Meeting Your Documentation Needs: Outsourcing, Contract Staffing, and Direct Hiring Strategies
As managers of technical documentation projects and groups, we must often negotiate supply and demand issues in our companies. How much documentation do our products require? How often will that documentation be revised? How much money is available to hire staff and, once we hire adequate personnel, is there enough work to keep them consistently busy? What competencies are needed for particular projects-writing, editing, information design, indexing, graphic design, interface design, usability experience? Are product release cycles predictable or erratic? Are processes in place within our companies that ensure consistent information transfer, or is the product documentation effort a catch-as-catch-can endeavor? Has the company been criticized by customers or industry experts for faulty documentation or a lack of adequate documentation? All of these concerns derive from the most fundamental question that we face: what resources do we need to do our jobs? In terms of staffing, this question can be difficult to answer, and the answer will vary depending upon your company, your products and product life cycle, your departmental budget and organizational revenue, the deliverables you plan to produce, and the skills necessary to get the job done.
When faced with more work than you have staff to accomplish that work, there are four ways to solve the problem. You can outsource one project, many projects, or all of your projects. You can hire contract staff for a defined period of time to get the work done. You can hire permanent staff and increase the size of your team. Or you can employ a blended approach-using a mix of direct hires, contract staff, and outsourcing of projects. What approach makes the most sense for your company, and how do you decide?
Asking the right questions is an essential part of arriving at the right answer. Before you make a decision to outsource your projects or to hire additional staff-either of which can be an expensive proposition-try to analyze your current and future needs as best you can. Below are some questions designed to help you gather details around your staffing and project needs so that you can choose and implement the best strategy to meet those needs.
Time to Market
When does your documentation need to be produced? When will the product be ready to document, and how much time will you have to do so? Technical documentation almost always lags behind product development. Sometimes this lag period is so great as to effectively cripple the documentation effort-product development is racing ahead, sales and commitments are being made, and documentation teams are expected to keep pace even with too few staff and too little information. This sort of situation presents a good opportunity to hire additional staff, but bear in mind that hiring and training staff takes time. If you have crushing documentation needs that will end relatively soon (in six months or less), outsourcing at least part of your project may be your best option. If, however, your documentation needs will continue to be considerable far into the future, you may choose to employ a blended approach such as hiring core staff and using either contract workers or an outsourcing firm to increase your output in a short period of time. In terms of addressing ongoing documentation needs, you could employ this model on a permanent basis (core staff working with outsource personnel) or you may, over time, increase the size and abilities of your team so that all of your product documentation needs can be successfully handled in-house.
Nature of Deliverables
How many different types of deliverables will you need to produce? Will your team be expected to produce user guides, installation guides, API documentation, and training modules? Will you produce printed manuals in addition to online Help systems or Web-based training? If you must produce multiple types of deliverables-especially within a short period of time-outsourcing some of your projects is a viable option. For example, if you already have a team of information developers who are very skilled at producing online Help systems and end-user documentation, you may choose to employ an outsourcing firm to handle other deliverables such as training materials. Your long-range plan may involve cultivating this competency on your own team at some point in the future, or you may always choose to outsource this particular type of project.
How much money is available to help solve your staffing problems? Do you have the money to hire the number of staff that you would truly need, or would you be hiring a staff of four technical communicators to perform the work of eight? Does your department or your company have the money to employ an outsource firm, and will you have to spend additional funds (and use in-house staff) to revise and update documentation that was created by contract personnel or an outsourced group? Hiring staff is almost always more cost-effective than employing contract staff for long periods of time or working with outsourcing firms on an open-ended basis. Bear in mind that in hiring staff you must consider recruitment costs, salary, and a realistic overhead or burden rate (benefits, office space, training, management).
Will your documentation need to be revised and updated, and if so, how often? If you are documenting a product that will not undergo multiple releases or will not experience many enhancements, outsourcing the work or using contract staff may make sense for you. It can be a cost-effective and relatively simple proposition to have an outsourced team create single-use documentation. If, however, your product documentation must be revised and updated frequently, using contract or outsource personnel may be a poor investment. It is often easier to have the team who produced the original documentation bear responsibility for updating that documentation. If you will expect an in-house staff to revise and maintain a document set created by an outsourced team, be prepared for potential problems with source files or questions about methodology (because the team updating the documentation did not originally design or create it).
Is the product that you are documenting complex or relatively simple? Outsourcing and contract strategies are more effective when your product is not complex and your documentation needs are straightforward and contained. The more complex a product is, the greater the need for an information developer to become a subject-matter expert as well. The sort of time and training that is necessary to develop this expertise in your product or market niche is best invested in direct hires who will continue to add value to your group and your company.
Product Release Cycle
Is your product release cycle predictable or erratic? Volatility in release schedules is especially difficult to plan for (and staff adequately) if communication between the product development team and the documentation team is infrequent or inconsistent. A stable, dependable release cycle is simply a superior model. It is easier for any group of information developers (whether they are full-time, on-site employees or are employed by an outsourcing firm) to document a product when they know what the release dates are and what functionality will be included in each release. If your product release cycle is irregular and inconsistent, contract staff and outsourcing firms can be of help. If, for example, your team is working to document a product that is due for market release in two months’ time and you discover that significant changes and enhancements have been made, hiring some contract staff can help you meet the crunch and still deliver adequate information to your customers.
Nature of Staffing Need
Will your need for documentation staff be consistent and ongoing or only occasional? If your company’s needs will be met much of the time by two or three full-time information developers but demand will occasionally exceed supply, it is worthwhile to develop a relationship with a dependable outsourcing firm or with reliable contract personnel to handle occasional overflow.
Do you have processes and procedures in place for regular information transfer between product development and documentation teams? If you are using contract or outsourced personnel, you must ensure that they will be able to gain access to the information that they will need to get the job done. The last thing that you want to do is spend money to hire an outsourced team to develop documentation and then have that team stymied by a lack of cooperation from product developers. This fact alone may require changes to your company infrastructure or culture before any staffing decision that you make will be met with success.
What skills are necessary in your environment to produce adequate documentation? Does your current staff possess the required skills or will you have to arrange for training? How long would the training take and how expensive would it be? If you have a temporary need for skills that are not present on your team, you may want to consider an outsourced option. If, however, you will experience an ongoing need around a certain set of competencies, it may be most cost-effective to hire staff with the necessary skills or to train existing personnel so that their value to the company will be increased. If locking in certain skillsets is necessary to the long-term success of your team or your product, it’s best to make an investment in direct hires with those skills.
What is your vision for the product documentation team? What is your company’s vision for the product documentation team? Does your company recognize a need for a stable team of technical communicators, or must you continually justify your team’s existence? Is your team viewed as an afterthought or as a vibrant and integral part of the product development and customer service process? The greater your company’s investment in the documentation effort, the greater your chances to build out a growing team with multiple skills. Understand your own vision for your team, understand your company’s vision for your team, and address any disjuncture or gap. Perhaps your company has plenty of money to outsource projects and prefers to do so. If this is the case, attempts to build a substantial internal team may suffer because of this difference in vision. When you recommend a particular strategy (whether it is to step up hiring, use an outsourcing firm, use contract staff, or blend these options), it is important that your organization understands how you arrived at that decision and what it means for the future of your team.
When considering a direct hire strategy versus an outsourcing strategy, there will seldom be one right answer. Multiple options are available and each will have associated benefits and costs. However, addressing the questions posed above and weighing the options should help you to arrive at a balanced solution that will deliver the greatest value to your group and your company.
About the Author