcing opportunities for insurance companies are emerging around cloud and Web-based initiatives, mobility, real-time interactive customer service, and data management. What is the new thinking in insurance about outsourcing and what are the new opportunities--and risks--in the current hyperconnected global financial services environment? Download our Optimizing The New Outsourcing Model report. (Free registration required.)

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/19/2012 | 6:08:30 PM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
As for having in-house staff do critical work, Dimon said it best: "Who do you want doing your key work? Patriots or mercenaries?"

To me, this comment offers the best summary.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/19/2012 | 1:21:47 PM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
Would it be correct for me to guess that a non-technical CIO and other ignorant CXOs made the decision to outsource? Were the screams of protest by knowledgeable "IT people" (a.k.a. the drones) ignored because they were supposedly interested only in saving their own jobs? Can the sales process for the outsourcing deal be described as "people who don't know what they're selling telling lies to people who don't know what they're buying?"
User Rank: Apprentice
7/16/2012 | 4:20:49 AM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
"A recent University of Utah business school article found significantly higher rates of failure at companies that had outsourced IT and other operations. The authors concluded that "companies need to retain adequate control over specialized components that differentiate their products or have unique interdependencies, or they are more likely to fail to survive.""

A flawed methodology. Companies which are struggling to begin with often turn to outsourcing to drastically reduce costs in an attempt to save the business. There is a huge skew towards companies which are already in trouble who outsource everything, completely apart from anything IT related.
User Rank: Ninja
7/14/2012 | 6:47:05 PM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
Core competencies cannot be outsourced without the business failing. So any software shop or company using a lot of IT should not outsource IT, because it IS a core competency. That is what I learned in business 101 ten years ago. Seems that plenty of C-level morons missed that class.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/14/2012 | 3:53:36 PM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
Keeping it simple:
1) The contract must be well-written and not leave many grey areas left open to interpretation. I have seen companies keep a more loosely-defined contract hoping to 'get more' over time but this has led to commercial disputes and takes away from delivery.
2) Governance. The outsourcing company must have a strong governance model with competent individuals leading the governance who are not power-hungry egomaniacs but individuals who are practical, pragmatic and reasonable.
3) Strong service levels that properly measure what is required. Service levels drive behaviour.

One can blame the suppliers for trying to make a buck on a shoe string but the outsourcing company shares in the failures as well.

I am not convinced that the consultants helping to put the outsourcing contracts together have the best interest of the deal in mind but work to squeeze the most out of every element leaving the outsourcers with small margins and with little room to work.

Remember the "Your Less for Mess" period in EDS? Companies may outsource because they cannot gain control on their own. I will hold the landscaping company more accountable to cutting my lawn to service levels of quality (no mohawks) than I will myself or my sons.
User Rank: Strategist
7/13/2012 | 5:20:20 PM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
You concisely summed up the entire article in one sentence, "depends on what you ... outsource and how you manage the vendor". In fact, most of your examples seemed to point toward failures of oversight or vague SLA development. Human nature is to get away with the minimum investment for maximum return and most will try everything with that objective in mind. The responsibility however rests with the staff in the company doing the outsourcing in the development and enforcement of specific, goal oriented SLAs and process selection.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/13/2012 | 3:09:29 PM
re: Why IT Outsourcing Often Fails
Outsourcing has not worked for us. It usually starts with some qualified people doing a dog an pony show just to get the deal and then the work is handed off to a bunch of "freshers" in India who are right out of school and handed a programming book with their first assignment. Next we had 30 programmers in India working on a project where we originally had 6. Our cost kept going up and the quality of the work kept going down.

The quality of the code delivered was so bad that we struggled for 6 months to try to salvage it while we continued to run our old system. We finally gave up and rewrote the entire system that we outsourced using 5 qualified programmers and two part-timers and we finished it in half the time that the outsources took.

This outsourced project was a total loss and set up back almost 3 years. Never again.
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