Bill Gearhart, Independent Consultant

Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing technical communication is increasing efficiency. The slogans regarding efficiency are so pervasive as to be cliché; cut costs, do more with less, add more value. If only the reality were as easy as the words sound and as senior executives would have you believe. Technical communication departments around the world and in different industries have been taking proven, albeit challenging approaches to increasing efficiency. These include single-sourcing efforts to re-use and repurpose content, offshoring, and outsourcing staff. I propose that there is another, less well-known alternative, one that can be done on its own or combined with those efforts mentioned previously—insourcing.

If you look up the term insourcing online, you’ll find many definitions, some contradictory and almost all confusing. I’ll stick to using Thomas Friedman’s: Insourcing is using your department’s expertise to add value in a horizontal manner. In other words, insourcing is broadening the appeal of a product or service. You can also think of it as broadening your responsibilities. As resources get tighter and tighter in all departments, the opportunities increase for technical communication organizations to branch out and find ways to add value in marketing, customer support, engineering, presales, and post-sales services. Taking on more work is an opportunity to increase efficiency by targeting your team’s efforts at the biggest problems facing your company, division, or business unit.

I realize you may be thinking “It’s all we can do to keep up with the traditional tech com deliverables of books and online Help. We’re working our writers to the bone, and some of our best employees are suffering from burnout and becoming cynical. Why would we volunteer their services to do someone else’s job?” I can offer two reasons: technical communicators have the skills to do much more than they’ve been asked to do traditionally, and traditional technical communication is not necessarily viewed by executives as a core activity. I think we all agree with the first reason. And to be clear, I don’t agree that technical communication isn’t a core activity, but when you drill down into why that attitude exists, you can understand the perspective and take action, including insourcing, to fight it.

One of the reasons tech com is not viewed as core is a focus on the information deliverable produced by writing teams rather than on the effect those products have (or should have). Focus on traditional deliverables such as books and online Help also serves as a limiting factor. The more technical communication departments allow their responsibilities to be narrowly defined, the greater the likelihood they will be seen as “not core.” After all, the common wisdom is “nobody reads the documentation” so that documentation isn’t seen as essential. But everyone agrees that getting information into customers’ hands is extremely important and valuable. And as information needs and customers’ habits for meeting those needs evolve, technical communicators need to evolve with them and take a broader view of their roles. The expanded role offered by insourcing can truly transform an organization or an entire company.

One of the most successful examples of insourcing, on a truly huge scale is United Parcel Service, UPS. In The World is Flat1, Thomas Friedman explains that while UPS is still primarily known to the average person as a package delivery company, they’ve transformed the company and opened up an entirely new business. Several years ago, UPS made a strategic decision to look at its entire capabilities. In the process of building their delivery business, they had become world-class logistics experts. And they decided to offer those logistics services to others.

On a smaller scale, technical communication teams constantly have opportunities to redefine themselves. At the last CIDM Best Practices conference in San Diego, I came away impressed at the advances. Blogging sites such as Microsoft’s Crabby Office Lady offer new approaches to disseminating information. Teams at other companies are providing downloadable demos and using instant messaging to correspond directly with customer communities. Still others are working with broad cross-functional teams on specialized Solutions Guides as well as developing custom documentation for large customers as a fee-based service, turning them into a revenue-generating center.

If you’ve taken up the challenge to increase efficiency and transform your team through insourcing, the next questions may well be how you get started. How do you muster support? And what are reasonable expectations?

Insourcing is like any other initiative, it’s best when efforts are focused directly on a specific problem. But how do you identify the problem to address? The easiest method is when your executive team has already identified a problem they want solved. Perhaps there’s a marketing campaign to educate potential customers about new capabilities of a product or an initiative to increase the troubleshooting skills of field personnel. Most corporate initiatives have a significant informational component to them, and if you can use your team’s expertise to help solve that problem, you are adding value and increasing efficiency, not to mention raising the profile of your team.

If you don’t have the opportunity to hitch up to a defined corporate program, use your skills to look outside your immediate sphere of control. Identify gaps in capability that are near and dear to your executives and that your team can solve through their information expertise. Again, concentrate on the big picture. What critical issues facing the company could be solved by applying your department’s expertise? Look at the results of your writing efforts. Where do those results intersect other areas, departments, or tasks? For example, information about customizing products is a natural fit with pre-sales consulting and marketing programs. Or a new acquisition may provide customers and investors alike the expectation of increased capabilities even though the engineering challenges will take time to fully integrate the products. By being willing to step up and address these issues, your team can be invaluable.

Stepping outside your immediate responsibilities is not easy, however well suited your team’s background. Before you attempt it, give yourself and your team a thorough review. Consider your team’s reputation, skills, and willingness to try new things.

A reputation for delivering quality information is essential. For other teams to cooperate with you, they must view you as able to handle your current responsibilities with quality and timeliness. They also must respect your team’s skills, most importantly, your technical capability and knowledge of the customers. Build on prior successes such as user task analysis, customer site visits, and partnerships with field personnel or customer support.

It helps to involve a small set of your most capable writers in the early stages of the process. Make it clear that insourcing will provide a way to make a significant impact on a high-profile issue for the company and will give them exposure and experiences that will make them more valuable not just within the company, but in the marketplace. Paint the broad picture for them, and get their ideas. Including the team members who will be doing the work will help build enthusiasm and identify and deal with traps and limitations. For example, your writers will know the best sources of information, the most reliable SMEs, the individuals in other teams most willing to cooperate, and so on. Be willing to work with trusted peers in other organizations who are open to new ideas and willing to team with you. Bring them on early to help shape the direction of your efforts.

As you and your team build a vision and a tactical plan to move forward, you need to begin working with those who can champion your cause. Ideally, the champion is an executive who understands the informational aspect of the problems you are setting out to solve, or at least is willing to let you educate him or her. Develop a crisp problem statement, and script out a simple plan of attack that demonstrates why your team has the skills to tackle the issue. Ask probing questions to find any resistance, and discuss how you can overcome those challenges. Lay out how you will work with others to achieve the goal and offer evidence of support from other teams. Propose a preliminary goal that can be achieved quickly—within a quarter—and get your executive’s commitment to give it wide exposure. Use your peers to help in the education process as well as to socialize the idea in other areas of the company.

Break down your 3-month goal into interim weekly or monthly milestones that you can use to show progress. Those milestones must have measurable impact, for example, creating a blog that is able to reach 100 customers. Keep metrics on your progress but also look for anecdotal evidence, such as endorsements from customers, partners, or sales teams. Use your corporate or business unit newsletter to highlight key wins. Give your team the opportunity to present its work at executive staff meetings and to solicit greater support from other groups. Build on success and quickly move past any failures to help keep momentum.

Realize that not all of your forays into insourcing will be successful. You will find that some ideas simply aren’t accepted by customers or that your team lacks a certain bit of expertise to pull off a world-class innovation. But you will learn from each failure, and each success can build a foundation for further exploration.

Don’t get discouraged. Effective access to the right information is the core of today’s business transactions and is at the top of customer needs. Insourcing your team to meet those needs will increase its efficiency and raise its profile.

1 The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas L. Friedman. New York, NY: Farra, Straus and Giroux, 2005.