The quality of an outsourced job is still your responsibility

* You can outsource the work, but not your responsibility for it

Twice before, I have written about how you can outsource IT work, but not the responsibility. The first time, I focused on general security aspects in outsourcing and the second time I focused specifically on data security. This week, I want to revisit that theme, but focus more on the responsibility for the outcome of the work and ownership of the process generally.

To illustrate my point, I want to start with an interesting outsourcing story from India Times. IT students at certain U.K. universities have been posting their programming homework assignments on a job auction site to find cheap outsourcing for their homework. Some students were found to have posted dozens of times, showing that they were obviously getting quality work and were returning for more. And they were getting their assignments completed for just a few British pounds.

Forgetting the moral aspects of this type of cheating for a moment, let's just focus on the effect of outsourcing this work on the students' future.

First, it is questionable whether the students have the skills or are taking the time to quality check the work that is being done. It may be possible to see that the program produces the correct output for the given assignment, but may lack proper structure or documentation. They may have relied on references from other students in awarding the work to a given provider, but these students could be way out on a limb and be handing in poor quality work.

Second, the point of the homework is not to get a grade, but to learn the material. These students are really cheating themselves out of the education that doing the work themselves would have provided. The immediate benefit may be a good grade without the work, but where will they be when they have to perform this work themselves in the future?

It is easy to see some of the pitfalls of outsourcing in such a simple example. However, it extends to larger outsourcing engagements by businesses. Just as the student still has the responsibility for the quality of the work and to learn from the assignment, the business managers responsible for work being outsourced retain the responsibility for the outsourced work. While this seems an obvious and simple concept, it is not always so in practice. Many business executives do not treat that responsibility with the same attention that they would if the work were being done by their employees in-house.

I recently spoke to the CIO of an $11 billion company who had some interesting perspectives on outsourcing and responsibility. He doesn't believe in the term "outsourcing", he uses the term "smartsourcing". If it is smart to send the work outside of the company, then do it. But you have to own the "blueprint" for what is being done and stay involved in the process.

He previously worked in the automotive industry for one of the major U.S. automakers. There, he was part of a group investigating the quality of U.S. cars vs. Japanese models. In many cases, the U.S. and Japanese automakers' factories were in the same town in the United States making cars for their respective organizations. So the factory workers were not the difference.

A major part of the difference was determined to be the attitude toward suppliers of component parts of the cars. The U.S. companies would define a specification for a particular part and turn the process over to the supplier. Quality would be checked on the way into the factory, but the process prior to that was owned by the supplier. The Japanese companies were much more involved with their suppliers throughout the process. They didn't just set the specifications up front and then check the quality at the factory door. They "owned the blueprint" for the process, and the resulting difference in quality of the finished cars was a clear outcome of this attitude.

Approach outsourcing like the students in the story above and you may get by for a while, but you may have a quality surprise. If you are completely uninvolved in the processes internal to the outsourced work, you may find it difficult to take the work back in-house or to change vendors in the future. Better to take the mindset of "smartsourcing" and own the blueprint, even for the work you outsource.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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