By Martyn Hart, Chairman of the National Outsourcing Association

When was the last time you heard someone - a child, a student, a young professional, someone wanting a career change — say that they wanted to become an outsourcer? Let me guess… never?

Yet outsourcing is everywhere, affecting organisations of every size, from major corporations to SMEs, in every industry, across all verticals. The outsourcing market is maturing, generating an enormous £207 billion per year for the UK economy — 8% of the UK’s output, which bears close comparison to the overall size of the UK financial sector (which totals 8.1% of output)

Outsourcing is never short of column inches, is discussed in cabinet meetings, is seemingly permanently in the limelight, yet no-one grows up wanting to be an outsourcer. Outsourcing’s ascension to the status of accountancy, law, medicine — a proper, ‘professional’ profession — is long overdue.

Despite being roughly equal in pecuniary terms, compared to the financial sector, outsourcing has a definite image problem. Just not enough people are aware of its potential as a viable, lucrative career. This is an issue of education — not only creating awareness, but creating standards to work towards. An industry wide, universally accepted kite mark of quality. A recognised benchmark of knowledge and ability. Accreditation. Professionalisation. Chartered status.

Outsourcing contracts valued in millions and billions are commonplace. With such gargantuan sums at stake, there is a clear need to make sure projects are optimised for best practice. Everyone involved knows what they are doing, and, at the same time, be assured that everyone around them knows what they are doing too. Training programmes with standardised qualifications are the only way to ensure this.

To get the very best of an outsourcing deal, you need the best people, and talented people are ambitious; they don’t want a ‘job’, they want a ‘career.’ If your best people are not furthering and bettering themselves, they will seek opportunities to do so elsewhere. Not only is provision of training and development opportunities is a decisive factor in the war against staff attrition, but continuing professional development is one of the most important factors in employee motivation. To have a supremely dedicated workforce - willing to go ‘the extra mile’ to ensure customer satisfaction - is of undoubted benefit to any company, and companies that do not invest in training are likely to fall behind their competitors and lose market share.

Whether an IT programmer, call centre advisor, or an operations manager, everyone involved in an outsourcing project has the dual responsibility of representing two brands. Outsourcing should not be seen as a simple delivery of services. It is a partnership. Partnering should be seen as a mutual benefit, not a threat. It is vital to understand that collaboration will only make their businesses stronger. Partners should be able to work as an integral part of clients’ businesses, as collaboration offers the opportunity to share the flow of knowledge and experience between individuals and organisations. Adoption of standards will quickly address this, providing a commonality of approach and implementation that can only be good for the industry.

Although outsourcing as an industry is established, the concept and development of outsourcing as a profession is relatively new. There is a significant challenge in transferring the necessary skills, knowledge, technical infrastructure, tools and techniques. This challenge needs to be embraced through qualifications, development workshops, skills mapping and expert panel groups.

Outsourcers need to set up ongoing talent programmes to plan, acquire, develop and retain talent aligned to sourcing needs. This can be done with a strong HR program and outsource training provider, promoting the advantages and opportunities to learn from cross cultural experiences, mentor programmes and teams.

Staff Development is certainly not the ‘soft’ side of outsourcing, but should be seen as one of the hinges to operational and individual employee success. The skills required are continually evolving, as companies now look towards outsourcing providers as an extension of their own organisation, demonstrating similar knowledge of their business issues and shared commitment to goals. Skills mapping in outsourcing enables an organisation to analyse existing talent and identify key activities, roles, client expectations and can also be used to outline responsibilities in a contract between an end-user and supplier. It is vital to look ahead and provide a timeline with progressive short term goals when skills mapping, so development and training can be completed to meet changing requirements as the relationship develops over time.

Whether onshore or offshore, the importance of finding a good outsource training provider should not be underestimated. A training provider which shares a common vision will not only provide courses for employees, and give support to rationalise administrative processes and costs - they can also help an organisation consider new options regarding suppliers and services.

The National Outsourcing Association’s NOA Pathway is a set of accredited qualifications designed to develop competency and provide professional recognition in the outsourcing industry. It is a talent programme that reflects the fact that outsourcing is part of everyday business now, and is awarded to individuals, rather than organisations. The programmes are flexible to allow the participants to shape the programme around their own agenda.

The gold standard in outsourcing education is the NOA Professional Certificate, which is accredited by Middlesex University - one of the UK’s leading work-based academic institutions. Participants reflect critically on their working experiences and are required to demonstrate that they are able to undertake in-depth research and develop insightful analysis.

The outsourcing industry offers a unique opportunity to professionals to develop new systems of best practice and create their own successful career path in an emerging market. So while outsourcing can only go from strength to strength -with the increasing flexibility of models, cost effective use of new technology and a prospective surge in public sector contracts - the amount of growth and recognition will ultimately depend on the management, recognition and development of the people.