The Real Truth about Outsourcing Content Creation

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TechWhirl recently sat down with Barry Saiff of Saiff Solutions to talk outsourcing, debunking a few myths and shining some light on how to make practical decisions on managing content creation resources.

How did Saiff Solutions get started?
After 26 years as a technical writer and technical communications leader in the US, leading teams of technical writers at six different companies, I moved to the Philippines. I’d been thinking about starting a technical writing firm for many years. I was convinced that I could successfully address the common pitfalls of offshore technical writing: no editing, inadequate local training and mentoring of writers, management that lacks experience managing technical writers, etc. We incorporated in November, 2011 as a Filipino corporation, and began operations in April, 2012.

How do the typical technical writer’s (or manager’s) notions about outsourcing differ from today’s realities?

BarrySaiffIn our experience, offshore technical writers have never actually replaced on-shore writers – we either expand the cap
acity of existing content teams or provide a team where there was no capacity. So layoffs have not been a part of our picture.

The other misplaced notion concerns content quality. In fact, the content that our customers see has the same level of English quality as what writers in the US produce, because we ensure that one of our Senior Technical Editors edits all content before a customer sees it. So low-quality English is not a factor.

Outsourcing has a bad rap. That is not entirely undeserved, however, people tend to miss the details about the volume and complexity of outsourcing. For example, by 2003, 77 global software development firms had research and development operations in India. A 2013 estimate found 80,000 software developers in the Philippines. There are now many technical writers in the Philippines with over 10 years of experience in topic-based authoring and component content management systems.

It’s kind of like saying all corporations are bad, or all managers are bad. Obviously, every category has its good and bad apples.

Many writing teams are burdened with too much work, and this has a financial impact. So long as management considers hiring more writers in the same location as the only option, the budget may just not allow for more resources. However, if you can identify tasks that can be off-shored, you can expand team capacity at much lower cost. The result, and I’ve seen this happen, is increased morale for the original team members, because now they can focus on the higher-level tasks that they find more interesting, and they are not burdened with excessive work.

Here is a real-life example: At a large US technology company, with about 300 technical writers  across many departments, the consumer and enterprise divisions handled outsourcing very differently. In the consumer division, upper management abruptly decided to outsource all documentation development to a large Indian system integration firm, without consulting technical communications staff or management. Two years later upper management was unhappy with the results and exploring how to bring the writing back in-house. In the enterprise division, each product group added Indian writers operating in the company’s offices in India to their existing US team. Some US writers were laid off or left, others remained. The cross-Pacific writing teams developed good working relationships and learned a great deal from each other. Overall documentation quality continued to improve.

I’ve had people say to me, “Geez, Barry, don’t outsource our jobs.” While I certainly understand the sentiment, take a moment to unpack the assumptions beneath that. None of the following are based in reality:

  • Absent outsourcing companies that specialize in technical writing, no outsourcing of technical writing would happen.
  • All technical writing outsourcing results in job losses in the USA and other wealthy countries.
  • The only technical writers who matter live and work in the USA and other wealthy countries.  

Our profession is now global. In most cases our audiences are global, and our jobs will increasingly involve working with people across the globe. This isn’t a crisis, it’s an entire realm of opportunities.

Can a technical writing team create a business case for outsourcing that doesn’t put themselves at risk? What elements would go into it?

First of all, they are already at risk. Their chances of keeping their jobs are far greater if they are directly and proactively involved in the development of outsourcing plans, versus having management surprise them one day with a pink slip.

I recommend that, in the business case, you propose expanding capacity at a lower cost rather than hiring more local writers as the work expands. For example, writing team managers can reallocate the time local writers spend doing tasks for which they are overqualified to increase efficiency.

What are the top reasons that organizations choose to outsource? Do they differ if the subject is content services rather than programming, or call center, or administrative services?

One of the top reasons organizations choose to outsource technical writing is that they’ve successfully outsourced other related functions, such as engineering and quality assurance. They may then have a difficult time justifying the cost of keeping technical writing fully in-house. Another reason is that many organizations lack internal expertise in content development – they have no technical writers, have never had any, and don’t have any concept of what skills are required

Finally, many writing teams find that their work continues, yet  the budget cannot or will not grow at the same pace.

Over the last 20 years, more people with a technical communications background are making their way into  management positions. So decisions to outsource technical writing abruptly and without forethought happen less frequently today. But they still happen.

What are the key challenges in setting up an outsourced solution?

SaiffSolutuonsStaffinOfficeThe challenges we see derive from a central requirement: choosing a good provider that is well-suited to your needs. If you are concerned with the quality of the English, you need a provider with good editing, quality control, and project management capabilities. You have to assume that the level of English quality of the outsourced writers is less than you expect from local writers. The biggest mistake is to consider editing an optional expense. If you care about quality, editing is essential.

You’ll also want to look at how much experience the provider has in managing and hiring technical writers.  What kind of turnover do they experience?

The key operational challenges include: distance and time zone differences, language issues, cultural issues, and technology/security issues. Writers cannot do their jobs without access to the information and the people they need to work with. You need to make sure that all the linkages are set up to work smoothly. If you fail to share updates to specifications with outsourced writers, for example, it makes no sense to blame the resulting inaccuracies on them.

Don’t underestimate the cultural and language challenges. I was recently in a local coffee shop. Many of the menu items listed non-dairy milk as an ingredient. I asked what kind of milk they were using. It turned out that by “non-dairy” they actually meant “non-fat” – they were using skim milk from cows.

Working with writers from another culture can be challenging. For example, in many asian cultures, asking questions is frowned upon. Questioning authority or engaging in conflict or discussion is considered impolite or dangerous. People may be afraid to ask for help. We work extensively with our staff to train them in effective communication and teamwork, so that they can overcome such difficulties. For example, “yes” does not always mean “yes, I understand and agree.” It may mean “yes, I respect you and acknowledge you, but I don’t have a clue what you just said.” If you are unaware of this and simply rely on “yes” to mean what it has always meant for you, mistakes and problems can follow.

We find that It’s generally not enough to have only people of one language/culture group in each location. Communication becomes much more effective when you’ve got a mix of languages, cultures, and skills across locations. When comparing providers, keep in mind that this can dramatically impact cost. If you need to relocate someone to the provider’s country, that will add quite a bit to the budget.

We’re all pretty familiar with the cost, speed, quality triangle. Can you describe some of the less-apparent benefits to companies thinking about outsourcing?

  1. Time zone differentials. You can accomplish two to three  times as much work in each 24-hour period if you spread work out across the globe.
  2. Global collaboration, global perspective. Most companies sell their products on many continents, to many countries. Having all of the writers based in one country limits perspective. Each culture has things to teach other cultures, and things to learn from them.
  3. Teaching accelerates learning. If your staff is working with people in other countries, their rate of professional growth and development is likely to increase.

Why should technical communicators consider working through an outsourcing firm such as Saiff Solutions?

For writers in the Philippines, some of the reasons why people have chosen to work for Saiff Solutions include:

  • The opportunity to work with someone who has over 30 years of experience in technical writing. This is quite unusual in the Philippines.
  • At Saiff Solutions we treat everyone with respect. People say that Saiff Solutions feels like a family.
  • We are committed to excellence. We are focused on process improvement, quality improvement, training, and customer service. Our staff learns and improves every day.
  • Our values: http://saiffsolutions.com/home/our-values
  • Our vision: http://saiffsolutions.com/home/about/vision
  • Our management. Unlike many companies in the Philippines, we treat staff fairly, on a consistent basis. We follow all employment laws. We operate based on honesty and integrity. And we do not discriminate (this also is quite unusual here).

We have also attracted talent from North America, and we have many inquiries from other locations. Most of our hiring is here in the Philippines, but we’re always open to people elsewhere  who are a good fit for our needs and our company culture.

One of our staff had only a high school education when he started working for us, but showed great potential. By attending an “open university” – studying mostly online – he has been able over the last 3 years to complete ¾ of his undergraduate degree, while working full-time. This is just one example of the ways that our team members continually learn and grow, and of the impact that Saiff Solutions has had on their lives. Most companies here in the Philippines would not provide the necessary flexibility to enable an employee to do this.

To clarify, we are not a contract service. We provide complete solutions to our clients. We don’t hire writers, send them to a client, and just collect fees. Our clients get the services of a unified team. Our staff benefit from learning and development. We are building a company – more than a community, more like a family.

Why should documentation managers, or other leaders responsible for content development, consider outsourcing technical writing to Saiff Solutions, Inc.?

SSI LogoHere at Saiff Solutions, we are proud of our roster of satisfied customers, which include very large corporations based in Japan and the USA. We have saved them a great deal of money, while improving the quality, consistency, and effectiveness of their documentation. We provide the same level of quality that writers in the USA produce – again, because of the rigorous technical editing provided by a senior staffer..

We provide extensive training for our staff – in English grammar, technical writing methodologies, tools, and communication and teamwork skills. Documentation managers have often expressed surprise at the level of quality of our work, and the skill and professionalism of our team. We are proud to have been nominated for a Rice Bowl Award: http://www.ricebowlawards.com/

We’d like to surprise you, as  well, with a special offer. If any TechWhirl readers are wondering if outsourcing is for them, and if now is the time, I’m willing to provide a free, 30-minute consultation, via Skype or phone, until October 25.

Saiff Solutions will be an exhibitor at the Information Development World and LavaCon conferences in the US in October, and I’ll be a speaker at LavaCon. I’m really looking forward to meeting with content managers to discuss their needs and how outsourcing can actually deliver great benefits for them and their teams.

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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