Outsourcing is all the rage these days. Some people get remarkably het up about the idea, others take a more measured view. But what is the net effect? Is outsourcing really cheaper in the long term? Is it a Good Thing (TM) or a Bad Thing (TM) … or is it just somewhere in between?

My main thought is that it’s understandable. I can see why people who are disadvantaged by offshore outsourcing are upset. I can also understand why the companies are doing it … cost saving is a major driver in a world where there is little else to build competitive advantage on these days. Why spend money on something that you aren’t that sure your company is good at when you could have someone else, who is good at it, sort it out, leaving you to focus on what you really rock at? And finally I can completely understand why the companies and countries being outsourced to want the work. After all, work is work.

I think what’s missing is real, rational discussion about what is realistically going to work and what isn’t. A distinction between teething troubles (like the accent understandability issues that Sue kicks off about … did you know that Indian callcentres are already training their employees to “mask their Indianness”?) and the more permanent issues, like time zones. I really don’t think we’re going to change the shape of the Earth all that soon 😉

(Note: Google thinks I may be wrong….)

At the end of the day, some things are much more conducive to outsourcing than others. Sending all your call centre work off to another country where the people want the career (not just a transient job, as the attitude definitely is in the UK) seems a great idea to me. After the language barrier is overcome, consumers will get much better service from someone who sees a future at that desk, with that headset, than from the 16 year old school dropout, the student working part-time, or any of the other range of stereotypes that tend to inhabit call centres in the Western world.

On the other hand, I have had personal experience of how the time differences can really adversely affect a project being jointly developed between workers in India and the UK. I’ve been up at 4am just to get a headstart on a problem and on a number of occasions I’ve noticed the contractors on the other side of the world still working mid-afternoon UK time … definitely long after they should have been home with their families. So it really doesn’t seem to work too well for our personal lives for a start, but how about the company? How does it fare?

Well, on paper it looks good. Skilled programmers in India definitely go for a lot less than those with a similar level of expertise over here. Cost savings are immense, except for the time wasted on both sides due to misunderstanding, miscommunication and time difference.

Now some people will say that the time difference is a bonus … that you in effect get to have a 12 hour working day without paying anyone extra. This would be true if project tasks followed on from each other exactly … so I work on something, hand it over to the guys in India and by the time I get in the next morning they’ve had a 5 hour head start working on it.

Now, I suppose this could happen … it just didn’t with my particular project. And with that in mind if I were in this situation again then I would probably organise things quite differently. But I have a feeling that complex inter-development is really unlikely to work on this model, with the present state of communication. Emailing doesn’t help, instant messaging doesn’t help the fact that I’m home asleep when someone has a query.

But possibly, this is exactly where project blogs and the like can come to the rescue. If we could communicate just as well across thousands of miles as I know we would if we were all sat at desks in each others near vicinity, then the combination would be unstoppable. After all, the Indian guys I have worked with so far have tehchnical skills FAR superior to mine. On the other hand, the real advantage I bring to the table is the ability to understand the business side, to translate for the programmers.

So what’s the next communication revolution? What’s going to make groupwork across thousands of miles every bit as easy and effective as sitting next to someone and pointing at their screen?