Since the divestment of its voice business to Concentrix, IBM’s medium-term strategy with its BPO business lines has been squarely under the microscope.
From our standpoint at HfS, it's abundantly clear that an ambitious 49% of enterprise BPO clients are shifting towards a two-pronged requirement of both operational and transformational (what HfS terms as “Progressive”) service needs. With this in mind, is Ginni Rommety's revamped IBM corporate strategy geared towards the firm's long-term success as a BPO provider?
IBM has been evaluating areas of its business where it may be losing its competitive edge and/or profit margins are simply getting too squeezed, which explains its other recent sell-off of its x86 server business to Lenovo. Two years into the job, it is clear that Ginni is focusing on high-margin cloud software, analytics and services, as opposed to commodity computing and storage. So if the cheap, low-margin businesses are becoming no-goers for the firm, where does this leave their BPO business, which has grown up on the transactional, highly scaled and fungible, low-wage employee model?
The winning BPO providers in today’s market are those which have proven credentials to run standard business services at competitive prices, with the business transformation, analytical and IT enablement capability to take ambitious clients to new thresholds of value. Not dissimilar to the development of the IT outsourcing business over the past two decades, the capability to run the standard operations for clients has become commoditized at increasingly low-margins, while the higher margin work lies with the integration and consulting areas, tied to those outsourced operations.
However, the major distinction between BPO and ITO that we, at HfS, are seeing with maturing BPO delivery is that it simply is not as easy to separate the “transactional” from the “higher value, progressive activities”. Simply put, if you outsource your cash apps, invoice processing, collections and general ledger consolidation operations to one provider, it is nigh-on impossible to bring in another provider to run financial planning and analysis, auditing, treasury, risk compliance activities, if that second provider does not have an institutional knowledge of your ground-up bread and butter processes.
Can providers like IBM prosper in BPO if they sell-off their lower-margin operation services?
In essence, the industry shift from “Lights-on” to “Progressive” Outsourcing requires a two-pronged delivery approach from providers: transactional process services and higher-value transformation services. At HfS, we believe that this shift from a world of “Lights-on Outsourcing” to one of “Progressive Outsourcing” entails a massive degree of change for both clients and service providers if this is to be successful. So many of the elements of Progressive Outsourcing are so significantly different from where this marketplace has been languishing for the last twenty years, there is, in essence, a chasm to cross in terms of the level of change management needed to discard legacy enterprise practices that are still so entrenched in so many organizations. The following exhibit shows the before and after picture for outsourcing buyers and providers faced with the BPO chasm:
Click to Enlarge
Hence, the big question for IBM is whether the firm will continue to invest in its "Lights On" BPO business lines in order to profit from the higher value fruits on offer with the "Progressive" business and IT needs of maturing BPO clients. With its key top tier BPO rivals, namely Accenture, Capgemini and Genpact, clearly moving along this two-pronged path of operational and transformational delivery, IBM needs to demonstrate a similar commitment to the BPO industry.
Clearly, IBM wants to deliver cloud software, consulting and integration services in HR, finance, supply chain and marketing areas where it can reap the rewards of the tastier margins, but HfS is concerned those incumbent providers of the BPO operations will get first bite at the higher-margin
Analytics and Big Data, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), Cloud Computing