The news that an employer is planning to transfer IT to a services company could be just the jolt IT specialists need to get them thinking about their careers and where they are going.
And these days a stimulating future could lie with their existing employer as much as with the service supplier.
"The prospect of outsourcing is a chance to decide what you want from your career and start planning for the future," said Elizabeth Sparrow, consultant and author of two books on this topic.
"You can focus on your existing specialist skills, with opportunities at the supplier to develop them across a wide range of client organisations. You can develop new skills, because the supplier is likely to work with a greater range of technologies than client companies, sometimes at the leading edge. If you want to carry on in your other highly specialised activity, you are probably better off at a supplier, which will have wide-ranging needs and a career structure. If you want to try new locations, there will probably be opportunities to move."
Much of this is familiar to Russell Chopping, who was a senior systems analyst at the London Borough of Enfield when it transferred its IT to Serco Solutions (formerly ITNET).
"It was a traditional IT department, with few prospects to progress until someone left," Chopping said. "Lots of people were looking for other jobs; I would have also, if outsourcing hadn't come along."
Since 1999 Serco has "transformed" Enfield's IT, moving from an ICL mainframe to mid-range equipment running Unix, Microsoft and Oracle software. Staff found their skills expanding into these areas and others. "At Enfield we worked hard, but not smart," said Chopping. "We now have the right tools, the right processes, automation where possible, quality measurement, and so on."
Some staff have chosen to stay with their existing activities. "If you want to stick in the same job at the same office for 30 years, Serco sees that as a strength," Chopping said. "You need these engine room people to keep systems running, patched and upgraded: excellence starts with core systems."
Chopping worked on the Enfield contract for four years and then got involved in bids for new business as an applications architect. This broadened his experience and his contacts across Serco, opening the way to his current job as a solutions architect. He now identifies opportunities for better IT exploitation in existing and prospective customers.
All this has meant training in fresh technical areas and in topics such as making presentations.
"At a big company like Serco, there's lots of formal and informal training, and coaches and mentors," Chopping said.
"With the massive opportunities and training here, I have no regrets whatsoever about being outsourced, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. This is mainly because I'm learning a lot more: how a total solution is put together, the commercial side, legal and HR issues, and so on.
"Most importantly, the job here is about enablement: how we can help local authorities move to excellence through our own excellence."
This is some way from working for an in-house IT department, and Chopping appreciates the differences. "It's not been a culture change so much as a change of pace," he said. "It's not about working harder or longer hours, but having a more goal-oriented focus. There are measures in place at company level and this filters down to individuals, with everyone adding their bit to a goal they are part of.
"I noticed this for the first six months but once you see that things have to be measured, with timesheets, planning, and so on, it all becomes a natural part of your daily routine."
Sasha Marley agrees. She joined the Department of Social Services from university as a desktop installation co-ordinator and a year later the operation was taken over by services company Steria. In the last 10 years at Steria she has progressed through jobs ranging from finance to supporting new staff, and now business management with overall responsibility for the Bexley Council contract.
"There's usually no fundamental change on day one," she said. "You sit at the same desk and do the same job. The main early change was that I had to cost things and take note of service-level agreement issues.
"One challenge is the relationship with the people who aren't outsourced. You're in the same office with people you've worked with for years, who might be friends, but suddenly they're your customer. Dealing with that can be a challenge for both of you."
Staying at the original employer is a growing option, according to Sparrow. "Organisations are coming to see that they need people to manage the contracts, especially as those contracts are getting shorter and often going to multiple specialist suppliers," she said. "In fact this is recognised in the latest version of the national Skills Framework for the Information Age, which includes these roles in more detail. Such roles are very much part of life in IT these days.
"It's no use just saying, 'I want to stay here with my employer and do what I've always done'. There are now opportunities to move on in the organisation you already work for. After all, it's not in the interests of the client or the outsourcer to force people to move if they really don't want to."
Fear of the unknown is only natural, said Marley at Steria. "Most people are naturally concerned when they hear they're being outsourced. The general feeling is, 'I'm happy in my job'.
"My biggest tip is to ask questions and voice your concerns. Many people keep their concerns to themselves, but if they speak up, they find others feel the same and usually the answers are there."
People might want to look at the work being handed over and the work kept back, said Denise Plumpton, director of information at the Highways Agency and chairman of IT users' group the Corporate IT Forum. "I've seen deals where the supplier has been given the legacy systems while the client gives all the exciting new work to its own staff - and then wonders why the supplier has a high staff turnover."
Plumpton, who has managed, renegotiated and cancelled contracts over the years, said customers and suppliers needed a culture match.
Sparrow said people really wedded to their employer should look for opportunities not only in the contract management but also in other areas, perhaps even outside IT. "Review your CV, take a long, hard look at your technical and business skills, and see what you can offer," she said.
"Outsourcing presents challenging and worthwhile opportunities. You may stay with a smaller but higher-profile IT team in your organisation, focused on strategic new developments and working closely with business units. Or you may transfer to an IT company providing high-quality services. "
lElizabeth Sparrow's books are Successful IT Outsourcing (www.springeronline.com) and A Guide to Global Sourcing (www. bcs.org/books/globalsourcing)
Be prepared for outsourcing
- Research the supplier as much as possible: use the web, media reports and, if possible, people who already work there. Is it successful? lWhat are the training and development like? Does it work in technology and geographic areas that interest you?
- Are there agreements on issues such as redundancies, terms and conditions, salary increases?
- Ask your managers about your company's plans and expectations
- Whatever your view, recognise that outsourcing is something you may have to live with
- Review your career and plan out the future
- Review and update your CV
- Look at your skills and experience: are they relevant to today's (and tomorrow's) technology and business developments?
- Try to address areas where your skills and experience need updating
Source: Elizabeth Sparrow