Managing an Offshore Team: Is the Elephant Still Here?

Changing client expectations prompted a professional services firm to rethink its research process and transition to a new offshore team that better serves its needs.

By Helen Poot, MA, MLIS

This article appears in the March-April 2017 issue of Information Outlook.

At the SLA 2013 Annual Conference in San Diego, I presented a paper titled “There’s an Elephant in the Room, but Your Staff Isn’t: Connecting and Collaborating with Your Offshore Team.” The paper discussed the PwC Research Department’s experience in creating a remote (offshore) support team.

I thought it might be interesting to revisit the topic and take a look at where we are now. What have we learned? How has our work changed?

The short answer to both questions is, a great deal.

The expression “there’s an elephant in the room” means there is a conspicuous problem that no one wants to address. Among librarians and information professionals, the use of offshore teams to conduct research services has often played the role of the pachyderm.

Today, at least with respect to PwC’s Analytical Insights group, this is no longer the situation. While almost all of my unit’s “transactional” desk research, as well as a great deal of higher aggregation and synthesis of research findings, is being handled by our remote team, onshore staff are focusing on complex, high-profile questions involving both core, traditional research skills as well as data analytics and visualization. This staffing structure makes it difficult to extend the “elephant in the room” analogy, so perhaps we should say the elephant has morphed into a typical and well-used furnishing in that room.

Broadening Our Services

In 2013, after two years of training, transition, and collaboration, offshore researchers were handling more than 80 percent of research requests, representing more than 90 percent of research hours. Adding this offshore capacity enabled us to handle twice the volume of research requests as when we first began the transition process in 2011. Managing the request queue became a shared responsibility between the onshore and offshore teams based on timing, sources required, and the level of research complexity. The U.S. team focused on creating new research opportunities for the department at large and addressing higher-level requests with more added value.

This ongoing collaboration with the offshore team was facilitated by implementing the following systems and processes:

  • using instant messaging or chat to discuss immediate issues and requests;
  • scheduling virtual meetings on a daily or weekly basis;
  • working from a shared request management system;
  • conducting surveys of the offshore team members and managers to gather their feedback;
  • visiting the offshore team annually; and
  • gathering client feedback on a periodic, ad hoc basis.

In 2015, we determined that our clients’ needs and expectations were changing and that we would have to adjust by changing and enhancing our research process and deliverables. We viewed this shift not as a switch to an alternative solution, but rather as a progressive growth and broadening of our services.

To a considerable extent, these changes reflected PwC’s increased emphasis on including data and analytics in research projects. Our onshore research team needed to be part of interdisciplinary teams combining data, analytics, traditional research, and visualization skills. On one hand, our onshore team needed to develop new analytical skills; on the other hand, any analytical service we provided needed to be strongly linked to the core research skills that our department had consistently demonstrated.

To meet these enhanced responsibilities, we needed the following:

  • increased access to offshore support, particularly during regular U.S business hours;
  • a team that possessed basic reference skills and could handle a high volume of transactional requests with minimal guidance;
  • a second, higher-level team to develop newsletters, format company and industry profiles and biographies, and aggregate and synthesize research findings as part of standard deliverables; and
  • a vendor-maintained request management system that could be tailored to our specific needs and provide required performance metrics.

After close and careful review, we determined that our existing offshore team could not meet our new requirements without a significant investment of time and money. We then identified a new vendor with the following resources and capabilities:

  • an established research team in Chile, which would free our onshore senior researchers from being on call for quick-turnaround questions during regular business hours;
  • a full range of research support, from basic “desk” research to high-level synthesis of results as well as client-ready deliverables;
  • a request management system that could be customized to meet most of our needs, promote direct requester-with- researcher collaboration, and provide required performance metrics on a real-time basis; and
  • an impressive client list, including PwC member firms.

This shift to an increasingly skilled offshore workforce has enabled the onshore team to focus on more complicated research and analysis and engage in new areas of research, including data analytics and visualization.

The Transition Process

Throughout the transition to the new vendor, parallel teams—one from the new vendor, one from our onshore group—collaborated to ensure a smooth process.

Research managers and subject matter specialists ensured that the new team received the requisite training on research tools, PwC’s organizational structure and goals, company jargon, market positioning, and so forth. All templates, standard screening scripts, and “boilerplate” responses were provided.

For training purposes, researchers on the new team were given requests that had previously been resolved. By comparing their responses to earlier, actual responses, we ensured that the same level of service quality was being provided at the outset (and, ultimately, improved).

The existing and replacement offshore teams worked in parallel for four months, using the existing request submission tool. Requests were gradually shifted to the new team, based on the level of complexity. Content licenses were also gradually transferred to ensure that either team could respond to requests as necessary during the transition period.

At the same time, the new vendor’s technology specialists, with ongoing input from our onshore research and IT teams, tailored their standard request management system to our specific requirements. Onshore researchers and volunteers from our internal client base tested the new system to ensure that it was client-ready and user friendly and could capture the required metrics.

Because the new request management system is vendor-hosted, the transition to the new offshore team had to be completed before the system could be implemented. After four months of working in parallel with our existing offshore team, the new offshore team launched in April 2016.

For the next several months, two U.S.-based research managers continued to review incoming requests, assisting in their triage and routing where necessary to onshore research specialists. These managers also continued to provide ongoing guidance to the new team. This guidance was particularly important with respect to requests involving internal PwC materials and to “referral” requests, which require connecting requesters to individuals and groups who may be able to assist them.

And Now?

A year into the new arrangement, research request volumes remain steady. All requests are now being triaged and managed by the offshore team, with the onshore team providing input on an as-needed basis. Our formatted company profile reports have been expanded and enhanced, and several newsletters have been launched.

Although the new research team works much more independently than did the previous offshore team, the ties with the onshore team have not been completely severed. Many requests require both a deep understanding of firm knowledge and intellectual capital. They may also contain “firm speak” and jargon, a full understanding of which takes time to develop. Mapping referral questions to subject matter specialists, particularly in a matrix organization, can be difficult for external groups. The onshore team continues to provide guidance on these types of requests.

We also continue to monitor the request queue to ensure that requests that should be handled by the onshore team are routed properly. In addition, we work to minimize duplication of effort, such as in cases where members of project teams might reach out to both the onshore and offshore teams with identical requests.

Providing quality research is a journey. The definition of research and the deliverables expected by the client are changing. By leveraging our offshore team for basic research requests, the onshore team has been able to address rapidly changing and more complex requirements from our constituents. The onshore research group has also been integrated into multidisciplinary teams (along with data and analytics specialists) that can provide more analysis and insight to key stakeholders.

To use a perhaps overused term, we have become more agile.

Helen Poot is a research manager at PwC. She previously worked at Diamond Technology & Management Partners, where she established and then led the research and knowledge management function for almost 15 years. She earned a master of arts degree in comparative literature from the University of North Carolina and a master’s in library science from the Catholic University of America.

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