Guest column: Tasks for the taking

I recently interviewed Michael Turner, vice president of marketing at NetSolve in Austin, Texas. NetSolve runs other people's networks for them and does so at a cost that is usually far less than doing the network management in-house.

What intrigued me during the conversation was the term that NetSolve uses for its services. The company refers to what it does as "out-tasking".

Turner explained that the difference between out-tasking and outsourcing is that in the latter, you are essentially handing off complete control of an entire activity to another organisation that you are betting is competent and capable.

While outsourcing works in some cases for some organisations, not everyone wants to put his fate in the hands of another party. NetSolve's edge is that the company is offering services that clients can easily take back if they wish.

The idea of out-tasking is powerful, and the name is good for all sorts of services offered by a variety of companies. Consider, for example, computer products retailer NECX. NECX has a full-fledged Web storefront, but it offers something more: the Enterprise Purchasing service.

This out-task service manages purchases made by line managers in an organisation. The system, which uses a combination of Web forms and e-mail for notifications, allows an administrator to assign manager accounts and set spending limits.

There's also a provision for referring purchase requests that exceed preset limits to an administrator for approval.

What's so special about this? The fact that the software and the data reside on NECX's system means clients using the service don't have to build those services themselves. And they don't have to manage the data, do backups or fix bugs. The clients are out-tasking.

In this case the out-tasking is apparently free.

But in fact there's a cost: lock-in. Once you out-task to NECX in any area of operations and you've got five or 10 people using it, you are committed.

If anything should go wrong with the out-tasking - lost data, poor availability, bad technical support and so on - you'd find it extremely hard to go elsewhere. Not only is your organisation used to the system, but the effort to go elsewhere would be too great.

Of course, for the company providing the service there also are risks. To begin with, once a client is comfortable with the system, the out-tasker better not change anything and tick off the clients.

You can see there's a complex dynamic here. Each party is making trade-offs and betting that the deal will work and can be managed. And you can also see, if you look carefully enough, what the future of out-tasking will look like: many of these services will be provided free over the Internet, (paid for by advertising), or available to you on a subscription basis.

Out-tasked services that come to mind are free e-mail services, such as Hotmail, and the Federal Express and UPS billing and tracking systems. There's also file archiving, Web content analysis and proofing, news filtering . . . It is becoming a pretty long list.

Another good example is Click2Send (http://www.click2send. com), a company with which I'm involved. Click2Send is a file transfer mechanism that uses Web browsers to send and receive files, a much simpler proposition than attaching messages to e-mail or learning File Transfer Protocol.

I'd be grateful if you tried out Click2Send and let me know your thoughts. Mark my words: Out-tasked services, particularly free ones, will become key elements in the e-commerce world.

(Out-task your comments to nwcolumn@gibbs.com.)

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