The Perils of Outsourcing

We live in an outsourcing and outsourced world. We’re sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Wherever we are or whatever we do, whether in a hotel, or a hospital, even if we’re languishing at home in need of social care, we’re likely to be served by a cluster of different companies, very often without knowing it.

It’s a compelling idea if you’re running a business. Outsource ‘non-core functions’ to companies who are experts in these areas to drive down cost by putting your contract out to tender. Never mind that these companies pay only the minimum wage or hold their employees to zero-hour contracts. Not your concern. Who employs office cleaners directly nowadays? Almost no one. Hospitals outsource their catering, local governments outsource ‘care giving’.

It works. But at a cost. The sense of common endeavour in an organisation, of everyone pulling together to achieve a common purpose, will be lost if the traditional relationship of employer and employed (ideally a mutually respectful one) is replaced by the usual dog-eat-dog relationship of customer and supplier, where loyalty is usually absent. You will treat your cleaners differently if thy don’t directly ‘belong’ to you.

buck

And because of this it sometimes doesn’t work.

I stayed at a moderately-inexpensive hotel in Sydney for six nights last week. Comfortable enough, architecturally undistinguished, small room, no view, but fit for my purposes, except that the internet, with which I cannot live or breathe, was abominable. Dropped connections, slow to the point of stasis, no signal sometimes, ‘restart the router’ at other times, all the usual problems. But when I called down to reception, they tell me, ‘I’ll put you in touch with our service provider.’

‘Our service provider’ is a friendly lady, but she’s a few hundred miles away.

‘What hotel are you in?’ she asks, and then takes me through all the things I already know how to do.

‘I’ll call you back,’ she says.

She never does.

The nice girl at Reception shrugs. There’s nothing she can do. It’s been out of her hands, she says, ever since they outsourced the service.

The end result is not that no one cares, but that control is lost. The buck has been passed to someone for whom I am the distant irritant in Room 122 in a far away place of which she’s never heard.

So, think before outsourcing, even if it’s not a ‘core function’. Don’t lose control, don’t pass the buck. Be in a position both to care and to act. Otherwise your reputation may suffer.

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