The Problem With Outsourcing Product Documentation Overseas

Mar 13, 2013


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India is fast becoming a global content factory. Its affordable, educated, English-speaking population makes the country a magnet for cost-conscious corporations looking to save money on content creation. Indian content factories can oftentimes crank out content faster -- and much less expensively -- than domestic writing departments can. But faster and cheaper content can come with a hidden cost: quality.

Quality, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest challenges organizations face when moving writing jobs offshore to content factories. While some Indian writers can -- and do -- create high quality English-language content, much of the content being cranked out by writers in Bangalore, Delhi, and beyond, suffers from serious quality problems.

Consider technical writing. Technical writers create content designed to assist consumers with the installation, use, repair, and maintenance of all sorts of products -- from coffee pots to jumbo jetliners. Successful technical communication is clear, concise, unambiguous, and meets the needs of the audience.

Over the past decade, an increasing number of US technical writers have seen their jobs evaporate and their wages decrease. While they were busy focusing on their work, their employers began out-sourcing their jobs to content factories, where hundreds of Indian writers were assigned to pump out content previously created by smaller, slower, more expensive teams of domestic writers.

While off-shoring this work may have provided financial benefits in the short-term, it has also led to serious problems with content quality. That's partially because few Indian writers have yet to develop a command of the Americanized English US consumers expect and US brands demand. Instead, they often write in so-called Indian English. As a result, content created by these tech writers seldom arrives ready for prime time. It often requires significant editing and restructuring. In some situations, the content is so bad that it has to be completely rewritten.

Some displaced technical writers say they understand the economics of cost-reduction in a global marketplace, but they don't understand why this approach continues given the serious quality problems it introduces. Technical writing, they argue, is not a commodity. It's a special skill. It requires training, experience, niche market knowledge, and an understanding of the audience, things they say most Indian writers lack.

If we send this work overseas to save money, but then end up paying our editors to clean up or re-write the content, where are the savings? If technical writing were a commodity, we should be able to buy the exact same quality content for the lowest price. But, that's not what's happening. When price is the primary driver, we end up with lower quality content. That doesn't make much sense.

"[Indian technical writers] are terrible at technical writing," wrote US tech writer Gillian Flato on Facebook. "In my experience, every single time I get a manual that's been ‘written' by an Indian technical writer, I have had to completely, totally and thoroughly rewrite it. It's a joke. Since the American tech writer has to thoroughly rewrite it anyway," Flato wrote, "many companies are realizing that they might as well save money and hire the American in the first place. Why pay an Indian tech writer to write a manual when you can just hire the American and have it done right?"

Of course, while I understand Gillian's frustration, it's unfair to place the blame on the Indian tech writers. American technical writers produce poor quality content, too. One needn't look very far for examples.

"It's unfair and inaccurate to imply that only American writers create high-quality content," says Alyssa Fox, director of information development at NetIQ. "It's not a problem of nationality or location, it's a problem of planning, training, and management. If managers don't support their Indian or Chinese or even American team in getting them the training they need to improve their writing and other skills, the blame lies squarely with those managers."

"Deciding to buy content production services from an overseas provider, or to have a permanent technical writing team in a different country, requires a thorough understanding of what that team will need to be successful." Fox says. "You must be willing to commit the necessary time, money, and energy to support that team in providing the level of quality your organization desires. Otherwise, all you will get is a short-term cost reduction that ends up costing you more in the long run."

I recently took a trip to Bangalore, India, where I delivered the opening keynote address at tcworld India, a conference for Indian tech writers. While there, I had the opportunity to discuss the issue of poor quality content coming from Indian writers. As it turns out, Indian managers agree that this is a serious problem. They don't deny it, but they also point out that you get what you pay for.

When a US company decides to lay off eight full-time writers and out-source that work to 80 overseas writers, and shorten the project timeline from ten weeks to ten days, there isn't going to be much time for strategy, planning, training, etc. All that's left is time to implement. Blaming the Indian writers is like blaming the victim. It's not their fault, it's ours.

"The notion that you can save 90% by shifting a project to India -- or anywhere else -- is a myth. The short-term gains can often be offset by unexpected expenses like repeated travel to India, intense product and tools training, and the investment in time required to make any new team capable of success," says Paul Perrotta, director of Juniper Networks' Information Experience Shared Content Services team. If you're going to do it right, you're going to need to commit to success. And that means diving in with eyes wide open. While you may eventually get economies of scale working in your favor, there are other challenges: time zone differences, hiring practice differences, issues in management and governance, additional process and quality checks and expenses and a potentially volatile pool of labor with no loyalty to your firm."

Does that mean that off-shoring is a bad idea? Perrotta says not at all: "The best approach is to leverage the power of your new workers, set reasonable goals, and create the successful teams you need to have. The problem isn't in the fact of off-shoring; the problem is in ill-prepared leaders who want to blame off-shore workers for their own lack of imagination and poor planning skills."