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“Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 Aug 2010

The headline in this week’s issue of the Times Higher Education is blunt: “The heat is on: official hints that cuts could rise to 35%“. And on the same day I read that article I was alerted to a comment published in response to the “When The Axe Man Cometh” post on the University Web Developers forum. This cited a book on “A University for the 21st Century” written by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Of particular interest was the comment that:

Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.

I was also interested to hear the implications for those working in Web teams:

The core mission of a college or university is teaching (and in some cases research). Web development is not a core mission of a university and is ripe for outsourcing.” (my emphasis)

I was particularly struck by this comment (which, although published in 2000, does appear to be much more relevant today) as it echoed similar remarks which I made in my opening talk at the IWMW 2010 event. I reminded the 170+ participants (plus those watching the video stream) that the core mission for our Universities is teaching and learning together with, in many cases, research – the provision of Web services is an overhead which is used to support these core institutional activities. My intention in making these comments at the opening of the event was to suggest that there is a need for the Web management community to transform itself.  My suggestion for such transformation, which I outlined in a post on ““When The Axe Man Cometh” – the Future of Institutional Web Teams” is for institutional Web teams to regard themselves as acting as part of a national institutional Web management community, and ensure that, by working in an open fashion, work being carried out within the institution was available to others in the sector. The rationale behind my suggestion is that by ensuring that much more sharing of ideas, experiences, successes and failures will reduce the amount of duplication of work being carried out across the sector, thus freeing time to implement innovative ideas which can help to enhance the quality of services Web teams provide to teaching, learning and research. But such approaches won’t help if we do see cuts of up to 30% being implemented over the next three years.   On the assumption that the cuts won’t all  fall on academic departments or other service departments (the library, IT services and central administration, for example) we would then have to face cuts across institutional Web teams. But will such cuts be implemented by outsourcing institutional Web development and support?  And, if so, what will be the implications of such outsourcing? Any thoughts?

11 Responses to ““Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing””

  1. Matt Thrower said

    I fear that you are right to worry that university web teams are going to be low-hanging fruit as far as the implementation of cuts is concerned. However I have long argued that outsourcing web services for any organisation which makes frequent content updates – a category to which nearly all higher education establishments certainly belong – is short-sighted. Commissioning changes from third party suppliers is inevitably very expensive and sites with a lot of content updates are almost certainly going to be making more structural and service-based changes than they probably bargained for. So over a period of years, the cost paid to third parties is going to be roughly in line with paying your own team whilst the latter carries many advantages such as institutional understanding, loyalty and speed of reaction. Unfortunately all the evidence I’ve ever seen in the sector suggests that understanding this is entirely beyond the reach of middle-managers without any technical expertise who seem to consistently believe that a website is a fire-and-forget investment that can be commissioned, deployed and then ignored for years on end. Perhaps our target should be education as much as the suggestion of potential alternative cost-saving measures.

  2. I think I have to agree with Matt – websites for educational institutions are a long term investment, and should be addressed by hiring expert staffing. I think it is definately possible to gain expert help through outsourced consulting, but to outsource the entire website would be a significant ongoing cost.

  3. Anthony said

    It seems to me that outsourcing can only make sense where you have zero integration (so a static HTML marketing site) and the much anticipated “perfect” CMS (supporting easy inline page authoring, templating etc.) Even then you still need the traditional content focussed support teams to guide departments on how to sell themselves, but the technical teams charged with running the site could be vulnerable. Such sites are rare in HE though, and are hardly the information gateways that my Library types heartily desire. Nevertheless some marketing teams might like a silo’d, outward facing professionally delivered site without relying on their cranky IT services group, but over time the need for integration and the inadequacies of the CMS delivered by their outsourced providers will creep up on them. I have (second-hand) experience of exactly this in an institution I used to work for. Their first outsourced web partners went bust. Everything was looking ok with the second until they realised they needed to provide an online prospectus integrated with the course management system. In both cases it was the remnants of the old web teams that had to pick up the pieces.

  4. Two responses to these comments:

    If provision of Web services in HEIs is complex, how do Web teams ensure that policy makers are aware of such complexities?

    If provision of Web services in HEIs is complex and therefore expensive, what is to stop policy makers making the decision that has already been made for central Government Web sites: we heard recently that Up to 75% of government websites face closure. This was described as a “Move intended to save millions [which] will see remaining sites forced to cut costs by up to 50%“.

    I seem to be hearing reasons why things should remain just as they are. Is this the best strategy when facing cuts of up to 30%?

  5. Anthony said

    I have no previous experience of this situation, but I believe that no central service should view themselves as too essential to cut in the face the massive drops in funding we’re likely to see (which are to be smoothed over the next five years as I understand it?) If the “web team”, technical or not, is too small to be shaven, or reduced by (horrible term) natural wastage, then outsourcing becomes attractive to some. However my previous comments were in line with Matt’s – that even in this situation outsourcing is likely to be a false economy, the pitfalls being practical rather than theoretical in many cases.

    I agree with your previous argument about UK web teams saving money by sharing, acting for the good of UK HE plc where possible. I also think that the core purpose of Universities is learning, research and public outreach, with knowledge at it’s heart. Surely the key knowledge tool of the age is the web?

  6. Thanks for the reply.

    I think there is a need to *demonstrate* the *evidence* of financial and other benefits of the Web. This was a point made strongly by Ranjit Sidhu in his talk on ‘So what do you do exactly?’ In challenging times justifying the roles of the web teams at IWMW 2010 (note video of talk available).

    I think there is a need to plan for reductions in the services provided. This was a point made strongly by Paul Boag in his talk on No money? No matter – Improve your website with next to no cash note video of talk available).

    I agree broadly with your comment that the key knowledge tool of the age is the web (Ranjit Sidhu made a similar point) that begs the question of (a) who provides the service and (b) not all Web sites are to do with access to knowledge.

  7. As someone working on a government website initiative, I am shocked, but not particularly surprised, by some of the costs in the Cabinet Office report, and the huge amount of duplication of website provision across Government.

    I think there is large potential for rationalisation – from a University perspective I would suggest that this is actually a great opportunity for central web teams to push the need for centrally driven and managed web content management systems. A key element of the business case for these ought to be around driving down duplication of effort and making cost savings – particularly if you can argue the case for reducing the need for specialist web development skills at the Departmental level.

    So maybe this is an opportunity for central web teams to seize (perhaps at the expense of their departmental colleagues?).


  8. […] “Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing” […]

  9. I am in field of web development and internet business development for many years. Very few companies in the world are outsourcing their web development projects. Websites outsourcing is great idea when any company or individual order to develop great content managment system and hire staff to maintain the website. Even outsourcing save cost in adding products but company need to hire staff if updates are frequent.

  10. […] “Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing” […]

  11. I think I have to agree with Matt that websites for educational institutions are a long term investment, and should be addressed by hiring expert staffing. I think it is possible to gain expert help through outsourced consulting, but to outsource the entire website would be a significant ongoing cost.
    Web Development Chandigarh

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