CONTRACTING FOR CAPABILITY: the future of outsourcing Reply

Outsourcing only works for vendors. It does not work for customers. Revenue curves for vendors show a slight increase since 2008 for global outsourcing growth but the picture is less clear for customers. When looking at the economic-value-added (EVA) for businesses before and after outsourcing deals most show a nett decrease, which is to say only that they are weaker after the deal but not necessarily because of it.

The reasons are myriad however there are a few standard reasons:

  1. outsourcing is usually part of cost reduction activities of panicking organisations.
  2. there is usually a nett decrease in headcount which wipes out the value-added aspects of reduced costs.
  3. the customer’s SG&A costs usually rise due to the increased management activity needed in finding and using information.

Due to these reasons there is a feeling in the market that outsourcing does not work despite the claims of vendors. Therefore, vendors have increasingly (certainly since 2007) seen themselves fighting for an ever shrinking slice of the economic pie. The greatest sources of competitive advantage have been reputations and economies of scale. All, however, have been scrambling for a differentiator that does not involve reducing their own profits.

MIDDLE-OFFICE OUTSOURCING

One large UK outsourcing outfit saw the writing on the wall. It felt that it would not be able to compete with the lower labour (and similar outputs) of India-based companies. It rationalised that eventually it would be squeezed out of the back-office (i.e. highly standardised financial processes) outsourcing and infrastructure hosting markets. It would, it rationalised, need to move into middle-office outsourcing. Front-office outsourcing, on the other hand, is largely fictional as it encompasses the customer-facing aspects of a business which is where the key differentiators are.

Middle-office outsourcing (such as a council planning approvals process) is unique because it involves less repetitive processes and sometimes ad hoc activities.  Success here is necessarily predicated on a flexible IT infrastructures (often service-based, i.e. SOA) and a sophisticated management which is able to choreograph technology-based processes and services.

COMMERCIAL CAPABILITIES

Being able to outsource the middle-office involves positioning the vendor into a customer’s capability. A capability is the ensemble of systems, processes, people and information/data necessary to do something. In business terms this means all the stuff that is necessary to perform a process. Technically, capabilities are specifications of an enterprise’s Value Chain, so in broad terms a business will have about 20-ish key capabilities. All capabilities are, necessarily, linked. The closer one gets to the front-office the more these capabilities need to (i) be performed and supported in real-time, and (ii) they also need to consume information and services from elsewhere in the business. For instance, in our planning approvals process example the vendor will have to (a) log approvals in real-time, (b) consume up to date information on structures and utilities, as well as (c) access information on business rules (i.e. council policy, governance, law etc). As with any outsourcing activity, more narrowly focused personnel on lower pay bands are used to perform tasks more ably supported by better technology. All these aspects not only add to the complexity (and therefore the price) but also to the potential liability. When offering low pay band workers to crank the handle on repetitive processes liability is something a vendor wishes assiduously to avoid.

DEFENCE CAPABILITIES

Capability is a term much abused but little understood in Defence circles. Much of this is because Defence does not use a standard value chain. Although there is a business model for most western Defence communities (Inform > Project > Operate etc) there is no need for a value chain because there is (i) no need to differentiate, and (ii) planning and financing is based on the use of ‘unlimited’ funds to confront external threats (i.e. Treasury tends to play second fiddle during war).

The military user will often class themselves as a ‘special’ customer. The defence industrial complex is a special environment for the simple reason that they are providing equipment which – if the enemy is successful – is useless to the customer by the time it enters service. Unlike the commercial enterprise, where such a situation would mean they lost some competitive advantage/margin, in the military such a situation is untenable. The purpose of a military capability is therefore to change quickly and radically over time in line with the threat. Corporate structures are notoriously incapable of maintaining the same tempo of development, even with lavish operational funding. The purpose of ‘Contracting for Capability’ is to solve the problem of commercial-lag whilst still providing a cost effective and commercially robust means of contracting.

THE CONTRACT: A COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEM

This is possible by viewing the capability environment as a complex evolving system which requires the commercial deal to be a complex adaptive system. This is not new to the law. Building and construction deals have been taking this approach for years and German franchising law has excellent precedents showing how risk may be judicially assessed throughout a large, distributed network of commercial entities – for a common purpose or effect.

Figure 1 – Shows how commercial deals fail to keep pace with and support military capabilities.

‘ROLES’ – The Key to Capability

The key difference between commercial and military capability is that in the military environment the vendor cannot own the people. In business, the customer will transfer the roles over to the vendor. In the military equivalents of the middle and front offices (i.e. front line and forward echelons) the vendor will never own the people. Soldiers will always perform critical tasks. This will remain a constant for some time to come as soldiers do not say (i) “the computer isn’t working”, or (ii) “do I get overtime?” etc.

Although a vendor cannot own the people it can own the ‘Role’ or the role specification, i.e. the processes, information and systems that a role uses. In this way, a vendor can support the core functions of a role without hindering the actual person’s ability to go outside the boundaries of that specification to ensure that something is done. For instance, a aeromedical evacuation must take place regardless of whether a computer is not working. The airman performing the tasking may have at their disposal a sophisticated orchestration of processes based on flight availabilities, supporting gunships, bed availability and surgeons on duty. However, if the network is down it is unacceptable to let a soldier die just because the computers are not working. That airman must now use their deep knowledge to work the radios and help save a life. On the other hand the military is largely incapable (and unwilling) to integrate the vast array of ICT necessary to develop the initial systems.

Figure 2 – ‘Contracting for Capability’ using commercial communities to support capability clusters.

COMPLEX CAPABILITY

The example of an aeromed evacuation is somewhat simplistic. The example above refers to the Deep Target Attack capability. This capability may be performed by submarine/ship-launched missile strike, aircraft or even Special Forces. The choice is a military judgement. In the case of a submarine launched method the enemy will try to prevent this through anti-submarine naval activity (ASW). The submarine needs to close to striking distance, reach launch depth and then withdraw safely. How is it possible to support such a process which involves very long and expensive R&D lead times, long into-service acceptance testing, new training and tight export controls as well as restrictions on the use and sharing of sensitive information?

The trick is to incentivise the commercial community to do some of the thinking for the military. Instead of having to wade through the commercial treacle of Defence procurement the following steps could be taken:

  1. Base contracts on Capability Increments. In this way, the vendor is obliged to keep pace with threat evolution and the development of capabilities.
  2. Outsource the Role Specification. This will ensure that the military community is forced to involve its commercial delivery partners (without being hamstrung by systems).
  3. Create Commercial Communities around the support to certain key systems/clusters of technology. This is similar to German franchise systems whereby all parties are legally obliged to discharge their contractual obligations in line with a common purpose. This will circumvent the horrific impasses usually experienced in alliance contracts.

Contracting For Capability is a logically sensible concept which simply builds upon the work already achieved in the Enterprise Architecture community (especially MoDAF, MoDEM and the IDEAS Group). It is not overly complex nor is it a step too far. Once again, the real question is whether Defence and industry have the sophistication and diligence to complete the task.

EA as Strategic Planning: I’m Still Not Convinced Reply

Business and TechnologyA recent blog entitled: “EA is Strategic Planning” highlights a sentiment by many enterprise architects (a widely abused moniker) that what they are doing is new, ingenious and necessary.  I’m still not convinced.  Whilst one cannot decry the skills, expertise, knowledge and ability of many enterprise architects I am yet to see a cogent argument that what they do is either cost effective or necessary.

Heresy?  Hardly.

The enterprise has done remarkably well since the Dutch East India Company was granted its royal license in 1600.  The rise of the  enterprise has not abated and diversified companies such as Du Pont and ITT have shown that complexity and size are no obstacle to good, valuable shareholder growth. 

IS EA JUST GOOD IT?

I am in two minds:  (i) EA has certainly helped the IT community with complexity by bringing a portfolio view ICT programs, but(ii) EA has added no significant value to a listed company (beyond just good sense, well delivered IT programs) or reduced its risk to such an extent that would warrant dedicated EA. 

EA has likely been the product of a traditional lack of the requisite skills to translate the social value of collaborative software into corporate monetary value.  It is worth noting that embedded systems (such as robotics) and operational systems (systems that a given corporation simply cannot perform its operations without) are not included in this assessment as their value to the business can be calculated in a simple NPV assessment of projects, i.e. the system will directly result in higher discounted cash flows.  That this should be the job of a programmer is nonsense.  That large commercial enterprises are only beginning to adopt social media systems (which people have been using for years) highlights the general inability of enterprises to grasp the financial value of subtle and complex ICT.

SO WHAT DOES EA OFFER?

Enterprise architecture is not strategic planning.  As much as I like David Robertson’s book “Enterprise Architecture as Strategy”, it is farcical to suggest that the structure of an organisation should either come first or drive (other than the broad parameters)  the functional design of the business model.  If EA is to deliver value to the organisation then it must reach beyond large, complex IT.  To add real value it must be the the function which is capable of reaching across the business siloes to solve the problems which the corporation does not even yet know it has.

ENTERPRISE ARCHITECTURE AS A SEPARATE DISCIPLINE

Enterprise architecture must grow out of its humble ICT beginnings if it is to have the boardroom caché and intellectual gravitas necessary to drive strategy.  EA must develop beyond it systems engineering fundamentals and extend its validity into the statistical relationships between technology structures, information performance and shareholder return.  Only in this way will EA be able to communicate the financial return which subtle and complex MIS systems can add to a company.  Whatever enterprise architects believe they can do they will not get the opportunity to display their value, beyond simple tenders, unless they can convince the finance function.

The Social Enterprise: what will business 2.0 look like? Reply

social-enterprise

If Andrew McAfee‘s book “Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for your Organization’s Toughest Challenges” is to be believed then:

“We are on the cusp of a management revolution that is likely to be as profound and unsettling as the one that gave birth to the modern industrial age. Driven by the emergence of powerful new collaborative technologies, this transformation will radically reshape the nature of work, the boundaries of the enterprise, and the responsibilities of business leaders.”

Most pundits believe that Enterprise 2.0 is the full adoption of Web 2.o by an organisation.  In the next few years, therefore, we will see:

  • Cloud technologies and better enterprise application security enable bring-your-own-device and with it the greater fragmentation of organisational information.
  • Greater transparency of organisational work through social media leaks (i.e. people advertising their work and mistakes on the internet)
  • The decomposition of many more business processes into micro-tasks (much of which can be outsourced or contracted out).
  • The improvement of distributed working practices enabled by better collaboration tools, devices and connectivity.
  • Increased pace of business through improved self-governance and, in turn, empowered by better oversight (from GRC and finance software to more pervasive CRM implementations).
  • Shorter time-to-market cycles driven by improved idea generation and organisational creativity (so called – ‘ideation’).

So, is Enterprise 2.0 the social enterprise?  Are the benefits of Enterprise 2.0 merely social?  Simply a more hectic work schedule enabled by greater ease of using mobile devices and tighter communities of practice?

McKinsey Social Enterprise

A 2010 survey by McKinsey & Company found that most executives do believe that this is the sum total of Enterprise 2.0 benefits.  Most simply believe that (i) knowledge flow and management will improve.  Many believe that (ii)  their marketing channels will be greatly improved whilst only a few believe that (iii)  revenue or margins will increase in the networked enterprise.

If this is the dawn of the new enterprise then why do so many large businesses find it difficult even to implement Microsoft SharePoint?

The most likely truth is that this is not the dawn of Enterprise 2.0.  We are probably not on the cusp of a grand new age of information work.  Our businesses are unlikely to change significantly, although the hype will be re-sold by IT vendors for some time. One only has to hearken back to the ’80’s to remember to cries of the ‘paperless office’ to realise the low probability of Enterprise 2.0 materialising.

Whether it will be Enterprise 2.0 is debatable but we are entering the age of  The Social Entreprise.  It has ushered in a new age of commercial culture but it will unlikely herald a paradigm shift in commercial structures.  The truth is that human networks and communities operate in parallel to corporate reality.  Networks are how humans interact  – they are not how humans are paid.  Ask anyone who has ever been through or performed a cost reduction exercise.  In short, emerging social software platforms (ESSPs) are fun and sexy but the do not currently affect operations in most businesses.  Emerging social software platforms will make a difference internally when they affect cost structures and not just when they show up in sales figures.  This means that ESSPs need to be able to track and apportion innovation; they need to actively manage workflow (not just passive engines); they need to engage dynamically in governance and highlight good corporate participation and collaboration.   Only once these elements are incorporated into scales of remuneration and talent sourcing will both the enterprise and the workers benefit.

Maybe then we can move to Enterprise 3.0.