One of the biggest challenges IT leaders face in a multi-vendor outsourcing environment is getting all the suppliers to speak the same language. Service providers today will typically follow Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) guidelines around basic IT activities such as incident and change management\u2014and most customers require that their vendors do so \u2014 every party has its own interpretations of those guidelines.\n[ Related: 7 questions to ask before implementing ITIL ]\nWipro may manage and incident slight differently than HP, which in theory doesn\u2019t sound like a major issue. But for a large global organization managing thousands of incidents a day, even a slight variance in reporting becomes a big deal creating significant complexity for the client and compromising standardization. \u201cThe issue is that the standards describe what has to be done\u2026 but not how those things are done. The result is that the standards mean slightly different things to different people,\u201d says David England, director with outsourcing consultancy Alsbridge. \u201cSo when different providers execute and report those tasks and functions, inconsistencies result. And those inconsistencies create problems.\u201d\n[ Related: Should you outsource vendor management? ]\nWhat happens \u2014very quickly \u2014 is that instead of collecting consistent and useful operational data that could drive continuous improvement, outsourcing customers are dealing with sloppy data that limits their ability to effectively govern their outsourcing portfolio. \u201cIt\u2019s that there\u2019s one big issue,\u201d England says, \u201cbut rather it\u2019s a case of death by a thousand cuts.\u201d\nAn effective solution is for outsourcing customers to come up with a clear definition of the processes they want their vendors to follow and make sure that all providers understand the terminology and requirements precisely in the same way.\nCreating a Statement of Work for service providers\nThat effort should be a priority when creating the Statement of Work (SOW) documentation that defines the tasks for the service providers. More often than not, that SOW will stipulate that \u201call providers adhere to ITIL definitions.\u201d Instead, says England, outsourcing customers should get much more specific about ITIL definitions in the SOW \u201cand specify, \u2018this is what we mean by incident resolution and this is how incidents will be reported.\u2019\u201d\n[ Related: Why companies opt to insource for IT innovation ]\nProviders are amenable to adhering to client definitions if the requirements are clearly spelled out, says England. \u201cIt\u2019s not that one approach is necessarily better than the other, it\u2019s just that they\u2019re different in an apples and oranges way. And effective governance absolutely requires apples to apples and oranges to oranges.\u201d\nWithout any client direction, for example, Provider A might consider an incident closed when the technician reports the incident resolved. Provider B, meanwhile, may call the incident closed when the user who reported the incident indicates that it\u2019s resolved. That seemingly slight difference had a significant impact on the performance metric of incident resolution time.\nProvider A\u2019s definition of resolution time results in a much shorter resolution time than Provider B\u2019s approach, because it doesn\u2019t account for the time it takes the end user to send an email to close the incident. \u00a0At the same time, Provider A\u2019s approach doesn\u2019t account for situations where the technician closes the incident, but the user is still having a problem. To prevent that issue, the client could specify in the SOW that an incident is reported closed only once the user signs off on it. That results in consistent and clean data that will give the client and provider metrics upon which to base performance improvement efforts.\nThis will require some extra work form the outsourcing customer at the beginning of the agreement; how much extra work depends on the IT organization\u2019s own ITIL maturity. \u201cMature organizations will have detailed, well-defined, and proven standards that can be directly incorporated into the requirements,\u201d says England. \u201cFor organizations that lack this level of maturity, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to develop appropriate standards.\u201d\nDefining standards is boring but necessary\nEngland recently worked with a global manufacturing firm contracting with a trio of IT and business process outsourcing providers on an end-to-end outcome-based IT transformation. In preparation for the start of the collaborative relationship, the company clearly defined the operational service management standards, processes and tools that would be used by all three suppliers.\u00a0In addition to the service management details, they also defined the governance standards, processes, tools and joint vendor governance meeting structures that would be used.\u00a0\u201cFor organizations seeking the benefits of true outcome-based solutions, getting these fundamentals right is an essential requirement,\u201d says England.\nDefining standards can be an arduous task for the less experienced IT organization. \u201cIt\u2019spretty boring stuff,\u201d says England. \u201c[However], boring as it may be, that attention to detail is critical and directly affects the ultimate success of the outsourcing relationship.\u201d Any IT organization can ultimately clarify standards. What\u2019s prevented them from doing so in the past is not necessarily a lack of capabilities, but a lack of awareness. Many customers failed to recognize the importance of a \u201cdeep-dive effort to drive standardization\u201d says England. \u201cIn other cases they lack the expertise or the internal resources, so it\u2019s something that slips through the cracks.\nWe do see clients starting to recognize the importance of getting that operational foundation right in order to achieve the value from the relationship that they seek.\u201d The good news, adds England, is that once these processes are defined, they\u2019re relatively easy replicate and apply to new service providers that enter the IT outsourcing mix in the future.