Communication: The Holy Grail of Outsourcing

When communication takes a backseat to saving money, successful outsourcing is no longer possible.

It is striking how most everyone will insist that communication is a key activity to successful outsourcing. So why the heck can it be so darn hard to make people within an organization understand what is going on? And why is it so hard to have clear-cut communication between the outsourcer and the outsourced?

The reason to outsource is mainly to cut costs and thus improve the bottom line. Consequently, efficient communication becomes second priority and far too often gets lost somewhere along the way. However, focusing on IT costs alone will not make a difference to the IT organization unless there is an actual understanding of what is going on. Sure, any project manager will know the importance of communicating so that expectations will—at least in theory—match the deliverables. And even if the project managers do it all by the book, it is still often a limited audience that gets the information.

As an example, on one outsourcing contract it turned out that the dedicated intranet was read each month by only 10 percent of the employees. With such a poor hit rate, it does not matter how much effort is put into the intranet. If it is not read, it is useless.

Key elements to overcoming some of the communication obstacles, and therefore improving the overall perception of a global outsourcing agreement, include:

  • Establish channels. Any message has to be pushed out to those concerned and should be done through established channels. This will encourage the recipient to take in the message. Furthermore, clearly established channels will make it evident where to turn when members of the outsourcing community have something to communicate.
  • Predictable messages. Communications need to be predictable—i.e., arriving regularly and in a standardized format so that key points are easy to find.
  • Interactive communications. Interactivity between the messenger and the recipient will further encourage the recipient to absorb the communications. This is important on all levels, whether it is between outsourcer and outsourced, or between project managers and project members. Even one-way communications need to have a contact person on them so that there is a possibility to address questions or comments.
  • Be proactive. Let people know what is going on even before they ask the questions. It is obviously not possible to anticipate all the questions that will arise, but proactive communication will help the managers and the stakeholders to keep some control on what is communicated. Being reactive, on the other hand, far too often leads to "putting out fires" to counter a negative impression.
  • United front. Apart from communicating the usual information concerning the status of projects, etc., any communication on a global level should create team spirit and understanding among the team members.
  • Show diversity. Any global activity will show cultural differences. Let people know what these differences may be. It might sound fun when names are so unfamiliar to someone sitting on the other side of the Earth that he or she is surprised to realize the counterpart is not the supposed woman, but turns out to be a 2-meter, 250-pound male. It can also be hugely embarrassing. Furthermore, it may not be evident for non-Europeans that half of Europe basically stops working in July/August because it is just not that fun to take the annual vacation in November or March, as the weather is just not that good.

On global outsourcing contracts, communication difficulties are sometimes blamed on cultural differences, which may play a part, but are rarely a major reason. Less than optimal communication tends to lie in lack of true understanding of the importance of communication—that, in turn, results in a shortage of resources. It's nothing more complicated than that.

What happens when communication does not work? Basically, anything can happen—and whatever happens is likely to do so in an uncontrolled manner, where the key players no longer know what is going on and therefore cannot steer things in the right direction. Thus, communication is a key factor in delivering successful outsourcing results.

Gabriel Fuchs is a managing consultant at IBM and presently communications manager for a major outsourcing account. His book Dealing with Nasty Colleagues: The Art of Winning in Office Politics While Still Getting the Job Done can be ordered at www.amazon.co.uk.

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