Thursday, 28 October 2010

The hidden dangers of outsourcing

Outsourcing is one of those words that have become hideously fashionable in corporate lingo in the last 5 to 10 years. A business cynic – which obviously I am not! – might conjecture that perhaps it is popular because it appeals to some fundamental human desires for shirking and procrastination, finally telling managers “to stop doing certain stuff” rather than always pushing them “to do more”. I, as a more thoughtful business observer, on the contrary, think that outsourcing often makes sense, simply because you cannot, and should not try to do everything yourself. Other companies can sometimes do a particular thing better and more efficiently than you, if alone because they can bundle and specialise in it, and then you’re better off buying it from them.

Some companies take it a bit far though… Some time ago I was talking to a senior executive of a major airline and they actually had the idea that in the future they might be able to get rid of all their staff, facilities, pilots, planes, and so forth, and concentrate on “being the director of the chain”; that is, not actually do anything but tie together all the activities conducted by others. Hence, outsource everything accept for the coordination between all the parts. Well… here is my opinion: You can forget about that. Try that, and it won’t be long before nobody needs you anymore.

The classic example of that is IBM’s PC in the 1980s. It was IBM’s plan to outsource everything, add its brand name and just one little microchip connecting all the PC’s ingredients. They outsourced the PC’s microprocessors to some geeky guys who owned one of those founded-in-a-garage little companies in Palo Alto (the little company’s name was Intel) and the operating system to yet another geeky guy with big glasses heading a founded-in-a-garage little company in Seattle (the geeky guy’s name was Billy Gates), in the process provoking the genesis of the most powerful alliance the world of business has ever witnessed: Wintel (Windows and Intel).

Because following in IBM’s footsteps towards Palo Alto and Seattle were all the other computer manufacturers which copied the PC; hence buying their microprocessors from Intel and their operating system from Microsoft. And not for long, Intel, Microsoft and end users alike could not quite remember why they needed IBM in the first place and completely “disintermediated” them. It were Intel and Microsoft that reaped the great big benefits of the booming computer market and not grandfather Big Blue IBM, which ended up in a severe crisis as a result of it.

Hence, be careful with outsourcing; giving up control might get you more than you bargained for (especially if it concerns geeky guys in a garage).

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Forced to be stupid

Jessica Nolan, a researcher at the University of Arkansas, was interested in persuading residents of a particular California Community to conserve more energy at home. For this purpose, she designed four types of notes, to be delivered to people’s homes. These notes (roughly) said the following:

1. do it because it helps the environment
2. do it because it benefits society
3. do it because it saves you money
4. do it because everybody else is already doing it

Before using the notes, she knocked on a number of residents’ doors and asked them which of the four arguments would most likely persuade them. Pretty much everybody said, “Not the fourth! (I care about the environment, I care about society, I certainly care about money, but I couldn’t care less about what everybody else is doing”). But did they?

Subsequently, Jessica sneaked out at night and hammered one of the four notes on each door in the community.

Some time after that, she went back to check people’s meter readings. And guess what: households that had received the fourth note (“everybody else is doing it”) had by far the biggest reduction in energy consumption.

We are hugely affected in our decision-making and behaviour by our notion of what others are doing, although we usually don’t quite realise it (and deny it vigorously!). We might think that “oh no, I don’t care what others are doing” but reality is: we do. It is only human

Even top managers can be almost human (or at least some of them). For example, there is a lot of research on what influences managers’ strategic decisions (e.g. whether to choose strategic option A or B). And guess what, it’s imitation.

There is research on where firms choose to locate their new plants, whether or not they enter a particular market, adopt a new type of organizational structure, a governance instrument, etc. etc. Consistently, results show that managers are led by one simple question: “what are my competitors doing?” And then just do the same thing.

The problem is, sometimes what your competitors are doing is stupid. For example, research has indicated that (in certain industries) ISO9000 quality norms are counter-productive. Yet, throughout the 1990s firms imitated each other anyway and adopted the system.

And it gets worse. Sometimes, if you’re the odd one out that does not adopt the new practice, you start to look “illegitimate”. Analysts, shareholders, customers and so on start asking questions: “everybody else is doing it; shouldn’t you?” “Surely, everybody else can not be wrong”. But yes they can!

In this case – because customers start to shun them, investors criticize them, analysts downgrade them, etc. – firms may actually start to suffer from not having adopted the silly practice.

This places pressure on the firm to also act stupid, just to fit in, and be accepted. It takes a brave firm, to stop such a vicious cycle of imitation.

Friday, 15 October 2010

How big is your yam? (not that it matters)

Why are so many executives so pre-occupied with the size of their company? Like bigger is always better. It especially annoys me when it is used as an excuse for acquisitions.

“This take-over will immediately make us the largest company in the industry”. So?! What is your point?!

I am sure being the biggest can have certain advantages, but that doesn’t mean that bigger (let alone being the “biggest”) always automatically is better. If you can explain to me why more scale is better, ok, but until then, I remain sceptical.

Of course company size is often associated with (financial) success. For example, the firms that always feature on “the most admired companies” lists are usually Behemoths such as Toyota, Dell, Intel, Wal-Mart, and Pfizer. Several of them became big through acquisitions.

And I am sure a company worth £10 billion attracts quite a bit more attention (for instance in the business press) and admiration than any of the 10 companies that they acquired that were worth a mere £1 billion. But that doesn’t mean that our ten billion Behemoth generates more profits than the 10 smaller ones would have made in combination. It wouldn’t have been as eye-catching, to have 10 small ones instead of one biggie, but it just might have made more sense (and money).

Importantly, managers who opt for a strategy of increasing size reverse cause and effect; although success will likely make you bigger, striving for size per se is not necessarily going to make a company more successful.

They actually remind me of the aboriginals on the Micronesian island of Ponapae. What in their society contributed to a man’s prestige was owning a very large yam. This cultural trait had come into existence because it represented an indication of a person’s skill as a farmer. However, gradually people’s efforts to obtain or grow one big yam started to be detrimental for their welfare, in the sense that it distracted effort and attention away from all other activities, causing malnourishment and hunger. People were putting all their resources, time and effort into growing one giant yam, while their fields were left unattended, their huts crumbled around them and their children cried of hunger.

Similarly, striving for size itself may be counterproductive for companies. It is quite possible that focusing all ones resources and efforts on becoming bigger (for the sake of being big) might actually decrease the firm’s chances of becoming successful. Gaining size may result from firm success, pursuing size per se, rather than success itself, may be quite detrimental.