Greg Enright: Outsourcing’s hidden effect

Last month, Bell Canada launched a set of wireless local area network services for the Canadian market. Ma Bell will install and tend to equipment from Cisco Systems and Symbol Technologies for any customer that wants to get going with this, one of today’s hotter enterprise networking offerings.

The announcement represents the latest big example of service providers taking an increasingly important role in the way technology is purchased and maintained. While service provisioning is nothing new in the world of IT, what is new is the amount of IT that is being handled by these “middlemen.” Everything, it seems, from e-mail to sensitive security infrastructures, is being outsourced, and that’s a much different picture from that of even a decade ago. Back then, most IT was still managed in-house, and relationships with equipment manufacturers were much more direct.

Today, however, we’re in the middle of a movement toward having providers like a Bell increasingly take over more of our infrastructures. If outsourcing is a part of your strategy already, your organization has probably begun to adjust to the more immediate realities of this trend: forging relationships with new service providers, forging new ones with old service providers, and generally wrapping your head around a new type of business, and how not to get burned by it.

But there are other implications to the outsourcing onrush that might not be so obvious. For instance, if the average IT shop is having most of its technological worries (hopefully) tended to by its service provider, it would follow that the shop’s contact with the actual equipment manufacturer would be on the decline. If Bell is my single point of contact for my brand spanking new wireless LAN, do I really need to talk to Cisco?

Probably not. Sure, I want to be aware of Cisco and its products, but if I have a problem, I’m phoning Bell. And that means Cisco’s not talking to me. That means Cisco’s saving money by not maintaining as large a customer contact centre than they’d have to if Bell wasn’t handling that dirty little job.

If a manufacturer, therefore, is saving money by “outsourcing” a good chunk of its customer contact responsibilities to the middleman, hopefully it will be doing something wise with those savings – like pouring it into further innovation.

Could the outsourcing trend, therefore, ultimately lead to better products and faster arrival times? Quite possibly. But there are more than a few “therefores” in this hypothesis, and there certainly isn’t a hard-and-fast way to measure this potential trend. The fact that it is a definite possibility, however, represents a ray of good news in a sector that could use a bit of sunshine.