Are Sub-Contractors Good Or Bad?

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    When I started my working life, at IBM, years went by before I had any sub-contractors as part of my project team. We could handle just about every request with in-house skills. Alas, almost 20 years later those days are gone, and the opposite has become the norm. It is nigh on impossible to deploy a project without the active participation of sub-contractors, often in key roles. Companies now concentrate on having staff with core skills that will be fully utilized. So for additional projects, or talents, we must routinely turn to sub-contractors.

    The current societal change of “collaboration”, facilitated by internet technologies, has also contributed to the rise of sub-contracting. Through various sites we can quickly connect with people who have unique skills, be it for a quick consultation or for a 6-month engagement. This trend of quicker access to specialized skills is good news for our projects. In a business book I read not too long ago, the author speculated that very soon companies will need line managers to actively manage entire departments of sub-contractors, not just manage their full-time employees.

    So given that sub-contracting is here to stay for the foreseeable future, what can Project Managers do to make these team members as effective as possible? Here are a few suggestions:

    Project Quick Reference Sheet
    A one-page summary of key information is helpful. Sub-contractors will probably have different systems for, say, time-keeping or travel expense reporting, so I try to have a list of Frequently Used Sites ready for their first day on the project. A few names of technical and administrative personnel, should the Project Manager not be available, will also help them feel welcome and quickly become productive.

    “KPIs” or Metrics
    It is vital to get across to our subcontractors why they are needed. What expectations does the project have for them? And not just specific achievements. If possible, we should share and agree with them the rate at which these achievements should take place, even if it is just a range (eg, ‘install three routers per day’). If there is an issue with this rate of achievement, the sooner you know the better.

    Progress Monitoring
    Often I come across project teams that have done a good job of agreeing metrics…. and then do not follow-up to see if they are materializing. They hope for the best outcome, or trust that because team members are specialists in their field, they will not need supervision. Even if we are managing PhDs in Nuclear Physics whom we can barely understand, we should review progress periodically. A simple checkpoint like, “30% of our time duration has elapsed… would you say you are 30% done with your tasks?” will uncover valuable project information. Then, hope the answer is not too technical, and you actually understand it.


    For more resources, see the Library topic Project Management.