When outsiders take over the IT

May 15, 1998

DURHAM University's motivation in outsourcing its computing services (THES, May 1) and the knock-on effect are of concern to the Universities and Colleges Information Services Association.

The stated reasoning behind the plan, to transfer the risks of equipment purchase, is unconvincing. This is only a modest part of the total cost.

With equipment being seen ever more as a commodity, the risk of bad choices is rarely cause for concern when done by competent staff.

While outsourcing clearly has applicability for some parts of institutional IT provision (eg hardware maintenance), it has its own associated risks. These are:

* information systems are nowadays mission-critical and institutions need strong control over them. This has been recognised by industry, with detectable reversion to in-house IT services

* outsourcing is unlikely to be cheaper, as higher education computing tends to be run at very low cost, making use of educational purchasing arrangements, freeware etc. Consequently any institution contemplating outsourcing should compare what it could achieve with the same budget used in-house. Having said this, the trend is to look for what IT offers in terms of quality, competitive advantage and new streamlined business processes, rather than straight cost savings

* in order to write sensible service contracts and plan expenditure, future requirements for academic and administrative systems need to be known. This is not easy to determine

* the consequences of losing in-house skills will only manifest themselves over time. As IT professionals are replaced by contract negotiators the institution will lose sight of its own needs. IT planning scenarios could not be generated in-house

* staff loyalties will change, with fewer results expected to be delivered beyond stated paid-for service

* the outsourcing agency will be free to move staff in line with its own priorities. Good staff may benefit. Will institutions?

* the information systems, both academic and administrative, required are specialised in nature. Moreover the two are becoming more integrated so that administrative information can help manage resources in the increasingly modular learning environment and support development of distance and lifelong learning. Good local knowledge is a prerequisite to such developments

* some of our activities are leading-edge and research-oriented, so are constantly changing and not easily suited to outsourcing. Could the regional networks appearing throughout HE have been set up by outsourced IT operations?

Any university contemplating outsourcing should thus be aware that it will need a better-than-average grasp on its information strategy and planning, and that implementing the IT components will be the task of negotiators who may have to resort to litigation to resolve any tough problems.

Such an environment makes it difficult to be responsive in a fast-changing environment.

Jon Duke, Chair, Universities and Colleges Information Services Association

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