Friday, August 24, 2007

China, Outsourcing, and Transaction Costs

Each day seems to bring new headlines regarding tainted products from China. Mattel has been hit especially hard, with the discovery of many toys containing lead paint. For me, the news about tainted Chinese products offers an opportunity to remind students and executives how to think strategically about outsourcing, rather than focusing singlemindedly on manufacturing cost reductions.

Let's go back to the fundamental strategic choice regarding vertical integration. What should drive the decision by a firm to produce its own inputs (or to conduct its own manufacturing in-house) versus outsourcing these activities to external vendors? Firms need to consider more than simply the direct manufacturing costs of performing these activities in-house vs. outsourcing them. They must consider the transaction costs associated with outsourcing production. In other words, how expensive is it to write contracts with external vendors, to monitor vendor behavior, enforce contractual provisions, control quality, etc.? Many firms underestimate these "costs" associated with using the market (i.e. outsourcing to an external vendor) versus keeping certain activities within the firm.

Quality control can be a very important reason why production is kept in-house instead of outsourcing it. We are learning from the tainted Chinese products situation that the transaction costs associated with quality control of outside vendors can be very high. The transaction costs come not only in the form of expenses associated with monitoring external vendors, but also in the form of a damaged brand in the event of a major recall.

Let's take a simple example of how control can be a key reason for keeping certain activities in-house. Why does Apple choose to operate its own retail stores? One reason is that they want to control the customer experience and the quality of the customer service that people receive. Of course, there are other reasons as well, but control is a critical one. Similarly, Disney owns some hotels in and around its theme parks because it wants to control the quality of the customer experience. Consider the risks and costs associated with having external parties in charge of the experience that families have at a Disney resort.

My argument is not that outsourcing should never occur. I simply aim to remind managers that they must consider the nature of transaction costs when making the outsourcing decision. Of course, there are transaction costs associated with keeping production in-house. The key is to compare the transaction costs of using the market (outsourcing) vs. keeping production in-house.

Finally, firms have to remember these strategic decisions are dynamic in nature. It may make sense to keep certain activities in-house at this point in time, but then outsourcing may become more attractive down the road. For instance, Disney used to own its retail store chain. One can see why they might want to control that customer retail experience. However, once they had operated this chain for some 15 years, they made the decision that they now could establish a licensing agreement, and allow an experienced retailer (Children's Place) to run the chain. Think of it this way. In the 1980s, when they launched the retail chain, they might have felt it was quite difficult, costly, and risky to establish a contract with an outside firm to operate Disney stores. However, now that Disney has run the stores for many years, they may feel more comfortable that they can write an enforceable contract that allows them to maintain quality control without running the store themselves.