Is outsourcing business intelligence a good idea?

March 15, 2009
168 Views

Introduction

The phrase IT outsourcing tends to provoke strong reactions. People either embrace it as a universal panacea capable of addressing any business problem, or recoil in horror at the very sound of it. Just for a change, I am somewhere in the middle; to me it is another tool at the disposal of businesses which can either be used wisely or poorly (much like IT itself you might say). As always the difference between the two extremes comes down to how well the project is led. Regardless of this, there are some benefits and some disbenefits associated with IT outsourcing and this article will explore the case for applying outsourcing to business intelligence.
 
 
Benefits of general IT outsourcing

Before I plunge into the world of BI, it is perhaps worth revisiting the general reasons for IT outsourcing, some of the most regularly quoted are as follows:

1. Reduction in costs

The provider of outsourcing (I’m just going to say “the provider” from now on to save typing) can carry out the same tasks at a cheaper cost to the client organisation (while still presumably turning a profit). There can be a number of bases for this; the one that generally comes to mind is wage arbitrage betwe

Outsourcing

Introduction

The phrase IT outsourcing tends to provoke strong reactions. People either embrace it as a universal panacea capable of addressing any business problem, or recoil in horror at the very sound of it. Just for a change, I am somewhere in the middle; to me it is another tool at the disposal of businesses which can either be used wisely or poorly (much like IT itself you might say). As always the difference between the two extremes comes down to how well the project is led. Regardless of this, there are some benefits and some disbenefits associated with IT outsourcing and this article will explore the case for applying outsourcing to business intelligence.
 
 
Benefits of general IT outsourcing

Before I plunge into the world of BI, it is perhaps worth revisiting the general reasons for IT outsourcing, some of the most regularly quoted are as follows:

1. Reduction in costs

The provider of outsourcing (I’m just going to say “the provider” from now on to save typing) can carry out the same tasks at a cheaper cost to the client organisation (while still presumably turning a profit). There can be a number of bases for this; the one that generally comes to mind is wage arbitrage between different economies. However, it could also be that the provider has economies of scale; for instance, less people being required to run the consolidated data centres of several companies, than is required to run each separately. Also the provider may have staff who are more productive than at the client.

2. Ability to scale-up and scale down resource

The nature of business is such that sometimes all hands are required on the IT deck and at others there is spare capacity (this is something I address in my two articles on Problems associated with the IT cycle and Mitigating problems with the IT cycle). Now IT departments are normally quite good at finding (hopefully) useful things for people to do, but the issue remains. The promise of an outsourcing arrangement is that the tap of resource can be adjusted to meet demand without having to either fire and rehire staff, or rely on bringing in expensive contract resource. It is often hoped that this feature of outsourcing will also help to speed IT products to market.

3. Making IT provision a contractual relationship

An arrangement with a provider, depending on how the contract is drafted, can make the provision of IT services subject to penalties and claw-backs when service levels drop below those that have been agreed. While there are clearly some sanctions that can be applied to underperformance by internal IT departments, the financial benefit to the organisation is likely to be less (unless your CIO is a multi-billionaire of course). Companies are used to these contractual relationships, they are often the lifeblood of business, and it is a more familiar way of dealing with issues for them.

4. Access to skills

The nature of IT is that it does tend to evolve, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For organisations this means keeping their IT people’s skills up to date though courses, or continually looking to bring people with new skills into an organisation (such people generally not being the cheapest). The idea with an outsourcing arrangement is that these issues become the headache of the provider, not the client. This area can be particularly pertinent when there is a technology change or a significant upgrade; these are times at which the prospect of being shot of IT worries may seem very attractive. The effort and cost of, as it were, upgrading your in-house IT staff may seem prohibitive in these circumstances.

5. Focus on core competencies

This has been a business mantra for many years, why should a company engaged in a wholly separate area of human endeavour want to become experts in building and supporting complex IT systems, when they can get a specialist organisation to do this for them? This moves towards the idea of a lean, or even virtual, organisation.

6. Failure of in-house IT

It is sad to have to add this item, but it is often the implicit (and sometimes even the explicit) driver of a desire to outsource. CEOs and COOs may be so fed up with the performance of their IT people that they feel that surely someone else could not be worse. There is an adage that you don’t outsource a problem, but this is often honoured more in breech than observance.

I am sure that there are other advantages, claimed or real, for IT outsourcing, but the above list at least covers many of the normal arguments. At this stage a fully-balanced article would probably present arguments against IT outsourcing. However, my objective here is not to provide a critique of IT outsourcing in general, but to see whether the above benefits apply to business intelligence. Because of this, and I should stress purely for the purposes of this article, I am going to accept that all of the above gains are both realisable and desirable for general IT. There will therefore you will find no comments here about arbitrage (of its very nature) resulting in differentials of pricing closing over time.

The only benefit that I am going to rule out is the final one; addressing failed IT departments. Applying outsourcing in these cases is only likely to make things worse, and probably more expensive. Far better in my opinion to work out why IT is failing (most typically due to poor leadership it has to be said, see my article: Some reasons why IT projects fail) and draw up plans for addressing this. If outsourcing is a strong element of this, then so be it, but thinking that it will resolve this type of issue is probably naive in most circumstances.

So, as always seems to be the case in these types of articles, we have five potential benefits against which to assess outsourcing BI. Before I look at each in turn, I wanted to make some general observations.
 
 
Things that are different about BI

The main fly in the ointment with respect to outsourcing business intelligence is the fact that good BI is reliant upon four things (see also BI implementations are like icebergs):

A.An in-depth understanding of business requirements, developed by close collaboration with a wide range of business managers. In particular, what is necessary is understanding what questions the business wants to ask and why (see Scaling-up Performance Management and Developing an international BI strategy). 
B.An extensive appreciation of the data available in different business systems, its accuracy and how data in different places is related to each other.
C. Developing creative ways of transforming the available data into the required information and presenting this in an easy-to-understand and use manner.
D.A focus on change management that includes business-focussed marketing, training and follow-up to ensure that the work carried out in the first three areas results in actual business adoption and thereby the creation of value (see my collection of articles focussed on cultural transformation).

With the possible exception of item C., which is more technical, the above are best carried out in a symbiotic relationship with the business. Ideally what develops is a true IT / business hybrid team, where, though people have clear roles, the differences between these blur into each other. In turn, building thus type of team is predicated on developing strong relationships between the IT and business members and establishing high levels of trust and respect.

Also with item C., this is not precisely a stand-alone activity. It is one best carried out collaboratively by technically-aware business analysts and business-aware data analysts, ETL programmers and OLAP designers. Once again, distinctions blur somewhat during this work and a different type of hybrid team appears.

I have tried to illustrate the way that these tasks and teams should overlap in the following diagram.

bi-venn-w300

Clearly it is not impossible to achieve what I have described above in an outsourced environment, but it seems that it might be rather tougher to do this. One key point is that the type of skills that are necessary for success in BI are cross-over business / IT skills and these are generally less easy to buy off the shelf. Another is that the type of intellectual property that a BI team will build up (basically extensive knowledge of what makes the organisation tick) is precisely the sort that you would want to retain within an organisation.

I would suggest that if an organisation wants to outsource BI, then they should start that way. Once a BI team has gone through tasks A. to D. above then I can’t see how it would be cost-effective to subsequently outsource. The transfer of knowledge would take too long and be too costly.

To provide some context to this let me share some non-confidential details of a study I performed recently comparing the efficiency of a well-established BI team in a developed country with a less mature BI team in a lower-cost location. Rather than considering relative costs, I looked at relative productivity. A simple way to do this is to get quotes for carrying out a certain type of work from both teams (though I also applied some other techniques, which I won’t go into here). My main finding was that the ostensibly high cost team was more than twice as productive as the allegedly low-cost team. Just to be clear, if the “high-cost” team quoted $X for a piece of work, the “low-cost” team quoted over $2X,because they required much more resource and/or time to carry out the same work.

So, in what follows, I will assume that a decision is taken to outsource at the inception of a project. With assumption and the previous background, let’s go back and look at the five benefits of outsourcing from the beginning.
 
 
Matching the benefits to BI

1. Reduction in costs

It will take external BI resource at least as long as internal BI resource to understand business requirements and available data. In fact internal staff probably have something of an advantage as they should already have an appreciation of what the organisation does and how IT systems support this. The external resource also has the disadvantage of it probably being more difficult for them to build business relationships, this can be exacerbated if there are personnel changes during the project; something that is perhaps more likely to happen with an external provider. If the provider is located in another country, then this raises even more challenges and inefficiencies (and leads to travel expense).

It will take an external BI team at least as long as an internal one to dig into the available data and how the various systems inter-relate. Again, having some familiarity with the existing systems’ landscape would be an advantage for an in-house team.

If an external team can get to the position where they understand the business needs and the available data really well in a reasonable period of time, then they could possibly have an advantage in the arena of transforming data into information. Something that may mitigate this however is that fact that most BI development is iterative and that a rolling set of prototypes needs to be reviewed closely with the business. This element introduces the same challenges as were apparent with defining business requirements above.

Similar arguments as were made about the business requirements phase apply to deployment and follow-up.

2. Ability to scale-up and scale down resource

While it may be possible (subject to contract) to scale-down resource with a provider (though perhaps tougher to get them back when you need them), scaling-up is just as hard as it is in-house at it means more staff at the provider going through the learning curve about the organisations business needs and data.

4. Access to skills

Clearly this is a benefit of outsourcing. However, given that the contract is there for when things go awry, it is worth asking the question “are things more or less likely to go wrong with a provider?”

3. Making IT provision a contractual relationship

This is the crux of the matter. The skills in question are not Java programming (or even Cobol), they are business knowledge. ETL and OLAP skills are important, but only if they are applied by people who understand what they are doing and to what purpose. These skills are not just lying around in the market place; they are acquired through hard work and dedication.

5. Focus on core competencies

While it is quite easy to argue that building e-commerce systems is not necessarily a core competency, good BI is about understanding what is necessary to best run the business. If that is not a core competency of any organisation, then I struggle to think of what would be.
 
 
Summary

My main argument is that BI is different to general IT projects (an assertion to which I will return in a forthcoming article – UPDATE: now published here). Having successfully run both, I am confident in this assertion. I also think that you need different types of people with different skills in BI projects. These facts, plus the closeness of business / IT relationships which are necessary in the area mean that outsourcing is less likely to be effective. I am sure that an outsourcing arrangement can work well for some organisations in some circumstances, but I would argue strongly against it being best practise for most organisations most of the time.
 


After penning this article, a further problem with outsourcing business intelligence came to my mind; security. On part of most BI systems is a facility to analyse the organisation’s results. Ideally the BI system will have these figures in place very soon after the end of a financial closing. Such data is market sensitive and there may be concerns with trusting an external provider with both producing this and ensuring that it remains confidential until market announcements are made. I am not suggesting that providers are unethical, just that companies may not wish to take a chance in this area.

I should also credit a thread on the LinkedIn.com EPM – Business Intelligence group, which got me thinking about this area (as ever, you need to be a member of LinkedIn.com and the group to view this)

Bookmark this article with:
Technorati| del.icio.us| digg| Reddit| NewsVine