Metadata Operations Management Strategies Part 5 – Outsourcing
This article is fifth of a series about establishing efficient metadata cataloguing operations.
In part four, the subject was batch cataloguing and using asset supply chain partners to assist with cataloguing. In this item, I will consider outsourcing and then a follow-up article will discuss crowdsourcing.
Using supply chain partners (as covered in part 4) could be considered a hybrid between outsourcing and crowdsourcing as the task is distributed across everyone who provides your assets and those responsible are not within your organisational unit (although they might not necessarily work for a different employer). This whole group of related cataloguing methods involve getting someone else to assume responsibility for the task. Because of that, they share some common benefits and drawbacks:
Free up in-house staff and avoids the need to hire dedicated personnel. Increased management overhead.
With larger DAM operations, dedicated staff might still be required.
Directly incurred expense and might just move costs between budgets and ultimately increase it
Easier to mandate minimum quality standards
Greater risk to quality and potential conflict of interest with cataloguer’s own bottom line
In covering both outsourcing and crowdsourcing, each of themes described above will feature. As some readers might have noticed, the benefits are shorter and easier to explain than the drawbacks, but this does not imply that they are superior.
Outsourcing Cataloguing Operations
This can include a range of different service options from using metadata trainers or consultants to carry out quality control through to offshore operations who handle very large volumes of assets. There are numerous points in-between, one example was covered in an earlier article where editors or picture researchers might get hired to augment the subject-specific metadata already entered by in-house personnel.
As discussed in part 2 of this series, the other issue is the minimum level of quality which you can consider acceptable. If you have a limited budget, very large volumes of assets and automated methods are not satisfactory or feasible, outsourcing might offer a feasible option to reduce time and cost. It may also be appropriate to segment the material to be catalogued and use an offshore route for those sections of the catalogue where quality risks may have a minimal impact anyway.
The reports I have heard about offshore cataloguing are mixed. Some have said it has saved them significant time and costs, but others complain that the quality of the final result is unsatisfactory and basic standards of literacy have not been attained. I do not think it is as simple as just choosing a competent offshore supplier, the nature of the material to be catalogued also play a not inconsiderable role in determining success or otherwise.
Those whose experience with outsourced offshore cataloguing has been positive usually have relatively uncomplicated subject matter. Where the assets are still images and depict common objects that are universally recognised (e.g. common household objects, clothing, food etc) then these are usually easier for a wider cross-section of personnel to be assigned. The level of effort required to carry out the cataloguing is less intensive and decent results are easier to achieve.
Where the assets are dynamic or time based (e.g. audio/video or documents) then these are less suitable, especially if the duration is more than a few minutes and the content is complex (e.g. specialist training videos). Similarly, with static media like photos, if the assets are products or depict services which all look very similar to the untrained eye (or depend heavily on model numbers etc) then these also tend to yield unsatisfactory results. From my own anecdotal evidence, offshore outsourcing is usually ineffective where the cataloguing staff need to be given specialist training to do it properly. This is in part due to the nature of the relationship, those doing the work are twice removed from you in terms of your ability to provide instruction, guidance and also to verify that the training has been successful. With that being said, there are offshore firms who claim to be able to handle more complex subject matter and ensure training is carried out diligently so this is something you may need to assess case-by-case.
Recommendations For Offshore Metadata Cataloguing Supplier Management
If you do decide to use an offshore metadata cataloguing supplier, some recommendations would include:
- Establish clearly defined quality control guidelines that state what is and is not acceptable. If you have editorial guidelines (e.g. brand terminology) ensure these are included and regularly check the supplier understands and appreciates them.
- Get references (at least three) and check all of them properly – by phone as well as email if you can. If one does not respond, ask for more until you get a full set of feedback. Often clients of service providers will prefer to say nothing rather than offering negative opinions (especially if they wish to forget about their experience) so a lack of response can be a warning sign if you encounter it multiple times.
- As well as references, do some basic background checks of your own (just a Google search can reveal some points to discuss further with prospective candidates).
- Ask for samples, but be aware that the supplier wants to secure your business so it might not necessarily be at the same standard for the entire job. If they fail at this stage, go elsewhere as the results will probably not improve.
- Do not over-commit to a very high volume of assets without agreeing smaller initial batches and be prepared to exit if the required level of quality is not achieved.
- Negotiate an option to exit your commitment if quality control falls below the threshold you have specified.
- Once you have found a supplier, keep looking for alternatives and be open to testing some of the favourable ones out. If the competing suppliers have elements of their process which are better than your current one, impart that information to the incumbents and find out if they plan to incorporate your suggestions. If they are dismissive without providing justifications, consider switching elsewhere if the risks of doing so can be mitigated.
- Sub-divide your assets into batches, track each one (when it is sent, who processed it etc). The supplier themselves should have systems that they use to track progress and you should be able to get at least limited access to that also.
- Keep your own records. Do not solely rely on their tracking and completion statistics. Also regularly audit completion figures and invoices submitted.
- If you quality check a sample of assets from a batch and it does not pass, ensure the whole batch is reviewed in the follow-up, not just another sample again (and certainly not the same sample).
- Do not make large up-front payments. Ideally all work should be invoiced in arrears and only when it has passed quality checks.
- Ensure you have enough resources to quality control cataloguing properly, if necessary, consider hiring a limited number of skilled editors or picture researchers and assemble a cross-functional team with internal experts also. Get regular feedback from them and follow-up any concerns as soon as possible.
- Verify that the supplier has an in-house project manager who you can contact. Ask for scheduled progress reports and establish regular meetings. Require that the project manager is present during these sessions. I get particularly concerned when the client liaison is delegated to those at the sharp-end doing the actual cataloguing with excuses like ‘it is better for you to deal direct with the people doing your work’ etc. If that is the case, you may as well just hire freelancers and manage the process yourself (minus the supplier’s management fee). It is not unreasonable to remind the supplier of that point if you do encounter it.
- Above all, make the supplier fully aware that your role within your organisation requires that you have to closely scrutinise the metadata cataloguing work supplied so you get best value from the services provided. That alone should motivate a competent supplier to ensure they deliver a result which is fit for purpose and quickly draw out any issues with the less effective ones. It is better to find out sooner rather than later that a given provider is not up to scratch so you can do something about it with less impact on time and cost.
Some of this is generic supplier management advice, but that should serve to highlight the nature of the task. It is vital to understand that if you involve others to do cataloguing work for you, it is not being wholesale transferred to them, rather you are swapping a hands-on production role for a managerial one. The level of coordination effort will increase as a result of outsourcing because those involved in supplying the work are not employees of your organisation and they have their own bottom line to take care of. You need to understand the cost pressures they face and if they look onerous and unachievable for the supplier, it is preferable to terminate and look elsewhere rather than hope it will be OK and subsequently waste a lot of time when you have to find someone else to replace them.
The offshore supplier needs to be able to do much more than what you can achieve by batch applying metadata or using automated methods. A follow-up article in this series will look at those and it is by no means necessary to pick just one approach to this problem, so another approach is batch applying metadata or automating some of the work and passing the remainder to offshore suppliers to complete. As discussed, you might also elect to use a multi-layered strategy where the core metadata is automated, then offshore providers add further detail and finally consultants, professional archivists and subject experts review and apply the finishing touches. All these techniques should be treated as no more than tools to help realise your strategic objectives and none of them are necessarily better or worse than each other.
In the next article, I will move on to Crowdsourcing, user feedback and other distributed forms of metadata cataloguing. These will include consideration of some more unusual methods, like gamification as well as the practical realities of managing operations.
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