Making a Business Case for Benchmarking
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?
- You are a newly appointed technical publications manager, full of energy and eagerness to start doing a great job. But how do you get started, and how do you ever know if you’re doing a good, let alone a great job?
- Your boss (or marketing, or operations, or customer services) says: “The field is having a lot of problems with our documentation-you’d better find out what they are and fix them fast….”
- Your boss says: “We have to cut back on expenses. The engineering VP wants to understand what the documentation group costs and what we get in return.”
- Your staff members come to you with any of these statements: “I’m underpaid, under-appreciated, unclear on my goals, not advancing myself professionally, and besides, does anyone actually read this stuff that I slave over anyway?”
In my 21-year career in technical communication, I’ve learned that participation in benchmark studies helps me to answer these kinds of questions. Benchmark participation also helps me to obtain recognition for my department’s best practices from supervisors who may not fully understand or appreciate the technical communication industry.
Merriam-Webster defines the word benchmark as a point of reference from which measurements may be made, something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged, a standardized problem or test that serves as a basis for evaluation or comparison (as of computer system performance)1.
To put it simply, a benchmark is an activity that compares what you do and how you do it to what others in your field do and how they do it. Typically, benchmark activities consist of four, usually sequential but sometimes overlapping, phases.
- Identification of goals and participants
- Data collection
- Data organization and presentation
- Results and recommendations
Identifying goals and participants
During the initial phases of a benchmark study, goals must be defined to ensure that the appropriate subject areas are researched and included in the final report and recommendations. Many times, the goals help define who will participate in the study.
Questions asked during this phase include:
- Are the goals relevant only to a specific industry? If so, then participants should be solicited from firms only within the industry. One supporting example is the Telecommunications Industry Benchmark performed by the Center for Information-Development Management in 2000.
- Is the goal to investigate new technology or to determine how you compare with others in implementing new technology? If so, then participants should be solicited from firms who either have an interest or have relevant projects underway. One supporting example is the Single Sourcing Benchmark Study performed by the Center for Information-Development Management in 1998.
- Are there specific problems you need to solve? One supporting example is the Staffing Resources Benchmark Study performed in 2001, which helped managers develop new ideas and approaches for employee retention based on the work and initiatives of other participants.
Although the kind of information gathered at this stage is important, it is also important to identify your own goals as a technical communication department manager.
- Do you want to jump-start a new technology with the real life experience of other participants?
- Do you want data and justifications for new technology or new processes that you can present to your management?
- Do you want to highlight your own accomplishments and highlight your department’s successes?
Identifying your personal goals and ambitions will help guide you to the benchmark that will benefit you the most.
To collect the data that is the basis for the report and recommendations, an impartial consulting firm trained to identify trends and “best practices” meets with study participants. Preceded by a questionnaire, the benchmark study includes an on-site visit where information stakeholders meet and discuss their processes and innovations.
Data organization and presentation
Raw data alone is not useful. Once collected, the data must be organized and presented in a fashion that can be easily understood. The data organization and presentation task of the benchmarking effort is very similar to what technical communicators do every day: that is, to sift through a variety of dissimilar material in a wide variety of formats and synthesize it into clear and crisp information targeted to the appropriate audience. If the audience for your benchmarking results is executive management, organizing and presenting data as charts, graphs, and pictures is usually much more effective than delivering pages of prose or eye-straining spreadsheets.
Results and recommendations
This is, by far, the most important aspect of the benchmark. Once benchmark data has been collected and organized, what are you going to do with it? What does it tell you to start, to stop, or to continue? What are the specific implications of the benchmark results to you and to your organization?
Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, this critical step is omitted in many benchmarks. Many benchmark reports are delivered and then find a permanent home in a file drawer somewhere without any action ever resulting. If you are energetic or fortunate enough to participate in a benchmark, it is vital that you recommend or take some action that can be linked back to the benchmark data. If you do not, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to justify any subsequent benchmarks. You will not only have lost credibility with your management, but also, and perhaps more important, you will have lost credibility with your staff and others who supported you the first time.
Selling Benchmarking to Management
Assuming your firm has competitive products and is generating sales, your management is pretty much interested in the same things you are: Are customers happy with our products and services (including documentation)? Are we as efficient and productive as possible in our development and deployment processes? And are we keeping our employees happy enough to prevent excessive attrition?
If you’re going to ask for funding for benchmarking projects, you need to build a strong return on investment case in one or more of these key areas of management interest. For example, if the benchmark need is in the area of customer satisfaction, you’ll have to demonstrate how you’re going to measure it, how you’re going to improve it, and attempt to quantify the value of the increase (increased sales revenues, more repeat business, and so on). Will the benchmark participation help to improve staff productivity (and consequently reduce costs)? Will it help to simply take cost out of the process or deliverables, such as replacing expensive printed books with books on the Web or on CD-ROM? Will the benchmark provide evidence that our employees are compensated fairly, that their benefit package is equitable, and that our work environment is conducive to high morale and productivity?
Results of a benchmark study can also be used to justify current processes and practices. For example, George Bradley, CIDM member and Director of Information Development at JD Edwards, realized that the data from two benchmark studies his department had participated in, Staffing Resources and Single Sourcing, helped during a recent reorganization. “As new leadership assumed responsibility for our department, and we reorganized and merged with our training organization, we were able to use both benchmark studies to support our current business practices and advocate for improvements where they were needed.”
In all cases, you’ll be best served by turning your arguments for benchmarking into hard metrics and dollars and cents. If you can convince management that the payback from the benchmark will be far greater than the cost in terms of bottom line impact, then you’ll win the day. It all comes down to knowing your audience and what’s important to them. Give them arguments and data points they can understand, relate to, and support.
In addition to providing a view of the rest of the world that you can use to improve your own operations, benchmarking provides several intangible, but still important, benefits as well. Conducting or participating in a benchmark study expands your personal network of technical communication and industry professionals. On the CIDM Web site, this is referred to as a “sense of community,2” and so it is. With a rolodex of other practitioners at your disposal, your options for getting answers and comparative information increases. Often, a simple phone call to a peer will be just enough to validate a concept or to obtain a solution to a thorny problem.
The more awareness you have of what others are doing, the more you increase your personal credibility with your management and your staff. Often, the insertion of external data and anecdotes into presentations, meeting discussions, and even hallway conversations can go a long way to promote the perception that you are an expert in your field. As an example, Marit Mobedjina, participant and co-organizer for the Telecommunications Industry Benchmark and CIDM member, often tells a story of being in a meeting of peer managers to discuss how Ericsson compared in very specific areas to their competitors. Marit, as a result of her participation in the benchmark, was able to say what their competitors were doing when no one else in the meeting could. Once your peers and management perceive your expertise, many contrary issues and arguments either disappear or never materialize.
Successful managers also use benchmark studies as a way to inform and educate their project managers as in the case of CIDM members George Bradley of JD Edwards and Julie Bradbury of Cadence Design Systems. Julie feels that by assigning a benchmark study to one of her managers “they get the chance to get involved, and