One of the most frustrating aspects of working for somebody else is the dreaded ‘diktat from above’. Diktats are not requests, they are demands. Most workers, when faced with an order to do something they do not understand or support, disconnect emotionally from the task and follow through in lacklustre fashion.

This leads to disappointing results that reinforce the perception that those above are disconnected from reality. The demanding executive gives up on either the idea or the people. In the end, the organisation loses.

Getting the order

For the CIO, some of these diktats are related to outsourcing, a strategy that is usually defined at the top and sometimes disdained in the middle.

I was in a planning meeting recently where a mid level executive conveyed an outsourcing diktat to his group. The discussion that followed was high on perspiration but not on inspiration. Cries of ‘it doesn’t save money’, ‘our complex work can’t be outsourced’, resounded in the room.

Minds were closed to the positive experiences of other organisations and the opportunities that could be created. The outcome? A set of modest goals that did little to address industry cost pressures and global support requirements.

Outsourcing’s value depends on the actions of those who are tasked with making it real. Done well, it saves money and allows an organisation to reinvest in high-value activities such as interacting with customers, managing innovation, defining strategic direction and formulating plans.

Done poorly, outsourcing can increase costs around the management of sourcing relationships and synching up processes, as well as stripping an organisation of creativity by focusing internal resources on work that lacks innovation.

On the attack

For these reasons, the CIO should be on the offensive when it comes to outsourcing. After all, it is better to initiate your own programme rather than have one handed down from on high. But do not concede the game if you find yourself on the receiving end of an outsourcing mandate.

You can still shift to an offensive position by taking a leadership role in the initiative and redefining it so that it works for you and your organisation while protecting the long term interests of the enterprise.

In other words, love it to death. Outsourcing is a competitive necessity in a global economy. When – not if – the call comes, try the following tactics.

Focus on the opportunity

Let go of concerns and fears until you define the opportunities – beyond cost savings – that outsourcing enables. What should your organisation do better and how could outsourcing help fund or catalyse change? The participants in the planning meeting I attended had difficulty focusing on the opportunities rather than on the risks and challenges. It took effort for them to identify how outsourcing could improve leadership on activities that had degraded over time due to a lack of funding for incremental maintenance. Avoid their mistake.

Demonstrate that you are serious

Reach for empirical research and get ‘lessons learned’ from organisations that use and supply outsource services. Develop a plan that shows a committed and disciplined approach. It should incorporate tenets such as an aggressive, integrated pilot programme, strategic selection of offshoring locations, multiple suppliers to ensure competition and lower risks, the creation of metrics and a plan to share the benefits with the business to motivate adoption. Remember that unless you commit over time to increasing the work that is outsourced, the payoff will never be realised because the costs of establishing and managing an effective sourcing programme are high.

Avoid the path of least resistance

Although it is easier and less risky to outsource ‘keep the lights on’ tasks rather than IT development activities, many organisations first outsource development because of its variable nature. But placing project management, business and architectural knowledge solely in the hands of the outsourcers can lead to a withering of the internal capability to innovate. Outsource innovation-based work to accommodate peak demands and to access specialist expertise. Ensure knowledge transfer and retain control over tasks such as programme management.

Take care of your people

By keeping the most exciting work inside and refocusing your workforce, you increase your odds of retaining the best and brightest. Demonstrate integrity by communicating openly and providing training, retention bonuses and severance for those who need them.