Smartsourcing, not outsourcing!

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The key question posed at the workshop was as follows: ‘What aspects of the scholarly communications process can be outsourced, how can risks be mitigated and how can outsourcing be most effectively managed?’

We kicked off the workshop with a poll to map those functions currently being outsourced by the group members (mainly publishers and suppliers) and to identify which categories they would take through to discussion. We split the workshop into three sub-groups to provide focus on the following topics: content management and content hosting; sales and marketing; and peer review and production.

The groups then set about identifying the key outsourcing challenges faced, the outcome a collection of artefacts including challenges attached to the anchors of a speed boat (representing the forces holding the outsource project back) plus the creation of a couple of risk and mitigation charts that the sub-group members used to inform their final recommendations.

Request for proposal (RFP) process

One sub-group identified quickly that they wished to tackle the RFP process, agreeing that the lengthy, inflexible process is not always delivering. It demands a high level of thought and effort, is reliant on identification of good leadership and is time consuming for all parties involved. The outsourcing process can be extremely complex, particularly when outsourcing key functions such as content management and content hosting.

This group discussed the challenges involved, including the politics behind the RFP, the business objectives vs technical solutions and a concern that not all suppliers understand the changing business environment of the publisher and visa versa. Also discussed was the controlling of costs, resources, scalability, hosting security and reliability of services and the role of consultants.


Pre-RFP process: the group suggested undertaking a pre-RFP process, focussing on asking five key questions to filter out suppliers. This will be particularly helpful for smaller suppliers, allowing them to avoid spending weeks on an RFP response they are not going to be considered for.

It was agreed that there is also a need to rethink the RFP process and what’s going on behind it, especially as build/buy distinctions are less black-and-white than they once were. There are now many mixed models, so the current RFP process may no longer fit.

Other recommendations included: asking fewer questions; asking open questions; allowing suppliers to show added value; having discussions around the questions with the suppliers; discussing next steps and what else can be done – and avoiding sending an 800-line spreadsheet for the supplier to fill in!

Journey, not destination

Members of the workshop agreed that software development should be treated as a journey, not a destination, as you are usually buying a service and not a product when outsourcing. There needs to be room for the service to evolve and adapt over time, in line with both technology developments, user requirements and changing business needs. The service bought and agreed at the start of a contract is unlikely to be the same as the one required and desired in year three of the agreement.

A key risk associated with the RFP process is the lack of potential for innovation and lack of knowledge about other processes. A possible alternative to the RFP process is the ‘design thinking’ approach to ensure better outcomes, cost savings and to help differentiate between suppliers. The aim is to create beneficial outcomes by focusing on the customer journey. It requires logic, systematic reasoning and intuition to explore the possibilities.

You will also learn more about the suppliers capabilities if you ask them to present to you in the way they think best, rather than relying merely on a presentation tailored around a rigid outline of requirements. Consider an iterative process to aid innovation and be aware things can become out of date quickly. You can learn from examples, presentations of how solutions have been developed and implemented by others, and maybe even trial the service you are considering.

Act grown-up, and know your business

There needs to be more trust in the process than there probably is. If there is more trust then there is less paper work, and more interesting and outspoken discussions can take place. One person commented: ‘The trouble with some of these processes start with the assumption that everyone is a charlatan, rather than starting with the assumption that everyone might behave well.’

Almost all functions can be outsourced, leaving you to focus on your core business. However, some publishers may be considering bringing back in-house services such as IT, as they now regard them as functions of their core business. Ask yourself: ‘What is my core business?’ To move discussions with stakeholders forward, the answer needs to be clear. If you don’t know your core business then outsourcing can be very difficult.

Call to action

A continuation of discussions are expected to take place in Q2, 2017 during a meeting to be hosted by the BMJ, at BMA House in London. This will be advertised via social media shortly. You are invited to participate in a brief survey to measure the current status quo of outsourcing across the scholarly publishing community. The results of the survey (link below) will be published in May 2017.

Ellery Matthews Consulting offers services created for the scholarly publishing community. For more blog posts on this topic visit