• United States



by No Analyst or Consultant

Shared Services Inc.?
From Back-Office to Profit Maker

Aug 21, 20036 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

By Chris Disher,Anil Kaul

Vinay Couto


Companies have invested millions of dollars and accumulated years of experience in running highly efficient internal shared services operations. Now many are wondering how to unleash the next wave of value. Many believe that the next breakout strategy will take the form of an extended enterprise play (see Exhibit 1), in which shared services will move beyond the walls of the corporation, either as a seller of services to external customers or as a buyer and aggregator of external services for internal clients.

This prospect is attracting a great deal of enthusiastic market interest. Diverse investors-including venture capitalists, investment banks and Systems Integrators-are placing big bets on the future of business process outsourcing (BPO). The range of strategies they are funding is dizzying, ranging from simple outsourcing to joint ventures to spin-offs, and even the outright sale of shared services operations to third parties (see Exhibit 2). As any corporate development executive who has met with these would-be dealmakers will attest, the shared services value proposition has moved beyond cost reduction; these operations are now viewed as a vehicle for generating substantial shareholder value.

Underneath the aggressive deals and value plays lies a set of unwavering, fundamental assumptions. The first and most important assumption is that outsourcing is here to stay. Despite the early bruises suffered by outsourcing pioneers, the fundamental value proposition of out-sourcing is solid and only getting better as technology improves and experience grows. Second, creating a world-beating BPO play requires a certain degree of critical mass. For a BPO provider, convincing big players to sign-up as anchor clients is a prerequisite for success. Third, switching costs are high; once a company commits to an outsourcer’s platform it becomes very difficult to switch platforms or bring services back in-house. Finally, there is not enough room in the market for everyone to win. Scale and network economies dictate that those who build a viable solution for a given process or function first can effectively raise barriers to competitive entry. If the current outsourcing environment resembles a “land grab,” that’s because it is one.

Amidst this frenzy, corporate leaders are left in the frustrating position of having to sort through a myriad of entry and migration options. With all the other core business priorities they confront, can they afford to keep pumping more capital investment into internal shared services just to remain competitive? Should companies choose to outsource? Or partner with a promising start-up service provider in the hopes of earning a potential windfall when they IPO? Finally, do companies go it alone, commercializing their own “Shared Services Inc.”, and spinning it off for a significant gain at some point in the future? We would argue for a very measured and deliberate approach. While a handful of leading companies with top-notch shared services could reap immediate and powerful value by playing in today’s BPO market, the fact is that the hyped up rewards of such a strategy are not easily realized.

The decision to commercialize shared services is often make-or-break and is always difficult to reverse. Deciding when to move is as important as deciding what move and using which strategic play.

It is also important to consider which strategic options make the most sense in light of a particular company’s present capabilities and requirements for success. This helps clients build the right shared services/BPO strategy based on their assessments along three critical dimensions. First, a company must consider the capabilities of the supplier base whose offerings match its own service groupings. Then it must gauge the extent to which its current shared services operation is already operating like a competitive business. Finally, it needs to assess the dynamics and sensitivities of the parent company and its core businesses. Depending on where a company comes out on this three-dimensional assessment, it should pursue one of four BPO strategies:

  1. Traditional BPO
  2. Keep Options Open
  3. JV with a BPO
  4. Provider or Spin-Off (Shared Services Inc.)

The relationship between British Telecom and Accenture to form Accenture’s new HR outsourcing business is an example of such an initiative. British Telecom and Accenture combined their HR functions and Accenture’s outsourcing expertise to instantly form a new global business . The concept is shown in Exhibit 3. These businesses may eventually be spun off but their formation creates the ability to truly align objectives between business partners and minimize the risk of implementation failure

These creative ventures are forming the basis of new operating models that extend the traditional boundaries of organizations.

For many, if not most, companies, it makes sense to proceed with caution. Now is not the most opportune time for even the most ready and able companies to bet the farm on a “Shared Services Inc.” strategy without a thorough review. By the same token, no company can afford to stand still. Instead, companies should follow a systematic three-stage path:

Stage 1: Become Operationally Efficient

Commercialization and outsourcing plays provide the highest payoff to the parent when internal shared services are at the top of their game. To reach that competitive edge, a shared services organization should continue driving toward lowest costs by further consolidating its service delivery footprint, pursuing lower factor costs, standardizing transactional technology architectures and implementing efficient, “lights-out” processes.

Stage 2: Become Commercially Capable

While many companies claim to run their shared services as a business, few truly have the right processes and tools in place to manage internal customers effectively, much less multiple external customers. The key is to implement market-like mechanisms that give customers-both external and internal-the responsiveness, choice, and flexibility they would expect from an outside supplier.

Stage 3: Become Market Competitive

The economics of outsourcing have improved dramatically over the last two to four years, and we believe they will continue to improve as technology progresses and outsourcers learn from mistakes of the past. The newest phenomenon, Offshoring, offers the ability to reduce factor costs and labor on the order of 40-60%. This creates a window of opportunity for realizing significant cost advantages. Whatever decision companies ultimately make with regard to making shared services more competitive, they must rigorously and objectively monitor external alternatives on an ongoing basis, keeping a critical eye on the full economic value and cost of the strategy they elect to pursue.

At some point, BPO and/or commercialization will likely become inevitable, at least to a certain degree. The trick is to know when and where to move in order to capture maximum value.