Best Practices Conference: Building Our Community
In response to numerous requests, the CIDM hosted its second-annual Best Practices Conference at sea level this year. Despite the elevation loss, the same high level of enthusiasm, ideas, and networking occurred. More than 130 participants came together at the Hilton Beach Resort in Huntington, California, to indulge in some “thinking in the future tense” with colleagues from around the world-from Malaysia to Finland and all points in between.
Last year’s conference featured presentations by the Center Associates, who discussed best practices they have encountered. This year, the associates and other industry leaders moderated and participated on panels showcasing evolving user-centered best practices of CIDM member organizations. The mixture provided participants with a bird’s eye view of the latest trends in the making-some successful, some less so. Regardless of success or failure, each story offered lessons and examples that we can use to keep up with our high-paced work world.
One of the founding principles of the CIDM is to build a community through the exchange of ideas, methods, and information. And, despite the wealth of information and ideas that the participants took away from the sessions, some of the most valuable activities took place before, between, and after sessions. From the reception Sunday evening through the last break on Wednesday, the buzz of conversation grew more animated. Through these discussions, we each found that we are all facing similar challenges in staff recruiting and retention, retooling our departments-both software and processes-and simply being able to keep up with the pace of organizational change. Perhaps the clearest evidence that the CIDM is beginning to fulfill its community-building mission were the greetings, “It’s so good to see you again! What’s been going on in the past year at your company?,” and the good-byes, “Call me about your progress. See you next year!”
Day 1: The Edge of Tomorrow
JoAnn Hackos began the conference by discussing the CIDM initiatives during the last year, including highlights from benchmark studies. Many CIDM members have noted their difficulty in recruiting and retaining employees in the tight high-tech labor market. The CIDM investigated this issue in the Staff Resources Benchmark and its Salary Survey funded by SUN Microsystems. The Staff Resources Benchmark focused on five areas:
- Organizational culture
- Hiring practices
- Financial benefits
- Retention practices
- Salary Survey
The study team discovered that there is no single “magic bullet” in recruiting and retaining talented people; in fact, the team found that retention has more to do with innovation within the department and the relative stability of the company than with any one practice. For example, people looking for traditional security and benefits stay longer at mature companies while individuals looking for bleeding-edge excitement and the possibility of extraordinary financial rewards are willing to work for start-ups. Some participant departments were able to simulate the atmosphere of a start-up through innovative projects while providing the stability of a larger organization.
Nancy King, Comtech Services, presented information on the in-depth salary survey funded by SUN Microsystems. This survey looked not only at salaries but also at the cost of living in different areas as well as the impact of telecommuting on retention. (See Nancy’s article on The Technical Communication Salary Survey for a summary of the results.)
The benchmark study and the salary survey provided a snapshot of today’s world. The next group introduced a job for the future: Information Architect. Julia Cronin, Nortel Networks; Mike Poepping, Lucent Technologies; and Derek Cadzow, Nortel Networks, immersed the conference in a discussion of what Information Architects are and how they benefit their organizations. CIDM will be publishing a job description for an Information Architect in the next year.
User interface design and user task analysis are increasingly becoming a standard part of the information-development department skill set. Gil Mounsey, NCR, and Leila Merritt, Landata Systems, provided case studies on how these skills need to be developed and nurtured in our departments. Gil emphasized that as information developers we must become the subject-matter experts on user needs. Gil’s group has refined marketing and usability tools to track product performance against the needs analysis. The results improved not just the information products but also the entire product. Leila’s group proposed that they design the user interface using a paper prototype to improve both usability and time-to-market.
The first day concluded with three seasoned information-development managers sharing their efforts to improve, change, or streamline processes in response to rapidly changing company and market parameters. De Murr, Walt Disney Imagineering, described how she used the process maturity scorecard to motivate her team toward change. The first and most dramatic change was to write down and standardize their processes. Along this journey, De and her group are navigating around two, perhaps familiar obstacles:
- Cynicism: “We’ve done this before…”/li>
- Intransigency: “We’ve always done it this way…”/li>
Diane Davis, Synopsys, also used the Information Process Maturity Model to motivate change. Her team is now repeatably able to publish all information products on the Web as well as on paper and CD.
Mike Lewis, NCR, reported on how his organization used the Information Process Maturity Model to improve on metrics relating to the effectiveness of the information products they produce and the processes they use. This effort made the information-development team more business-unit and customer driven.
Day 2: Skills, Tools, and Methods
Ginny Redish, Redish & Associates, Inc., opened the second day’s sessions with an energetic and informative discussion on how to author documents for the Web. Her presentation offered research-backed, practical tips on Web information-product development. She detailed some techniques for us to try:
- Give users what they need in as few words as possible/li>
- Let users “grab and go”/li>
- Cut to the essence/li>
- Break up the information; use hyperlinks-and use fragments, when appropriate/li>
- Use tables/li>
Still on the theme of skills to replicate, Ross Hannibal, Varian Medical Systems, and Henry Korman, Wordplay, jointly described how they accomplish real-world, non-academic usability work to design user interfaces for radiation therapy equipment. They ask product developers to see the software and hardware from the patient’s or therapist’s point of view. These perspectives help the developers to improve the product’s usability.
For those members of the audience who didn’t attend the SingleSource 2000 conference, the after-lunch session offered a compressed version of those two days last summer. The single-source panel included Judy Glick-Smith, Integrated Documentation; Chris Christopher, Siebel Systems; Mary Beth Hebert, Lucent Technologies; and Jennifer Brawer, Symantec. The speakers all emphasized a key point that developed during SingleSource 2000: “It’s not the tool!” Rather, the panel stated, there is not a single approach-not one right answer-to implement a single-source system in an organization. They encouraged everyone to focus on processes and people before technology.
Day 3: The Larger Organization
The third day focused on the place of information-development departments inside the larger organization. The first panel focused on strategic planning. Three Cadence managers, Julie Bradbury, John Gough, and Connie Lamansky, looked at strategic planning from three perspectives. Julie, director of knowledge transfer, decided that although she enjoyed strategic planning, it was really a full-time job. She appointed a strategic planning manager whose responsibility it is to identify high-level goals and investigate solutions. John, who leads the knowledge transfer strategic planning, discussed the characteristics needed for the role:
- Be able to proactively and diplomatically manage both internal (inside the department) and external communications/li>
- Drive interactions between groups to develop strategy and build consensus/li>
- Be flexible and technically competent
Connie Lamansky, one of Cadence’s information-development managers, is both John’s peer and his customer. She sees many benefits from including a full-time strategic planning manager because Cadence now has the time to focus on long-term, strategic issues. On the other hand, she also regrets that she no longer has as many opportunities for in-depth strategic planning activities and mentioned a tinge of jealousy for John’s role. Managing this peer/customer tension effectively is a delicate matter requiring excellent feedback skills on all sides.
Christopher Gales added to the panel by offering the history of being a strategic planning manager at Informix, including the elimination of the position as the result of a company reorganization. His company originally created this position to “handle the part of people’s jobs that no one ever had time to do.”
In the next session, four panelists talked about the step you must take after defining and standardizing your processes: refining them. Bill Gearhart, BMC Software, discussed how improved customer access led to better information-product design. He offered the following goal: “Be a Sales person first, an R&D manager second, and a Documentation manager third. Aim to produce information products that customers will pay money for.”
Daphne Walmer, Medtronic, who manages a group that handles worldwide, multi-language, simultaneous information-product releases, explained how her team conducted a thorough process analysis and improvement before they began their single-sourcing project. They hired an outside facilitator to help map their current global processes and build a unified worldwide process as a replacement.
In the case study offered by Helen Sullivan and Lynn Nancarrow from Nortel Networks, they were charged with the task of reengineering the training and documentation processes in a way that unified or blurred organizational boundaries and created a single face to the customer. This challenge involved merging 28 different processes into one, and it affected 1,130 employees in six countries and 66 facilities.
Returning to the opening theme of Staff Resources, a five-person panel concluded with perspectives on how to find and keep qualified staff members in a very competitive market. Kathy Arizon, eWork Exchange, described how dot-coms recruit people. Her organization is a start-up that matches hiring managers with independent professionals.
Mindy Isham, SUN Microsystems, discussed her experience managing “virtual teams.” SUN offers its employees a variety of remote environments, including “drop-in” centers with phones and computers, working at a SUN site closer to one’s home, and several types of telecommuting. She emphasized the need for clear communication and expectations and noted that these alternatives may not be suitable for every job or every person.
George Bradley, J.D. Edwards, tackled one of the most difficult challenges information-development managers face today-the move from the old document management, one-book-one-writer model to a flexible, highly single-sourced content management system. This evolution leaves some existing employees unable to make the transition. George offered a number of suggestions on how to define the skill sets needed in this new environment and how to collaborate with your staff to plan for and adapt to these challenges.
Angelo Frole of Lucent Technologies discussed career development and defining career paths in an atmosphere where roles and expectations are constantly changing. Working from a collaborative model, Lucent Technologies seeks to satisfy user needs by defining the drivers, facilitators, and satisfiers in this model.
Deborah Rosenquist from Dell offered her perspective on retention. She believes that people stay or leave depending on how they align with an organization’s core values. At Dell they have three core values that provide the organizational glue: sense of family, purpose, and esprit de corps. Retention rests on acting on these values by recognizing accomplishments, offering employees the tools to balance work and home, and energizing the work force through community and motivational activities.
The lively closing discussion focused on trends at the conference and in the future. CIDM will continue to offer innovative programs to study the issues, discover best practices, and recommend innovative solutions in the coming year.