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8.4 Risks Associated With Outsourcing

Outsourcing can have significant benefits but is not without risk.Raiborn, Butler, and Massoud (2009) Some risks, such as potentially higher offshoring costs due to the eroding value of the U.S. dollar, can be anticipated and addressed through contracts by employing financial-hedging strategies. Others, however, are harder to anticipate or deal with.

As a general principle, functions that have the potential to ‘‘interrupt’’ the flow of product or service between a company and its customers are the riskiest to outsource. For example, delegating control of the distribution process to an online retailer can result in customers not receiving goods promptly; outsourcing call-center responsibilities can result in customers being dissatisfied with the product or service and, thus, in higher product returns, lower repurchases, or complaints that could endanger the company’s reputation.

The second riskiest type of activity to outsource is one that affects the relationship between a company and its employees. Outsourcing the human resources function, for example, can affect employee-hiring quality; outsourcing payroll and benefits processing can result in information breaches that generate identity theft issues and resultant legal issues; or outsourcing software design can generate a decline in organizational innovation. By contrast, support functions such as accounts payable and maintenance are less risky to outsource because they have few direct links to customers or internal organizational processes.

More formally, risks associated with outsourcing typically fall into four general categories: loss of control, loss of innovation, loss of organizational trust, and higher-than-expected transaction costs.

Loss of Control

Managers often complain about loss of control over their own process technologies and quality standards when specific processes or services are outsourced. The consequences can be severe. When tasks previously performed by company personnel are given to outsiders, over whom the firm has little or no control, quality may suffer, production schedules may be disrupted, or contractual disagreements may develop. If outsourcing contracts inappropriately or incorrectly detail work specifications, outsourcers may be tempted to behave opportunistically—for example, by using subcontractors or by charging unforeseen or unwarranted price increases to exploit the company’s dependency. Control issues can also be exacerbated by geographic distance, particularly when the vendor is offshore. Monitoring performance and productivity can be challenging, and coordination and communication maybe difficult with offshore vendors. The inability to engage in face-to-face discussions, brainstorm, or explore nuances of obstacles could cripple a project’s flow. Distance, too, can increase the likelihood of outages disabling the communication infrastructure between the vendor and the outsourcing firm. Depending on where the outsourced work is performed, there can be critical cultural or language-related differences between the outsourcing company and the vendor. Such differences can have important customer implications. For example, if customer call centers are outsourced, the manner in which an agent answers, interprets, and reacts to customer telephone calls (especially complaints) may be affected by local culture and language.

Loss of Innovation

Companies pursuing innovation strategies recognize the need to recruit and hire highly qualified individuals, provide them with a long-term focus and minimal control, and appraise their performance for positive long-run impact. When certain support services—such as IT, software development, or materials management—are outsourced, innovation may be impaired. Moreover, when external providers are hired for the purposes of cutting costs, gaining labor pool flexibility, or adjusting to market fluctuations, long-standing cooperative work patterns are interrupted, which may adversely affect the company’s corporate culture.

Loss of Organizational Trust

For many firms, a significant nonquantifiable risk occurs because outsourcing, especially of services, can be perceived as a breach in the employer-employee relationship. Employees may wonder which group or what function will be the next to be outsourced. Workers displaced into an outsourced organization often feel conflicted as to who their “real” boss is: the new external service contractor or the client company by which they were previously employed?

Higher-Than-Expected Transaction Costs

Some outsourcing costs and benefits are easily identified and quantified because they are captured by the accounting system. Other costs and benefits are decision-relevant but not part of the accounting system. Such factors cannot be ignored simply because they are difficult to obtain or because they require the use of estimates. One of the most important and least understood considerations in the make-or-buy decision is the cost of outsourcing risk.

There are many other factors to consider in selecting the right level of participation in the value chain and the location for key value-added activities. Factor conditions, the presence of supporting industrial activity, the nature and location of the demand for the product, and industry rivalry should all be considered. In addition, such issues as tax consequences, the ability to repatriate profits, currency and political risk, the ability to manage and coordinate in different locations, and synergies with other elements of the company’s overall strategy should be factored in.

Minicase: Nokia’s Global Brain Trust: Encouraging the Mobility of Ideas

Nokia likes to team up with leading international universities in search of the next great communications technology ideas. The Finnish company’s research center in the United Kingdom works with the University of Cambridge to develop nanotechnologies for mobile communication and what is being called “ambient intelligence”—electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people. In Beijing, Nokia’s research hub was set up to take advantage of China’s top-level universities and to gather valuable local perspectives on communications trends and market potential.

But the other aspect of Nokia’s open innovation model—its abundant use of the Internet to harvest new ideas—is far less conventional. The progress of current projects is posted on company wikis. The Nokia Beta Labs website plays host to a legion of testers who provide feedback on new and potential applications. And Forum Nokia, a portal available in English, Chinese, and Japanese, gives outside developers access to resources to help them design, test, certify, market, and sell their own applications, content, services, or websites to mobile users via Nokia devices.

By encouraging the mobility of ideas across its network and then exploiting them commercially, Nokia is able to succeed with an innovation strategy that represents the best of global and local approaches. But Nokia’s open-innovation thrust is by itself only part of a long-term innovation strategy aimed at supporting sustained expansion into markets outside the company’s traditional European markets.

Venture capital investment is the other thrust. The company’s Nokia Growth Partners, with offices in China, Finland, India, and the United States, manages $350 million for direct investments and fund-of-fund investments in other venture capital players, primarily in the United States, Europe, and Asia. One recent fund investment was in Madhouse, China’s leading mobile advertisement network—a crucial driver for continued growth in mobile communications markets.