Custom software development requires a flexible outsourcing strategy that balances inside and outside skills, and shortens time to delivery
April 16, 2004
By Kirk Gallion
| In the competitive life sciences industry, many organizations grapple with the continuing challenge of meeting tight deadlines for custom software development while struggling with resource constraints. For some informatics projects, the time required for traditional recruiting efforts is longer than the time actually allotted to complete the entire project.
This familiar scenario has led many companies to investigate alternative staffing models such as staff augmentation, complete project outsourcing, or a hybrid approach that includes both alternatives. These options enable an organization to quickly bring in skilled people "as needed," without investing time and money on recruiting and training permanent staff.
Though these alternatives offer the promise of increased flexibility afforded by additional resources, they come with their own set of significant challenges. Life science companies must be aware of these challenges when evaluating alternative strategies. Otherwise, time saved on recruiting and training will be eaten up by poor communication, having to do rework, and redundancies.
The development of a new product requires the rapid creation and deployment of fully functional teams. Yet some skills are required for only a particular phase of a project, while others will be required throughout the entire product development life cycle. Collective internal skill sets might not immediately match the expertise required for a project. Special expertise or "extra hands" may be required intermittently. It's not cost effective or fiscally responsible to hire full-time staff to address these needs.
To solve this problem, you need an outsourcing strategy that includes three critical components, or phases. Each phase has a slightly different objective, but all objectives aim to efficiently utilize resources for rapid progress while simultaneously enhancing internal capabilities to support longer-term organizational requirements.
This approach relies heavily on developing a strong collaborative culture. Maintaining project control is also key to internalizing sustainable capabilities. It's important to make sure that the outsourcing partner you choose is open to this type of interaction, and is willing to actively participate in the specified role for the duration of the project.
Phase 1: Project Planning
The objective of this phase is to identify project parameters and investigate vendors thoroughly enough to choose an appropriate partner that will be able to fill required roles throughout the life of the project.
|The phase-out should adequately document activities and transfer knowledge from the partner to your organization. This is not a typical scenario that is common or comfortable for most vendors.
Planning and due diligence are probably the most important aspects of an outsourcing strategy. This is also where you need to define team roles (project lead, expert consultant, etc.) and communication plans, as well as clearly document the project scope. It's important to get past the marketing hype and delve into the vendor's experience.
Keep in mind that a young and hungry vendor may offer flexibility and enthusiasm but lack a required depth of expertise. A more mature, established vendor may not be willing or able to offer the same flexibility, but may offer more resources or breadth of experience.
The appropriateness of the choice will be determined by your organization's needs. Here are a few suggestions to consider as you search for a reliable and effective partnership.
When evaluating offshore vendors, don't underestimate the importance of effective and consistent communication mechanisms. Collaborative development environments may be established, but you can't rely solely on a tool. Technology enhances good communications and exacerbates poor communication. It can improve efficiencies, but not necessarily increase effectiveness.
This is where the concept of partnering is really tested. If the project is running smoothly, you benefit from around-the-clock development. If problems arise and communications fail, this benefit can quickly morph into a 36-hour delay.
Don't pick a vendor based on low price alone. Though cost is an obvious concern, it's much more important to consider the whole offering: skill levels, support capabilities, and cultural fit — as well as hidden costs. Sometimes a higher price tag affords you savings in other areas, such as training.
Finally, be wary of vendors that don't offer a consistent follow-up to initial meetings. If you are constantly seeing new faces being paraded in front of you to support initial evaluation meetings, you should probably question the vendor's ability to identify the right resources and maintain their availability throughout the course of the project.
Phase 2: Partnering for Rapid Ramp-Up
The objective of this phase is to kick off the project and integrate collective team activities while developing a team culture. This is the point at which a selected vendor becomes the partner of choice.
In some cases, multiple vendors may be employed to round out the team. However, the team should be functioning as a cohesive unit, without regard for the origin of its members. Again, cultural and behavioral differences should be addressed to maximize the focus of the integrated team. Team members should document and distribute project-specific standards, whether they refer to software coding or escalation procedures. Communication is still a critical aspect in minimizing assumptions about the operational aspects of the project.
As the project progresses, issue databases and shared workspaces will facilitate the documentation of in-process decisions. Some global vendors with international facilities tout their project communication and collaboration tools as a competitive advantage. If a vendor is publicizing internal tools for this purpose, make sure that the tools work successfully in your environment or that you can access the tools as required. Ultimately, if a vendor's communication tool is broken, it becomes your problem.
It's also important to maintain an understanding of the project status as well as a list of potential or pending issues that might affect its successful completion. Issues can be viewed as unplanned tasks that require resources and time. Most often, these same resources are allocated toward planned activities within a typical project plan. Problems occur when resources spend their time resolving issues and don't have time to address project tasks. By tracking project metrics and associated issues, you can anticipate resource requirements and avoid bottlenecks.
Phase 3: Knowledge Transfer and Phase-Out
The objective of this phase is to adequately document activities and transfer knowledge from the partner to your organization. This is not a typical scenario that is common or comfortable for most vendors, so it's important that the expectation for knowledge transfer be clearly defined during the planning phase.
Deliverables for the actual project as well as expectations for documentation of the project should be specified in advance. As partner resources roll off the project, it's important to ensure that a proper transition of responsibilities is completed.
Transition activities should be incorporated into the project plan because the time and resources required for these activities are typically grossly underestimated. Once a partner resource disengages from a project and moves on to another client or project, it's almost impossible to maintain an effective level of communication. Outline knowledge-transfer requirements in advance, and make sure the criteria have been met before paying a bill.
This phased approach emphasizes upfront planning so that resources are optimized throughout the course of the project. Its effectiveness hinges on communication. Technology can facilitate project activities, but organizational readiness will have a much more significant impact on project success when this model is deployed. It is a viable alternative for companies looking to ramp up and accelerate project completion, while creating sustainable capabilities that position them to support the full product life cycle.
Kirk Gallion is chief technology officer for Octagon Research Solutions. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ILLUSTRATION BY TERRY MIURA