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Outsourcing Tasks Instead of Jobs


Pfizer is letting its professionals farm out Web searches, number crunching, and other tasks to outside support firms

David Cain loves his job. Well, most of it anyway. As an executive director for global engineering at Pfizer (PFE), Cain finds real satisfaction in assessing environmental real estate risks, managing facilities, and overseeing a multimillion-dollar budget for the pharmaceutical giant. What he doesn't love so much: creating PowerPoint slides and riffling through spreadsheets.

Lucky for Cain, Pfizer now lets him punt those tedious and time-consuming tasks to India with the click of a button. PfizerWorks, launched early last year, permits some 4,000 employees to pass off parts of their job to outsiders. You might call it personal outsourcing. With workers in India handling everything from basic market research projects to presentations, professionals such as Cain can focus on higher-value work. "It has really been a godsend," says Cain. "I can send them something in the evening, and the next morning it's waiting for me when I get to the office."

This novel twist on outsourcing comes at a time when other resources are dwindling. As companies cull people by the thousands—Pfizer itself announced some 8,000 job cuts in January—those who stay behind are being asked to do more. In a down economy, though, it's especially critical that executives direct their energies to motivating teams, creating new products, and thinking strategically about their next move. "The stakes go up even higher," says David Kreutter, Pfizer's vice-president for U.S. commercial operations.

Originally dubbed the Office of the Future, PfizerWorks is partly the by-product of a cost-cutting push that began several years ago. Jordan Cohen, the architect and head of the program, came up with the idea after reading Thomas L. Friedman's book The World Is Flat and observing how his own team worked. Cohen recalls seeing one of his recruits from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., a new father, stay late at the office one night to crunch numbers and search for information on the Web. To Cohen, it didn't seem like time best spent.

Instead of shifting jobs overseas, as companies have done for years, Cohen wanted to find a way to shift tasks. He also felt the program should let employees do one-stop shopping. Instead of setting up a few specialized services, Pfizer employees click a single button on their computer desktop that sends them to the PfizerWorks site. They write up what they need on an online form, which is sent to one of two Indian service-outsourcing firms: Genpact, in Gurgaon, and a unit of Chicago's R.R. Donnelley (RRD).

Once a request is received, a team member such as R.R. Donnelley's Biju Kurian in India sets up a call with the Pfizer employee to clarify what's needed and when. The costs involved in each project are charged to the employee's department. Says Shantanu Ghosh, a senior-vice president at Genpact: "The way Pfizer's model is constructed is really pretty unique."

Pfizer is now looking to expand the program to more employees and to a wider array of tasks. While he was introducing a group of Pfizer scientists to the service last year, Cohen says, one of them immediately pointed out its limitations. "I got it, Jordan, we can use this," the researcher said. "But what I really need is a smart guy for a day." He had a point. Some tasks can't easily be broken down into instructions on an online form, Cohen admits, and sometimes employees need an assistant working in the same time zone.

LOCAL HELP

As a result, Pfizer is testing an arrangement with a small Columbus (Ohio)-based firm called Pearl Interactive Network. Pearl employs mostly people with physical disabilities who help with such administrative tasks as organizing a marketing team's research documents on a shared server or scheduling meetings. While the partnership is modest and isn't meant to supplant arrangements in India or administrative jobs, Cohen hopes it will make Pfizer staff even more productive.

Although PfizerWorks hasn't quite reached its first anniversary, Cohen estimates that it has already freed up 66,500 hours for employees. Pfizer finds employees are now spending less money on other providers, such as graphic design shops or market research firms. Employees are asked to rate their satisfaction with the finished product. If the score isn't high enough, a department can refuse to pay, which has happened only a handful of times.

Cain, for one, relishes working with what he prefers to call his "personal consulting organization." After getting such good results with basic spreadsheets and PowerPoints, he has asked teams in India to help him with more complex projects. One was to mine archived company "playbooks" on past acquisitions and pull together any lessons on what worked and what didn't when it came to consolidating facilities. That prep work should benefit the pharma giant now that it has announced a $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth (WYE).

The facilities report came together in a month, says Cain, vs. the six months it would have taken him to do it alone. "Pfizer pays me not to work tactically," he says, "but to work strategically."

Return to the Game-Changing Management Ideas Table of Contents

McGregor is BusinessWeek's management editor.

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