IT's input on outsourcing

For the good of the business, IT must have a stake in the business process outsourcing discussion

Few words strike fear into the hearts of IT pros like "outsourcing" and its closely related foreign cousin, "offshoring." For many, the "O" words are simply euphemisms for layoffs, an all-too-common occurrence. Worse, the corporate appetite for outsourcing continues to grow.

Fear is a reasonable enough response, but not an effective survival tactic. For that, IT must take a different tack, something that gives techies control of their own destinies and real input into the decision-making process. In this new outsource-it-all world, IT needs a seat at the table, right alongside the business folks.

Technical input has become particularly critical now that generic outsourcing has given way to the more strategic discipline of BPO (business process outsourcing). BPO breaks out specific chunks of the business and sends them elsewhere, to a specialized vendor who handles the software, the management, and even the staff required to keep the processes moving. This kind of outsourcing looks rosy enough on a CFO's whiteboard, but in the real world, ill-informed decisions about what to outsource and how to integrate outsourced operations into the remaining technology stack can wreak havoc.

And that's where IT comes in. According to Leon Erlanger, author of this week's cover story, senior business management has begun actively seeking IT's input. "To make the whole BPO process work, business units need IT involvement," says Erlanger, "because outsourcing requires much more than simply giving the process to someone else and hoping they handle it for you the way you would want them to."

Given this opportunity, IT leaders have a choice: Try to stem the inevitable outsourcing tide, or go with the flow and help make the right call. Prudence dictates the latter. Besides, in most cases, Erlanger notes, the primary candidates for outsourcing are noncore systems anyway, which "are a major headache to maintain and suck resources away from the core business functions that IT should be concentrating on." By devoting attention to conceptualizing, developing, and maintaining unique processes and systems that provide business advantage, IT ultimately positions itself as key to its company's success -- and ends up with more interesting work to boot.

But what about all those IT jobs lost due to outsourcing? Surprisingly, a recent report from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) claims that offshoring is spurring innovation, creating new IT jobs in the process. Whether or not ACM's conclusions are accurate, ultimately the best way to ensure personal job security is to develop skills that are immune -- or at least resistant -- to outsourcing. The ACM report offers suggestions there as well, advising IT workers to keep their education and skill sets up to date, sharpen their communications skills, brush up on other cultures, and become conversant in technologies supporting the "global software-systems-services industry."

Now that's a strategy. And it sure beats cowering in fear.