February 2003

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos

Dear Friends,

Just a year ago, we were discussing the problems of hiring in a very tight job market. Today, our world has gone through a massive 180-degree economic shift, leaving many CIDM organizations with jobs and budgets cut. Many CIDM members are having difficulty finding the funds to renew their memberships. As our organizational revenues decline, we face the same problem everyone in the technology industry is facing: How to maintain our level of service to our customers.

I had an interesting conversation with my son this weekend. He is a financial manager for a fast-growing company in the food-packaging industry. It seems as if all the growth in the economy, when it occurs at all, is happening outside high-tech. His department has a growing volume of work but not a growing number of people. Even though they are not faced with reductions in force, they are not increasing staff at the same rate that the work increases. Sounds familiar! In time of reduced fortunes, staff numbers seem to decrease far faster than the level of work.

In times of work-volume stress, many organizations respond by subtle prioritizing. Managers assign work; then, staff members prioritize the assignments, doing what they believe is most important and leaving the rest for another day. Often, another day never seems to come. Much work lays in wait, until additional requests and reminders from influential people push that work to the top of the priority list. We get by without having to announce formally that some work will never get done.

How important is promising more than one can deliver? My son’s point is that informing upper management about the workload results in only negatives:

“That work is important. It must be done. I don’t want to hear any excuses. Do what it takes, but get it done.”

How many of you have heard such responses to a reasonable assessment of the workload?

Some managers take a different position. I have written previously about the advantages of learning to “just say no.” Prioritizing assignments is never easy, but introducing reality into the decision-making is a sensible course to take. Without some agreement about the priority of activities, we are left with individual, ad-hoc decisions. One writer decides to leave out quality checks; another chooses to reformat engineering documents without regard to their usability; yet another decides not to redesign older information because redesign is too time-consuming.

In a recent user and task analysis workshop at one of our member companies, writers voiced their concern about the added level of effort that investigating user needs and tasks entails.

“Where will we find the time?” people moaned. “We can hardly get our work done satisfactorily as it is.”

Fortunately for this organization, publications managers acknowledged the problem and have decided to set a program of user analysis as a top priority. They understand that without additional information about users, they have no reasonable, customer-focused means of prioritizing the workload. By understanding more precisely what customers need, they can omit what is not necessary from the documentation.

At the same time, managers need to take a hard look at older legacy documentation. Perhaps the best solution to the time crunch is to leave some legacy documents alone. If there is little to gain in terms of increased revenues and customer satisfaction or decreased support costs, that legacy is not worth redesigning. Better to put scarce resources where they will make the most difference.

The Balanced Scorecard approach encourages us to ask ourselves tough questions about prioritizing workload.

  • Does the work we do decrease costs or increase revenues?
  • Does an increase in customer satisfaction translate into more sales?
  • Does an improvement in accessibility reduce support costs?
  • Do we produce better returns with more valuable information or with multiple media for delivering that information?
  • Does content win over format and style?
  • Are we doing things because they are fun for writers, not because they are valuable to customers?

Once we ask questions like these and try to find the best answers, we find it more and more difficult to justify activities that don’t directly contribute to our success in the larger organization. By prioritizing work as an organization, with advice from peers and upper management, we have a better chance of focusing on what is really important to customers rather than what is important to individuals acting alone.

I urge all the readers to send in suggestions for prioritizing work. We should be able to run a survey soon on this topic to gather more ideas from you. CIDMIconNewsletter