Three keys to making outsourcing work


This article originally appeared on Publishing Matters: the Collate it blog on 3rd February 2014.

The pressures of increasing workloads and narrowing profit margins mean that publishers have for many years been using external staff for essential as well as peripheral tasks. From typesetting and design through editing and proofreading to marketing and sales, there are few areas safe from outsourcing.

The arguments in favour seem compelling – the needs to save money, manage variable workloads, and reduce overhead are real. And outsourcing can work well. Whole industries have sprung up over the past few decades to handle many different areas of what used to be core publishing functions, and there are excellent suppliers out there who can add real value to your business.

But outsourcing can cause problems, too, even when you work with the best suppliers. We’ve all encountered projects that went wrong to some extent because freelance or contract staff didn’t understand what was needed or simply couldn’t perform to the required standard. So here are a few areas that I’ve found problematic over the years, and some possible solutions.

Beware false economies

The main argument for outsourcing is almost always financial. Management want to save money – whether to reduce the overall cost of projects or to improve flexibility by balancing the ability to meet peak workloads with over-spending during quieter times.

However, it’s important to be sure that management understand what using an external team really means. First and crucially, it’s almost impossible for the in-house team to save 100% of the time that they would have spent running it themselves. My own experience suggests that, in the best case, you might reduce the in-house team’s burden by 75%; more realistically, it’s 60% or even less. In the worst cases, you can actually spend more time on a project overall when you outsource. (Yes, I’ve really seen this more than once.)

What is the time spent on? Obviously, there are core tasks – briefing the project and monitoring progress (because, for all that management say that the work should be outsourced, the internal team will still be held responsible for its success or failure). But there are also management tasks – getting projects approved in the first place, liaison with other internal teams, attending meetings and reporting.

It’s also worth remembering the insights Fred Brooks wrote about in The Mythical Man-Month, particularly that adding more people to a late project will often, counterintuitively, make it later. This is because getting new people up to speed on the project and keeping the larger team working smoothly can consume more time and resources than were saved by adding those new people.

This means that we must make sure that outsourcing plans don’t assume zero impact on the in-house team. At best, you might be able to manage four outsourced projects in the time you used to deal with one yourself. If you’re willing to accept a higher risk (which I discussed in the previous post) then you might be able to handle more, but you still need to work out the limit.

Be clear about responsibilities

The factor with the biggest effect on the success or failure of outsourced projects, in my experience, is how clear you can be at the outset about your expectations. If client and supplier are both clear and in agreement about exactly what each will do on the project, how communication will work, what to do when things go wrong and how schedules and budgets are to be managed, then there’s a much better chance that things will go well.

The real kicker with this is that, until you’ve run a few projects with a particular supplier, you don’t know that you’ve picked up all the assumptions that each brings to the job. You are immersed in your company’s culture and projects; your new supplier is not. In particular, the first time you outsource anything, you don’t really know what to include in the brief.

The safest thing, in my experience, is to include everything, however obvious you might think it is.

  • Document your entire workflow and share it with your supplier, even if you don’t think they need to know.
  • Make sure your house style is up to date – and create one if you don’t have it.
  • Include all the project’s background – context is often crucial.

Balance is, of course, important. There’s no point writing a document that won’t be read or that wastes anyone’s time. Construct your brief so that the key points are right at the top, maximising the chance that they’ll be read, and be clear and straightforward.

Fortunately, a lot of this work needs doing only once, with a little maintenance thereafter. But take account of the time it will take your team to put all this together. If someone has to spend a month putting good briefs together, it may be worth it in the long term but they’re still losing a month of their time on their current projects.

For some more pointers on briefing suppliers, The Society for Editors and Proofreaders have 21 tips for making the most of your supplier that are particularly worth reading because they come from the supplier’s perspective.

Protect your skill base

There’s one further danger that teams need to beware of as they outsource more: de-skilling the in-house team. You generally hire a team because they have skills that are directly relevant to the job: copyeditors with good grammar; commissioning editors who know the market; marketers who understand data. But once you start outsourcing the core tasks, the danger is that your team spends so much time on project management that they stop exercising the skills for which you hired them in the first place.

The first danger of this is clear and direct – you stop skilled people exercising their skills. This is very demotivating because it takes people away from their passions. Ultimately, it means that your most skilled and passionate team members may leave to get jobs where they can do what they love. A warning sign is if your team is spending more time managing other people than doing what they feel they ought to be doing themselves.

The second danger is a little more subtle but at least as big a problem. If your team is spending most of its time managing projects rather than doing its core job, your people will start to lose their edge. And if you’re relying on your team to monitor how well the external suppliers are doing their job, you need them to stay sharp. This might not matter in the short term, because they can depend on good external suppliers to make up the difference. But, as time goes on, the business will lose the ability to clearly brief and monitor its projects (because the staff don’t really understand the details).

More worrying even than this immediate impact on team effectiveness is the danger for your function itself. Because there’s a subtle message hidden in outsourcing – ‘your function is not crucial to this business’. If your job can be done just as well by a supplier then your skills aren’t valued. The task may be essential for the product, but that’s a different thing.

If the function is not valued and the business isn’t investing in its staff for those core functions then the skill level in the business will drop. And because most good freelancers and contractors learn their skills in-house, the skill level in the external pool will start to drop as well. There must also be a question about the business’s direction and long-term viability, because it no longer actually does the work that adds the most value for our customers.

Ultimately, if poorly handled, outsourcing carries the danger of killing the golden goose. So if we care about our industry, and our career, and our function itself, we need to try and make sure that outsourcing is done well.

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