Responses to the Global Economic Downturn: Report on the CIDM Economic Downturn Survey—Dec 2008

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JoAnn Hackos , Comtech Services, Inc.

In early December 2008, CIDM once again conducted our economic survey, concerned that the global economic recession was adversely affecting CIDM membership and technical publications professionals in general. Responding to the survey were 526 individuals, many of whom added individual comments where appropriate.

When we asked if technical publications departments had experienced any changes in staff during 2008, we learned that nearly 30% had experienced layoffs of permanent staff members and 34% had experienced terminations of contract or temporary employees. The majority of layoffs represented very low percentages, but 20% of department members reported layoffs of 20% or more and 34% reported that 21% or more of contract staff had been terminated or asked to curtail hours.

Pursuing innovation

Despite the loss of staff members, both permanent and temporary, organizations continue to pursue new content-management initiatives including

Content reuse across deliverables 77%
DITA and structured authoring 59%
Electronic delivery 58%
Minimalism 50%
Authoring consistency to reduce translation costs 46%
Wikis to encourage customer input 25%

 

Clearly, the need to reduce costs and increase productivity is influenced by continued reductions in force.

We wanted to learn if funding changes might affect the acquisition of content management systems, XML editors, or other tools needed to support the content-management initiatives. Respondents indicated that, at least at the end of 2008, they have not been asked to postpone or cancel purchases of software (62%) or hardware (67%). Of course, we might learn by first quarter of 2009 that most funding might be cut, but at the end of 2008, two-thirds of respondents indicated no change. Forty-two percent of respondents indicated that perhaps they might have funding cuts, 40% indicated they did not expect any cuts, and only 16% felt that they would see definite cuts in budgets to purchase new tools.

Asking for comments about budget cuts, we heard a cautionary but not a negative note. One individual indicated what others may feel that “all purchases are getting scrutiny.”

Responding to change

The most extensive and interesting responses to the survey came from the 231 people who chose to respond to the open-ended question: What other cost savings have you been asked to pursue…?

Only six individuals reported that their move to a CMS has been cancelled or postponed. Others report just the opposite. Moving to a CMS, using DITA, and investing in minimalism are all seen as cost-reduction measures.

Cost savings are also being sought in translation budgets through minimalism, single sourcing, and new contract provisions with localization service providers.

More prevalent is the move to reduce staff hours through layoffs or decrease in contracting. In a few cases, moving work offshore has continued but in general, offshoring does not seem as strong in the responses as it did a few years ago.

An alternative to offshoring was mentioned in one remark. This respondent explains that they are being asked to “relevel” positions, replacing senior contractors with junior, less expensive ones. Any employees who leave are replaced with more junior people.

One interesting response is the move to reduce printing costs. One respondent remarked that no manuals will be printed unless a customer requests a printed copy. Reductions in printing costs are on the cost-savings table, as is the move to online delivery.

Some of the remarks point to cost reductions that are unlikely to deliver much savings, like turning off devices not in use or limiting the use of teleconferences. Some are even changing the temperature settings in the offices. At least some of these efforts may help global warming even if they don’t lead to much else.

It appears that some of the initiatives make intelligent use of innovations. Others seem more like measures that are window dressing for the shareholders rather than anything substantive.

Funding for workshops, conferences, and other learning opportunities

Because CIDM manages three conferences and numerous workshops through the year, we were interested to know if departments were experiencing cuts in staff benefits, especially training and conference attendance. Respondents indicated as follows:

My department’s budget for travel to workshops, conferences, and other learning events has been

Cut 30%
Decreased significantly 24%
Decreased somewhat 20%
Remains the same 24%
Increased 1%

 

Among the comments on this question, we learned that many of the respondents have had little money for travel even in good years. As usual, technical communicators are not well-funded and expect to have travel requests scrutinized. However, some of the limits may have been imposed in 4th quarter 2008, which is not unusual. One person told us that travel restrictions may lift after the first of the year, as they often do.

The same holds true for budgets for workshops and other training opportunities:

Cut 21%
Decreased significantly 24%
Decreased somewhat 24%
Remains the same 27%
Increased 1%

 

The comments were rather discouraging, not for 2009 but at any time. Many of those who commented indicated that they are never provided with training opportunities. As one individual expressed it, “we have nothing to cut.” Given the interest in content-management initiatives and the obvious need to improve productivity and gain efficiencies, the lack of support for training is very discouraging.

In response to questions about telecommuting or other perks, we learned that change has been minimal. Only 18% indicated that some perks had been eliminated. Telecommuting is encouraged for 69% of the respondents, with only 6 people indicating that it has ended in their organizations.

As a result of these numbers and our general interpretation of the affects of the economic slowdown worldwide, we are being cautious in our planning for 2009. We expect to be well-prepared to maintain the level of service that CIDM members have come to expect.

Reorganizing once again

Technical publications professionals often face reorganizations that adversely affect their working conditions. Fully 26% say that their departments have been reorganized or reorganization has been discussed since August 2008. One quarter of departments facing reorganization in a year seems to be inordinately disruptive. Innovative work is difficult enough to pursue without changes in leadership. We hope that CIDM efforts to educate our senior management members in political effectiveness have begun to pay off. Of course, we don’t know if the reorganizations reported make the department more or less effective. Outsourcing seems to have slowed somewhat, with 87% reporting that no new outsourcing has occurred recently. However, 29% report that outsourcing is being discussed. At the same time, the staff members have been required to pursue cost-saving measures. We asked people to provide comments about cost-saving initiatives in their organizations, and 231 responded:

“Contractors’ pay has been cut 10% across the company.”

“Software maintenance contracts are not being extended.”

“Exempt employees are expected to work 10+ hours of overtime per week.”

Of course, with reorganizing, especially when it leads to layoffs, come changes in responsibilities. As we have seen in the past 15 years, the majority of respondents have seen their workloads increase even as staffing has declined. More than 50% of respondents report that they have more projects to complete. Several people reported that they are taking on more projects with fewer people. Even without layoffs, many report that workloads continue to increase. Few projects have been cancelled or slowed because of the economic slowdown, which might be a healthy indicator if it isn’t accompanied by more layoffs.

Products are still being developed as companies bet on better times ahead. I’ve written before about the importance of companies responding from positions of strength in times of economic slowdown. A slowdown is the time to invest in new development, not to stop developing. It’s best to be prepared in advance for the economic upturn that eventually will come.

CIDM conducted a similar economic downturn survey in 2001. The results were presented at Best Practices 2001. To view this presentation, click here. (PDF, 70kb)