Cultivating Writers in Uruguay
In last year’s “Outsourcing and Offshoring Information Development” seminar, JoAnn Hackos asserted that “there were no centers of excellence for information development outside of Western Europe and North America.” Hearing this, the question then became “what would it take to transform a low-cost region into a center of excellence?” An even bigger challenge perhaps is to cultivate technical writers in an area where technical writing is unheard of.
Amidst rounds of layoffs and other cutbacks, companies are looking into alternative low-cost staffing models. They are looking at regions worldwide that offer a cheaper workforce. The downside, however, is finding qualified workers who will remain loyal to the company.
An insourcing model, where permanent staff is located remotely, serves as an alternative to augmenting local staff and seems to reduce the risks and stigma associated with traditional offshoring. Because resources are permanent hires, the risk of turnover and the sabotage of intellectual property is less. Resources are viewed as a part of the team worth an investment in training, rather than outsiders who might take advantage of the relationship.
The Big Idea
Sabre Inc. began its search for a low-cost insourcing hub toward the end of 2003. After exploring opportunities in several countries around the globe, Uruguay proved to be a little known “hotbed” of highly educated, multilingual workers who would eagerly accept wages far less than those of their US counterparts. A high percentage of people in Uruguay have advanced degrees and have studied overseas, which enhances not only their language skills but also their understanding of global business. In addition, a multi-national heritage spawned by immigration from Europe and a school curriculum that focuses on learning second languages at an early age also contribute to a mastery of several languages including Spanish, English, French, Italian, and German.
Over the last year, Sabre has moved most of its call centers to Uruguay, specifically ones from North America, Latin America, and Europe that were supporting Sabre’s “mainstream” travel agency customers. Premiere and Global support will soon follow, transitioning operations to Uruguay once the staff gains more experience and can meet Service Level Agreements to provide these customers with more qualified operators.
Due to the success of establishing customer support centers in Uruguay, Sabre wanted to investigate other job functions that could transition there, including technical writing. On the surface, many benefits were apparent, such as proximity of location and a talented pool of available resources.
- The proximity of time zone (CST + 2 hours) would lessen the burden of communication delays, as is typical between India and the US where a question posed by a writer to a subject matter expert 10.5 hours away may go unanswered for up to a day.
- The presence of a new facility in a tax-free zone means the start-up costs for establishing the necessary infrastructure would have already been incurred.
- There is little to no competition for qualified resources, whereas in India, for example, job-hopping is increasingly common and poses a risk for investing in resources there. Even if opportunities existed, employees are unlikely to job-shop because they feel a sense of obligation to the company as part of their culture.
- Cheaper labor rates, almost half that seen in India, would open up the possibility of increasing headcount at little incremental cost.
- Many candidates have a background in translation, which is a related discipline to technical writing with attention to detail, standard processes, and reuse of information.
With all these factors in our favor, hiring writers in Uruguay seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up. Originally, Sabre had hoped to hire as many as five technical writers in the capital city of Montevideo. Realizing that the new hires would require some ramp-up time, the company wanted to make the most of economies of scale and train all of them at one time. However, the prospect of hiring even a couple of qualified writers at one time proved optimistic.
With the help of in-country human resources personnel, we published a job posting in the national newspaper and circulated among existing employees that there were new job openings for people with the requisite skills. As a result of these recruiting efforts, we received 12 resumes. Always with cost-cutting in mind, the company initially intended to conduct the interviews remotely in the form of a question-and-answer session by phone and a writing test administered online. However, after reviewing the resumes, it became apparent to me that none of the applicants had any experience with online help development. It would require an in-person interview and observation of the writing test to really assess their skills and determine if they could even be trained.
I planned a week-long trip to Montevideo to conduct the interviews, with the goal in mind of making offers toward the end of the week prior to my return. However, talking with each candidate in the interviews confirmed my suspicion that software documentation was not a field that existed in this area. Worse yet, the candidates (and even the local recruiters) did not seem to know what an online help system was. Still, if the candidates had a background in using word processing/desktop publishing tools, I thought the skills might translate, and they could easily be trained on the mechanics of developing a help system. The pipedream was short-lived when I saw the results of the writing tests. Tasked with transforming raw content into a usable procedure, all the candidates approached the test in the same way (with the exception of one who included mostly graphics because she struggled with English). Instead of breaking up the information into logical steps, each of them wrote a wordy narrative passage that never really got to the objective of the procedure or how to accomplish it.
The tests were enough evidence for me to put the hiring on hold and return home to do a cost/benefit analysis before proceeding any further to hire a permanent staff. The following challenges were included in the analysis and proved to be the drivers of a significant amount of cost.
- No degree programs or curricula exist to help prepare potential writers for the field.
- The resources would be hired as permanent employees; therefore, there would be no trial period, similar to what a contractor might have, before being converted to a permanent position.
In a “Communicating Effectively: Working with Uruguayans” seminar, a representative from Cultural Awareness International, Inc. provided valuable insight on the cultural differences between this Latin American country and the United States. She even went so far as to strongly discourage the venture because she felt that the cultural barriers would be insurmountable.
- Latin American culture is considered high context characterized by collectivist or group behavior, a people orientation, and concern for process and interaction, whereas US culture is low context with individualism, a task orientation or data focus, and a results-oriented approach. And, creating even more of a disparity, high context culture is particularly strong in Uruguay because of its Mediterranean heritage. The results of the writing test best exemplified this cultural difference. US writers are trained to “chunk” information into straight-forward steps, while the Latin American candidates provided a lot more context, including a description of each field in the window, without actually outlining what a user would do first, next, and so on in a procedure.
- The approach to the writing test can be further explained by another cultural difference. Latin Americans are more relationship-based than task-based. They focus more on understanding a given task than actually performing it.
- Latin Americans’ approach to learning might impact the ability of Americans to deliver effective training. Latin Americans are deductive/systematic learners, whereas Americans are inductive/linear learners. As a result, school curriculum and testing differ in the two cultures. Students in the US are more often given multiple choice questions to answer, while Latin Americans demonstrate their knowledge of a subject by writing an essay. This also explains why the interview candidates wrote a long narrative passage in their writing tests. They were approaching it as if they were taking a test at school.
- Americans might be able to recall an experience in dealing with Latin American culture where they arrived on time (when the meeting was scheduled to start), but their Latin counterparts were several minutes late. To Latin Americans, deadlines are guidelines. In a global operation, however, this could have irrevocable consequences. Being tardy to a meeting could be tolerated, but being late with a deliverable to a customer could be unforgivable.
- The dynamic between management and employees is another consideration. Controlled governance, where employees have no freedom to take ownership and supervisors directly assign tasks to workers, is typical in Latin American business. This, combined with a high uncertainty avoidance, means that the Latin employees would expect to hear their daily tasks dictated to them instead of prioritizing and managing their work themselves. In a corporate culture where autonomy and multi-tasking is increasingly important given the amount of downsizing, the ability to self-manage is a plus. Having to wait for a supervisor to assign work could slow down the pace of the project.
- Latin Americans are creativity-based (not rule-based); therefore, they are not necessarily ruled by contractual agreements and might overlook contract verbiage. This could perhaps be the riskiest barrier. In a business that is driven by master agreements and work orders, disregarding the contractual terms could prove costly and might jeopardize a customer relationship.
It is important to note that these barriers did not present the same problems for hiring and training help desk personnel. The learning curve for training operators grew from one month for a US-based operator to three months for a Uruguayan, mostly because they did not have a background in travel agency or airline operations. Still, after three months training and about a month on the job, call pick-up times and handle times met the target.
What It Would Take
To compensate for the challenges and take advantage of the possibilities, hiring writers in Uruguay would require a significant long-term investment.
- Studies show that successful offshoring ventures have a manager from the home office located in-country for a period of time. Expatriating a manager to Uruguay would involve covering relocation costs and freeing up the manager’s workload for at least six months to do training and coaching.
- One training vendor provided an estimate of $43,000 for an intensive college-level program in technical writing, plus the cost of textbooks. The training included four online courses and 18 days of instructor-led training for five students.
- While their English-speaking skills are impressive, applicants would still require a Berlitz course to improve their written English.
- Similar to the training I attended to learn about Uruguay and its culture, the new hires would need to attend cultural awareness training to understand the fundamental differences in culture, not just between Latin America and the United States but between Latin America and all other countries with which we do business.
- The new hires in Uruguay would also need tools training, specifically RoboHelp. Some have experience with word processing and desktop publishing tools, so they should pick up the mechanics quickly. However, they are not familiar with the concepts of an online help system, such as See Also links, browse sequences, and build tags, so the conceptual knowledge might take longer to transfer.
- It would take an estimated 1.5 years to bring the applicants’ skills up to that of a junior level writer; therefore, the company could not replace permanent staff in the short term.
In addition to the costs of training and facilitation, there are other cultural and political considerations that could adversely impact the success of the venture. Upper management perceives documentation as a low priority by customers who put product quality, or bug fixes, ahead of it. Furthermore, the company does not value documentation; therefore, it does not see the impact it can make on moving the customer satisfaction dial overall. The company is reactive in this area instead of proactive. The company will not improve the documentation unless the customer specifically asks for improvements. Taking it one step further, product owners are not inclined to fund improvements in documentation unless they believe deals are lost because of poor quality.
After studying the costs and benefits of insourcing documentation, management has decided to postpone hiring any technical writers in Uruguay. Although the idea still merits attention and peaks the interest of those new to the subject, the company is not ready to make the long-term investment in cultivating permanent writers in Latin America.
A quote from Mark Twain best summarizes the dilemma of whether or not to make the leap to insource documentation, “A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.”
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