Outsourcing Design work
The key lesson is ‘Know what you want.’ My company has been outsourcing some web design and maintenance for over five years. The first few years it was mostly done with UK companies but two years ago we decided to cut our costs dramatically by outsourcing abroad. We decided to start with a couple of new, non-mission crictial projects especially around the customisation of open source software. I am one of those people who believe that to learn something you have to put your toe in the water but try and make sure you don’t get your foot bitten off in the process.
The communication challenges were interesting to say the least and timeframes stretched. Part of it was our fault and part of it lay with our partners. The real root of the problem is that having worked with a UK company with whom you could just explain the broad business objective, we learnt over time that you have to be very clear in knowing exactly what it is that you want when working with an overseas company. If your guidelines are broad there are lots of opportunities for misunderstandings. If there is an opportunity for misunderstanding the chances are it will happen! Of course, you cannot expect someone else to know what you want if you are unclear in your own mind so try and layout your ideas on paper, plot the broad functionalities that you need and then encourage a dialogue both with the overseas project manager and the programmer who is working on it.This process should allow you both to be clear in what it is you want done.
The use of Instant Messenger is a great way of trying to catch these misunderstandings early. Lots of cultures have not yet adapted a truly open Saxon business culture in which there is no shame in admitting you don’t understand something. Consequently, if you rely on email alone you don’t foster a relationship which encourages questions and instead you don’t pickup the misunderstandings until you are looking at a site you did not think you had ordered. Relationships are important and the fact that you have never met the person and they might just be a ‘cheap programmer’ on the other side of the world is no excuse. It is down to you to develop a freedom of communication that allows them to query you whenever they are unsure of what you wanted.
These sound pretty basic things but they are processes we take for granted when we can sit down and have a face to face with a designer who is familar with our culture and our business models. You have to be much more deliberate about making them happen when outsourcing overseas.
So is it worth it? It absolutely has been for us. Our website costs were reduced by almost 90% and although it has taken a while to find the right partners and processes, even if projects take a little longer the savings are significant. In fact we have ended up spending almost as much, but this is because we have strecthed the value obtained from our budget hugely, investing in multiple projects to enhance our MIS, our organisational productivity and our processes. Importantly, it has not only leveraged our budget but improved our internal skill base as we have learned to become much more precise in knowing what we want and asking for it. No one knows you business better than you, so that really is a process you should be doing yourself.
Outsourcing is not just for big companies. It can give SME’s a real competitive edge. Put your ‘toe in the water’ and see what happens!