The Case of the Wayward Contractors


December 2001

The Case of the Wayward Contractors

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

Jake Jones thought he had an outsourcing arrangement with His company had decided to move all technical documentation for the new products outside the company. Purchasing had negotiated a contract with that gave them complete responsibility for the new product documentation and training. The contract amounted to over a million dollars for the first year and included built-in extensions for subsequent years.

Problems began right from the first. When Jake met with Janie Moreta, the account manager assigned to his company, he learned that he would be working with eight technical communicators hired by Janie explained that her role was to manage the relationship between the two companies and she would work closely with Jake. To Jake’s dismay, Janie had no background or experience in information development. Her role was to make sure that the technical communicators did their assigned work and that they were meeting Jake’s expectations.

Jake visited with the purchasing agent who set up the outsourcing contract. He explained that he did not expect to have to manage eight technical communicators in addition to his direct staff of five writers, an editor, an instructional designer, and four trainers. The purchasing agent explained that the contract had no requirement that provide project management. According to the contract, they could conduct the projects any way they wanted. They just billed the company for labor hours and expenses.

The Contract Gets Started

The problems appeared insurmountable to Jake. Janie Moreta was pleasant enough but offered no skills that Jake needed. He found himself faced with eight communicators who worked at home, were completely unknown to him, and knew nothing about telecommunications technology. Jake scheduled a meeting with the contract employees for the next week to assess their skills and get them started.

The meeting was something of a disaster. Three of the eight people had no previous experience in technical writing. Two of them were new college graduates from business communication and art history. The third had been a secretary in a software firm. The other five people had some experience in technical writing and instructional design. Two had been trainers on high-tech equipment and had backgrounds writing maintenance manuals. The other three were bonafide technical communicators with a total of seven years of experience. They had been writing user manuals for software. No one had any experience in telecommunications.

The only good news from the meeting was the group’s enthusiasm. They were all ready to get started and wanted to contribute to the success of the projects. Unfortunately, they all looked to Jake for direction. He was adding a substantial load to his management responsibility, one that included a remote workforce. When all of his employees worked for him directly, he kept his team working collaboratively. They all needed to be in the office most of the time.

The Problems Expand

About a month into the new product documentation and training development, Jake was “pulling his hair out.” Half of the contract writers were making regular visits to the office to meet with the technical experts. However, because of their lack of technical knowledge, Jake was getting complaints from the engineers. They had to spend considerable time explaining the technology. When Jake hired new writers himself, he put them through a technology training program for the first three months. This training was not included in the contract provisions.

The other half of the contractors had become a problem. They hardly ever appeared at the company unless Jake complained to Janie. They preferred to correspond with the engineers strictly through email. Unfortunately, they seemed to expect the engineers to write the documentation for them. They were supposed to be available for phone calls and emails during the regular business day. Half the time, though, when Jake or others on his team called, no one answered. Email returns often took more than 24 hours.

The issues with communication were only one part of the problem. Jake’s editor, Margaret Wong, had started to review the drafts of the documentation. Margaret was appalled. The three writers with no technical communication background had no idea what documentation was supposed to look like. They wrote long, complex technical descriptions of functions, most likely based on information provided by the engineers. It was clear that they didn’t know what they were writing. They also didn’t know how to use FrameMaker or follow templates. Margaret had to correct the styles in every document she received. “Can’t we ask them to take some FrameMaker training?” Margaret asked. “No,” Jake replied. “That isn’t in their contract. We can’t even require that the writers have FrameMaker experience.”

Margaret and Jake worked with the writers over the next month to teach them the templates and the corporate technical style. That action seemed at least to keep some of the problems at bay until the last month of the four-month project. Then the problems began to cascade.

The Costs Increase

During the last two months, Jake was getting concerned that the project was falling behind schedule. The writers were working regular 40-hour weeks but that wasn’t enough to keep up with the product changes coming from engineering. He needed more effort but overtime costs weren’t included in the contract, which meant he had to pay time and a half during the week and double time for weekends. His management was balking at the increases and wouldn’t approve the overtime.

The contract writers were willing to work extra to catch up, but no one would let them. Jake continued to receive quality complaints from Margaret and his other writers, who were having to conduct peer reviews to help Margaret with her workload.

Then, Jake received a visit from Janie Moreta. She was leaving for a sales job in another state. That was her real calling. She apologized to Jake and introduced him to Karl Sajek, who was taking over her account management responsibilities. Karl was new to the company and, once again, had no background in information development. As a recently arrived immigrant from Eastern Europe, his English was really difficult to understand. Jake wasn’t going to get any help from the supplier. Karl was willing to schedule extra work for a fee to accommodate the change in scope of the project. He was also willing to hire additional writers. Jake wondered what he would do with additional untrained individuals.

The Deadline Arrives

At the deadline, the roof fell in. Material that was supposed to be ready for final review was not complete. Major pieces of functionality that had been added late to the product were not in the final drafts. Some of the information in the drafts had not been edited and didn’t follow the company template. The product manager was ranting and raving because the documentation was very long and complex. She was worried that the customers would have serious problems with quality and usability. The writers who worked primarily at home had not bothered to come in to test the documentation with the product. They didn’t know how the product worked well enough to test the documentation.

Jake and the product manager escalated the problems to senior management, the same people who had decided that outsourcing information development was going to save the company money. The VP of development wanted to know why Jake didn’t have more control over the contractors. Jake explained that they weren’t contractors exactly. The contract, as written, had not provided for management by anyone. Someone apparently thought that information developers needed no management but worked alone.

Jake recommended that the company now contract with the writers who had been laid off to make room for the outsourcing. Some of them might be available to act as a SWAT team. He would see what he could find out. With four senior writers available to work part time, Jake could turn the project around in a month, although the product introduction would still be delayed. Senior management agreed.

At the same time, they tried to fire for non-performance. The supplier argued successfully that there were no quality or performance requirements in the contract. They would be happy to have the staff correct the problems for an additional cost to cover the change in scope. They correctly blamed the scope change on a total lack of engineering discipline in the company. In most of their previous projects, engineering followed a careful planning and development process that allowed documentation to be completed on time. They accused the senior management of running an out-of-control operation at a very low level of process maturity.

When the case went to court sometime later, won. The company had to pay them the full amount of the contract for three years.

Developing an Outsourcing Strategy

From this brief case study, it should be obvious that you need to establish a sound strategy for outsourcing before you write any contracts. In our research, we found what we believe are six distinct business strategies or roles for outsource vendors:

  • Developers’ assistant
  • Legacy
  • Telecommuter
  • Second-class employee
  • Relocation
  • Off-site department

Each of the strategies may be useful in meeting the needs of some organization. But none of the strategies will be successful unless they are well understood and carefully selected. The problem with Jake’s company is that no strategy informed their decision except getting rid of permanent employees.

What Jake expected was an off-site department model in which all responsibilities for the project would be handled by the outsource supplier, including training and management of the tasks. What he got were developers’ assistants who expected to have their hands held throughout.

To outsource to an off-site department requires that the company develop a series of specific requests for proposal for projects they want to have done. If the goal of the host company is to maintain or increase the quality of the work produced, and not simply eliminate headcount, they should choose to outsource selected projects to highly experienced organizations.

An advantage of the off-site department strategy is that every project is sent out for bids. Managed information-development firms bid on the projects. The department can choose the most comprehensive and carefully framed proposal, not just the lowest bid. Different projects may be awarded to different firms. This strategy not only increases total capacity, it also introduces expertise and innovation into the mix.

Expert information-development vendors generally work for a large number of companies at the same time, so the host company is not obligated to keep feeding them work to support them. They have expertise in the field of information development, often maintaining a full-time staff on their own site and having a base of project management, quality assurance, technology support, and production and design capabilities. Often, such firms offer additional services such as usability testing, customer studies, and interface design.

Had Jake’s company carefully analyzed their goals for outsourcing and their expectations for the results, they would have written a better contract and avoided many of the problems they experienced.

The details about the off-site department model are fully explained in the white paper, “Making a Business Case for Outsourcing,” available to CIDM members for $65 and non-members for $95. Contact Wendy Sedbrook to place your order at 303-232-7586 or send a check to The Center for Information-Development Management, 710 Kipling Street, Suite 400, Denver, CO 80215.