How to Close Your Next IT Outsourcing Deal: Handshake vs. Contract

Should you trade your clear-cut written outsourcing contract for a simpler agreement and a handshake with your IT services provider? Thomas Young from Information Services Group (ISG) says you should consider what he calls 'evolutionary contracting.'

By Stephanie Overby
Fri, May 03, 2013

CIO — Would you trade your thousand-page outsourcing contract--the one that provides commitment, certainty, and clear-cut requirements and pricing--for a much simpler master services agreement and a handshake with your IT service provider?

business deal, handshake, IT outsourcing deal

Thomas Young, partner at outsourcing consultancy and research firm Information Services Group (ISG), thinks you should.

For years, outsourcing industry experts have likened a successful outsourcing relationship to a happy marriage--one that requires mutual hard work, assurance and respect to last in the long term. But rather than marrying your next outsourcing provider, Young argues, why not take the outsourcer out on a date and see how things go?

"Our current approach to outsourcing contracts is completely out of touch with the needs of a business world," says Young. "We need a new approach where the 'contract' for services is an understanding and a framework rather than a formal document."

[Related: How Benchmarking Can Improve IT Outsourcing Deals]

[Related: IT Outsourcing Customers Get What They Pay for, Not What They Want]

Young has been evangelizing what he calls "evolutionary contracting," whereby outsourcing customers start with a bare bones contract and adjust the scope and commercial terms of the relationship on an ongoing basis. Young hasn't found any converts yet, but says some clients are considering the approach. talked to Young about what this kind of outsourcing relationship would look like, what the benefits and drawbacks are, and why his consultant-peers are resisting it.

For years, we've likened outsourcing relationships to long-term marriages. Why is that analogy outdated?

Thomas Young, ISG: When people sign long-term agreements, they're looking for commitment and certainty. Ten years ago, there were relatively static operating models for IT services. But today, certainty is not part of the equation. I can put pricing and terms in place that deliver false certainty, but you will be dissatisfied. The market is so dynamic today that what you need is a flexible arrangement. The commercial terms and protocols need to reflect a level of dynamic change and flexibility.

But you don't want to do away with outsourcing contracts altogether.

Young: No large company will settle for a handshake. But I want people to think differently about contracts. You think of that 1,000-page perfect contract that has every contingency laid out. I'd rather have a contract be a handshake and a hundred pages. Those 100 pages represent the master service agreement--all the legal terms around the relationship.

The rest will evolve over time, because there are some aspects you won't have figured out. If you have a structured 1,000-page contract that says you need to do something but the situation changes, you'll either have a dissatisfied customer or a provider who can't deliver.

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