So you’re thinking of hiring technical writers. Your company has been steadily growing. You were busy developing new products and getting new clients. Focused on growth and marketing, you wrote technical content on the go, leaving oodles of professional knowledge scattered around your employees’ heads, where they’re the only ones able to extract it from. Now, the moment comes when you realize there’s a mess to clean up before it turns into widespread chaos. What are the options? Hiring technical writers on full-time contracts or outsourcing the work to someone else. Let’s think this one through.

To hire, or to outsource, that is the question

That’s a dilemma familiar to all sorts of businesses out there and it may relate to any product development stage, in any field. To a point, the general pros of outsourcing (you can have a brief revision of those in the Economist) apply to technical communication as well. Services can be delivered cheaper, better and faster, when provided by experienced specialists trained to do one, specific job.

Still, managing knowledge and producing technical content have their own specific factors to consider.

Money, effort, flexibility

Generally, one-time services, flexible enough to let you control your expenses (so that you pay as much as you want to get), turn out more cost-effective in time. It may sound cruel but it’s true: an in-house technical writer is another person that needs to get paid every month. And another employee that’s on sick-leave from time to time. It’s also more budget spent on HR processes, sourcing, interviews and what not. There’s the typical long-term risk that always applies to hiring new people, and more effort put into training the new employee. Especially when you hire a fresh graduate to cut down the cost (because writing technical content seems easy as pie – no, it’s not).

Outsourcing can take this whole hassle off your head and let you stay focused on the core elements of your business. It’s more flexible, because it makes you a customer, not an employer. This means you’re free to demand more and decide when to stop. It may be even more ethical, as it takes your thoughts far away from employing an intern and firing them after a few months (not that such thought came through your mind).

But, you probably noticed that technical content is unlike marketing content. It’s very specific to your product and your internal company information. It requires expertise. That’s why even small- and mid-size companies decide to develop their own staff of technical authors. They want to keep the specialists as close to the product as possible.

Hiring technical writers

If this is your first technical writer, finding the perfect match may require some effort. Why? If you don’t have any knowledge management system set up, designing a new one from scratch requires an experienced specialist. If you don’t have the right tools and need to decide which ones to choose, it seems more reasonable to consult people who have been in the industry for years, rather than beginners.

Finding experienced specialists in a narrow field may take some time. It may also cost considerably more to meet financial demands of such professionals. You’ll need to persuade them to leave their comfort zones for your developing company. They may not be eager to do so without knowing what their role is going to look like. And you can’t tell them, because, well, you don’t know yet. Of course, these are money-solvable problems, but you need to decide how much you want to spend in the long run. This takes us to the next question.

What you want from technical communication may be different from what your company needs

So far, you are only considering taking better care of technical content and knowledge transfer. You still need to decide how to go about it. Making this decision is a process that takes experience. Because at this stage, finding out what solutions your company needs is part of the job, not just a bonus. You know what you want, but only hiring a full-time technical writer (or outsourcing the work) can give you enough data to verify your ideas. It usually turns out that cleaning up your content or knowledge base is more difficult than it seems. On the other hand, it may just as well turn out much easier, if you choose the right tools and meet the right people. This takes us back to the scenario when a full-time technical writer is no longer needed after a few months of work.

In technical writing, the choice between employing and outsourcing is often a choice between hiring individuals and hiring a whole company of specialists. The pros of working in group are fairly obvious and easy to see. Ideas clash, skills come together, different types of knowledge combine. In short, there are more brains working for you. Still, a combined group effort requires better organization to be effective and deliver coherent results.

Certain industries can benefit from yet another factor related to outsourcing. A hired company gets a look from the outside, the element so precious in fields like software development. Partly because after a year of employment, the in-house staff may lose this perspective, without even realizing it. In this sense, outsourcing technical communication services may, and probably will, largely contribute to testing your product.

Does hiring technical writers exclude outsourcing?

Absolutely not. Just as outsourcing individual production stages offshore still allows you to keep in-house production. The two solutions may compliment each other. Think of this scenario. You want to analyze your current situation and find the right solutions. You’re hiring a tech comm company, for consulting. Then you employ a full-time technical writer to coordinate further work between you and the tech comm company. That solution may give you benefits of both scenarios. At the same time, you have access to specialist expertise and your local worker constantly “in the field”.

Of course, each of the thoughts listed above may gain a new meaning in the context of your company’s situation. Your choice depends on the size of your business, on your needs, your budget and a dozen other factors. Whatever choice you’ll come to, it’s always better to spend some time on initial analysis. And it’s good to remember that not all decisions are binary. You can try to combine outsourcing with hiring technical writers as your in-house specialists.