The Information Process Maturity Model: A 2004 Update
“How do we compare with other information-development organizations?”
“Are we following best practices?”
So goes the information-development managers’ most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). The FAQs continue:
- How do our processes match up to the best-in-class companies?
- Are we doing things as well or better than our competitors?
- Is our information as good as everyone else’s?
- What might we do to improve?
The Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM) has grown as an increasingly reliable and informative response to these and similar FAQs. Managers are asked to demonstrate that they are at least as efficient and cost effective as others in the field. They are asked by senior management if their work measures up to others’. They may even be asked if other departments have found ways to produce information that meets customer needs at lower costs.
What Is the IPMM?
The IPMM describes the practices that make an information-development organization successful. Over the past 12 years, we have regularly updated the IPMM based on a continuing analysis of organizations that exhibit best practices in the information-development industry. We look for organizations and managers that add to the profitability of their larger organizations, develop the information customers need, and run effective and efficient business operations.
We have found that remarkably little has changed in our assessment of the characteristics of an effective information-development organization. However, we have seen changes, probably for the worse, in the opportunities for education and training of staff members, especially inhouse training. We have seen changes in organizational structure that require new management skills, including the management of remote writing groups, more often today located in countries with few information-development traditions or educational opportunities. We have also seen a considerable increase in the amount of outsourcing in certain industries, including telecommunications and computer hardware. Outsourcing has been extended to include groups in countries that offer low-cost labor.
Capable managers leading best-in-class organizations have had to learn to cope with the challenges by embracing technical and design innovations at the same time that they have had to pursue more ordinary ways to reduce costs. We believe that the IPMM remains an extremely valuable tool for managers seeking to better understand their own organizations and their relationship with others inside and outside their companies.
How Did It Get Started?
I first defined the IPMM in my 1994 book, Managing Your Documentation Projects. However, work on the IPMM had begun some years before. Throughout the 1980s, my company, Comtech Services, was engaged in many consulting projects with a wide variety of organizations, all engaged in producing information for employees and clients. We worked with software development companies that needed technical documentation and training materials for their products; we worked with mining, energy, and manufacturing companies that were developing new business proposals and reporting on field research projects to clients; we worked with numerous government agencies looking for ways to communicate their research to the public. In each of these encounters, we found both dysfunctional organizations unable to organize simple process flows or control costs and highly successful organizations that seemed to do everything well. And, of course, we found most organizations somewhere in between, doing some things very well and others barely adequately.
As a result, we began to form a picture of the range of characteristic behaviors that seemed to make a difference in the organization’s success.
At the same time, I became interested in the work of Gerald Weinberg in systems engineering. A physicist by education, Gerald appeared to have a parallel life to mine, studying the success of organizations engaged in software engineering. Weinberg postulated five levels of organizational maturity in the software industry, from Pattern 0: Oblivious to Pattern 5: Congruent.
Also during that time, the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) was organized by the Department of Defense through Carnegie Mellon University. I followed their development of a five-level model of maturity in software development with interest, although I found Weinberg’s work to be much less government-focused. The problem I saw with the original SEI model was its complete disregard for information development. Documentation, it seems, was simply an evil necessity, a by-product of the software development life cycle. The underlying assumption seemed to be that a software development organization was successful if it was able to meet deadlines, stay within budget, and deliver product that met the specifications. Usability, a user-centered focus, or a recognition that people needed effective training and information to perform successfully using the new software, was never mentioned.
The emerging problem, as I saw it, was that software developers, many of whom employed growing legions of technical writers, were not going to learn anything about responsible information development or usability from the SEI model. In fact, a few information-development managers had called to report how concerned they were when their companies brought in assessors for what became known as the Capabilities Maturity Model (CMM). These assessors either were uninterested in looking at information development or usability or were oblivious to our special direction in supporting customer performance and success.
Quite obviously, there was a need for something to support information and training development. Hence the development of the IPMM. Despite the impetus provided by the unfortunate assumptions in the CMM, the IPMM owes more to Gerald Weinberg than to the SEI. Weinberg provided a more thoughtful, customer-oriented structure that we could emulate.
What Are the Five Levels?
In parallel to the CMM and Weinberg’s model, I selected five levels of maturity for the IPMM. For some of the training classes we offer in process maturity, I’ve postulated a sixth level. Level 0: Oblivious seems to adequately describe those organizations that employ no professional information developers, usability professionals, or instructional designers, assuming that the information to support use of products can be developed by the engineers and programmers or is not needed at all. Their products, as everyone clearly recognizes, are completely intuitive and can be learned through osmosis.
The five levels of the IPMM provide you with a model both to assess your current organization and to set your sights on process improvement. The IPMM gives you a blueprint for change by capturing the characteristics of successful organizations that routinely meet or exceed customer expectations. (See Table 1.)
What Are the Eight Key Characteristics?
During an IPMM assessment, we evaluate an organization according to eight key characteristics. These characteristics help to describe how a successful information-development organization functions. The focus, of course, is on structure, process, and best practices. We firmly believe that there is a close correspondence between the behaviors outlined by the eight key characteristics and the ability of the staff to produce excellent information products.
However, it is possible, but highly unlikely, that an organization has all the behaviors it needs to be successful and still produces defective products. We know, for example, that highly bureaucratic organizations, such as we tend to see in the military, have in place all the rules and processes that one could think of. Yet, because they are reluctant to change old information-design models, their products rarely change. Such organizations are typically Level 3 and not higher, simply because the customer-knowledge characteristics of Levels 4 and 5 are typically accompanied by innovative, customer-centric designs. It’s hard to spend much time with customers and continue to ignore their needs for more effective information content and delivery.
Nonetheless, we need to remind managers and staff that the measure of quality for information products that really counts is customer satisfaction and performance. If customers cannot find what they need nor use the information to reach their goals quickly and effectively, then the information products are not successful.
No outsiders, no matter how experienced in information design, can tell you if the information you produce is excellent. Only your customers can be the judges.
Table 2 provides a brief outline of the eight key characteristics. A complete IPMM assessment includes many more distinctions about the nature of activities within each level.
Since we first introduced the IPMM in 1994, the essential characteristics of successful, well-run departments have not changed significantly. At the same time, some of the challenges have increased in magnitude and difficulty. The 1990s and 2000s have added complexity to the responsibilities of information-development managers.
Mergers and acquisitions
Mergers and acquisitions have increased dramatically in the past decade, often accompanied by a reluctance to change the cultures of any of the parties, at least not initially. Information developers from a multitude of different organizations find that, at first, no real connection with the “corporate” brand is being asked of them. However, after a year or two, someone notices that the company has no information identity and encourages a blending of the information design.
The arm’s-length relationship can certainly continue. Sometimes, managers find that they have peers in the merged organizations. In other cases, managers discover a plethora of lone writers who have no real sense of a corporate identity. The task of creating a single standard for information development is difficult even within a single department. Working across departments can seem daunting, especially if the level of distrust is high.
However, the IPMM suggests that customers are best served when information developers collaborate and pursue best practices. That requires the unification of disparate entities into a single department or a confederation of like-minded departments, each led by an experienced manager. With such confederations, we often find a corporate-level group that serves as the coordinators, helping to set and maintain standards in information design, packaging, training, and localization and translation. Whatever activities you can select that will benefit from economies of scale can be viewed as contributing to a high level of process maturity.
Offshore information development
Another change that accompanies mergers and acquisitions is an increased reliance on offshore information development. Large, multinational corporations have always had information developers in many countries, usually because those countries also have product development activities. More recently, however, companies are looking to low-cost labor in countries like India, China, Chile, Argentina, and even Eastern Europe to provide product development services at a lower cost than in North America or Western Europe. Accompanying this move has been the addition of information developers, sometimes working along with product developers and sometimes working independently. The promised savings in salaries is at least 80 percent. However, we find that information development is much more challenging to outsource to third-world countries than software programming. Because of language and cultural differences and the absence of a tradition of technical communication, the results of offshoring information development are often very disappointing.
We suggest to embattled managers trying to make a go of outsourcing and offshoring that they use the IPMM as a point of departure. It can be extremely useful to conduct a process maturity assessment with an outsource vendor or an offshore department to gain an in-depth understanding of the changes needed for the venture to be successful.
A Level 3 or 4 information-development organization suddenly having to rely upon a Level 1 or 2 group of individuals can be challenging. And, an organization that is itself not Level 3 should not consider outsourcing or offshoring at all. Such an organization does not have the processes in place to communicate effectively with an outside organization or a completely new and untrained group of employees.
Demands for increased productivity and reductions in force
The third challenge that we believe has been exacerbated by changes in the corporate climate over the past 10 years is productivity. Reductions in force and the lack of new hiring to accommodate increased workloads have forced information developers to explore opportunities to reduce the work of developing technical information. We have seen a significant increase in interest in task analysis, minimalism, and content management as groups look for ways to manage the demands with the same or fewer staff members.
Managers who have planned well and have developed a Level 3 organization find that they are better equipped to discover opportunities to improve productivity than those who rely on individual contributors and brute force to keep up with a never-ending workload. Using technology to improve productivity, at the same time that you pursue ways of innovating information development and delivery techniques, promises a chance for a solution.
What Are the Key IPMM Concepts That Managers Need to Know?
The IPMM delineates the key characteristics of a successful, innovative, customer-oriented information-development organization. In the IPMM, we have developed critical success factors:
- A centralized management structure to which information developers report that has the ability to develop and enforce standards in process, information design, and publishing.
- An information-development process that has measurement at its core, including the ability to estimate projects thoroughly and as accurately as possible and to adjust estimates when workload or resources change.
- A business-oriented, strategic perspective on the value and role of information development to the success of the enterprise.
- The ability to hire and train a professional staff and build with them a vision of the future.
- A customer-oriented perspective that assumes ownership of the customer’s learning experience and productive use of the enterprise products and services.
With these critical perspectives in place and the ability to assume responsibility for the strategic direction of your organization, you are more than likely to succeed as a senior manager and assume a place in the corporate hierarchy that allows you to align with corporate objectives and increase the effectiveness and future profitability of your organization’s products and services.
An IPMM Assessment
The CIDM, under my direction, regularly conducts IPMM assessments of information-development organizations. During an assessment, we interview staff members, managers, and stakeholders in peer organizations and among senior management to gather information about the activities and qualities of the organization. We take into account current practices in the eight key areas described in Table 2. We look at examples of documents produced during the information-development life cycle, and we review examples of information products produced by your team.
In the comprehensive assessment report, we provide you with benchmark data that shows the relationship between your organization and other like organizations in process maturity. The report includes detailed findings describing the current level of process maturity and recommendations for moving to the next higher level. It also includes an assessment of the risk in not being successful. The report recommends actions that conform with a Six Sigma continuous-process improvement schedule.
Using assessments to evaluate remote, merged, and outsourced departments and threats to your future
If you are challenged to increase productivity, reduce costs, and manage remote teams of individuals or merged departments, consider beginning with a process maturity assessment. Study the maturity level of your operation and those of sister organizations and outsource vendors. Use the results of an assessment to strengthen your position with senior management, gain support for your process-improvement initiatives, and resist hasty and ill-considered cost-reduction schemes.