Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

The hidden costs of outsourcing

I’d say there are even more hidden dangers to outsourcing than giving up control of key activities. What is also a major risk, is that of the loss of particular capabilities which – and you might not quite realise this at present – are crucial to your performance in further downstream activities.

Let me give you an example. My colleague at the London Business School Markus Reitzig, together with his co-author Stefan Wagner, examined outsourcing in one particular process; a firm’s filing and enforcement of patents. Firms that do R&D usually try to protect their inventions by getting a patent. Once the patent is granted they often need to engage in enforcing it, for example through proactive and reactive litigation. These different types of activities – patent filing and patent enforcement – are such specialised activities that usually they are carried out by different individuals within an organisation.

And now comes the trick: Quite often, firms would chose to outsource the patent filing to some external, specialised law firm – “because they’re the experts and can do it more efficiently than we can”. At first sight, that seems to make sense. However, one of the crucial activities conducted for patent filing is the identification of “prior art”. Prior art encompasses all knowledge disclosed to the public before the patent is applied for. And if a firm outsources the entire patent-filing activity, it also leaves this identification and interpretation of prior art to the external solicitors. The problem is that, in the process, the firm will also lose a rather important “by-product”, namely knowledge about the firm’s technology competitors. That is because, as a result of investigating prior art, firms usually learn an awful lot about competitors working on similar issues. And that knowledge is rather relevant further down the line…

Markus and Stefan examined the firms that had outsourced patent filing and statistically compared them to a bunch of firms which continued to do both activities in-house (despite many telling them “you should really stop doing that, you know; it’s old-fashioned; haven’t you ever heard of outsourcing?!”). And they found that the firms that had not outsourced their patent filing activities were much better at identifying potential technology competitors (and their weaknesses) early on. This gave them the possibly to successfully attack them proactively. Firms that gave up on their own in-house patent filing function, and outsourced it to some external specialist, found themselves ill-equipped for patent enforcement activities. Consequently, their downstream performance plummeted.

My guess is that what Markus and Stefan found for patenting is true for many activities; outsourcing one sub-process might have undesirably (hidden) consequences for some other function somewhere else within the firm. These linkages are largely unknown and often impossible to observe, quantify and measure. However, that does not mean that the costs are not very real!

You have to be careful with outsourcing. What may seem like a relatively tangential activity to you, which you could safely put in some externals’ hands, might accidentally make you lose a capability which is critical further down the line. And once you’ve lost that in-house capability, it will be very hard to get it back.

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