Encyclopedia Britannica tests CDs with Vancouver firm

Cultural differences, clashing time zones and language difficulties can counteract the obvious cost savings when outsourcing IT contracts.

But Encyclopedia Britannica believes it has solved the problems of using offshore support—while still saving money–through an agreement with Vancouver-based QA Labs Inc., a software testing and quality assurance company.

The actual testing of Encyclopedia Britannica’s CD releases and Web updates will be done mostly in India, but QA Labs’ Vancouver team will manage and co-ordinate the work.

This combination is expected to reduce the costs of testing by more than 30 per cent compared with other testing methods, according to Terry Boyle, Encyclopedia Britannica’s executive producer.

Encyclopedia Britannica has been pleased with QA Labs’ service over the last 18 months, Boyle said.

“They’ve delivered a consistently higher level of service than we’ve experienced either with in-house staff or with the other vendors that we’ve been working with,” Boyle said. “That’s largely due to the fact that they focus specifically on quality assurance—they don’t kind of dabble in other fields, and they work very hard to stay on the cutting edge of best practices.”

Another advantage to Encyclopedia Britannica is that QA Labs gets involved with the publishing company’s process upstream, he said.

“They’re willing to participate as kind of a partner in the company,” Boyle said, adding that the two firms are moving towards a nearly seamless integration.

One of the problems faced by firms outsourcing IT contracts to overseas countries is that in some cultures, people prefer to be always positive regardless of the circumstances, according to QA Labs president Wolfgang Strigel.

“One of the things that keeps creeping up is that people in certain cultures don’t necessarily want to say no, or they don’t want to say they don’t have something ready or that they can’t do something,” Strigel said. “So you get evasive answers and if you’re not prepared for that you don’t really interpret them correctly.”

“You think everything is hunkydory until you hit the wall and find out that whey you thought is happening and on track is not,” he said.

Strigel has noticed this when dealing with “requirement specs,” which specify how software is to be built.

“Error is human, so requirement specs sometimes have errors, and even glaring errors that make no sense,” he said.

While a North American software developer would quickly see that something is wrong, that isn’t always the case overseas.

“In these other cultures however, they quite often implement things to the letter, even if it makes no sense,” Strigel said.

Ironically, the problem is made worse by the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) rankings, which rates software companies at one of five levels of quality.

India, Strigel said, has more companies with the highest CMM ranking, level five, than anywhere else in the world.

But in the case of specification errors, that can sometimes make them more difficult to work with, because their ways of working are so strict.

“Because of the strict process they exactly implement what you give them,” Strigel said. “So it backfires in a way.”

Situations like that can be resolved through frequent communication, using software and other tools, he added.

But software tools or not, QA Labs always likes to meet the people they are dealing with face-to-face at least once, to establish personal contact between the team members in North America and those elsewhere.

“Then, when they communicate after this person-to-person, face-to-face contact, they know the person behind the voice, and they have better comfort level and possibly will tell you they have some concerns, rather than hiding the concerns,” Strigel said.

Founded in Scotland in the 18th Century, Encyclopedia Britannica is now based in Chicago.

Its first, three-volume, print edition was published from 1768 to 1771. In 2002, the company launched the Britannica Online School Edition, which has since been upgraded twice. The firm continues to publish the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica, along with other products, including its flagship DVD/CD-ROM Ultimate Reference Suite.

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