Monday, January 22, 2007

The Narrative of Outsourcing

I just decided to feed the search term "outsourcing" to Google, and I got 70,600,000 results! I should take this as a sign that the topic really does not need any more attention; but I suspect that anyone who starts to wade through all of those results will encounter precisely the sort of complexity that metanarrative is supposed to resolve. However, on the basis of a case study just examined at Confused of Calcutta, I am not sure there is any need to "go meta." It should be sufficient to go back to the basics of narrative analysis. Rather than review those basics (grounded in Kenneth Burke's "pentad" of dramatism), I shall rely on the hyperlink I just provided and try to write the example in such a way that it will speak for itself.

The example is based on the following "rant" (the blog author's wording") at The Park Paradigm:

Next up… a couple days ago I linked to a video on featuring Weatherbill’s CEO. Today I wanted to show it to someone and clicked on the link. Well, after 24 hours you need to have a paid subscription to see the archives. (I’m not going to debate now whether or not that is a good policy or business model etc. - you can probably guess what I think in any case…) It costs $9.95/mo (no option to pay in another currency of course…); I already pay for a cable subscription to CNBC (gee why wouldn’t they think to offer web access to their cable subscribers…); but I’m more often in front of my laptop than my TV and I think it’s a really good business news service so I thought what the hell and spent 5 minutes signing up and giving them by credit card number. Then I went to back to try an watch the Weatherbill clip. Boom. You need a Windows PC and Media Player to use CNBCplus. Mac and Quicktime users bugger off. Funny thing is the free service works just fine with Quicktime. What the hell is up with that kind of decision??? You actually convince someone to buy a paid subscription to your website and then you give them fewer choices and try to lock them in to one proprietary standard. And they can’t even hide behind some lame excuse that they don’t know how to make it work because it works on the free-to-view site! (Maybe I shouldn’t shout too loud lest they disable this compatibility…)

This narrative was brought to my attention by JP Rangaswamy, who runs Confused of Calcutta. He analyzed the account as follows:

Sean’s example of and its archives policy made me wonder about something. Why would anyone do something like that? Why would anyone take something that was already made available for multiple devices and then pay to reduce the market opportunity?

Three possibilities:

* One, incompetence. They didn’t know they were doing the restricting.
* Two, greed. They were paid to use a walled garden.
* Three, line-of-least-resistance. They could not find a way of implementing their DRM without restricting choice further.

Even the optimist in me thinks it is possibility 3. After all, we live in a world where people can come up with rank stupidities such as Region Coding.

This explanation is probably as good as any, at least if you live in the objective techno-centric world where all actions are teleological; but narratology can help us discover that there is "more to the story," so to speak. The point I would like to make is that there is a major source of confusion in Sean’s use of the pronoun “they,” which JP then translated to “anyone.” The confusion lies in the assumption that was the agent and that “something like that” was one of the agent’s motivated acts.

I recently ran into a similar case of silliness in the way Comcast handles their On Demand service. So when I heard one of the Comcast flacks pitch this service at a marketing seminar, I held my tongue during the Q&A and then confronted her face-to-face. I pointed out the instance of silliness; and, of course, the first thing I encountered was that she was totally unaware of it! That was what I expected; but I pushed forward with the question pretty much as JP phrased it: “Why would Comcast do something like that?” This time I should have been better prepared for the answer: They didn’t (at least not directly)! Everything about the On Demand service, functionality and interfaces, had been outsourced! All Comcast did was enable subscribers’ set-top boxes to link in to it! On the basis of the beginning of my encounter with the flack, it was clear that there was little, if any, review of either the design or the implementation of the service.

So, invoking the principle that “as Comcast goes, so goes the world of mass media” (at least in the United States), my guess is that had no active hand in what Sean encountered and was probably not aware of their subscribers encountering such silliness. From that point of view, JP’s first possibility probably hits closest to the mark. No one at knew what was happening. However, the incompetence goes deeper than setting access policy; it has to do with responsibility for all services provided to subscribers (and, for that matter, visitors). There is nothing wrong with outsourcing in theory; but, if the customer (in this case Comcast or does not take the responsibility of reviewing what the outsourcing agent is required to do and what actually gets done (at a bare minimum, since I am a rabid advocate of mid-stream review), then no one should be surprised when the whole outsourcing process screws the pooch. (Hey, if that language is good enough for Law & Order, it’s good enough for me!) So, rather than accuse of incompetence, I would write the whole thing off to laziness (which, more often than not, is the underlying cause of incompetence)!

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