Category Archives: Outsourcing

The Big X are Pushing Operate Services … But Can They Really Offer Them? And Are They Real?

And if they are real, can anyone?

Backing up, in the beginning, there was traditional Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), which became very common in the 1980s and 1990s as the result of constant claims by McKinsey and their ilk that the only way businesses could enhance their flexibility and agility and maximize their competitive advantage was to outsource processes they weren’t good at to the Big X Outsourcing offices. (In some cases they weren’t wrong. When the business had no competence in a function, grossly overpaying someone with reasonable competence, even if that someone was not the expert the Big X claimed, generated a good return for the business. The function was done efficiently and effectively, negating the loss the business used to suffer, and it allowed the business to focus on the functions they did well, which increased their profit even as they (often unnecessarily) forked out seven (7) and eight (8) figures to the Big X every year. (And we say unnecessarily because most of the time they could have outsourced to a smaller, niche consultancy at one third to one half of the cost and achieved the same result.)

Then, as Big X tried to steal business from their competitors and niche firms tried to break in, they upgraded to “Managed Services” which was supposed to be more than just performing the service for you cost efficiently (by supposedly reducing your costs by doing it better, and thus, cheaper) and adding value. The idea was that it didn’t just take over a point-based function, but instead provided a dedicated team that basically took over an entire department for you, just offsite, and worked exclusively on your projects. They learned your business, and improved the service offering over time to not only maximize efficiency, but maximize value. If they took over your IT department, they learned the systems you used, optimized those, learned to provide quick and effective problem resolution on the help desk, and, when you needed a new solution, helped you identify the one that would work best with the systems you had. If they took over your AP, they learned your suppliers, your payment rules, your PO formats, and implemented systems that allowed them to match POs to invoices for high-value invoices to reduce overspend. They also helped you build catalogs from suppliers that could meet your MRO / internal needs at the lowest possible cost. And so on. Over time, they not only met SLAs, but improved on all key metrics.

But now a few of the Big X are saying that Managed Services is not enough to maximize value and you need premium “Operate Services” (which come at a premium price, of course). So what’s the difference? Hard to tell. The best definition we can find is it’s a “holistic approach that is focused on delivering outcomes and spurring innovation in a model that leverages automation and data insight to generate substantial business value”. the doctor thought that was what managed services was supposed to do for you? Other definitions indicate that “operate services” differentiate by providing “on demand access to expert talent”. Isn’t that why you use a managed service, so they can identify when the team needs a new expert and add that expert? Other definitions also indicate that “operate services” are more “collaborative”. Are they saying that the managed services they provided to you in the past, where they often acted as an entire department, weren’t collaborative? WTF?

In other words, while they are presenting it as a more advanced premium service model, for which they want to charge you a premium, it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, because if it is, they are admitting they have been ripping you off for decades!

In some consultancies, it is just a specialization of managed services for IT/IT Security, Analytics-Heavy Functions like Strategic Procurement or Network Analysis, or highly technical functions like supplier identification in direct manufacturing. And it costs more because those people, who are much rarer than experts in traditional business functions and processes, are more expensive, as are the tools that they need to secure your enterprise, analyze your global spend, analyze your supply network, or analyze potential suppliers for your electronic components. And we can see how that could be fair, as long as they aren’t using “operate services” to increase costs across the board where there is absolutely no justification for it.  (And only using it to differing a subclass of specialized services they offer, and admitting its nothing more than managed services, just applied to a new set of business functions.)

But if the consultancy is trying to pitch these “Operate Services” across the board with claims that these new services are better and more specialized for your business than any other kind of service, then they are admitting they are currently ripping you off in your managed services and you should just fire them (from a cannon preferably — and TikTok it — it’s all the rage, right?). Because there should be no difference with the exception that the subclass of operate services we defined in the last paragraph generally require more advanced systems and more resources with a high TQ, which usually cost more. But that’s it.

So don’t fall for this brand new business con if they try to pull it on you — simply compare what they are offering to any other firm that says they can fully meet your needs with a traditional managed services model and give the business to the firm that is the most honest among those that can meet your needs.  (Basically, as far as <i>the doctor</i> can tell, some of these Big X Consultancies are just upset that they haven’t come up with a pressing new need they can take advantage of, so they are just relabeling what they have in the hopes you’ll fall for it.)

Low Cost Labour or Leveraged Labour — It’s Not the Same.

Organizations are always looking to cut costs to increase profits, and this goes double in tight economic times. An area that they are constantly looking at is labour, as it’s often the organization’s highest fixed cost. To reduce these costs, they try to move operations to low cost locales, low cost cities in low costs provinces and states for operations they need to keep in their home country, and they move as much labour as they can to low cost countries when they don’t have to stay at home, possibly through outsourcing.

In their minds, they are leveraging cost differentials, global opportunities, currency exchanges, and making smart investment decisions. (And, in their minds, they are doing a good deed by giving people work who might not otherwise get it, often by taking jobs away from people at home that should be doing them.) And herein lies the problem, they think they are saving money by leveraging low cost labour instead of leveraging labour for greater value. And, guess what, the labour that gives your organization more “value” is not the lowest price labour you can find, even for jobs that are traditionally seen as relatively unskilled, or low-skilled.

Let’s take the common example of a call center. Thanks to modern technology, and low cost VOIP, you can put it anywhere there are speakers in your language, often eliminating expensive landlines at the same time. When you move jobs from a $15 hour minimum wage location to an offshore location that costs you $3 an hour in comparison, that saves you 80% right? Maybe. Let us say the local resources you replaced were better educated, better trained, more familiar with your products, and resolve 80% of issues on a single call of 12 minutes or less, for an average issue resolution cost of $3. Let us say the new resources are not as well educated (average high school diploma, not college or university educated like your local resources), minimally trained (they are told how to politely answer a call, but no de-escalation training), and no familiarity with your products besides overview documents and issue resolution scripts. As a result, it will be likely that it takes them an average of three (3) calls of thirty (30) minutes each to fully resolve an issue. This means that the average cost for this “low-cost labour” to resolve an issue is $4.50. That’s 50% more than using a well-trained local resource to resolve the issue. That is not savings. Plus, some of those customers are not going to be happy that a 10 minute problem took 90 minutes of their time plus hold time plus time in between connecting to the rep. And a small percentage of those customers will switch to your competitor when it comes time for them to replace the product. That’s definitely NOT savings!

Let’s take garment production as our next example. This is a typical outsourcing industry that tries to find the lowest cost locales possible. When you go to the lowest cost locale, you end up paying significantly higher freight costs, possibly being stuck with inferior quality garments when the plant switches to lower quality fabrics, possibly ending up with garments with lower shelf life due to inferior stitching when they are manually made by lesser-skilled resources. In comparison, imagine you had a nearshore location that was low freight, used locally sourced high quality fabrics, and skilled workers who used a mix of automatic stitching machines and hand stitching, as required, for high quality production. If quality goes down, satisfaction goes down, and customers start to complain. Then brand reputation goes down and sales go down. Is that savings? Well, if the local production is $5 a garment and the outsourced production is $2 a garment, maybe. But what if the outsourced garment shop uses labour that is child labour under local laws (if not their local laws), the media gets hold of the story, it blows up, and there is a big brand backlash and sales drop 40%. Is it still savings? I’d argue not.

Let’s move upstream, to software development, which is happening more and more often due to many countries having good education systems and skilled workers who aren’t demanding the inflated IT salaries in the USA. Now, there are a lot of countries with highly educated talent who can code (like Poland, India, etc.) that are not the USA, Canada, the EU, the UK, and other countries where high tech has been traditionally clustered, and many of these, after currency conversions, have talent for 1/3 the cost or less. If they have about the same coding rate (in terms of lines of code per hour) as these first world countries, you can argue that it’s a saving. But it’s not just code lines per hour, it’s error free code lines per hour and, most importantly, it’s finishing the project on time, on budget, and to spec. Most IT projects fail and go well beyond budget and timelines and this is triply true in IT Software Development Outsourcing. (the doctor does not want to recount just how many projects he’s seen fail over the years, especially after advising companies not to outsource certain projects, which they did anyway.) Why? Because software development requires more than the ability to code, it requires understanding what the software has to do, who it has to do it for, how it has to do it, and why. If you don’t understand the domain you are developing for, the business who will be implementing the system, the culture of the user, and how they need to work — the system will be a failure even if it’s delivered mostly bug free. So while this is usually expected to be the largest area of cost savings, it’s usually the largest loss a company, especially one new to the game, ends up taking. (Outsourcing can succeed with the right, hybrid, model, but most companies have no clue what this is. Only a few figure it out.)

In other words, if you are trying to leverage low cost labour for cost savings, you’re usually looking in the wrong place. Especially if you are interested in maximizing return on investment, in whatever form that takes (lower total cost of ownership, higher sales, better brand image — which positively correlates with more profit). If you want to leverage labour or value, it’s the right labour, not the lowest cost labour. The labour that is the most productive, produces the highest quality product, gets it right the first time, and keeps your customers coming back. That’s true low-cost labour, because properly leveraged labour increases company profit, making labour costs low in comparison. Think about that the next time you try to replace talent with untrained troops.

Procurement Staff Augmentation: What’s the Approach?

While scanning the weekly news, the doctor encountered an article in the Technology section of HackRead on Strategic IT Staff Augmentation: A Roadmap for C-Level Executives, which outlined key considerations when choosing an outsourcing service provider (as all of them have pros and cons) as well as five essential steps that are required to make a good decision.

But what do you do in Procurement? Whereas there are dozens of big providers with oodles of talent sitting on a bench to help you in Tech, it’s not so in Procurement. Just like organizations struggle to find experienced and knowledgeable Procurement talent, so do consulting agencies, group purchasing organizations, and vendors who want former senior buyers and CPOs to help guide them on creating useable solutions. So if you can’t get talent, and they can’t get talent, what do you do?

It’s a damn good question, and it has a good answer, but not one you’re gonna like. Because you can’t get enough talent, you need to get better tech. The reality is that even if the market improves and your budget for headcount and technology improves, you’ll still have to do more with less because you won’t find the talent you need. So take advantage of the fact that you’re constantly expected to do more with less and set yourself up to be able to do that by getting the right tech.

More specifically, the tech that lets you:

  • automate and streamline tactical tasks
  • define your strategic processes, automate data collection, define validations, and automate standard analysis and insights retrieval
  • integrate 3rd party intelligence including, but not limited to, metrics, ratings, benchmarks, market insights, etc.
  • enable third parties to do sourcing events, negotiations, supplier development, detailed analysis, etc. on your behalf
  • allow self-serve integrations to third party tech used by third parties who do Procurement projects for you

Those last two capabilities in particular are critical for organizations who need Procurement staff augmentation because:

  • they won’t be able to hire more senior staff internally,
  • they won’t be able to secure them from consulting companies for more than short periods of time, and
  • they will only have access to shared resources on a regular basis (i.e. short term engagements from consultants who will engage to provide expertise / leadership on specific projects, short term engagements from vendor staff who will do a specific project / negotiation, etc.)

So, without the tech that will allow a third party to

  • quickly customize the process they will follow
  • automate all the tactical steps and data collection
  • automate the analysis needed for augmented insights
  • use their tools and push the appropriate data and results to the client
  • use the client tools and get the functionality and data they need

A third party cannot take on the work an organization needs it to take due to lack of experienced staff. Thus, the answer to procurement staff augmentation is one that starts with better, more modern, Procurement tech, which is quite different than IT staff augmentation, which starts with firm qualification and then resource qualification. Due to the drastically different market dynamics — an abundance of talent vs. a dearth, the approach has to be entirely different.

PostScript: Please note not ONCE did we say AI. We said better tech. That’s totally different!

There’s No Nearshoring Revolution on the Horizon!

the doctor recently saw a headline that the nearshoring revolution is just beginning, and while he wishes this were true (as he’s been preaching the need for a nearshoring revolution since Sourcing Innovation started, which, for those keeping track, was 17 years ago), it’s not.

A few progressive thought-leading innovators are doing it, but a few is not a revolution. It’s just a few people and organizations who are both willing to do the right thing and wealthy enough to
a) pay for all the upfront costs (where the return may not be recouped for years) involved in shifting a supply chain, bringing new factories online or upgrading those that have been offline for years (or decades) and
b) not be beholden to investors, shareholders, or Wall Street demanding profits now.

The reality is that reorganizing supply chains has a large upfront cost and when most corporations are beholden to shareholders who want profit now, Private Equity firms who want profit now, and Venture Capitalists who want profit now, the last thing they want is upfront cost. They want margin, and the best margins are finding the lowest cost of supply out there and using that, even if it means continuing to source from halfway around the world with all the risks involved (and the losses that would accompany any of those risks), especially if you can buy supply chain insurance at a reasonable cost.

As long as the backward-thinking financial models and economics continue to focus on profit over value or true wealth creation, nearshoring is going to face the same obstacles that Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability has faced for the last two decades where everyone says they want it, but unless legally mandated, no one is willing to pay for it. the doctor is aware of multiple surveys that have been conducted in this area over the last couple of decades and while a majority of respondents will say it’s top priority, the majority will not even pay 3% more for a more sustainable product or service as the success criteria they are eventually measured on in Procurement is total “savings” (regardless of the long term cost to society).

The reality is that most corporations bought into McKinsey’s outsourcing push because their managers and primary shareholders were greedy and wanted profits sooner rather than later, and while that mentality persists, they’re not going to be willing to absorb the upfront costs of shifting back. To truly fix the supply chains, which is as simple as “F*CK China” in the Americas and “F*Ck the Americas” in China as the doctor pointed out in his recent post on how you reconfigure the global supply chain, you need a no upfront cost solution for organizations to switch back, or a value proposition beyond assurance of supply.

In the United States of America, for this to happen the MAGA crowd, instead of wasting all their efforts trying to take away basic human rights away from their citizens (while they are simultaneously trying to put an angry grandpa back in office and hide the huge “gifts” they are getting from certain parties that benefit greatly from laws they pass or block), needs to focus on solutions to actually bring the jobs they are claiming to fight for back to the Americas, which could include:

  • interest free loans for building supply chain infrastructure such as factories, distribution hubs, ports, etc.
  • free, or heavily subsidized, training for Americans to do these jobs
  • higher tariffs on any
    imported products that are produced at sufficient volumes in America to satisfy the American market
  • higher taxes on any
    exported products that should be sold at home

Unless the value is created, or China Sourcing is banned wherever products could be sourced from the USA, Canada, Mexico, or friendly Central/South American states, the nearshoring revolution will not happen. There’s no incentive for it to happen, and no Tribore Menendez taking up the charge!

It’s Time for the Return of Purchasing Consortiums …

… but not the kind you think!

In the good ol’ days, before everyone had access to cheap and easy e-Auctions (when inflation was low, delivery guaranteed, and supply outstripped demand) or on-demand RFX sourcing platforms, the answer to better “purchasing” was consortiums that pooled demand and negotiated lower costs (hopefully lower landed costs, but you took what you could get). Except in a few industries (like healthcare, where product requirements are highly regulated, or utilities, where manufacturing requirements are exact), these have all but disappeared with the rapid rise in modern sourcing, procurement, and source-to-pay platforms over the past two decades.

While this may have appeared to be for the best, as you lost control over who you bought from, a third party controlled the relationship (and you couldn’t always go direct to get problems resolved), and you had to pay them a pretty golden penny for their problems, the pandemic has shown us that this is maybe not the case. Even though you want to control you purchasing as a buyer for your organization, you need reliable supply … and the pandemic has demonstrated (what many of us new, and blogged, about a decade ago; search the archives) that when you are outsourcing halfway around the world, reliability is a myth.

You need nearshore supply that you can easily get by truck and, preferably, train for large shipments (as modern trains can be more environmentally friendly from a GHG perspective), but every since McKinsey and the Big X (5/6/8/whatever) analyst companies that followed told you to go China, not only did you put most of your home-grown manufacturing plants out of business (which, I’m sad to say, wasn’t always as big of a loss as whiny politicians would have you think and definitely didn’t nail the coffin shut, but that’s another post), but you also put many near-shore manufacturing plants in Mexico (and other Central, Latin, and South American locations) out of business (which did!).

They needed to be resurrected the day pandemic restrictions started relaxing, and every day the need for their reactivation (and modernization) / replacement gets worse!

But unless you are a Fortune 100, you don’t have the spend on your own to convince anyone to even think about restarting a factory somewhere closer, more reliable, and safer. (And even then, the risk equation is not any better than continuing to outsource to China and hoping for the best!)

That’s why we need a return of the Purchasing Consortium, but with a new mandate to not only pool and guarantee enough demand to keep a new(ly) (revived/modernized) manufacturing operation sustainable and profitable but, in the absence of anyone in the target location willing to take the startup risk, manage a multi-shareholder investment on behalf of the Global 3000 parties that need such an operation and can afford to invest in one!

It’s a win-win regardless of whether or not anyone is willing to buy the operation once started. Either someone steps in and takes it off of the consortiums hands, giving the initial investors a return on their investment in addition to guaranteed supply, or the investors, who maintain control, can keep purchasing costs down (and the potential for profits up).

The question is, besides companies like Apple and Microsoft that can afford to build their own chip plants near shore (because what else are they going to do with the Billions they have in the bank?), who else is going to step up and bring it back to where it should be.


(Now, before you go bashing the grumpy old analyst for China bashing, this post is not about China bashing [although that’s a great rant topic], it’s about the insanity of going halfway around the world for something you can get [close to] home. If you’re selling in Asia, you should damn well be manufacturing in Asia, as it would be insane to manufacture something in Mexico and ship it to China if it’s easy to manufacture in China!)