Many companies labor under the incorrect assumption that keeping certain functions (like technical writing) in-house gives them the greatest return on investment. Not true. Here’s why.
Most software development requires – at peak times – more than one technical writer. There’s simply too much for one writer to do. What about after the release? What do these technical writers do? How do they keep busy?
Consultants stop working when a product is released which means they stop billing. Over the course of a year, with several iterative releases, the costs can be significantly lower with contractors than with an in-house staff.
Editing and Review
Foremost with an in-house writer is the problem of editing and review. Most technical writing projects involve many different departments within an organization: development, product marketing, product management and quality assurance, to name just a few. A single person from any one department given the task to dictate content to a technical writer (or perhaps even more worryingly, assigned to write the documentation) is unqualified to do many of the tasks involved.
For example, while a developer can certify the technical accuracy of a document, few developers are qualified to proof a document for grammar, style and readability; and even fewer are aware (or care) about the company’s branding rules. On the other hand, most marketing directors are unqualified to review a manual for technical accuracy. While an in-house writer could possibly use the talents of both of these groups to produce the documentation, without having an editor to review the manual for accuracy, consistency and style, the quality is lost.
Of course, a company can hire a full-time documentation manager. Unfortunately, the cost is prohibitive. With an outsource company with several writers on staff, there is always a member of the team with a fresh perspective (who has not worked on the project) to review the work.
Another advantage of external documentation specialists is logistics. A documentation firm takes care of scheduling and internal logistics of the project. If a company for budgetary needs has to cut the number of hours billed to documentation, a technical writing consulting firm can cut hours from a project easily by removing the writer and putting him/her temporarily on another project. In-house technical writers would not provide the same flexibility, as they would still need to be paid a full-time salary.
Finally, outsourcing documentation to a documentation specialty consulting firm solves hiring hassles. Many times it is difficult for a company – without a technical writing staff – to know what to look for when hiring a technical writer.
What skills make a good technical writer? A good technical writer must be able to learn new technology quickly, must be skilled in communicating in a clear and concise manner, and have a solid technical background. These skills are often difficult to pinpoint in a candidate if the person doing the hiring has no prior experience evaluating technical writing.
Outsourced firms that specialize in technical writing have years of experience identifying good technical writers, and can choose the candidates most prepared to succeed.
Outsourcing also solves the problem of training the new hires. As with any new job, technical writing has a learning curve —no new writers will know quite what their job entails when they first join a company. This learning curve makes it difficult for a new in-house team to produce quality work from the start. The time it takes to create a quality deliverable becomes exponentially longer as the new writers learn through trial and error with no one to guide them.
An outsourced company has a core base of experienced technical writers who are familiar with the types of projects that any company may need. While the new hire requires training and guidance, there are many other writers around to ensure that the quality and efficiency does not suffer.
Although there are some instances in which having a fulltime in-house writing staff is justified, for most companies the most cost-effective and efficient way to do documentation is to outsource to a technical writing firm. A large organization may be able to maintain the constant demand to justify an in-house staff, and if there is a constant need to update documentation, an in-house writer is sometimes a good choice.
Often, however, process inefficiencies, human resource allocation, and higher-than-average costs can plague any in-house team, no matter how large the company or how busy the product cycle keeps the team. Outsourcing documentation creates an alternative that minimizes the administrative stresses of an in-house team, while actually improving quality.
Outsourcing documentation is, of course, not the panacea for every problem that comes up during the documentation process. Products can change daily, sometimes without the documentation writer’s knowledge, miscommunications with developers and subject matter experts are inevitable, and unforeseen last minute problems arise no matter how carefully a project is completed.
Outsourcing is simply an attractive option to any company that wishes to produce accurate, clear, and usable documentation at a reasonable cost.