To outsource or to automate?

There is a growing alarm in Canada, and elsewhere, about the outsourcing trend. Some IT jobs have already moved from North America to lower cost locations in Asia and Eastern Europe. The fear that more IT jobs will move is one of the forces holding down IT salaries and reducing the new entrants to the field.

But outsourcing may not be the only, or the most important, threat. If an organization is able to successfully outsource to a remote vendor, it’s also in a position to use far more automation. If outsourcing doesn’t take your job tomorrow, automation may take it the day after tomorrow.

The logic is simple. Remote or offshore outsourcing requires that you describe in great detail exactly what you want. There can be little in the way of an implicit shared understanding between clients and offshore outsourcing staff. Everything depends on clear and unambiguous requirements.

Computers and automation thrive in a world with clear and unambiguous requirements. If judgment isn’t required, computers can be trusted to do the job well. And in situations where judgment is required, neither computers nor offshorer outsourcers can be trusted to execute properly.

It’s almost a simple two-step process: first you offshore outsource, then you automate. This seems to be happening with increasing frequency in help desk offshoring. The organization nails down all of its first line help desk support scripts. Then it’s time to consider automatic voice recognition and response systems.

The reports on Dell provide an interesting twist on this idea. They pulled back second level help desk support from their offshore outsourcer. It seems that too much judgment and cultural sensitivity is required for successful second level support. It needs people who are “close” to the customer.

What does all of this mean for the IT professional? The straightforward coding jobs are disappearing. The simple server configuration tasks are being automated. Some IT jobs have disappeared. A number of IT jobs have been elevated, with more required in the way of business understanding and/or technical knowledge.

We are beginning to see a bifurcation in the IT labour market. For years there was a steady and growing need for middle level IT workers who knew something about business and something about technology (mainly programming). They were the foot soldiers of IT — the programmers and programmers/analysts.

The middle is not growing and may be contracting. But there continues to be a need for change management consultants who understand technology, and for highly trained technology specialists who can do the hard software design and development work. It’s a classic market split.

If you are currently one of those IT workers in the middle, recognize that you need to increase your business knowledge or increase your technical knowledge, or both. For a short period, resistance to automation or outsourcing may postpone change, but it’s coming.

That’s not strictly true. There will be some organizations in which resistance to the use of automation for IT work is successful, at least for a time. They are also likely to resist all use of automation for work traditionally performed in the organization. Unfortunately, future IT employment prospect in such firms are not good.

For people in the middle, it’s simple: change . . . or get changed out of IT.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at

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