What Matters Most in Outsourcing: Outcomes vs. Tasks

No one who outsources IT really cares about servers or switches or man-hours. They want business results. Outcome-based outsourcing promises to deliver those results, but moving from input-based pricing to outcome-based contracts is easier said than done.

By Stephanie Overby
Wed, November 11, 2009

CIO — Outcome-based outsourcing is the holy grail of IT services. Both customers and providers agree that if they can figure out a way to tie sourcing strategy to business results everyone will be happier in the end.

The problem with many traditional outsourcing arrangements is that they focus on input rather than output. Just as U.S. health care reform advocates criticize a system that incents doctors to perform tests and procedures with few rewards for the ultimate goal—a healthy patient, some outsourcing reformers say too many IT services deals are myopically focused on tasks or man-hours rather than business results.

Outcome-based contracts—at least, in theory—can change that. "Paying for outcomes is the idea of paying for success toward a desired result instead of paying for individual items like servers or programming hours," says Adam Strichman, an independent outsourcing consultant based in Mechanicsville, Va. "Nobody really wants servers, or switches or a mainframe. They generally want a business outcome, such as faster access to information or an automated delivery system."

[ For more stories on outsourcing pricing models, see Offshore Outsourcing: Introducing a New, Hybrid Pricing Model. ]

But devising outcome-based outsourcing deals that satisfy both the customer and the vendor has proven difficult. Time-and-materials contracts remain the most common outsourcing model in the industry, particularly offshore, says Sandeep Karoor, managing director of outsourcing consultancy Neo Advisory. Fixed-price contracts run a distant second. Outcome-based contracts account for, at most, 15 percent of new deals, says Strichman, and they may only apply to part of the outsourced work.

Who's Outcome Is It Anyway?

Part of the problem with this new paradigm, whereby contracts are based on results rather than resource consumption, is in defining outcomes. Every stakeholder has a different desired end state—or two or three. The CEO wants happy customers and shareholders or to be the industry leader. The CFO wants an increase in profitability. The business unit leader may desire best-of-breed systems. And the CIO? He's got a whole list—lower costs, better service levels, increased customer satisfaction.

What may be the biggest problem of all is that the IT service provider has very little control over or connection to any of those outcomes.

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