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.
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
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 and jobs
The term outsourcing is often used interchangeably — and incorrectly — with offshoring, usually by those in a heated debate. But offshoring (or, more accurately, offshore outsourcing) is a subset of outsourcing wherein a company outsources services to a third party in a country other than the one in which the client company is based, typically to take advantage of lower labor costs. This subject continues to be charged politically because unlike domestic outsourcing, in which employees often have the opportunity to keep their jobs and transfer to the outsourcer, offshore outsourcing is more likely to result in layoffs.
Estimates of jobs displaced or jobs created due to offshoring tend to vary widely due to lack of reliable data, which makes it challenging to assess the net effect on IT jobs. In some cases, global companies set up their own captive offshore IT service centers to to reduce costs or access skills that may not result in net job loss but will shift jobs to overseas locations.
Some roles typically offshored include software development, application support and management, maintenance, testing, help desk/technical support, database development or management, and infrastructure support.