Read any case study and you’ll probably encounter overblown statistics that say offshore outsourcing reduced costs by 50 per cent, reduced number of defects in production by 25 per cent, reduced time to launch application by 40 per cent and so on.
Some even go a step further and extrapolate these figures to ‘business value’. Example: launch time reduced by 10 weeks implies 10 weeks of additional revenue or reduced costs. So 10 divided by 52, then multiplied by annual revenues or IT annual spend equals business value from reduced launch time. Lo and behold – suddenly you have a number in the tens of millions. Add up all the other sources of value and you may reach hundreds of millions and even billions as the business value. Sounds good, right? Especially in this time of recessionary woes.
But if this was accurate, customers would not be so unsure about whether offshore outsourcing has delivered value. Numerous surveys indicate that anywhere between 17 per cent and 53 per cent of customers have not realised business value/return on investment from offshore outsourcing. Yes, statistics can prove just about anything, but whatever the number, there are customers who have not realised tangible returns from offshore outsourcing. And this article is for you folks.
When quantifying the business value of offshore outsourcing, customers must consider three important aspects that are often ignored: the appropriate comparisons, the hidden costs and the distinction between theory and reality.
The wrong assumptions
When it comes to building the business case for offshore outsourcing, the most common comparison is between onshore and offshore, apparently in answer to the question: “If we had to do the project in any other way apart from offshore, how much would that cost?”
Many assumptions end up wrongly over-estimating the onshore cost. Most common is using the same headcount number in both cases. When a project is done onshore, fewer people are required because of -reduced activity levels in areas like knowledge capture, knowledge transfer, project coordination and environment support. Then there is the productivity factor.
M. M. “Sath” Sathyanarayan, president and principal consultant of Global Development Consulting and author of Offshore Development and Technical Support: Proven Strategies and Tactics for Success, says that even if offshore personnel are as competent as your local employees – which is your best-case scenario and unlikely to be the case when you are getting started – there will still a productivity loss because of systemic issues.
Also, the assumption that all the onshore work will be done by newly hired internal employees may not be the right one to make; customers almost always leverage contractors and existing employees. For the former, use the relevant contractor rates that are likely to get negotiated and the appropriate loading factor (you don’t pay pensions, holiday allowances and so on to them). For the latter, consider if they can be treated differently: it could be a sunk cost for a period of time or a partially apportioned cost.
Finally, internal employee costs are excessively padded by something called “an overloading factor” to account for pensions, holidays, desk space, corporate overheads and other factors. A figure of anywhere between 20 per cent and 50 per cent is normally used here – choose the figure that reflects reality, and take into account that you can’t recover any of those costs anyway.
The straightforward costs are fairly easy to see – costs related to personnel, communications, IT infrastructure and tools and licences – although sometimes the uplift required for converting single-site to multi-site licences can be hidden.
Many cost elements are not obvious. In their article Hidden Costs Impact Value in Outsourcing, authors Whitfield and Joslin state that potential outsourcers in all industries commonly assume that outsourcing can be plug and play, that the company will only have to absorb limited up-front costs before large savings can be realised, and that offshoring for labour arbitrage will ensure more than 60 per cent cost savings.
In reality, 10 per cent to 15 per cent savings are more realistic for highly commoditised service areas, and 40 per cent to 50 per cent savings can be achieved only in optimal circumstances.
Travel of a customer’s onshore staff first comes to mind as a hidden expense: a leading European software provider indicated that it takes 40 trips per annum to manage its offshore product testing program.
Equaterra, an outsourcing consultancy, points out a couple of interesting examples of hidden costs. One is the hidden cost of work retained onshore, internally. One retailer had outsourced the work of 1,100 employees, but held onto 50 per cent of the work for 200 of those employees. As a result, the company overstated its business case by $24m (£15m).
Another overlooked expenditure is the hidden cost of internal, transitional headcount. Companies usually don’t account for the costs of employees who help in the transition. For example, one pharmaceutical company kept about 20 per cent of its staff for six months after the go-live date, which added $1.5m (£950,000) in cost. Over ambitious headcount estimates can cut projected savings by between 10 per cent and 20 per cent.
Other examples of hidden costs are set-up (initial knowledge transfer, training, retraining, for example) and managing the offshore outsourcing engagement (governance system, additional personnel, management time). A McKinsey study suggests a figure of 10 per cent for additional transactional costs and 10 per cent for additional monitoring costs, though particular cost elements were not specified.
A recent white paper by a leading offshore outsourcer in collaboration with a top-tier industry analyst reported that their return-on-outsourcing model takes into account benefits from cost savings, efficiency gains and revenue improvement. But the bulk of the benefit actually comes from revenue improvement rather than tangible cost savings.
Assumptions on revenue impact are open to theoretical debate and as a result are seldom evidenced in financial statements. It’s not that there is no revenue impact for offshore outsourcing, but customers should make the distinction between what benefits will actually hit the books versus benefits that are more theoretical in nature.
Will the recession really drive offshoring?
The ongoing credit crisis is a concern for everyone in nearly every industry, but it was likely to further bolster the booming offshore outsourcing market – or so the experts predicted. Fast-forward a few months and it’s time for them to eat their words. Customers aren’t outsourcing more, and nor is the industry growing any faster, with service providers only revising their growth estimates in the downward direction.
Some brave analysts are finally coming out with the truth. Days after Wall Street’s collapse in late September, Forrester Research principal analyst John McCarthy said the scale of the crisis had rendered all previous studies including Forrester’s own survey, redundant, and that Indian IT providers should prepare for slower growth and lower profits. “It is naive to say an economic slowdown is good because cost-cutting will lead to higher offshoring. This is no longer a recession, it is fundamental restructuring of financial services that is taking place,” McCarthy said.
What the hell happened in these past few months? Multiple factors are at play here – some recent developments and some historic issues that have been building over time. About 20 per cent to 40 per cent of the revenues of offshore outsourcing firms are tied to the financial services industry. With its collapse, companies have been forced to look to other vertical markets. In normal circumstances, that should have been enough to offset the revenue erosion. But the problem is that those other industries are also impacted by the crisis.
For example, the travel vertical has started seeing a rise in ticket cancellations and refunds, which has led outsourcing service providers like WNS to greater conservatism on revised guidance. Hexaware stated that delayed decision-making is spreading out to travel, and it has now reduced its annual growth estimate from 24 per cent to between seven and nine per cent. Sasken is also cautious about the telecom handset segment as all the top-five handset customers are seeing a slowdown in sales.
Suddenly all players are chasing a smaller market, leading to pricing pressure, reduced profitability and less growth. It will also become difficult to generate new business unless it’s driven by price. Rather than getting upset about it, I think it’s an exciting opportunity for service providers to innovate and build their differentiators. Customers have never had it so good.
The more I think about the full value chain, the more intrigued, and sometimes scared, I get about the full impact. TCS has reduced its annual hiring estimate by about 30 per cent, Wipro already reduced headcount in IT services, Polaris has resorted to just-in-time hiring, and Infosys is visiting fewer campuses. What does it mean for the employment market in offshore outsourcing countries? Will wage inflation ease off? Will attrition finally come to manageable levels? Will being skilled come back in fashion compared to just having an IT degree? We’ll have to wait and see.
It is the end of the golden age of offshore outsourcing, but it also heralds a new dawn – the age of truth and rationality.
Statistics can prove just about anything. You need to exercise diligence and your own prudent judgment in the quantification process, otherwise you will end up building unrealistic, unseen and un-feasible expectations of business value from offshore outsourcing.