Insource, outsource… automate?

118983599_0a4aaf227e4On Tuesday the Business Media blog posted a suggestion that various business media companies should come together to merge their back offices. The writer focused on the 2 Apax backed businesses – Incisive Media and Emap – and suggested that this would be a good way to generate some of the synergies without properly crunching the businesses together (as the original plan had been).

S/he went on to suggest that the combined entity could then invite some of the other key players in the UK business media sector to join them – RBI, Informa & UBM.

Over the course of my career I have been responsible for running a variety of ‘back office’ functions covering customer service, database development, delivery networks, subscriptions and controlled circulation management. I have regularly been involved in debates about whether these functions are better off handled in house or out of house – be it a bureau in Market Harborough or Chennai.

Generally my rule of thumb has been that high value customers (paid subs, conference delegates etc) should remain in house; whilst lower level activity which does not involve a significant payment or complex customer service can be done more efficiently and cheaper out of house. They tend to involve the type of tasks that can be written down in a Service Level Agreement (SLA) & closely monitored.

Thinking about this again today as I read the Business Media post, it struck me that one of the big issues here is not about the economics of insourcing or outsourcing but rather about how hopelessly inefficient most publishing companies still are. In all the organisations I have worked for there are generally a fantastic number of manual processes and workarounds which make up for systems that really aren’t fit for purpose in a digital age. 

Now, I know it is easier said than done to link multiple databases to get a single view of your customers & prospects; or to provide full self service of accounts for those customers via your web sites. I cannot bear to think about the number of hours I have spent on projects like this during my career, but… have a wander out into your accounts, customer service, web teams, database or subscriptions departments today and look at what your staff are doing. Document their work flow.

Tell me you’re not horrified.

There is an old adage that says any task which you have to do more than three times you should look to automate. The way forward for back office savings has to start with automation – whether alone or in partnership with others in the sector.

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