You hear turnkey (also turn key) in a meeting. You think you know what it means, but it seems like its being used differently from your understanding of it. That’s very likely. Like so many other business-related terms, turnkey gets used a little differently by various businesses. We’ll look at the more common ways it’s understood.
For our purposes, we don’t have to worry about its original meaning as a noun: the person who was the keeper of the keys in a prison. We’ll go directly to its general meaning as an adjective: supplied, installed, or purchased in a condition ready for immediate use, occupation, or operation. When a product or service is turnkey, it’s designed, built, and installed complete and ready to operate. The idea is that the end user just turns a key and starts using the product or service.
The use, in this sense, may have started in the computer industry. It’s been used in that industry since at least 1995. There, it’s a term that describes a system that can be put to immediate use. When it’s delivered, the system includes all the hardware and software that’s needed for the customer’s application without any programming or other software installation. The customer is able to switch it on (turn the key) and use it.
Like so many useful terms, turnkey has been picked up and used by a wide variety of fields. In the construction industry, it means a building or installation that’s functional and ready to be occupied or used when it’s delivered to the site. A contractor might deliver a turnkey desalinization facility to a customer who can just turn it on and start producing palatable water. Investment companies use the term to denote a product or service that the buyer can implement in his or her particular financial operation without any refinements.
A turnkey business, which is often associated with a franchise, is one that includes everything needed to start selling products as soon as the user get it. That could include inventory, equipment, marketing, management systems, and staff acquisition. Just turn the key, open the door, and you’re in business. In training, sometimes, turnkey is also used to denote a person whom a company sends somewhere to learn a specific skill in order to come back and teach that skill to the other employees. The turnkey then becomes a trainer who turns the skill keys over to others.
Whatever the field, turnkey means that all the work’s been done by the vendor. The client, customer, or end user doesn’t have to do anything to have the product, system, or service work except turn the key.
For example, as a tech writer, you might be asked to produce a technical document on a turnkey basis. Before you accept, think about what’s involved. The implication is that the client expects you to work without supervision or direction to do the research, write the guide, contract and supervise graphics layout and production, and see to the printing and distribution. Turnkey implies a lot of expectations and responsibilities.