Outsourcing services – addressing the issues

UCISA and JISC released a couple of briefing papers on outsourcing email and data storage last week. The papers were accompanied by four case studies – three outlining the reasons for opting for Windows Live or Google Apps and one noting the reasons for not going down that route.

This is something of a hot topic at the moment. A fair number of institutions have already migrated their student mail over to one or other of these applications and there are many more that are considering the move. The briefing papers and case studies were all at a fairly high level, outlining the main business reasons for opting (or not) to outsource and highlighting the issues that need to be considered. However we probably need to take these further to address some of the common questions that are asked both of the potential suppliers and teams within institutions. There are three main areas where I think further work will yield dividends – legal, implementation and procurement.

The legal issues revolve around security, privacy and liability – in the case study on Oxford University the concern that data could be held on servers beyond the EU was cited as one of the main reasons for not progressing with an outsourced solution. It isn’t 100% clear that it is not an issue for those institutions that have outsourced – although many have taken this step for student email, only a few have chosen to also outsource staff. So there is perhaps scope for further work to try and get some clarity on the current situation to further assist institutions.

There is also much institutions can learn from implementations carried out by others. The community is good at sharing information like this and it should hopefully just be a matter of extracting the details from a few institutions that have implemented. Procurement is a rather thornier issue. Procurement mechanisms are geared to things that cost real money – with ‘free’ outsourced services there is no capital cost of software and little of no cost for hardware so they don’t fit comfortably in the standard procurement activity. There is a need to ensure that there is some rigour to the process but a balance needs to be struck so that the cost of the procurement exercise doesn’t outweigh the benefits the service can deliver.

The focus has to date been on email and data storage. They have been the two problem areas that IT services have needed to address. However these services offer far more and there is already evidence that groups are using the collaboration aspects successfully and perhaps that is where the real benefit of these services lie. There have been many occasions when I’ve asked for feedback on a document and have then been faced with the task of merging several sets of changes into one definitive version – there must be a better way. I’m hoping that I’ll find there is in the New Year!

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