Outsourcing the truth

Dec. 21, 2004
When a new idea isnt.

Among the more amusing aspects of human nature is the tendency of individuals and firms -- particularly media and consulting organizations -- to confuse their own discovery of a trend as the original discovery of said trend by the human race. The most recent management example of this is outsourcing: This year, Ive watched in disbelief as both a well-read business magazine and a major consulting firm proclaimed outsourcing as a new management technique. This despite the fact that subscribers of IndustryWeek -- as well as just about any other reputable business magazine, with one puzzling exception -- have been reading about strategic outsourcing for a decade or more.

I was complaining self-righteously about these two managerial johnny-come-latelies when a friend pointed out that outsourcing was even older than IWs coverage. One has to look no farther, he said, than ones own home to find the 20th centurys original and biggest outsourcing story: The strategic delegation of labor in the middle-class household.

Take my friends decidedly middle-class family. He lives in an older suburb of boulevards and sycamores, in a modest house built in the early 1920s. Along with charming detail and an aging infrastructure, his home also came complete with a back staircase connecting its smallest bedroom and the kitchen -- for use by the live-in servant a 1922 architect expected would share the home. This servant -- probably female, by the standards of that time -- would cook, clean, wash, garden, and perhaps take care of the children in the hours between the end of school and fathers arrival home on the train. The assumptions of the time -- that middle-class households would have servants -- are embodied in the very design and structure of the home.

That structure, of course, no longer works for my friends modern family. Too egalitarian (and too poor) to hire a servant, this two-income household instead uses the extra bedroom as a home office complete with three phone lines, a fax, and two computers. Whats most interesting, however, is not what has happened to the house, but to the work the servant from 75 years ago would have performed. The cleaning, for instance, is now performed weekly by a man from a maid service. The laundry is divided equally between a dry cleaner with a route truck and a woman who washes, irons, and folds and, more importantly, picks up and delivers. The gardening is handled by a lawn service that cuts, prunes, edges, and rakes on a weekly basis. The children are managed by a neighborhood day-care center, although my friend is considering whether or not to hire a nanny. Even the cooking -- ostensibly still performed by the family -- is assisted at least four nights a week by a combination of pick-up Chinese, delivered pizzas, and various frozen foods. About the only thing he and his wife havent outsourced, my friend joked, is the procreative process itself -- or, as he described it, the households new-product-development process.

In short, the servants job in my friends middle-class household -- far from being eliminated over three-quarters of a century -- has been outsourced to vendors with specific areas of expertise, each of whom offers better service with more flexibility than a single employee ever could.

All of which just goes to show that sometimes theres no idea so new as an old one. That may not be such a bad thing; after all, what would certain consultants (not to mention magazines) do if they actually had to come up with an original idea?

Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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