Documentation: When Do You Go Outside?
By Don Wallbaum
You are planning the disaster recovery strategy for your company. A major element of that plan is the documentation. You know that the recovery plan will only be as good as the documentation if people in a time of crisis cant find the information they need to get your company back in business, the best plan is worthless.
You have two options. One is to develop the documentation internally, the other is to go outside and use a consultant. You have talked to some consultants and you like the product they offer, but your budget is already stretched. Maybe you can develop the documentation in-house and save a few bucks...
Or will you save money?
Even large companies with established technical writing departments often decide to go outside for documentation development. The decision to go outside depends on a number of factors:
1. Amount of internal documentation re sources,
2. Duration of the recovery develop- ment program,
3. How willing the company is to use consultants,
4. Security, control and maintenance of the documentation,
Note that budget is the last consideration. What an outside consultant charges to prepare documentation is a relatively minor issue compared to the other issues. Not that cost is an insignificant element of any project, but when viewed in terms of total disaster recovery program costs, documentation fees will be relatively small.
More on budgets later. Lets take a look at the other considerations and see how they affect your decision to develop disaster recovery documentation in-house or whether to go outside.
Amount of Internal Documentation Resources
Most companies have some type of writing group on staff. It may be a staff of one primarily dedicated to public relations activities, or it can be a staff of 20, all dedicated to developing support documentation for your product or service.
Since writing is writing, isnt it cheaper and easier to use the writers you have than go outside? Writers on staff would know the company and products or services, and they could work on the disaster recovery documentation when they arent busy.
This thinking is quite prevalent in industry and leads to some problems. Since writers dont produce anything that makes money for the company (unless you are a publishing firm), they are viewed as a cost center, not a profit center. As a result, firms usually do not overstaff writers. They try to make the best use of the investment they have. Current work loads may not allow for additional burdens to be placed upon them.
Another consideration is whether the writing staff has worked on disaster recovery projects before. The staff may be superb software documenters or an excellent public relations group. This does not mean they would do well the first time creating a disaster recovery document.
If an internal writing staff is limited or not experienced, an option is to have those who are developing the disaster recovery plan also write the documentation.
This can work with varying degrees of success.
At first it seems to make perfect sense to have the technical staff developing a disaster recovery plan also develop the documentation. Who would know the details better?
Even with strong editorial assistance though, a technical staff will generally not produce the quality document that a professional writing group can. There are two major reasons for this.
The first is that developers often tend to view documentation as something which must be done, but it gets in the way of the real work, which is development. Documentation is a secondary concern.
The second reason is that there is more to writing a quality disaster recovery document than putting words on paper. Structure, flow, proper grammar, minimal use of jargon and graphic design all play crucial roles in the usability of the document. Quality in documentation will be discussed further in another issue.
While developers are primary sources of information, generally the entire disaster recovery plan process works more smoothly if they do not have the additional burden of supplying final documentation.
Duration of the Recovery Development Program
When deciding if outside resources are appropriate for a documentation plan, looking at the length of time it takes to develop the recovery plan is important. Usually development is very intense for a few months, then the effort slacks off to a maintenance or modification level.
If existing internal resources can be pushed into overdrive for that length of time, or if other projects can be shuffled to make room for the disaster recovery documentation, using existing staff may work well.
But if the tasks of internal resources cannot be shuffled or the writing staff is already working at maximum, there are two options:
·Hire additional writing staff.
This may be a good solution, especially if there were plans for staff expansion anyway.
It may not be a good idea if the additions are intended solely to support the disaster recovery documentation effort. After the peak work period is over, the company may find itself with extra people.
·Go outside for project consultants.
This may be a good solution if the disaster recovery plan will be fairly stable and have few changes after it is developed. Existing staff can handle maintenance and update duties.
It may not be a good idea if the disaster recovery program development is going to be very long, or if there will be substantial changes for a prolonged period of time. It may be more desirable to build in-house expertise for long-term projects.
How Willing the Company is to Use Consultants
Some company cultures simply do not permit the notion of hiring consultants or outside contractors of any kind. There are many reasons for this it can be a severe case of Not Invented Here syndrome, financial or security concerns, or simply we have never done it that way.
Unless you are willing to try to change a corporate culture, institutional resistance to consultants can be the deciding factor in whether or not to go outside.
On the other hand, a company that is accustomed to hiring consultants for project work may think nothing of using outside resources for documentation development.
For those companies that are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, strong justifications are usually required for going outside. A common justification is the purchasing of off-the-shelf expertise rather than re-inventing the wheel in-house.
Security, Control and Maintenance of the Documentation
When going outside is considered, three issues surface:
1. What guarantees are there that information wont be sold or leaked to a competitor,
2. Who controls the data that is accumulated,
3. Who maintains the finished document.
Security is often cited as a reason not to go outside for documentation. The fears are valid if critical information is gained by the companys competitors, there can be severe economic consequences.
If the consultant is working off-site, it is valid to ask about security measures at the work location for the data. Locked desks and computers can be required. Encryption of data can be requested. And certainly the standard non-disclosure agreement should be signed.
If the consultant is working on-site, then the companys own security measures apply. The consultant should be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
It is quite unlikely that a consultant would leak or sell one companys information to another. It would be professional suicide to even be thought of as the source of a leak. That consultant would not find work in the industry again.
The usual source of leaks is thought to be disgruntled employees or carelessness. Shoulder surfing or the looking over another persons shoulder to read papers or a computer screen in public areas is also a way confidential information is passed.
Control and maintenance issues deal with the fear of being wedded to an outside resource forever. If a consultant prepares the document, is there a way to assume control of the document? Or will the company have to go back to the consultant for every change?
This is a significant concern, especially if the consultant is using tools and applications which are not compatible with the companys. A company may have everything housed on IBM mainframes, but the consultant prepares the document on a Macintosh.
While it is possible to convert many of these formats, conversion is not a precise science yet. The company may find itself either having to purchase different equipment just to maintain the documentation, or spend a lot of time and money converting the document so it can be used by internal systems.
When considering going outside, these technical issues should be discussed early on. Perhaps the consultant would be willing to work on-site with the companys tools to prepare the document. Perhaps the consultant would be willing to purchase and use tools compatible with the companys.
Another concern is that the consultant will become the sole repository of knowledge about the documentation. Once the contract is finished, a large knowledge base leaves the organization.
One way around this knowledge gap is to have the consultant work with people within the company to cooperatively produce the documentation. The consultant then trains people within the company on the ins and out of the document. This makes the consultants transition away from the project very smooth, since the apprentices can then step in and handle the maintenance activities.
The budget consideration has been left to last because, in general, the decision to go outside or not is usually determined by some of the previous considerations.
If a quote from a consultant to prepare documentation has left you a bit breathless, there are some things to consider.
First, look at the cost of preparing the documentation in comparison to the costs of the rest of the disaster recovery plan. If the disaster recovery plan involves purchase of off-site equipment, remote recovery locations, computers and telecommunications equipment and changes to existing software, the cost of the documentation effort may be a relatively small part of the total effort.
Another consideration is to determine the cost of performing the work in-house. What is your current staff cost? To determine this, you have to look beyond the hourly wage staff is paid. You have to probe into what some term the loaded rate.
Loaded rate factors in everything which affect the amount a company pays an employee, such as:
1. hourly wage,
2. lost time due to vacation and sick leave,
3. benefits such as insurance, retire- ment and Social Security payments,
4. office space cost,
5. telecommunications and equipment charges.
Travel costs are usually not considered part of the loaded rate, but they can be.
A quote from a consultant is usually a loaded rate quote, for the quote must cover all costs plus offer a reasonable profit.
While a consultants wage rate is usually higher than that paid to staff, operating costs are generally less. Office space, for example, may not cost a consultant as much as it does your company.
An alternate way of determining cost is to have the consultant base a bid on a cost-plus basis. But in cost-plus contracts, the company assumes all expenses incurred by the consultant. This is not a way to ensure economy.
Companies can also consider two types of money-real or green money, funds actually paid out, and fake or grey money, usually inter-departmental funds transfers.
While both types of money come out of the same budget, a company is sometimes freer with grey money than with green money.
A company may be more willing to get help from other departments for a short-term documentation project, and pay as much as a consultants rate, if the money ultimately stays within the company.
Companies can balk at costs more often if budgeted funds disappear from the firm as green money.
Intangibles are also part of the budget consideration. If new staff is hired there are costs incurred while the staff learns the ropes. Or if current staff is pulled from other projects, there are costs involved with having other projects delayed.
By comparison, consultants cost what they cost, unless they work on-site, in which case office, equipment and telecommunications costs must be factored in, as with staff.
All this sounds as if a consultant, all things considered, will never cost more than staff. That isnt necessarily true.
When all the numbers are crunched, you may still look at paying more for a consultant than creating the documentation in-house.
There are many variables in the calculus of consultantcy. One has to consider if there is documentation expertise in-house, the length of the project, if the writing staff is available, the corporate culture, security issues and finances.
Going outside is not a magic bullet. It is not a guarantee of a complex documentation project coming in on time and under budget; it is not an assurance of absolute accuracy or acceptance of the project.
The proper documentation consultant can be a valuable tool, one of many to be used in a disaster recovery plan.
But after the calculations are made, dont forget to listen to that inner voice, that gut feeling which is so often an indicator of correct or incorrect decisions.
In the end, the feeling you have about going outside or using internal resources can be as important as any other consideration.
While you are planning your disaster recovery documentation strategy, plan to produce a quality document. In another issue the subject of quality as it applies to documentation will be examined.
Donald F. Wallbaum is a partner in MillerUpton Wallbaum, a technical documentation and corporate
communications consultation firm in Logan, OH.
This article adapted from Vol. 6 #3.
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