IT Inbreeding

This is going to get me into trouble again, but what the heck. It's been at least two weeks since I've been called a traitor, so I guess I'm due. Here goes: If you're considering "farmsourcing" as an alternative to offshore outsourcing, you may be stepping in something you shouldn't.

First, for the uninitiated, let me explain what I mean by farmsourcing. The term is gaining acceptance as a synonym for rural sourcing -- the practice of establishing operations in, or outsourcing work to, areas in the U.S. where the cost of living, and therefore wages, is relatively low. Since those areas are typically a little more rustic than, say, Silicon Valley or the Boston-to-D.C. corridor, you get the folksy farm reference. The idea is that rather than sending work offshore to take advantage of cheap labor, you can send work to the hinterland and not have to deal with those dang foreigners.

Now, before we have any veins popping out of the foreheads of livid offshore-outsourcing foes, let me make it clear that I'm all for taking advantage of IT skills and promoting IT job opportunities in the U.S. heartland and in rural areas across the country. It's great that Cheryl Smith, CIO at U.S. pharmaceutical giant McKesson Corp., has relocated her primary data center from San Francisco to Dubuque, Iowa, as Julia King points out in her story on the topic in this week's issue. In fact, I spoke with Smith about her strategy at our recent Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in Phoenix, and it seemed perfectly reasonable in McKesson's case to head for Dubuque, where the company already had an operational presence, rather than Dublin or (perish the thought) Dalian, China.

So I'm not arguing for a nanosecond that there's no legitimate business case for farmsourcing. What I will say is that a company that opts for rural sourcing over offshore outsourcing stands to lose out on the opportunity to learn and benefit and grow from the exposure to other cultures -- and markets -- that the offshore connection affords. And that's a shame.

I have to admit I was a little disturbed by the comments in Julia's story of Gary Hart, vice president of global outsourcing at Texas-based Optimal Solutions Integration. Hart has contracted IT work to a rural sourcing outfit in Arkansas, and he clearly welcomes the cultural convenience. "There's not much difference between my Texas accent and the one you get in Arkansas," he says. "On every level, it makes sense."

I disagree. It might make sense on some levels, but certainly not all of them -- at least not in the sort of world most of us want to live in. No matter how you look at it, Hart's accent comment is indicative of an attitude that values sameness over diversity. It bespeaks an insularity that's uncomfortable for anyone who has recognized the benefits of forces like multiculturalism and globalization.

Inbreeding as a practice is just plain unhealthy, and that goes for IT inbreeding as well. Turning inward isn't the answer. We shouldn't avoid different accents or different cultural norms or different approaches to business. Rather, that diversity needs to be sown, cultivated and allowed to flourish. That, in the end, is the real farm that a healthy and growing company needs to be sourcing from.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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