Offshoring ethics

Premise No 1: Businesses aren't moral agents. This isn't up for debate. The Business Roundtable, the official voice of American industry, made this clear in 1997: businesses exist solely to maximise shareholder value.

ManagementSpeak: We are not having any layoffs.

Translation: The layoffs won't be announced until next week.

– IS Survivalist Bill Adams announces the proper translation this week.

Premise No 1: Businesses aren't moral agents. This isn't up for debate. The Business Roundtable, the official voice of American industry, made this clear in 1997: businesses exist solely to maximise shareholder value. Fiduciary responsibilities? Yes. Legal obligations? Sure. But does morality enter into it? Since most business success comes at the expense of competitors, it can't.

Premise No 2: Businesses have no patriotic duty. Don't be aghast. It's all about shareholder value, remember? If moving manufacturing to Kuala Lumpur helps, fine and dandy. If opening a post office box in Bermuda to avoid paying taxes increases profits, wonderful. A business isn't beholden to any particular nation. (Best exposition on this subject: Arthur Jensen's speech to Howard Beale in Network. Rent it, and you'll find that Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant satire has been transformed into the business community's manifesto.)

Premise No 3: Patriotism and morality are not connected. Unless you think Americans are intrinsically more deserving than other people or that any action performed by the USA is automatically good, it's inescapable that patriotism has as much to do with morality as being a Chicago Cubs fan. At best, patriotism is about self-interest -- not a bad thing, but not a moral issue.

Now we're ready: is moving work offshore immoral? No.

You're acting as the agent of your employer, an amoral (not immoral) entity. You're increasing shareholder value, a goal with no intrinsic moral substance. And for every human being you lay off, another gets a job. Going offshore is morally neutral.

You are, perhaps, being unpatriotic: creating unemployment here by transferring jobs elsewhere isn't to this country's benefit. Yet even that formula is simplistic: if competitors reduce their costs by going offshore and you don't, all you're doing is contributing to your company's failure -- in the long run, you're not saving jobs at all. What choice do you really have?

Your choice starts with your methodologies. Some lend themselves to sending work offshore. Others, such as "adaptive methodologies", are better suited to up-close-and-personal onshore staffing ... and hold the promise of increasing the productivity of your developers and integrators enough to compensate for offshore rates.

Adaptive methodologies don't fit all situations. Neither do the methodologies required for successful offshoring, nor anything else for that matter. Adaptive methodologies, offshoring, the Rational Unified Process, structured analysis and all the other techniques available to you are just tools in your management toolkit.

Your responsibility isn't to offshore, onshore or anything else. It's to use the best tool for each job.

Lewis is president of IT Catalysts. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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