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Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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9/27/2007
11:28 AM
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IT Survival Guide: Outsourcing's Advantages

Offshoring can cut costs dramatically, extend support and capabilities, and provide hard-to-find expertise, but careful management is the only way to ensure success.

Outsourcing offers businesses the opportunity to cut costs and boost productivity -- if it's done right.

Offshore locations feature low-cost workers who can cut your labor costs by 50% or more. Tapping workers in India or China also affords the possibility of round-the-clock technical or customer support -- when domestic staffers sign off in the evening, their Asian counterparts are just waking up. Companies can also transform labor costs from fixed to variable by working with an outsourcer. Need extra manpower during the holidays? A service provider can put more bodies on your account during crunch times. Finally, outsourcers can provide quick access to domain and technology experts who may be in short supply locally.

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Despite these advantages, reports abound about outsourcing gone bad. Dell infamously had to repatriate some customer service operations after customers complained they couldn't understand foreign phone reps. The bottom line: Outsourcing isn't about blindly throwing work over the wall; it needs to be thought out and aggressively managed. Here are some pitfalls to watch for, and how to cope.

Many outsourcing projects fail because of lack of internal oversight. Forrester analyst Christine Ferussi Ross says businesses should establish formal vendor management offices staffed with professionals experienced in IT operations, contract negotiations, and procurement. Also needed is an individual with the diplomatic skills necessary to maintain vendor relationships over time. "Outsourcing implies some give and take," says Ross.

Only 47% of 615 companies recently surveyed by Forrester reported having a centralized vendor management office.

Costs also need to be managed, or potential savings can evaporate quickly. Of concern lately for those outsourcing to India is the rising rupee, which has gained about 14% against the U.S. dollar over the past year. Businesses need to negotiate up front the extent to which their vendor is willing to insulate them from currency fluctuations. Labor costs in India are also rising -- by as much as 15% per year -- so companies interested in outsourcing for the first time might do well to scout out locations that haven't been oversold, such as South America and China, and even second-tier cities in India. Not everything needs to be in Bangalore.

Deciding what to outsource is almost as critical as the decision to outsource itself. Not all IT projects or customer groups are created equally. Outsourcing the development of non-critical applications or customer service for low-revenue customers are good places to start. Dell's mistake was offshoring service and support for its high-end business customers.

Regardless of what you outsource, the security of your company's and your customers' personal and business data must be a top consideration. When weighing vendors, it's worth a trip to their facilities to inspect first-hand their security technologies and policies, even if that means a long flight. Most major offshore outsourcers, including India's big four of Wipro, TCS, Infosys, and Satyam, have sophisticated security processes in place. Even so, it must be negotiated up front who is responsible for what if a breach occurs.

Outsourcing needn't be fraught with peril, but it does need to be well managed.

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