A recent article in the Wall St. Journal consolidated reporting on a number of recent changes in so-called captive centers (IT or back-office services operations in India owned by non-Indian, usually US or UK, businesses). While the leading sentence talks about “reversing a a decade-long trend,” I think the article reveals a more complex picture.
The author points to three large financial services companies (Citigroup, AXA and Aviva) that have sold their entire outsourcing operation – facilities and staff – to leading outsourcing firms, for cash payments and multi-year contracts for services from those same facilities and staff with the outsourcing firm. Two airlines, Delta and United, have made similar deals. These are all examples of businesses in industries that have been hard hit by the global financial crisis and recession, and are desperate for cash infusions. The deals are not shutting down their Indian operations, just shifting the ownership and management to an Indian outsourcing firm, typically one of the top 10 IT or BPO firms. What’s not discussed in the article are two other benefits of these deals: first, the company no longer has any potential “offshore” profits which could be taxed under Obama’s proposed tax law changes; and second, the company reduces its political risk in the U.S., since it no longer has any Indian employees, just a contract with a vendor. (The company may also reduce political risk in India, since it is sending revenue to a large India-owned company.) One could also argue that they have reduced their management workload, since they are no longer managing the Indian employees and services directly, but I suspect that on a day-to-day basis, there is not a lot of difference for project managers, and at the senior management level, they have probably just traded some of their operation management to vendor management.
Another kind of situation is the example of a small biotech firm quitting most of its Indian presence and selling its facilities to a mid-sized outsourcing firm, along with signing a 10-person services contract for 18 months (probably for transition purposes only). Small captive IT services operations are notoriously difficult to manage, and are often started with the idea that while they require an upfront investment, they will make sense financially over the long run. If the business doesn’t grow as expected (common in this recession), or if the people managing the center quit, the company can be left with a money-losing headache. It can make a lot of sense then to turn it over to an India-based services company that can integrate the facilities and staff into their operations. Reducing the U.S. political risk can also be a factor, particularly if the company is looking for U.S. government contracts or funding.
In contradiction to the main story line, the article also points out that Everest, a leading outsourcing advisory firm, knows of four companies who opened new captive centers in the first quarter of 2009. This suggests that there continue to be some benefits to the captive model, such as greater control, security & IP protection; establishing a geographic presence in another region, and potential cost savings.
The bottom line message, for me, is not that there has been a wholesale change in outsourcing strategies, but that the strategy about how to engage and manage services in India is always complex, and usually evolves over time. These examples are great object lessons about the importance of evaluating a number of factors, and considering a wide range of possible scenarios for both the environment and business model, in developing smart outsourcing strategies.