Extreme Makeover

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    IAOP hosted a Webinar on “Improving Outsourcing’s Brand Image.” The International Association for Outsourcing Professionals is a needed body in the US. The UK has a comparable group, the National Association of Outsourcing, so it was about time various players joined together in this country to push the skills of outsourcing as a profession and helped set standards.

    The three presenters — Mike Corbett, executive director of the IAOP; Atul Vashistha, CEO, neoITLASON — discussed the steps that need to be taken to fix outsourcing’s brand image. As. Mr. Corbett pointed out, while “valuable as a management tool, outsourcing’s brand image…is not as positive as it could be.”

    How do you fix a brand where, when you mention the topic, many people immediately visualize huge numbers of hard-working Americans being laid off en masse? It’s often used interchangeably with the term, “offshoring,” which, of course, always means hiring $2/hour laborers to do the work currently being handled by $100/hour programmers. It became a hot-button in the last presidential election, with each side making wild accusations about the other side in regards to outsourcing.

    And the bad impressions don’t simply lie in the minds of the general public. According to an IAOP survey, about a quarter of resistance to outsourcing comes from the management and executive teams within organizations where you’d think it would be a no-brainer strategy to consider.

    Well, there are no easy answers to all of this. If this were easy — say, a brand perception damaging just a single company — you’d probably do a high-profile acquisition and rename the old company to the new one, a la WorldCom and MCI. Presto! Bernard Ebbers becomes a distant memory.

    But that isn’t the case with outsourcing. A bad brand is preventing numerous organizations from taking advantage of transforming themselves in new ways. It prevents them from talking about their outsourcing initiatives and sharing what works and doesn’t work — which just perpetuates bad practices. It prevents people in the business of working on outsourcing initiatives from sharing their experiences with each other. Sometimes it must look to outsides like outsourcing is controlled by a small and secret cabal of practitioners who share secret handshakes and service provider recommendations.

    What are the steps the IAOP is considering for an outsourcing makeover? According to Mr. Vashistha, who heads the organization’s advocacy committee, it’s in the process of creating a body of knowledge (comparable to the Project Management Institute Body of Knowledge); a reference list of speakers and spokespeople; a communications plan; a Hall of Fame, in which individuals are acknowledged for their contributions to the furtherance of outsourcing’s cause; and the creation of a Certified Outsourcing Professional program.

    But many of these efforts — while valuable at the core — don’t look outward. I’d think, for example, only those who are inclined to favor outsourcing would call for a speaker on the topic.

    Mr. Lundquist believes the brand image and acceptance of outsourcing can be improved “by carrying it out effectively and appropriately.” Everybody loves a winner, right?

    But in the case of outsourcing, that isn’t necessarily true, particularly when there’s job loss around the endeavor. You don’t battle a hundred editorials and articles that shout out headlines like, “ABN Amro plans layoff of 1,500, will outsource IT operations,” by expounding on the great value this will bring to shareholders when it’s all finished.

    I think there are two things that need to happen.

    First, brand improvement will only evolve over the next several years in one-on-one situations.

    As Mr. Vashistha pointed out, there are two dimensions to communication used by those neoIT clients that do it well. First, they explain to company personnel the strategic message — how it’s important to the business. Second, they answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” They discuss the impact it’s going to have on the employees and focus on the roles and responsibilities that will “evolve for their people over time and why that is of benefit to them. If you just do the strategy side and not the impact side, it’s not really going to work.”

    What we haven’t seen much of yet in the general press or on network TV is coverage of that aspect of outsourcing: how it has pushed people into new positions where their jobs have changed in interesting and personally profitable ways.

    It’s like the CIO I recently interviewed, whose company is offshoring work to China. He went into the effort a year ago with grave reservations. It was almost foisted on him and his team by a board member, and then the CEO, who had different impressions about how to complete the work the tech organization needed to accomplish. Now that CIO is moving to a new company and he expects to spend a lot of time making sure they have their offshoring strategy figured out. One of his technical leads — who’s staying — is highly enthusiastic and has become a major advocate of the model his company is following.

    At holiday parties, those guys will have a different perspective to share if the topic of offshoring comes up. Maybe they’ll open up a few minds in the process.

    Of course, it’s easier in this situation because the China team is an extension of the onshore team. Massive numbers of people didn’t lose their jobs in the client company.

    So if job loss is an inevitable part of some forms of outsourcing, why shouldn’t the IAOP play a role in educating federal and state policymakers about possible legislation to aid displaced workers — to keep their unemployment insurance coming past six months, their healthcare covered and their training up to speed in areas of national labor need?

    That’s the second thing I think will help change outsourcing’s brand.

    Along those lines, I’d like to think that the IAOP would open up dialogues with union leaders to truly understand how management and service providers can collaborate with union members when large numbers of them will be affected by possible corporate decisions. Right now, I see no signs of cross-communication happening. The extremists on both sides have the floor, respectively.

    And they won’t change the tone or message of the news that’s reported until their wires get crossed and they start espousing for each other on some level. That’s what can really make headlines.

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