Outsourcing is the polarizing IT management issue of our time. Few if any IT practices are so widely embraced at the highest corporate levels, yet so widely derided by the rank and file, especially when the work that's outsourced is moved offshore.
On the message boards, outsourcing is blamed for everything from Dreamliner delays at Boeing to the second-quarter loss at Microsoft (despite the fact that a one-time, $6.2 billion financial write-down was the real cause). Outsourcing providers and customers are portrayed as miscreants and dolts.
One critic, commenting on an InformationWeek column Allstate CIO Jim Ditmore wrote about his negative experiences with outsourcing earlier in his career, surmised: "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?'"
Outsourcing's also a political livewire. Even though the federal government outsources much of its work, IT and otherwise, to all manner of contractors, consultants, integrators, and other vendors--and some of that work makes its way offshore--the Obama administration talks about outsourcing as if it were worthy of an Un-American Activities investigation. The Romney campaign can't backpedal fast enough from any suggestion that the former executive engaged in the practice when he was governor of Massachusetts and CEO of Bain. Likewise, many executives still keep their companies' large outsourcing contracts close to the vest, for fear of a public relations backlash. I've talked with plenty of CIOs who rave in private about their offshore vendors--but take the Fifth in public.
[ Learn why Obama's Attack On Outsourcing Rings Hypocritical. ]
The fact of the matter is, outsourcing remains pervasive in both the public and private sectors, and it's not going away, despite the social and political blowback. For example, 82% of the 564 business technology professionals who responded to our recent 2012 State Of IT Outsourcing survey said their companies use such services, up slightly from 81% a year ago. Among those that outsource, more than half (59%) use offshore providers to some degree. And 31% said the composition of their IT workforces will shift more toward outsourcers in the next year, while only 15% said it will shift away (54% said the mix will remain about the same). My colleague Paul McDougall will dive deeper into those survey results, including the perspectives of customers, suppliers, and other industry players, in an upcoming InformationWeek feature story.
Allstate's Ditmore warns CIOs about handing off their critical intellectual property, much of it IT-related, to outsourcers. And don't count on IT outsourcers to cut costs, he said. "While most small and midsized companies don't have the scale to achieve cost parity with a large outsourcer," Ditmore says, "nearly all large companies and many midsized ones do have that scale." He argues for doing only small outsourcing deals, for which it's easier to establish SLAs and measure performance.
If so many leaders are so leery of outsourcing, why do so many organizations continue to do it? Because when these contracts and relationships are properly thought out, vetted, and managed, they can deliver strong results--especially when they're tied to strategic business outcomes and not just brute cost savings. Outsourcers can bring hard-to-find expertise and fresh ways of thinking to some of the most pressing business technology challenges.
Outsourcing isn't a panacea for dysfunctional IT operations and management. But it's not the devil some of its detractors make it out to be.