Deborah Kops has some interesting insights into the current shape of the BPO market, with those providers leading the charge originally emanating from strong consulting backgrounds… over to you, Debs
You’re probably not aware of a very subtle, but tectonic shift going on in the business process outsourcing industry which has implications for all those things that we all tout as benefits of sourcing—innovation, deep domain experience, true client partnerships.
No, when I refer to consultants, I’m not talking about the likes of the sourcing advisors. They’ll continue to survive in one form or another. I am referring to the fact that the pioneers of the outsourcing industry, primarily BPO, came out of consultancy backgrounds. And as they leave the industry due to retirement or the pursuit of other interests, the sourcing community is much less well off.
Think back to the heady early days of BPO in the mid 1990s. Consultants from the Big-whatever-it-was, the then Andersen Consulting and even the likes of the white shoe strategic firms, got a bee in their bonnets that their intimacy with and knowledge of their clients could be harnessed to improve and deliver business processes. They formed business lines with skin in the game, exclusively focused on doing rather than just advising, tapping not only into their own expertise, but that of their partners and colleagues. At that time, moving work to India or even to Poland was a very hard sell to clients, so the value proposition came not from labor arbitrage, but the application of real business improvement tools and techniques in context.
Today, the makeup of provider teams has inextricably changed. Increasingly, those with deep consulting experience are rapidly moving out of the picture, while the leadership now comes from armies of managers whose base of experience is solely time in grade in the outsourcing industry. It’s unfortunately a detriment, not only to the creation of value for the buyer, but for the provider side of the equation. Experience in context–attaining knowledge by working side by side with a client, understanding how they work, and what makes their industry tick—is the greatest benefit of a consulting career.
This is not to say that providers’ rising leaders cannot deliver sourcing benefits beyond cost reduction and follow-the-sun operations; perhaps over time as they gain experience and wisdom, they can. But, in the main, they haven’t acquired the soft and problem-solving skills that come from having the training, intellectual freedom, proximity, and the ability to connect the dots that only consulting experience allows. Rather, their experience is limited to time in grade in delivery centers, or perhaps the five or six times a year when they have direct access to a client during the solution-development process. Their problem-solving skills have been shaped by process, not perception.
And the organizational paradigms in which they operate either can’t-or won’t—adjust due to competitive margin pressure, or perhaps even myopia. As a result, the sourcing landscape is in danger of increasingly becoming commoditized process shops with only a whiff of business value.
Not convinced? For just one proof point, look at HfS Research’s recently released finance and accounting sector analysis. It hasn’t escaped my notice that the majority of the top players come from a consulting pedigree. Are these players better innovators? Do they have a more consultative approach to client relationships? Do they deliver more value? The results beg the question.
Call this post the mad musings of a former consultant. But I look around me and see a provider class which is fanatic about process delivery at the expense of those capabilities which create value. They forget that real sourcing benefit comes from the ability to solve a problem, the skills to develop a relationship with a client team at the highest level, and the knowledge of what drives value in an industry from the top down, not the arrogance of process mastery. Perhaps it’s time to change the provider paradigm, or entice a few of those consulting pioneers out of retirement…
Deborah Kops (pictured here) is a regular contributor to HfS Research and runs Sourcing Change, a specialist strategy boutique focusing on the dire need for change management in sourcing. You can read her full bio here.