When you need to produce a technical document, you can rely on three types of resources. You can employ in-house staff, hire temporary staff through a contracting agency, or hire the services of a technical publishing firm. Let’s compare these three options as to cost, quality, and control.
From the standpoint of price, in-house staff are an attractive option. They are already on the payroll, and they already have much of the training they’ll need. Outsourcing the job requires adding a substantial chunk of money to your budget request. The budget item is visible and has to be justified, whereas assigning the job to people already on board is invisible to the manager who oversees the budget. If the people who take on the publication were hired for that kind of project, or were idle anyway, the company has made good use of its resources.
On the other side, a major writing project won’t boost the morale of engineers or other staff who don’t see documentation as part of what they were hired to do. If writing forces them to neglect other important work where they feel their talents are well used, the hidden cost to the company can be rather high. Outsourcing the project in that case can make the final stages of product development more efficient and less aggravating.
When your company decides to produce a document, it’s usually pretty late in the product development cycle. The customer wants something written when the product ships, and they won’t be happy if the instructions are missing. How can you produce a high quality technical document – one that serves your customers well – on a tight deadline? This section looks at the question of resources with the tradeoff between time and quality in mind.
Some managers look to agencies to help them assemble the resources they need on short notice. Agencies can send them candidates with the right skills, quickly. Later on they look at the quality of the talent they hired and wonder if they didn’t pay too much.
The problem isn’t that agency writers can’t produce high quality material. Many writers have worked with agencies, and they have found plenty of talent among their colleagues there. The quality problem arises because the agencies themselves use a meat-market model to place their offerings. They, too, are concerned with time. As a result, they generally don’t know whether they’ve sent ground beef to McDonald’s and their best filet to the Ritz, or the other way around.
How does this question look from the perspective of the project manager? Even if an agency looks attractive in the short term, the decision to hire staff there can cost time and money over the course of a project. The agency solves the immediate hiring problem, but this source of talent returns unreliable quality for a relatively high price. Why? At least three reasons exist:
• Contracting agencies must place many candidates every month to make a profit. They cannot take time to learn much about their customers’ requirements or technologies. That’s why they depend so heavily on clients’ job descriptions and candidates’ resumes to make a match.
• Resumes are a poor way for anyone to match job requirements to job skills. Because agencies treat job skills as a commodity – Does the candidate know RoboHelp? FrameMaker? – they don’t know whether the person they’ve supplied will actually serve their customer well.
• Project managers urgently want someone who fills their need now. Agencies respond with the best person they can find at the moment. They know their customers do not have the time or the inclination to break off the relationship and look elsewhere for their talent. At worst, the agency can supply one ill-suited candidate after another until they get it right.
Of course contracting agencies are here to stay. They serve some useful purposes for both writers and managers, and they’ve become well-established in our trade. Most of all, they serve as a good backup when time is short. Yet both writers and project managers can easily let procrastination become a bad habit. If writers procrastinate in their marketing efforts and managers procrastinate in their hiring, agencies become a routine fallback option. With foresight and plenty of direct contact, writers and project managers can develop solid business relations that result in high quality work and less wasted time.
Project managers may feel most comfortable if the work they supervise is conducted in-house. That makes for smooth and generally uninterrupted communication. Guidance, feedback, trouble reports, plans, work schedules, and inter-departmental notices can all flow back and forth seamlessly when writers and editors work on the premises. In addition, on-site work gives writers and editors direct access to the company’s network, and helps avoid the version control problems that can arise when work is conducted off-site.
In light of all these advantages, one might want to know why a project manager would ever want to supervise work conducted off-site. Here are several reasons:
• Off-site workers supply and maintain their own hardware, software, and office space. The hiring company does not need to expend its own resources to support the publication effort.
• Off-site workers can be more productive from day to day because they don’t have to deal with long commutes and heavy traffic.
• Perhaps most important, responsibility for project management sits more squarely with the off-site worker. As off-site workers supervise themselves, they relieve project managers of the burden of daily oversight. Instead managers review results at key points in the project.
Many projects, of course, include a combination of on-site and off-site work. Often a great deal of on-site time is required during the research phase at the beginning of a project, and during the publication phase at the end. The document development phase in the middle can be conducted on- or off-site. Writers and project managers can discuss what arrangements work best in advance.
Here are some conclusions we can draw from our analysis:
• When money is plentiful, time is short, and the publishing task is relatively simple, a contractor from an agency can be a safe and efficient choice.
• If your company has a staff of well trained writers, editors, illustrators, and desktop publishers, use them. Many specialists in technical communications can develop skills in all four areas. Then the only reason to go outside for help is when the volume of work clearly exceeds the time available to accomplish it.
You should hire a technical publishing firm to complete your project if the following conditions hold:
• You want to pay a fixed fee for your project rather than an hourly rate on an indeterminate amount of time.
• You lack specialists for complex and labor intensive publishing tasks, and you want to keep your engineers focused on their design work.
• You trust your vendors to deliver what you want, at the stated price, on time. If you have that kind of relationship with a publishing firm, you can purchase good quality, and be confident you have spent your resources well.