Outsourcing is subcontracting a process, such as product design or manufacturing, to a third-party company. The decision to outsource is often made in the interest of lowering firm or making better use of time and energy costs, redirecting or conserving energy directed at the competencies of a particular business, or to make more efficient use of land, labor, capital, (information) technology and resources. Outsourcing became part of the business lexicon during the 1980s. It is essentialy a division of labour.
Outsourcing involves the transfer of the management and/or day-to-day execution of an entire business function to an external service provider. The client organization and the supplier enter into a contractual agreement that defines the transferred services. Under the agreement the supplier acquires the means of production in the form of a transfer of people, assets and other resources from the client. The client agrees to procure the services from the supplier for the term of the contract. Business segments typically outsourced include information technology, human resources, facilities, real estate management, and accounting. Many companies also outsource customer support and call center functions like telemarketing, CAD drafting, customer service, market research, manufacturing, designing, web development, content writing, ghostwriting and engineering.
Outsourcing and offshoring are used interchangeably in public discourse despite important technical differences. Outsourcing involves contracting with a supplier, which may or may not involve some degree of offshoring. Offshoring is the transfer of an organizational function to another country, regardless of whether the work is outsourced or stays within the same corporation/company.
With increasing globalization of outsourcing companies, the distinction between outsourcing and offshoring will become less clear over time. This is evident in the increasing presence of Indian outsourcing companies in the US and UK. The globalization of outsourcing operating models has resulted in new terms such as nearshoring, noshoring, and rightshoring that reflect the changing mix of locations. This is seen in the opening of offices and operations centers by Indian companies in the U.S. and UK. A major job that is being outsourced is accounting. They are able to complete tax returns across seas for people in America.
Multisourcing refers to large (predominantly IT) outsourcing agreements. Multisourcing is a framework to enable different parts of the client business to be sourced from different suppliers. This requires a governance model that communicates strategy, clearly defines responsibility and has end-to-end integration.
Strategic outsourcing is the organizing arrangement that emerges when firms rely on intermediate markets to provide specialized capabilities that supplement existing capabilities deployed along a firm's value chain (see Holcomb & Hitt, 2007). Such an arrangement produces value within firms' supply chains beyond those benefits achieved through cost economies. Intermediate markets that provide specialized capabilities emerge as different industry conditions intensify the partitioning of production. As a result of greater information standardization and simplified coordination, clear administrative demarcations emerge along a value chain. Partitioning of intermediate markets occurs as the coordination of production across a value chain is simplified and as information becomes standardized, making it easier to transfer activities across boundaries.
Process of outsourcing
Deciding to outsource
The decision to outsource is taken at a strategic level and normally requires board approval. Outsourcing is the divestiture of a business function involving the transfer of people and the sale of assets to the supplier. The process begins with the client identifying what is to be outsourced and building a business case to justify the decision. Only once a high level business case has been established for the scope of services will a search begin to choose an outsourcing partner.
Due to the complexity of work definition, pricing, and legal terms and conditions, clients often utilize the advisory services of outsourcing consultants to assist in scoping, decision making, and vendor evaluation.
A Request for Proposal (RFP) is issued to the shortlist suppliers requesting a proposal and a price
A competition is held where the client marks and scores the supplier proposals. This may involve a number of face-to-face meetings to clarify the client requirements and the supplier response. The suppliers will be qualified out until only a few remain. This is known as down select in the industry. It is normal to go into the due diligence stage with two suppliers to maintain the competition. Following due diligence the suppliers submit a "best and final offer" (BAFO) for the client to make the final down select decision to one supplier. It is not unusual for two suppliers to go into competitive negotiations.
The negotiations take the original RFP, the supplier proposals, BAFO submissions and convert these into the contractual agreement between the client and the supplier. This stage finalizes the documentation and the final pricing structure.
At the heart of every outsourcing deal is a contractual agreement that defines how the client and the supplier will work together. This is a legally binding document and is core to the governance of the relationship. There are three significant dates that each party signs up to the contract signature date, the effective date when the contract terms become active and a service commencement date when the supplier will take over the services.
The transition will begin from the effective date and normally run until four months after service commencement date. This is the process for the staff transfer and the take-on of services.
The transformation is the execution of a set of projects to implement the service level agreement (SLA), to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) or to implement new services. Emphasis is on 'standardisation' and 'centralisation'.
Ongoing service delivery
This is the execution of the agreement and lasts for the term of the contract.
Some outsourcing contracts contain clauses giving the client the right to benchmark the price paid to the provider at certain milestones during the life of the agreement. A third party benchmarking firm is selected according to the terms agreed to at contract signing (e.g. selected by client, selected by provider, selected by mutual agreement, or pre-selected at contract signing), and conducts a comparison of the price being paid to current market prices. If the terms of the contract provide for it, the provider and client may adjust the pricing based on the results of the benchmark.
Termination or renewal
Near the end of the contract term a decision will be made to terminate or renew the contract. Termination may involve taking back services (insourcing) or the transfer of services to another supplier.
Reasons for outsourcing
Organizations that outsource are seeking to realize benefits or address the following issues:
Criticisms of outsourcing
- Cost savings. The lowering of the overall cost of the service to the business. This will involve reducing the scope, defining quality levels, re-pricing, re-negotiation, cost re-structuring. Access to lower cost economies through offshoring called "labor arbitrage" generated by the wage gap between industrialized and developing nations.
- Cost restructuring. Operating leverage is a measure that compares fixed costs to variable costs. Outsourcing changes the balance of this ratio by offering a move from fixed to variable cost and also by making variable costs more predictable.
- Improve quality. Achieve a step change in quality through contracting out the service with a new service level agreement.
- Knowledge. Access to intellectual property and wider experience and knowledge.
- Contract. Services will be provided to a legally binding contract with financial penalties and legal redress. This is not the case with internal services.
- Operational expertise. Access to operational best practice that would be too difficult or time consuming to develop in-house.
- Staffing issues. Access to a larger talent pool and a sustainable source of skills.
- Capacity management. An improved method of capacity management of services and technology where the risk in providing the excess capacity is borne by the supplier.
- Catalyst for change. An organization can use an outsourcing agreement as a catalyst for major step change that can not be achieved alone. The outsourcer becomes a Change agent in the process.
- Reduce time to market. The acceleration of the development or production of a product through the additional capability brought by the supplier.
- Commodification. The trend of standardizing business processes, IT Services and application services enabling businesses to intelligently buy at the right price. Allows a wide range of businesses access to services previously only available to large corporations.
- Risk management. An approach to risk management for some types of risks is to partner with an outsourcer who is better able to provide the mitigation.
- Venture Capital. Some countries match government funds venture capital with private venture capital for startups that start businesses in their country.
There is a strong public opinion regarding outsourcing (especially when combined with offshoring) that outsourcing damages a local labor market. Outsourcing is the transfer of the delivery of services which affects both jobs and individuals. It is difficult to dispute that outsourcing has a detrimental effect on individuals who face job disruption and employment insecurity; however, its supporters believe that outsourcing should bring down prices, providing greater economic benefit to all. There are legal protections in the European Union regulations called the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment). Labor laws in the United States are not as protective as those in the European Union. A study has attempted to show that public controversies about outsourcing in the U.S. have much more to do with class and ethnic tensions within the U.S. itself, than with actual impacts of outsourcing.
In the area of call centers end-user-experience is deemed to be of lower quality when a service is outsourced. This is exacerbated when outsourcing is combined with off-shoring to regions where the first language and culture are different. The questionable quality is particularly evident when call centers that service the public are outsourced and offshored.
There are a number of the public who find the linguistic features such as accents, word use and phraseology different which may make call center agents difficult to understand. The visual clues that are present in face-to-face encounters are missing from the call center interactions and this also may lead to misunderstandings and difficulties.
Outsourcing sends jobs to the lower-income areas where work is being outsourced to, which provides jobs in these areas and has a net equalizing effect on the overall distribution of wealth. Some argue that the outsourcing of jobs (particularly off-shore) exploits the lower paid workers. A contrary view is that more people are employed and benefit from paid work.
On the issue of high-skilled labor, such as computer programming, some argue that it is unfair to both the local and off-shore programmers to outsource the work simply because the foreign pay rate is lower. On the other hand, one can argue that paying the higher-rate for local programmers is wasteful, or charity, or simply overpayment. If the end goal of buyers is to pay less for what they buy, and for sellers it is to get a higher price for what they sell, there is nothing automatically unethical about choosing the cheaper of two products, services, or employees.
Quality of service
Quality of service is measured through a service level agreement (SLA) in the outsourcing contract. In poorly defined contracts there is no measure of quality or SLA defined. Even when an SLA exists it may not be to the same level as previously enjoyed. This may be due to the process of implementing proper objective measurement and reporting which is being done for the first time. It may also be lower quality through design to match the lower price.
There are a number of stakeholders who are affected and there is no single view of quality. The CEO may view the lower quality acceptable to meet the business needs at the right price. The retained management team may view quality as slipping compared to what they previously achieved. The end consumer of the service may also receive a change in service that is within agreed SLAs but is still perceived as inadequate. The supplier may view quality in purely meeting the defined SLAs regardless of perception or ability to do better.
Quality in terms of end-user-experience is best measured through customer satisfaction questionnaires which are professionally designed to capture an unbiased view of quality. Surveys can be one of research. This allows quality to be tracked over time and also for corrective action to be identified and taken.
The staff turnover of employee who originally transferred to the outsourcer is a concern for many companies. Turnover is higher under an outsourcer and key company skills may be lost with retention outside of the control of the company.
In outsourcing offshore there is an issue of staff turnover in the outsourcer companies call centers. It is quite normal for such companies to replace its entire workforce each year in a call center. This inhibits the build-up of employee knowledge and keeps quality at a low level.
Outsourcing could lead to communication problems with transferred employees. For example, before transfer staff have access to broadcast company e-mail informing them of new products, procedures etc. Once in the outsourcing organization the same access may not be available. Also to reduce costs, some outsource employees may not have access to e-mail, but any information which is new is delivered in team meetings.
Qualifications of outsourcers
The outsourcer may replace staff with less qualified people or with people with different non-equivalent qualifications.
In the engineering discipline there has been a debate about the number of engineers being produced by the major economies of the United States, India and China. The argument centers around the definition of an engineering graduate and also disputed numbers. The closest comparable numbers of annual graduates of four-year degrees are United States (137,437) India (112,000) and China (351,537).
Work, labour, and economy
Net labour movements
Offshore outsourcing for the purpose of saving cost can often have a negative influence on the real productivity of a company. Rather than investing in technology to improve productivity, companies gain non-real productivity by hiring fewer people locally and outsourcing work to less productive facilities offshore that appear to be more productive simply because the workers are paid less. Sometimes, this can lead to strange contradictions where workers in a third world country using hand tools can appear to be more productive than a U.S. worker using advanced computer controlled machine tools, simply because their salary appears to be less in terms of U.S. dollars.
In contrast, increases in real productivity are the result of more productive tools or methods of operating that make it possible for a worker to do more work. Non-real productivity gains are the result of shifting work to lower paid workers, often without regards to real productivity. The net result of choosing non-real over real productivity gain is that the company falls behind and obsoletes itself overtime rather than making investments in real productivity.
Standpoint of labor
From the standpoint of labor within countries on the negative end of outsourcing this may represent a new threat, contributing to rampant worker insecurity, and reflective of the general process of globalization (see Krugman, Paul (2006). "Feeling No Pain." New York Times, March 6, 2006). While the "outsourcing" process may provide benefits to less developed countries or global society as a whole, in some form and to some degree - include rising wages or increasing standards of living - these benefits are not secure. Further, the term outsourcing is also used to describe a process by which an internal department, equipment as well as personnel, is sold to a service provider, who may retain the workforce on worse conditions or discharge them in the short term. The affected workers thus often feel they are being "sold down the river."
'Outsourcing' became a popular political issue in the United States during the 2004 U.S. presidential election. The political debate centered on outsourcing's consequences for the domestic U.S. workforce. Democratic U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry criticized U.S. firms that outsource jobs abroad or that incorporate overseas in tax havens to avoid paying their fair share of U.S. taxes during his 2004 campaign, calling such firms "Benedict Arnold corporations". Criticism of outsourcing, from the perspective of U.S. citizens, by-and-large, revolves around the costs associated with transferring control of the labor process to an external entity in another country. A Zogby International poll conducted in August 2004 found that 71% of American voters believed that "outsourcing jobs overseas" hurt the economy while another 62% believed that the U.S. government should impose some legislative action against companies that transfer domestic jobs overseas, possibly in the form of increased taxes on companies that outsource. One given rationale is the extremely high corporate income tax rate in the U.S. relative to other OECD nations, and the peculiar practice of taxing revenues earned outside of U.S. jurisdiction, a very uncommon practice. It is argued that lowering the corporate income tax and ending the double-taxation of foreign-derived revenue (taxed once in the nation where the revenue was raised, and once from the U.S.) will alleviate corporate outsourcing and make the U.S. more attractive to foreign companies. Sarbanes-Oxley has also been cited as a factor for corporate flight from U.S. jurisdiction.
Policy solutions to outsourcing are also criticized.
Before outsourcing an organization is responsible for the actions of all their staff and liable for their actions. When these same people are transferred to an outsourcer they may not change desk but their legal status has changed. They no-longer are directly employed or responsible to the organization. This causes legal, security and compliance issues that need to be addressed through the contract between the client and the suppliers. This is one of the most complex areas of outsourcing and requires a specialist third party adviser.
Fraud is a specific security issue that is criminal activity whether it is by employees or the supplier staff. However, it can be disputed that the fraud is more likely when outsourcers are involved, for example about the credit card theft when there is scope for fraud by credit card cloning. In April 2005, a high-profile case involving the theft of $350,000 from four Citibank customers occurred when call center workers acquired the passwords to customer accounts and transferred the money to their own accounts opened under fictitious names. Citibank did not find out about the problem until the American customers noticed discrepancies with their accounts and notified the bank.