Outsourcing and the security industry

At what point does outsourcing go too far? Our industry is known for outsourcing quite a bit of work. These are the areas where we commonly see outsourcing: Security guard services. This is cyclical for some companies, but the overall trend I've...

System design and project management. Implementing a big technology project like a complex and integrated video surveillance system isn't what most security departments do every day, and they're better served to outsource system design and even project management in many cases. The outsourced designer/project manager may handle all of the following: coordinating system design parameters, technical design, RFP process, contractor management, final training and testing. (Large integrators hate it when their customers outsource this part of a project to independent designers; I suspect because it is one of their more profitable areas of business.)

So, can outsourcing go too far? Some would argue that today's news that San Carlos, Calif. (pop: 27,000), is outsourcing its police department to a private company is a point where "security" outsourcing has gone too far. But in the security-specific industry, can outsourcing go too far?

Outsourcing can absolutely go too far if you lose quality. If you can outsource all of your elements (installation, design, monitoring, service, management, etc.) and still retain control, coordination and quality, then outsourcing works. Unfortunately plenty of companies have found that they lost quality control through outsourcing. I'll spare their name from being dragged through the mud, but there's a company in the industry that had to change their entire product line a couple years ago because it had outsourced production to a Chinese manufacturing plant with terrible quality control, and the result was that the company was selling units to customers that were often DOA or dead soon afterwards.

But there is a second question here, and that is whether you can retain your culture and vision as you outsource. Quality is something that is relatively easy to measure and apply metrics. We can determine how many devices fail or require service. But culture and vision is what separates a company that excels from one that simply plugs along. Compare Apple with its culture of great products to a company like iRiver which also makes MP3 players (in fact, iRiver was making them well before Apple). Apple created a culture within its own company and within the marketplace and their products became "magical" -- to borrow the words of Steve Jobs. The iRiver products were simply another MP3 player device, and the company was handily removed from their #1 marketshare position by Apple. The difference, I think, was that iRiver had good technology but didn't have great vision. Apple had the vision; they saw a device tied to software tied to an online music store.

So, the question is, at what point does outsourcing your team hurt you? I'd argue that it occurs when you've outsourced to the point that you don't have the critical mass to retain a sense of culture and shared vision. Sure, it's nearly impossible to measure, but as your company takes steps to outsource (a common proposition in this sluggish and down economy), trust your gut instincts before you lose your security culture and vision.