Book Review - The Services Shift

For the last 8 weeks or so I've been carrying around and reading an excellent new book on outsourcing by Robert E. Kennedy.  Kennedy runs the William Davidson Institute, that I mentioned in a post in April.  His book, co-authored with Ajay Sharma, is called The Services Shift, Seizing the Ultimate Offshore Opportunity.

I like the book; and I recommend it,  But I have to admit that one of my primary reactions to the book is jealousy - the jealousy of an unpublished author for a published author.  To explain that comment, I have to digress into a little personal narrative.

When I started my own outsourcing adventure in 2000 or 2001 (a small project doing a Linux port of a server product) I was largely disinterested in the nuances of the outsourcing market. In 2003 I was charged with selecting a vendor for a larger QA outsourcing project, and at that point I put a little more thought and effort into the endeavor.  I reasoned that much of what I was having to learn (about vendor selection, locale selection, work selection, knowledge transfer practices, global team management, cultural nuances in the global workplace, etc.) was or should have been known science. So I expected to be able to go to Amazon.com and find several excellent books on outsourcing, study up, and be an instant master of the art.

In 2003 that was not the case.  There really weren't any good books on outsourcing, or if there were, they were very difficult to find.

Fast forward to 2008, in which year I dedicated a significant amount of my life to researching, writing and trying to sell a book on outsourcing.  The book I envisioned (and partially completed) was positioned for engineers and managers in the USA who are struggling to understand and cope with the global services shift.  I intended it to be somewhere between Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind and Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat.  After unsuccessfully pitching my proposal to a dozen or so publishers, I came to the conclusion that the market for books on global outsourcing was pretty well saturated.  I have ten such books on a shelf within easy reach of my desk.  I have probable read or skimmed another twenty.  And there are literally dozens more that I haven't bothered to look at, for various reasons. Publishers liked my proposal, but unanimously viewed the market for this topic as supersaturated, and either had a book in the space already, or didn't see a way to make any money on a new book in the space.  (And by the way, I think in many ways it is easier to raise venture capital for a software startup than it is to get a publishing deal for a business book.)

So, getting back to The Services Shift, it might be enough of a recommendation to point out that it was published by FT Press.  That's the book imprint of the Financial Times newspaper.  (As a further aside, If you don't already read FT, you should start, as I think it uniformly offers a good global perspective to balance the WSJ or NYT.)  This is a serious publishing company, and as you'd expect, The Services Shift is a serious book.

I like most about this book the fact that it does a nice job bridging theory and practice.  It's an excellent, scholarly book, without being too abstract, and without being overly burdened by the business school jargon and theory-bloat that plagues many business books.  Think of it as The World is Flat, for a more analytic and intellectualizing audience.

Early in the book, Kennedy sums up what has been the guiding principle of my work for the last several years.  The long quote that follows will give you a sense for the direction the book takes, and for the writing style:

"...[Companies" have to be better and cheaper and faster - all at the same time! ...  We contend that most of these forces compel companies to look offshore for solutions to at least some of their problems.  From a defensive standpoint, they need to lower their costs to compete -- and offshoring certainly offers that prospect.  But offshoring also allows companies to be proactive in shaping their futures: by improving the quality of products and services, developing new offerings, and -- over the long term -- creating toeholds in the economies and markets that will be most important years and decades down the road."

This is the "faster, cheaper, better, closer" argument I've made many times, in this blog and elsewhere. Kennedy understands this new imperative, explains it well, and provides keen insights into both the macro and micro level issues in the services outsourcing space.

There are a lot of books on outsourcing.  I have a hard time saying that any of them are must reads.  But this is a very good book.  It earns a place next to The World is Flat, and Multisourcing (by Linda Cohen and Allie Young) in my bookshelf.  

If you were just starting out on an outsourcing epic, or if you were trying to grasp the shift toward globalization and devaluation of knowledge work, this book would be a great primer.  And if you're already a practitioner, this book is chock full of facts, frameworks, and complex business theory explained in a way front-line technology managers can understand.   

And perhaps the highest praise I can offer: The Services Shift is very close in concept and execution to the book I spent a good deal of 2008 researching and writing.  And it's exactly the book I wish I could have found in 2003 when I started shifting routine and repetitive work to teams I built in India.

Buy it, read it, reference it.


Bob Kennedy said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the very nice review of my book. I put a lot of work into making it both a serious analysis and accessible to operating managers. People like you and your readers were my target audience. It's good to see that I hit the mark--at least with you.

If your readers are interested in having a discussion, I am happy to engage on any of the issues about the book or offshoring. Just leave a comment.

Fire away.


Bob Kennedy

Tom Hickman said...


Thanks for popping by the blog, and thanks for putting what must have been years of your life into mastering this topic. I really did enjoy the book!

T. Hickman