Friday, April 4, 2008


Microsourcing - taking a task your group currently performs and finding a vendor or company to provide that service. It can be rather small, but the purpose is to free up your internal staff to focus on high-value internal tasks and projects. Outsourcing is a term that immediately polarizes everyone. You are either losing your job over it or someone is keeping their job by sacrificing your job. The decision to outsource basically comes down to what has to be done internally by a company versus by satellite or vendor companies. I actually think long term outsourcing is going to be really good for the world. Until the market forces around it stabilize, it is going to be quite difficult surviving the process.

One of my tasks while managing a library and literature informatics group is reviewing what we do and why. As I learn what is or is not critical to our core purpose, I also review what has to be done inside of my company and what makes more sense to hand off to an external company or partnering vendor. After identifying those tasks that do need to be done but do not need to be performed by my internal staff, I start to look at what opportunities exist for off-loading that task on a vendor. Of course, offloading tasks to more specialized individuals/departments is what happens whenever a company grows larger. The fact that I run a library at my company is due to it being large enough to afford to have a specialized information seeking and analysis group.

I have three examples of tasks that I'm in the process of outsourcing: document delivery, journal management and book ordering. Each of these three are required for the purpose of delivering library services, but they can be performed more effectively and robustly by handing them off to a vendor. Due to their nature of being standard tasks across many libraries and having strong business rules regarding the task processes, they should be easy to provide as commodity services.

We have already quite successfully outsourced document delivery. It took time to find and develop a vendor to provide the service we required (more on this in a later post). Defining what your task is and what the dependencies and natural boundaries of what goes along with a task is quite important. It turns out that document delivery and linkresolver technology go very well together but are still quite independent.

The next task I'm involved in outsourcing is e-journal management. I'm not happy with our current solution using a subscription agent vendor as the task hasn't been defined with good natural boundaries. After using a subscription agent for invoicing and license set up, I have found it is often hard to figure out where the subscription agent's job ends and our job inside the library begins. In some cases, the subscription agent should contact the journal publisher to set up access, and in other cases, it is the task of the library staff to set up access via an online service. Shared ownership of tasks like this are always a problem. Plus, there is a great deal of work involved in e-journal management such as setting up e-journal access, testing access, and analyzing e-journal usage that are somewhat low-level tasks that can be easily commoditized. I've been involved in some work to try to set up an automated testing service for e-journals to make sure we have the access for which we have paid. However, I'd much rather package this whole process of journal licensing, invoicing, journal access setup, journal testing and usage analysis into a bundled task and outsource it. Outsourcing the whole task makes the task boundaries quite clear. The library provides the budget, approves the license agreements, and approves the rules for rationalizing the journal subscriptions (e.g. if document delivery costs to deliver journal articles >= 80% of journal license fee, then license journal). Of course, to make sure this works well, one needs to make sure the outsourced task includes provisions for capturing statistics on document delivery from the document delivery vendor, and that the journal management vendor provides the data on the licensed journals to the linkresolver service provider.

You do not gain any advantages in handing off a task to an outsourced company that is a straight 1:1 staff conversion. An example of this can be found in mediated document delivery. I've heard from several libraries how they have on-site staff from document delivery vendors to mediate document delivery. They basically took headcount in their library and converted it one for one into headcount by the document delivery vendor. There are only two reasons to perform this type of outsourcing: 1) to reduce headcount by moving it off the books (e.g. hiding it in the docdel vendor contract) 2) cost savings. Both reasons are quite flawed. Unless you are not doing your job well in managing a service, you cannot expect another company to provide equivalent or better services than you can for less money with onsite staff.

If you cannot figure out how a company can perform a service more economically by utilizing economies of scale, run away from the outsourcing proposal. The tasks I've looked at outsourcing have significant aspects that COULD be automated quite well and/or be remotely delivered from either a less expensive part of the US or from a less expensive country. The tasks could also be automated by my library, but the return on investment would be quite low or even negative because we aren't doing it for 20 libraries where economies of scale start to take place.

Microsourcing, the idea of taking a particular function your group is currently performing that is not a high-value function nor requires internal expertise or sensitivities, can enhance your ability to deliver those aspects of your function that ARE high-value functions. Do not expect that the effort involved with the function that you are handing over to a vendor just goes away. You will still need to manage the work and monitor the quality of the deliverable. The most successful projects I've seen in this regard are the ones that are partnerships - where the vendor is effectively 'brought in' as a virtual part of the team.

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