I wrote a piece last night over on Between the Lines asking when we'd start taking India seriously. In particular, I referenced the show Outsourced and its less than savory portrayal of the booming call center industry. Unfortunately, it doesn't take many jobs lost to inexpensive labor overseas or more than a couple first-tier tech support calls to the wrong support center for outsourcing to get a bad name.
Outsourcing doesn't have to be a bad thing, though. If another organization can give you better service for less money than you can achieve internally, doesn't it make sense to let them handle those services for you? We've all had one of those tech support calls to Bangalore or Hyderabad (and recently, more often to the Philippines) that are more frustrating than the problem we're trying to solve.
However, for every one of those calls, we've probably had 50 that were so seamless that we didn't even know the associate on the line wasn't really named Jessica. She just took care of the problem promptly, politely, and efficiently. And since it's far cheaper for Visa or Gateway or whomever to send tech support business to Manilla than handle it domestically, those savings get passed on to consumers (at least that's the idea).
Believe it or not, schools are learning the same thing about so-called outsourced IT services. No, they aren't getting tech support from rapidly developing Asian nations. Rather, they are looking to service providers with a significant cloud presence and software and hardware expertise that most schools can't possibly replicate.
On Tuesday, for example, Dell and the Keller Integrated School District (a Texas district of almost 33,000 students) announced the district's move to Dell's managed IT support services instead of providing their own services internally. Not only are applications and web-enabled services now hosted on Dell's cloud, but email and infrastructure services are also handled by Dell. Dell is also now providing desk-side tech support, remote support, engineering services, and technology consultation for the district.
Given that Dell is based in Texas, this first major effort with a public school district made a lot of sense both for Dell and Keller. If you're a school, after all, and things go wrong, calling someone 500 miles away isn't much better than calling someone 6000 miles away. Being able to access local resources, however, not only keeps jobs in the US, but ensures prompt, quality service. That being said, if Seattle Public Schools wanted to partner with Dell, then there is no reason that local resources couldn't be cultivated in metro Seattle, for example.
According to Dell's press release,
Working side-by-side with teachers and students, Dell took a holistic view of the Keller ISD, then recommended technologies and tools to enhance teaching and learning. Educators and staff now have access to 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week helpdesk and desk-side support, as well as email support, helping to address reduced budgets and helping prevent learning from being interrupted due to technology challenges. They will also have upgraded storage management and network management capabilities designed to increase an efficient enterprise, enabling Keller ISD to focus more time on the classroom.
And there's the key. For about the same amount of money that they were spending before, Keller can now provide highly available, anytime, anywhere services to its staff. Where, as Joe Griffin, CTO for the district, said that they were previously working at full capacity to simply "keep things running," now remaining IT staff can transition to roles that focus on teaching and learning and innovative use of technology in the classroom. Brushfires have been replaced by innovation and improved instructional practices.
Unfortunately, this has also meant some internal job loss. Many simply moved to roles with Dell, while others retooled and took on new roles with Keller. Others moved on. However, if the ultimate result is improved teaching and learning with no increase in costs, then Keller made the right, if difficult choice. This is, after all, about the students, and districts nationwide are being forced to make hard choices across the board right now. If those choices can maintain or improve services to students and staff, then clearly practices like "outsourcing" (I prefer the term partnering, but some would call me out on a euphemism) introduce important efficiencies.
Again, according to Joe Griffin,
“Streamlining our technology infrastructure and improving our support systems with the expertise of our partners at Dell is helping us provide a world-class technology environment that’s bringing improved instructional outcomes while still saving us money. Dell is not only helping us with our short-term needs, but is also helping us look to the future to leverage our technology to meet student and teacher needs for years to come.”
Those are hard words with which to argue when states are facing deficits in the billions and all of us are falling off the ARRA funding cliff.