What is outsourcing?
Outsourcing is a business practice in which services or job functions are farmed out to a third party. In information technology, an outsourcing initiative with a technology provider can involve a range of operations, from the entirety of the IT function to discrete, easily defined components, such as disaster recovery, network services, software development or QA testing.
Companies may choose to outsource IT services onshore (within their own country), nearshore (to a neighboring country or one in the same time zone), or offshore (to a more distant country). Nearshore and offshore outsourcing have traditionally been pursued to save costs.
Outsourcing benefits and costs
The business case for outsourcing varies by situation, but the benefits of outsourcing often include one or more of the following:
- lower costs (due to economies of scale or lower labor rates)
- increased efficiency
- variable capacity
- increased focus on strategy/core competencies
- access to skills or resources
- increased flexibility to meet changing business and commercial conditions
- accelerated time to market
- lower ongoing investment in internal infrastructure
- access to innovation, intellectual property, and thought leadership
- possible cash influx resulting from transfer of assets to the new provider
Some of the risks of outsourcing include:
- slower turnaround time
- lack of business or domain knowledge
- language and cultural barriers
- time zone differences
- lack of control
Business process outsourcing (BPO) is an overarching term for the outsourcing of a specific business process task, such as payroll. BPO is often divided into two categories: back-office BPO, which includes internal business functions such as billing or purchasing, and front-office BPO, which includes customer-related services such as marketing or tech support. Information technology outsourcing (ITO), therefore, is a subset of business process outsourcing.
While most business process outsourcing involves executing standardized processes for a company, knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) involves processes that demand advanced research and analytical, technical and decision-making skills such as pharmaceutical R&D or patent research.
IT outsourcing clearly falls under the domain of the CIO. However, CIOs often will be asked to be involved in — or even oversee — non-ITO business process and knowledge process outsourcing efforts as well. CIOs are tapped not only because they often have developed skill in outsourcing, but also because business and knowledge process work being outsourced often goes hand in hand with IT systems and support.
Outsourcing IT functions
Traditionally, outsourced IT functions have fallen into one of two categories: infrastructure outsourcing and application outsourcing. Infrastructure outsourcing can include service desk capabilities, data center outsourcing, network services, managed security operations, or overall infrastructure management. Application outsourcing may include new application development, legacy system maintenance, testing and QA services, and packaged software implementation and management.
In today’s cloud-enabled world, however, IT outsourcing can also include relationships with providers of software-, infrastructure-, and platforms-as-a-service. In fact, cloud services account for as much as one third of the outsourcing market, a share that is destined to grow. These services are increasingly offered not only by traditional outsourcing providers but by global and niche software vendors or even industrial companies offering technology-enabled services.
IT outsourcing models and pricing
The appropriate model for an IT service is typically determined by the type of service provided. Traditionally, most outsourcing contracts have been billed on a time and materials or fixed price basis. But as outsourcing services have matured from simply basic needs and services to more complex partnerships capable of producing transformation and innovation, contractual approaches have evolved to include managed services and more outcome-based arrangements.
The most common ways to structure an outsourcing engagement include:
Time and materials: As the name suggests, the clients pays the provider based on the time and material used to complete the work. Historically, this approach has been used in long-term application development and maintenance contracts. This model can be appropriate in situations where scope and specifications are difficult to estimate or needs evolve rapidly.
Unit/on-demand pricing: The vendor determines a set rate for a particular level of service, and the client pays based on its usage of that service. For instance, if you’re outsourcing desktop maintenance, the customer might pay a fixed amount per number of desktop users supported. Pay-per-use pricing can deliver productivity gains from day one and makes component cost analysis and adjustments easy. However, it requires an accurate estimate of the demand volume and a commitment for certain minimum transaction volume.
Fixed pricing: The deal price is determined at the start. This model can work well when there are stable and clear requirements, objectives, and scope. Paying a fixed priced for outsourced services can be appealing because it makes costs predictable. It can work out well, but when market pricing goes down over time (as it often does), a fixed price stays fixed. Fixed pricing is also hard on the vendor, which has to meet service levels at a certain price no matter how many resources those services end up requiring.
Variable pricing: The customer pays a fixed price at the low end of a supplier’s provided service, but this method allows for some variance in pricing based on providing higher levels of services.
Cost-plus: The contract is written so that the client pays the supplier for its actual costs, plus a predetermined percentage for profit. Such a pricing plan does not allow for flexibility as business objectives or technologies change, and it provides little incentive for a supplier to perform effectively.
Performance-based pricing: The buyer provides financial incentives that encourage the supplier to perform optimally. Conversely, this type of pricing plan requires suppliers to pay a penalty for unsatisfactory service levels. Performance-based pricing is often used in conjunction with a traditional pricing method, such as time-and-materials or fixed price. This approach can be beneficial when the customers can identify specific investments the vendor could make in order to deliver a higher level of performance. But the key is to ensure that the delivered outcome creates incremental business value for the customer, otherwise they may end up rewarding their vendors for work they should be doing anyway.
Gain-sharing: Pricing is based on the value delivered by the vendor beyond its typical responsibilities but deriving from its expertise and contribution. For example, an automobile manufacturer may pay a service provider based on the number of cars it produces. With this kind of arrangement, the customer and vendor each have skin in the game. Each has money at risk, and each stands to gain a percentage of profits if the supplier’s performance is optimum and meets the buyer’s objectives.
Shared risk/reward: Provider and customer jointly fund the development of new products, solutions, and services with the provider sharing in rewards for a defined period of time. This model encourages the provider to come up with ideas to improve the business and spreads the financial risk between both parties. It also mitigates some risks by sharing them with the vendor. But it requires a greater level of governance to do well.
IT organizations are increasingly looking for partners who can work with them as they embrace agile development and devops approaches. “Organizations are rapidly transforming to agile enterprises that require rapid development cycles and close coordination between business, engineering and operations,” says Steve Hall, a partner with sourcing consultancy Information Services Group (ISG). “Global delivery requires a globally distributed agile process to balance the need for speed and current cost pressures.”