From the Director
Given the challenges of the past few years-reducing headcount, moving projects offshore, doing more with less-information-development managers have felt as if we were constantly doing battle to preserve our values and remain loyal to our staff and companies. Talk about spending money on new technology, and the shields go up. Talk about meeting customers, and everyone complains about not enough time to do their regular jobs.
At the 2004 Best Practices conference, we learned that the time for whining is over. Over and over we heard senior managers present their tales of innovation. New directions. Significant change in practices. More thorough alignment with business goals. I feel that the people speaking at the conference represent the future of information development, not the past. They’re stretching toward goals that will meet customer needs in direct ways at the same time that they reduce the cost of operations.
Barbara Giammona, Vice President at Morgan Stanley, opened the conference with a view toward the future of technical communication. Based upon her survey of technical-communication leaders, Barbara proposed to us that the field must change in order to survive. We need to join the mainstream by aligning with corporate goals, especially when asked to reduce costs. We need to take our business responsibilities seriously and stop whining about a lack of respect.
Barbara concludes that we must
- Make our teams critical to our firm’s operations
- Change who we are so we are less subject to some of the forces affecting us
- Be a true business professional-think strategically, globally, and about the bottom line
- Develop innovative new products and find new customers to consume them
- Develop our own careers, reaching above and beyond our core technical competency
The speakers throughout the rest of the program were clearly up to the challenge.
Daphne Walmer, Director of Technical Communications at Medtronic, took us through her process of bringing about change in how the medical device industry delivers product information. Until early in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that medical device manuals be printed and included in the package with the device. Given the volume of information provided and the need to translate into many local languages, the cost of print manuals has risen exponentially. Finally, the FDA has given its OK to electronic delivery. But getting approval in the US was only the first step in a much longer journey for Daphne and her staff. They have spent the past year building their case with the European Union, making multiple presentations to government leaders in country after country, to convince the EU members that electronic delivery was not only cost-effective, but it was an environmentally sound approach to reducing paper waste and it actually presented an opportunity to improve communication with the medical community. Daphne has provided critical leadership not only to her company but also to her industry as a whole.
Mike Eleder, Senior Manager at Lucent Technologies, was challenged to move a portion of information development to low-cost offshore providers. Instead of bemoaning the fact, Mike developed a comprehensive approach that has retained responsibility for user analysis, design, and quality in the hands of experienced staff members in the US and Europe (for a former company, by the way, not Lucent). The project team members develop an information plan for each new project, outlining in detail exactly what new content must be developed, what will be used, and what will be modified. The package of information specifies what work must be done, how it must be done, who will do it, and when everything is due. Every step of the process is defined, with acceptance criteria. They require weekly progress reports and frequent content inspections. The process takes effort on the part of the internal project team, but the strict process requirements help to ensure more reliable results.
Susan Mills and Dave Schell from IBM Corporation provided us an impressive process of measuring results. At the outset, they identified their key point, “Everything that matters is measured, tracked, and managed; otherwise it really does not matter.” To demonstrate how they identify opportunities for innovation, Susan and Dave explained their approach of Horizon planning. The IBM information-development teams plan for change by looking at “what is on the horizon.” The first horizon addresses improvements in normal business processes, such as changes that promise to reduce the number of steps in a process. The second horizon looks at innovation through the work of small teams who are assigned to projects such as the development of a new topic-based information architecture (the DITA model). The third horizon looks farther out, investing in the work of internal and external researchers who consider radically different ways of approaching information design and development. Susan and Dave reported amazing results in terms of cost savings, amounting to millions of dollars at IBM, all through innovations at all levels of the information-development organization.
Monti Lawrence and Barry Kaplan from Symantec explained how documentation and training have worked together to achieve impressive levels of reuse. They described in some detail the unified content strategy that their teams have put into place. They began with detailed standards that would support consistency among topics developed by the teams of authors. Then they implemented a planning and design process in which writers and instructional designers plan the entire set of modules needed for the release of a product. Their content model details what deliverables will be produced and defines every topic that must be written new, modified, or used intact. Symantec writers work with a simple, straightforward, but powerful topic architecture. They create two topic types: How to (procedural) and About (conceptual). Their content development matrix lists everything that must be created and where it will be used. Equally impressive is their system of tracking all the individual modules and deliverables through the development life cycle.
Janet Williams-Hepler described Microsoft’s program of customer-driven publishing. She showed examples of Microsoft online help modules, each of which provides customers the opportunity to provide feedback to the writers. Writers on the Office Applications team are assigned as owners to the help topics. They monitor the customer feedback and other sources of information daily. Based on customer feedback and prioritization of issues, the writers revise topics and publish them to the online help system on the Internet as soon as they have been approved. As a result, customers don’t have to wait until the next release to see improvements in the content in the help system. Janet also described the internal system called Content Watson (ever the famous detective colleague of Sherlock Holmes) that the writers use to track user feedback on a topic-by-topic basis.
These speakers represent only about a third of the innovative ideas to which participants were treated at the conference. Everyone came away with ideas for innovation in their own organizations, not only from the presentations but through their many opportunities for informal conversations with colleagues.
We have asked all of the presenters I’ve mentioned here to develop articles for upcoming issues of the Best Practices newsletter. We hope you will all look forward to more stimulating and innovative ideas through the coming year. We all have a new sense of urgency built through the examples of our colleagues. We know we can change the future of information development in a positive way.