Technology May Make Outsourcing Obsolete

The answer to the outsourcing controversy may yet come from technology, writes eWEEK's Eric Lundquist.

Will the Roomba effect sweep away the outsourcing debate? Roomba is a robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot, and that little robot skittering on your rug may point the way to your technological future—one where outsourcing doesnt hold quite the threat it now does. More on that in a minute.

Right now, outsourcing is a great deal for everyone—except those who find that their tech knowledge is a commodity awarded to the lowest bidder.

Recently, the bosses of eight technology companies held a press conference advocating that the government keep a hands-off approach to outsourcing. The correct approach for the government, they argued, is to allow business to continue outsourcing but to expand education funding and technology investment.

Outsourcing has become the hot political issue for the technology industry in this election year. Amid mounting evidence of a jobless recovery in tech, political candidates are not likely to turn a sympathetic ear to advocates for an unrestricted flow of jobs to wherever the talent/cost equation is most favorable. The company CEOs, probably safe in the knowledge that their jobs arent going anywhere, did not pick the most opportune time to advocate unrestricted outsourcing while Democratic presidential contenders are vigorously campaigning. Advocating additional education dollars has become a trite response and does not do much for those losing their jobs offshore today.

A drive around New England to see long rows of abandoned mills reinforces the lesson that outsourcing to cheaper labor areas is part of our history. However, there are differences between the industrial outsourcing of yesteryear and the technology outsourcing of today. The development of increased bandwidth, the free flow of high-level programming techniques and the use of English as the common language of business mean that the technologies being developed are also those that allow technology jobs to be moved offshore.

Robert Reich, the former labor secretary under President Clinton, has argued that the offshore IT outsourcing issue is overblown. Reichs argument is that while the outsourcing discussion attracts media attention, the number of jobs actually going overseas remains a small percentage of the approximately 10 million-member U.S. IT work force. He argues that the threat of intellectual property loss and quality control problems will slow the outsourcing trend.

In an e-mail exchange, Reich told me, "The question where best to locate jobs should be up to the technology industry—as it is to any industry. Governments primary role is to provide unemployment insurance for those who lose their jobs. Theres a strong argument for extended unemployment insurance, given how difficult it is for many people to find new jobs in this anemic recovery."

IT execs Ive spoken with recently tend to agree that companies should be allowed to outsource but that incentives should be developed to create the skills needed for the next technology leap.

"Outsourcing makes sense when the technology resource required is not a core competency of the business and the corporation lacks the internal expertise to create and support the technology," said Gary Gunnerson, IT architect at Gannett and an eWEEK Corporate Partner.

One exec who was recently outsourced himself said that while companies should be allowed to outsource, they need to be smarter than simply following the pack in a chase for lower costs. The true costs of outsourcing wont be known for years, he said in an e-mail exchange.

Back to Roomba. The answer to the outsourcing controversy may yet come from technology. At one time, you vacuumed your own rug, then you had a cleaning service do it—outsourced vacuuming, if you will. Now there is a robot that will clean your rugs.

Similarly, once you built CRM systems, and now you sign up for an outsourced subscription. Once you were part of a help desk operation, and then help desk services were outsourced. But as functions and software get combined at the chip level, reliability will increase to where you should have to call the help desk for your computer as often as you call the help desk for your refrigerator. Technology, which enabled outsourcing, may some day put it out of business.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquists e-mail address is