International business Featured

5:05am EDT December 28, 2005
As a businessperson, you may have struggled with offshore outsourcing, or offshoring. In spite of its many promises, offshoring is difficult to do well. While there can be significant cost savings by offshoring, that’s not always true.

Realistically, resource shortages, long distances, different time zones, and written, verbal, and technological communication issues add costs that require businesspeople to re-evaluate if and how offshore business is conducted.

The critical difference between a failing and a successful offshoring engagement is the underlying strategy. Failing engagements are often the result of a poorly planned strategy, while successful engagements result from a well-considered strategy that addresses four key ingredients: people, processes, tools/infrastructure and frameworks.

When these ingredients work well together — when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — you will dramatically increase the odds that your offshoring experience will be positive and productive.

People are the hardest part of the mix to get right and require the most care. Working with skilled people is one key to success. But too many organizations view offshore resources as cogs — interchangeable and easily replaceable.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In disciplines like application outsourcing, the exact opposite is true. Instead of the more, the merrier, think less is more. Just throwing bodies at a problem won’t fix it. In fact, many offshore development projects fail because labor shortages force employers to staff projects with inadequately skilled workers When things go wrong (as they always do at some point), often more inadequately skilled resources are added, exacerbating the problem.

By contrast, successful offshoring engagements employ fewer, but highly skilled professionals who are strong communicators, technically savvy and proficient at time management. They can be asked to do more, and often appreciate the challenge. Less skilled people cannot and often do not.

Good communication is essential. All of the best technical knowledge available isn’t beneficial if it can’t be communicated to the people who need that knowledge most. And offshoring raises significant challenges in this area.

Aside from language and cultural differences, distances and time zones create communication challenges. With vendors overseas, you can’t easily or cost-effectively attend an on-site meeting, nor speak to a person live — in many cases, your workday is starting when theirs has ended.

To work around this, develop process templates that define when, how and under what circumstances communication is to happen. Train your team to use the templates, and be sure to provide the necessary tools. Disciplined use of consistent communication strategies and templates can reduce the inefficiencies caused by time zones, distance, language and culture.

Tools and infrastructure
Great tools and infrastructure won’t guarantee a successful offshoring strategy, but poor tools and infrastructure will guarantee a failing one. Tools and infrastructure are the central nervous system of an offshoring strategy. They enable quick and efficient work, but only if good people — governed by good processes — are there to use them.

For example, a Web-based project management tool will enhance project delivery processes and methodologies, allowing project managers, team members and stakeholders to easily share information anytime, anywhere.

In booming economies like India, where demand for talented, English-speaking professionals exceeds supply, it is difficult to ensure that skilled resources are available. This is where frameworks and patterns come in.

Reusing solutions that reduce complexity lets you use available lower skilled resources to do similar work as unavailable highly skilled resources, thereby mitigating skill shortages. When work is standardized with frameworks, work products can integrate domain-specific, pluggable framework components, instead of building solutions from scratch. This provides better quality, uniformity, supportability and maintainability for clients and providers.

Optimizing your offshoring strategy means finding the right balance of people, processes, tools/infrastructure and frameworks for your business, so each ingredient supports and enhances the others. While balancing these ingredients does not ensure success, doing so greatly increases your chances.

Mitchell Cohen, senior solutions architect in CIBER’s Detroit office, can be reached at (248) 352-8650 or at CIBER Inc. is a global IT consulting firm which builds, integrates and supports mission-critical business applications. Find out more at