CIO Matters

Strategy is the goal in business process outsourcing

Scot Petersen

It's a familiar metaphor: Youth soccer has been compared to any venture in which the participants randomly chase the ball around the field rather than focus on attacking the goal strategically. The dot-com boom period of the late '90s and early '00s is a perfect example.

Scot Petersen

Harvard Business School professor Lynda Applegate took the soccer metaphor even further during her talk at the recent

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BPO/ITO World Forum, an IT outsourcing conference in New York. The comparison was especially appropriate, given that the Euro 2012 semifinal was going on the day of the conference, and that much of the audience was from Europe and other soccer -- excuse me, football -- nations, such as Poland (the co-host of Euro 2012), Uruguay, Scotland and Ireland.

In Applegate's analogy, successful enterprises have moved past the "little field" of youth soccer and on to the full-size pitch, and have incorporated the main missing ingredient (other than, of course, skill): strategy. "Strategy," she said, "is what makes you different from everybody else, not the same; and the differences are what add value to everyone in the ecosystem."

The context of this ecosystem is business process outsourcing (or BPO) providers and customers, but it could be any situation. "The challenge today is how do we create new ecosystems, add value and make the industry stronger," Applegate said. "How do we use technology to change the rules of the game and create new ecosystems that drive value for all parties?"

IT strategies and goals

And what, again, does soccer have to do with this? Contrary to conventional wisdom in the U.S., soccer is a game of strategy, a lot less like the NFL and a lot more like chess. Each position on the field has a role, and each grouping of positions -- defenders, midfielders and forwards -- has its roles and responsibilities.

Strategy is what makes you different from everybody else, not the same.

When defenders are controlling the ball, Applegate said, "midfielders are getting into position and finding white space. It's not a straight shot to the goal. When people are reinventing the game, you need more than one strategy, more than one midfield position. The forwards are following the midfield, getting to where they need to be when the midfielder gets the ball. What is the long-term goal we are going after? Do I have a compelling goal? What is the size of the field?"

You can see how fluidly Applegate moves between the fields of football and business. And the comparisons are striking. Aren't business managers working to define the field, boundaries and roles; to establish goals, defend positions and respond to challenges?

Too often, however, the answer is "no" -- or at least, "not completely." Goals are going to get scored against your team, but that's okay as long as your team scores more goals.

While Applegate's presentation was compelling, I couldn't help but think that much of the technology industry in particular and much of IT thinking are still stuck in "youth soccer" mode. Note how fast the term big data sprang up last year. Suddenly, the most mundane business analytics tasks were lumped into the discussion about big data -- or worse, pushed to the sidelines as unimportant in the "big" picture. In many aspects, the cloud is new applications of old technology, the next logical step of virtualization, but it is treated as radically new. Some vendors are crafting their own buzzwords, like SMAC stack (as in "social, mobile, analytics and cloud") in order to define the latest technology playing field.

Before companies even start considering the new wave of technology solutions, they need to keep asking fundamental questions like these: "What is the business problem we're trying to solve?" "What kinds of technology will I need to have in place to accommodate our growth plan?"

Another soccer fundamental (and I know this because I used to coach the little ones) is "keep your head up." You have to see where you are passing, and if you get distracted by dribbling the ball, you will miss the opportunity to see open players. In other words, don't let your own business get in the way of your succeeding and growing or building a technology ecosystem that allows the business to seize opportunities when they arise.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Scot Petersen, Executive Editor. For enterprise IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @enterpriseCIO.