Extreme Outsourcing: A Dangerous Sport?

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Recently I’ve thought about an event I attended in the early 2000’s, at which there was a speech that really stuck in my mind. The presenter gave a view on a future model of how companies would source their business operations, specifically the ratio of internally managed against that which would be transitioned to external providers (I can’t remember exactly the event, but it was in Paris and the keynote was someone you might remember, named Carly Fiorina…).

What I clearly remember, at the time, was a view that I considered to be a fairly extreme view of the potential end game. He asked the attendees:

Can you tell me what you think is the real value of organisations such as Coca Cola, IBM or Disney?

Answer: The brand.

It’s not the manufacturing process, or operations, or technology systems, or distribution, or marketing channels, or, or… Clearly everything that goes into the intellectual property to build the brand/product (such as the innovation and design) is important, but ultimately, how the product is built, delivered and operated offers no intrinsic value to the organisation. In these areas it’s all about efficiency.

In the future, companies like these would be a fraction of the size in terms of the internal staff operations.

Fast forward to today and perhaps this view is starting to gain some traction…at least to start the journey.¬†For many decades, areas such as technology services have be sourced through external delivery partners. Necessity, fashion and individual preference have all driven CIOs into various sourcing models. Operations leaders have implemented Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) to low cost locations, as have other functions such the HR and Finance back offices.

But perhaps there are two more fundamental questions that CEOs or organisations should ask as they survey their business operations;

  • 1) What functions that we own actually differentiate us from our competitors?
  • 2) Can other companies run services better than us?

It is something that rarely gets either asked or answered in a way that is¬†totally objective. That is of course a natural part of the culture, DNA and political landscape of organisations, particularly those that have longevity and legacy in developing internal service models. But is isn’t a question that can be kicked into the long grass anymore.

Despite the green shoots of economic recovery, there are no indications that the business environment is going to return to the heady days of large margins and costs being somewhat “consequential”. It’s going to be a very different competitive world, with increased external oversight and challenges/threats to companies, such as through regulation, disruptive business models and innovative new entrants.

We also need to take a step back and ask a third question…

  • 3) If we were building this company today, would we build and run it this way?

Again a difficult, and some would argue, irrelevant question. Companies have legacy operations and “technical debt” and that’s it…we just need to deal with it over time. The problem is, time may not be available.

In our discussions with clients, we are seeing that realisation may have dawned. Whilst many companies in recent years have reported significant reductions in staff numbers and costs, are we still just delaying the “death by a thousand cuts”? Some leaders, particularly in technology, have realised that not only running significant operations is untenable, but also that a more radical approach should be taken to move the bar much closer up the operating chain towards where the real business value lies.

Old sourcing models looked at drawing the line at functions such as Strategy, Architecture, Engineering, Security, Vendor Management, Change Management and the like. These were considered the valuable organisational assets. Now. I’m not saying that is incorrect, but what often has happened is that have been treated holistically and not broken down into where the real value lies. Indeed, for some organisations we’ve heard of Strategy & Architecture having between 500-1000 staff! (…and, these are not technology companies).

Each of these functions need to be assessed and the three questions asked. If done objectively, then I’m sure a different model would emerge for many companies with trusted service providers running much on the functions previously thought of as “retained”. It is both achievable, sensible and maybe necessary.

On the middle and front office side, the same can be asked. When CEOs look at the revenue generating business front office, whatever the industry, there are key people, processes and IP that make the company successful. However, there are also many areas where it was historically a necessity to run internally but actually adds no business value (although, of course still very key). If that’s the case, then it makes sense to source it from specialist provider where the economies of scale and challenges in terms of service (such as from “general regulatory requirements”) can be managed without detracting from the core business.

So, if you look at some of the key brands and their staff numbers today in the 10’s/100’s of thousands, it might only be those that focus on key business value and shed the supporting functions, that survive tomorrow.

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Posted on : 27-09-2019 | By : kerry.housley | In : Uncategorized

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