Thursday, 31 March 2011

SLA Event - The changing face of corporate information services – new service models and partnerships

Last night saw a good crowd of around 50-60 people gather at Balls Brothers, Mincing Lane, all interested to hear from a distinguished panel about all things outsourcing.
We were told the event was held under the Chatham House rule, and so apart from information already in the public domain most of the comments reported here are unattributed.
The Chair was Stephen Phillips from Morgan Stanley, and the speakers included two heads of information services from leading law firms – Sarah Fahy from Allen & Overy and Kate Stanfield from CMS Cameron McKenna - and two representatives from the vendor community – Greg Simidian CEO of Perfect Information and Liam Brown  CEO of Integreon.
Common Themes
There were some common themes from the panel, including the drive for higher quality, the need for extended professional development, and improving communication.
There was agreement that, in law firms at least, engagement with the option of using outsourced services was enabling information managers to ‘step up a rung’ and be taken more seriously by senior management.  All sides emphasised the need to get to grips with the underlying business problems and issues and demonstrate how either in-house or outsourced provision of information services best met those needs. 
In one case a blended model was being adopted, with some use of outsourced support for more process-based information work while retaining in-house teams for lawyer-facing roles.  In another situation outsourcing was being adopted on a more wholesale basis, although the need for a long and thorough preparation phase and tight SLA’s was emphasised.  It is important not just to have a clause saying, for example, “research requests will be satisfied within 3 hours” but also “the information provided will be of satisfactory quality” – along with some definition of “sufficient quality”.
An interesting question was raised about how outsoucing firms are going to be able to attract and retain the quality of staff to carry out research and other information management work to the high standards being demanded by law firms.  Will they be forced to ride ‘on the coat tails of the reputation of their law firm clients’ or will they be able to offer sufficient training and career development possibilities to attract recruits on their own merits?
One of the panellists mentioned that it had taken three years of training visits and secondments to an outsourced centre to bring them up to the expected standards and make the team self-sustaining.  Some commented that today firms may not have the luxury of three years to make it work – while others said that today there was a better pool of staff and better management structures in place so it shouldn’t take this long now.
Another area that was discussed was around access to the information content itself, and how the information providers and publishers could maintain relationships with their users.  In ‘traditional’ outsourcing (ie, offshoring to a centre in a low-cost economy such as India) it has worked well, especially since the vendors hired local customer services staff.  With the newer blended models (ie, with some outsource staff embedded at the client site, some at onshore centres and some offshore) it was still too early to tell but there was a concern that contact with the actual end users of the information might be impeded by the addition of the extra contractual and physical layer of the outsourcing agreement.  Any such lack of contact could impact on future product development, for example.
Key messages
Overall the panel agreed that the key things they have learnt so far on their journey to a new model of providing information services were:
·         Communication is key – with senior management, with your teams and with the outsourcer
·         Relationships are vital
·         The process must start by addressing the underlying business problem
By this time it was almost 8.00pm and some very tempting looking food was being laid out, so the evening adjourned to a hot buffet and networking.  There were still 30 or 40 people in the room when I slipped out to catch my train at 9.00pm, so the topic had clearly generated a lot of conversation!

- Nicola Franklin


  1. Tina has made an excellent point in her blog about the event ( when she asks "where will we find the next generation of professionals"? This refers to the phenomena of 'quick enquiries' being outsourced while more in-depth work remains in-house. As Tina points out this can lead to a lack of junior level roles - in fact this is exactly what happened in the investment banking sector 7-10 years ago.

    I certainly remember a time when each of the banks would take several 'corporate docs' researchers each year - who basically had an interest in research &/or finance but little experience - and train them up, starting with sourcing company accounts and similar simple retrieval tasks and building up their skills.

    Once 'desk-topping' of online sources began, where bankers were expected to use sources on their own desktop to do quick enquiries, quickly followed by offshoring of the same level of enquiries, the recruiting of junior researchers by banks quickly tailed off.

    This has led to the siutation now where there are senior, sector specialist, researchers working in the banks' London offices, but few junior generalists. The pipeline of future senior staff and leaders has been cut off.

    Will the same happen in law if outsourcing becomes the norm? Or will the outsource firms themselves become the 'training camp' for the senior researchers of the future?

  2. I think there is real potential for the outsource service providers to cultivate the researchers of the future.

    As the scale and reach of these organisations grows, they will extend their onshore operations. If they are to meet their client's expectations they will need to invest in their staff pipeline.

    As client organisations continue to refine their focus on core activities, the trend of divesting support functions will continue.

    As such, is IM any different to IT, HR, Payroll, Finance and a host of other non core activities?

    Is it better to proactively embrace the change or wait until it is forced upon us?

    Do the primary service providers have an image problem, with their origins as offshore providers?

    If the likes of Accenture, McKinsey or Cap Gemini were competing in this space, would they be more desireable employer of IM staff?

    One of the most interesting comments I heard was that, as a outsourced "consultant" the info pro concerned had been invited to contribute to a much wider range of initiatives than when they had been an employee.

    Whilst outsourcing/offshoring of IM is not a new topic - it seems like the debate will continue to run.

  3. Hi Nicola, excellent blog post and comment. I talked about this issue in a blog post I wrote last year after attending an ARK Conference on Managing Legal Libraries there is also an article I believe you contributed to called "Is the law sector dripping talent" which discusses the impact of outsourcing

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