Ten key issues for CEOs of software companies

At Intellect (the trade association for UK technology companies) yesterday, there was a meeting looking at how UK software companies are faring in this current economic climate. At this event, a panel of software companies CEOs and directors discussed the key issues they are currently facing and the future economic climate for this industry sector.

What struck me was the changes that are happening in Technical Publications complement the changes going on in the overall business.

The ten main issues were:

  1. The reduction in sales.
  2. The need for cash retention and challenges surrounding raising debt or capital.
  3. The continuing difficulties in recruiting good talent.
  4. A high focus on customers and their needs:
    – developing incremental services to existing customers
    – developing more customer business focused services
    – enabling software to connect to other applications
  5. The importance of improving the user experience, such as that adopted by Apple with the iPhone and iPhone Application store.
  6. The move to SaaS (software as a service) and the Cloud.
  7. The emergence of semantic data, collaboration and ontologies.
  8. The move to “mass personalisation” and the emergence of software artisan companies that will personalise mainstream applications.
  9. The growth in mobile phone applications.
  10. The ability to carry out greatly improved analysis of data, leading to greater customer insights.

The big trend in technical communication at the moment is the move towards (XML) single sourcing systems. These break the information into small units of information that can be re-used and repurposed for different circumstances.

This offers a number of benefits, consistent with many of the points listed above:

  • It gives the software companies the ability to develop a range of user assistance documents, each focusing on a particular type of customer and their needs (Points 3 and 7).
  • It means the content can be merged with other content to provide the support information in the right context (Points 3, 5 and 6).
  • With DITA, it helps ensure the support information can written isn a way that clearly enable users to complete tasks (Point 3 again – more business focused services – and Point 4).
  • With DITA, it means semantic data is included in the documentation (Point 7).
  • Content can be published in different media (Points 5, 6 and 8).

In a downturn, is it better to use contractors, permanent staff or an outsourcing company?

In a downturn, priorities in a business often change, and these changes can affect technical authors as much as others. At the London Connections event earlier this week, where I was promoting Cherryleaf’s technical writing services, I was chatting to Mike Southon about business strategies in a downturn. Mike is Visiting Fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London South Bank University, amongst other things, so I value his judgement. He said, in a downturn, businesses should focus on its Return on Investment, minimising risk and watching its cashflow.

So, does this mean you should favour contract technical authors over permanent staff, or vice versa? Should you outsource technical writing work instead? Actually, each option has its merits.

The case for and against contractors

Contractors offer flexibility to a business. You can increase and decrease the amount of people more quickly than you can by taking on permanent staff.

This ability to reduce costs quickly is one of the main reason why organisations often begin reducing costs by getting rid of contractors. Contractors can appear expensive compared to paying for permanent staff. This means there’s a temptation to avoid using contractors at all during a downturn. There is often a premium, because you’re using paying for someone who is good and who is experienced. However, remember the contractor is bearing holiday sickness and taxation costs that otherwise would be borne by the organisation.

It’s worth bearing in mind that in terms of uncertainly, this flexibility could be a good reason to favour contractors over permanent staff.

The case for and against permanent staff

Permanent staff offers continuity of service. They can also be part of a team that works in a consistent manner that conforms to the organisation’s long term goals. They may be able to be deployed elsewhere, such as in usability testing, training or support.

However, it is less easy to reduce the number of permanent staff than it is to reduce the number of contractors. The process can take much longer and can be more stressful.

The case for and against outsourcing

Outsourcing can mean using a technical writing company, such as Cherryleaf, to write an online Help file (or other forms of user assistance) for a specific project. It can also mean establishing a more longer term relationship – acting as the technical publications department, being available on a “call off” basis or acting a part-time (say three days per week) resource.

Outsourcing offers benefits similar to contractors, with the added benefits of continuity of resource, project management, predefined deliverables, and the collective knowledge and of expertise that organisations can offer over an individual. It’s worth considering when work is unevenly spread throughout the year, when it comes in peaks and troughs, or if there isn’t enough work to require a full time resource.

Outsourcing does not work well when deliverables cannot be defined, and the information needed to do the work is not available (although this is true of all projects). It’s often done off-site (but not off-shore), as the work can be scheduled around other writing projects and a team of writers can work together, but some organisations are able to work with such an arrangement.

What about offshoring?

Offshoring of technical writing is something that is less common than the offshoring of programming resource. The standard pros and cons of offshoring apply (lower initial costs v quality and project management issues), but there are some additional considerations. The key skills needed in a technical author are great writing skills and good project management skills. This means nearly always that the person needs to be a native English speaker. A non-native English speaker can write a sentence that is grammatically correct, but be written in such a way or use a word that just would never be used in the UK or other English speaking countries.

The “do nothing” option

Some organisations opt not to develop any user assistance at all. This saves them the cost of developing online Help, user manuals and other forms or assistance. Is this a false economy or a sensible saving?

User Assistance is often seen as a necessary evil, and its value can be hard to measure, in the same way that quality can be hard to measure. It depends if you are producing the equivalent of an Austin Allegro (UK’s “Ford Pinto”) or a Toyota Corolla. User Assistance is tied up with an organisation’s long term view of its customers. The more important it sees customer loyalty and after-sales service, the greater the value of user documentation. User Assistance, be it delivered via Web pages, paper manuals or online Help provides immediate assistance and can reduce the number of calls to support lines and the number of dissatisfied customers.

There’s a poem I once saw on the Web that began something like, “If an application doesn’t need user assistance then is there really a need for the application itself?” It’s like the idea of the software that sells itself – in a perfect world, you wouldn’t need a sales team either.

Could the programmers write the documentation?

Programmers do write user documentation, and often it shows. If the programmers have nothing better to do, then there could be a case for them writing the documentation. However, programmers are not always a cheap and available resource.

They often suffer from the “curse of knowledge” – they know so much about the system that they cannot see the world as a user (beginner or advanced) does. It’s unusual for a programmer to be also a good technical author. Indeed, perhaps there is a stronger case for the users to write the user documentation instead?

Conclusion

All these options have different merits, which is why organisations such as Cherryleaf needs to offers a range of options (outsourcing staff, contract staff and the placement of permanent staff). Your organisation is unique and the requirements you have will differ from others. The key factor is often the spread of the workload. If work comes in peaks and troughs then outsourcing may be the best option. If the nature of the work itself is unclear then permanent staff may give you more flexibility.

The challenge for us at Cherryleaf’s is to use our expertise in the field of documentation to help you save money: by finding the best solution for your business needs and giving you a good return on your investment.

What do you think?

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