Outsourcing: Beyond cheap labour

Skills, best practice and business alignment mean outsourcing is here to stay

(First published in ComputerworldUK)Image of the Tycoon Center Condominium buildin...

Is the IT offshoring trend we have seen over the last few decades now beginning to reverse whereby outsourcers and their customers are beginning now to opt for an ‘onshoring’ alternative?

It is true that traditional lower cost IT centres like India are no longer quite so appealing as local wages rise, but there will always be other, newer emerging economies that offer attractive labour arbitrage opportunities. However cost is only one consideration: these inexperienced new service delivery centres may struggle to provide a suitably skilled workforce, operational maturity and the levels of governance and risk management that Western markets require – which means that whatever is saved in labour cost can easily be lost in risk exposure.

The end of labour arbitrage?
Over the years industry surveys have consistently confirmed low labour cost as the prime driver for outsourcers moving services delivery to offshore centres. But with the cost differentials between the buy and supply side economies now reduced, outsourcers are now being forced to focus on building up their service portfolio so they can provide specialist expertise in everything from implementing IT governance procedures to implementing emerging technologies.

From the CIO’s point of view, the debate goes on about whether to offshore or onshore, and whether to outsource or run the IT operation or develop applications inhouse. It is worth noting here that despite the confusion, outsourcing and offshoring are not synonymous. A global outsourcer may have multinational operations and favour lower-cost centres where appropriate, but ultimately cost is only one aspect of their overall service offering. So if offshore cost advantage is becoming less attractive as a reason to outsource, what are the other issues driving the debate?

The offshoring/outsourcing debate
Politics is one. The rhetoric surrounding offshoring, particularly during election season, has notched up since the economic crisis. The story of jobs (in IT, manufacturing or anything else) lost to overseas workers has been a sore point for some time. Indeed, perhaps as a condition of its government bail-out, General Motors undertook a highly publicised “reversal of outsourcing” strategy in the US in 2009. And because of this offshoring and outsourcing conflation, the negative result of such high profile cases is that in many minds outsourcing can automatically equate to a loss of local jobs.

There are other issues as well. Since the onset of the economic crisis CIOs have become increasingly impatient with what they perceive as a lack of transparency from providers in areas like cost, mission creep and service deliverables. So does this mean that the outsourcing market is shrinking? Well, actually, no. Of the estimated $US3.6 trillion global IT spent, only 22% goes to external services providers who assume full or partial responsibility for an IT operation – a percentage that has remained roughly the same for many years.

The majority of IT funds is spent on hardware, software and IT personnel including contract staff. So, while the outsourcing budget may not be expanding, there is little evidence that it is going away. Here, then, is the question: If the offshore labour cost differential is losing its edge, why is outsourcing continuing to thrive?

Buying in talent

Clients tell us that their reason for outsourcing today owes much to the continued economic weakness which has forced them to stall projects and run extremely lean teams. But they can no longer continue to cut back and just watch and wait – the backlog of transformation programmes have grown which must now be implemented. They also see that they are suffering opportunity losses by not introducing the new technologies like customer analytics, cloud computing, virtualisation and remote collaboration, that promise to increase enterprise efficiency, provide competitive advantage and add to the bottom line.

Ironically, if global labour costs are diminishing as a compelling reason to offshore, the need for access to a broader range of essential skills is growing. Acquiring the talent required to handle many of the disruptive technologies coming on stream can be a major challenge, especially with reduced inhouse resources, so the availability of a global talent pool is one of the things that makes outsourcing an attractive option.

Aligning IT with business

Despite already running a lean operation, for most organisations in the UK doing more with less and optimising IT remains a priority A key aspect of this is choosing the right sourcing and service delivery models from traditional hosted and managed services to shared services, hybrid onshore, near-shore and offshore options and new cloud-based options. In making these choices, however, the need to reduce operating costs in the short term must be balanced against investment in risk management programmes, continuous performance improvement, IT process integration, skills development and the other operational and business practices critical to long term success. Typically some or all of this kind of expertise will need to be outsourced.

For CIOs, the emphasis today is on aligning technology with business. Sometimes the only way to get the bandwidth – or at least the most economical and speedy – is to outsource it. Not only does this introduce valuable cross industry experience and domain expertise, it adds an important string to the CIO’s bow and provides a cross-pollinating influence that can blow away established ‘group-think’ cobwebs and can challenge the status quo.

To reengineer the IT landscape in closer alignment with business strategies will likely involve the implementation of one or several new technologies and delivery models and calls for expertise in business process improvement and alignment, sensitivity to compliance requirements and very much more. In order to avoid lengthy delays and expensive experimentation, CIOs frequently turn to outsourcing to provide tried and tested platforms.

Process maturity
Smaller organisations that do not have the best practice IT operational procedures of larger and more mature organisations often turn to their outsourcer to provide them. A typical problem that arises from this lack of an established enterprise process framework is that inhouse IT teams and their outsourcers find themselves operating in isolation, thus building up information silos. Ensuring the type of integrated, end-to-end flow that ensures high efficiency and minimised requires things like open communication, clear SLAs, regular service delivery reviews, performance benchmarking and structured IT governance procedures – capabilities which the outsourcer should be proactive in putting in place.

Beyond cost
We are not saying that the days of organisations outsourcing in order to achieve cost savings (either on or offshore) has come to an end – far from it, customers more than ever expect their service providers to achieve cost and performance efficiencies. But efficiencies gained by the smart application of skills and systems, not simply through cheap labour. And increasingly, CIOs are looking to their outsourcers for the kind of value added services we have touched on above, such as continuous performance optimisation, IT and business alignment, process governance and innovation: all those capabilities that go beyond the company-specific operational functions best handled inhouse. Indeed, it is within the realms of value added services that outsourcers are increasingly realising their competitive advantage. One is reminded of the adage: “They came for cost, and stayed for value”

Contributor: Paul Michaels

AGILE & CMM : The Marilyn Monroe Connection (Part 3) : Some Like it Hot!

Here we are at the final part in our hot discussion – will Agile and CMM get hitched, become a potent combination? If you have followed the earlier parts of this story, you would share my excitement – for the fairy tale is within our grasp – what it does require though is a practical mind and the logic to apply to practice.

Let’s dwell a little deeper. Both Agile and CMM share a common set of end objectives – to maximize revenues and reduce costs through faster output and fewer defects, and to enable continuous innovation, to serve business objectives better. Incidentally the same objective every business is seeking, particularly in these difficult times.

So, if we agree that fundamentally their “heart” is in the right place and in sync, what’s then required is to find and select the common pathways to travel down both these methods, without conflict or compromise.

The wonderful part about Agile is that it doesn’t declare “what to do” thereby giving you fair elbow room. And while it prides itself on being lightweight, it really isn’t that simple. Release and Iteration planning needs extraordinary project management skills, working with a talented and multi functional team, who are expected to shed ego and attitude in the cause of Agile. Continuous Integration and Tests ensure continuous verification and validation as well as Configuration Management practices. Not so different from CMM practices after all.

But how about ever-changing requirements? In Agile once Features are finalized in an Iteration Backlog, they cannot be changed. Now that sounds like a Baseline in CMM parlance.

Both Agile and CMM stress on constantly linking Business Value to the Product build, and stress on regular monitoring to ensure. They both constantly review the Return on Investment and measure size, effort, schedules (read Time Box) and cost.  Stakeholder engagement, in continuous and “fast forward” mode, are constantly reviewed in both. At the end of each cycle, a Retrospective captures Best Practices, Lessons Learnt and “What went Well”.

In conclusion, it appears that while Agile and CMM have their differences, they have much in common too. Deployment is never easy and needs to be well guided, not to mention independently reviewed for continuous improvement. With a pragmatic business case to start with, a difficult time is not a bad time to move down the path of software engineering maturity, to deliver the best business value. It may get hot – but then “Some Like it Hot”!


AGILE & CMM : The Marilyn Monroe Connection (Part 2) : Something’s Got To Give

In the first part of the discussion, drawing upon the genesis of Agile and CMM, we were left wondering if the two are “The Misfits”, and most likely to disappoint  the pacifists, or can they become soul-mates after all. The conclusion, much like the of Marilyn Monroe’s last unfinished work, is “Something’s Got to Give!”  

Now that we appreciate that these two approaches, Agile and CMM, are prima-facie incompatible, let’s explore some detail about the areas that have gotten us into this debate. The fundamental difference in Agile and CMM begins from the tenets of their methodology and framework.

Agile follows a cycle from Product Visioning, Roadmap, Release Planning, Iterations, Daily Stand-ups, Reviews and Retrospectives. It contains the roles required, the steps in each process at a high level and the exclusions from practice, such as, not using Daily Stand-ups for status, appraisal and so on. It tries not to be prescriptive and allows for flexibility. The CMM also provides the entirety of a Development Lifecycle, and while not explicit, seems to lean towards a “waterfall’ approach. It defines “What” needs to be undertaken, in a prescriptive fashion. Failure to adhere to a “What” specific prescription implies that you don’t satisfy the goals of that particular process area.

Agile recommends embracing and adapting to change. It recommends permitting changes at any time to ensure highest business value and satisfaction. It allows the building of a Release Backlog, which is essentially “product requirements”, further decomposed into Iteration Backlogs, for the purpose of understanding the requirement set being undertaken at the time. CMM, on the other hand, has an entire process area devoted to Requirements Management, prescribing the need to ensure scope creep is contained through Scope Control, which is strictly enforced through the additional rigor of the Configuration Management process area. 

Agile uses several planning and monitoring techniques, such as Release and Iteration Planning, Burn Downs and Burn Ups. CMM prescribes a fairly detailed modus operandi for planning through an entire process area, and follows up with a whole other process on Monitoring and Control. It also requires, at Level 3 maturity, that the entire organization follows a common project management methodology.

Agile does not insist on quality assurance as a distinct process area unlike CMM. However, the nature of Agile methodologies, especially Extreme Programming, presume an ongoing practice of Verification and Validation, through the lifecycle of getting to a “Done” product. CMM on the other hand requires a separate SEPG (Software Engineering Process Group) to develop the QMS (Quality Management system) and a QA (Quality Assurance) group to ensure reviews and undertake audits.

Agile relies heavily upon the human component to have it sail through the traditional “trip over” pieces of design and architecture, inter-group co-ordination, functional expertise, and so on. The CMM model calls for a detailed competency skill set, coupled with training, as a separate Process Area to make up for any resource deficits.

Well, sounds rather irreconcilable, doesn’t it? So can the impossible become possible, will “The Misfits” get hitched? What’s more, can their potent combination be used to bust the recession? Sounds like a fairy tale.

Await the last article in the series, after all, “Some Like it Hot”!

                                                                                                                                 Contributor: Pam Ramalingam

AGILE & CMM : The Marilyn Monroe Connection (Part 1) : The Misfits

If you have begun reading this, you probably have drawn two correct conclusions already.

One, that I am a fan of Norma Jeane Mortensen Baker, professionally recognized as Marilyn Monroe. And two, having worked with both, Agile and CMM, I have witnessed the famous debate on whether they actually do meet, in the end!

It looks like the software engineering community is keen, rather desperate, to ensure that the CMM standard fits into the rather haute couture world of Agile. The Software Engineering Institute’s (SEI) technical note of 2008, “CMMI® or Agile: Why Not Embrace Both!”, makes the proposal in no uncertain terms.

To understand that they are prima-facie ill-suited companions does not need much imagination. Let’s start at the beginning and understand the genesis of each participant.

The Agile Manifesto was written in February of 2001, at a summit of 17 independent-minded practitioners of several programming methodologies. The participants didn’t agree on much, but they found consensus around four main values:  

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

In the late 1980’s, the Object Oriented revolution had swept the software planet, and dramatically changed how people built software. Most Object Oriented gurus had a monumental distaste for paperwork, and the cumbersome demands of software approaches, such as CMM, did not appeal. The emphasis was on minimalism.  Software is the alpha and the omega, the yin and yang; all else is merely overhead. The ultimate argument goes like this: “Why worry about artifacts, documents or project management etc., if all that the customer is really interested in is the software itself?”

Now let us examine the fundamental principles of SEI’s popular software standard – the Capability Maturity Model (CMM). Since its introduction by Watts Humphrey in 1989, in his famous book Managing the Software Process , CMM has undergone stages of evolution until now, to the latest CMM Integrated (CMMI) model for software and the relatively less popular CMM for Services. Apart from levels of maturity starting from Level 2 and moving up to Level 5, the CMM is a formal, disciplined and highly structured set of methods, demanding incredible amounts of consistent discipline to run a software programme or project. CMM models absolutely mandate the following:

  • A policy
  • Process relevant to each Key Process Area, identifying pertinent roles, entry-tasks-validation-exit criteria, reviews, audits, metrics, training and tools
  • Procedures
  • Supporting evidence across process and actual operationalization

It is probably a no-brainer, that the two might embrace each other with great awkwardness. In other words, total Misfits, not exhibiting the potential of a happily ever after marriage. In another sense, it’s a typical David vs. Goliath story. For Agile evangelists, the tagline never falters – “Agile means fast, adaptable to change, simplicity, a customer’s dream!”  For CMM evangelists – “CMM means best practice from the cumulative years of expertise, from organizations committed to the business of making software and an objective benchmark”.  Agile development is a minimal, fast-track approach; while CMM is process heavy, bureaucratic and doomed to failure. Agile can never succeed, simply because the concept of a single user representing the customer is not practical or realistic, no more than accepting change at every stage of the development cycle.

Despite the heated debates, and the well-meaning pacifists who believe that CMM and Agile can become soul-mates, what do the astrological charts forecast?

Await the next article in this series. Something’s gotta give!

Contributor: Pam Ramalingam