Managing Information Development
The contributors in this Best Practices issue point to the increasingly complex challenges of managing information development. Once upon a time, many managers worked directly with writers and other staff members who had offices or cubicles in the same building and on the same floor. It was easy to trade information, building informal networks upon those working on parts of the same deliverables. It was also relatively easy to develop formal activities such as weekly status or design planning meetings to ensure that we were all heading in the same direction. Managers could also spend time in individual discussions with staff, listening to their concerns and frustrations and exploring solutions together. Many of us managing technical writers became quite adept at building in the work place a genuine sense of community.
Now, as our contributors make clear, managers must handle an increasingly diverse organization, an organization of people who are separated by geography and culture, in addition to training and experience.
Geographic distribution of our information developers requires serious planning if we are to ensure that productive communication takes place. Certainly, we have experienced geographic distribution of staff members before. We’ve had individuals housed with remote development teams or people working from home offices. But the challenges of geographic distribution appear to be more difficult than ever, exacerbated by travel restrictions. Time zone spread makes scheduling team meetings nearly impossible, requiring some to come to work two or three hours early and others to stay at the office after hours or take calls from home. Bans on travel result in managers working with staff they have never met. Individuals working alone or with a small and often inexperienced group of colleagues have often had difficulty knowing what the rest of the organization is doing.
Geographic distribution also requires that our interactions with developers and other information resources be much more formal than they have been in the past. Conversations over the water cooler and informal review practices must be replaced with formal information exchanges. As Liz Gabel tells us, even responses to email questions must be handled through formal management channels.
Although cultural differences among staff members are less immediately visible than geographic differences, cultural differences are more likely to have a serious impact on the ability of the team to meet deadlines and achieve a uniform level of quality. Managers tell us that they must work hard to understand how staff members perceive their responsibilities. Mike Eleder points to the need for explicit agreements about deadlines, required content, and quality. He finds it necessary to create formal requirements documents that detail the information that must be developed in the topics or books assigned. These requirements documents are developed by senior staff members at the “home” location who have experience with the products, the corporate style, and the needs of customers.
Level of Experience and Training
I find that the most difficult challenge for many managers is working with remote staff who do not have the training or experience we typically take for granted among new hires. Certainly, we have all hired entry-level writers who showed promise but had no education or experience in technical communication.
However, we likely assigned the entry-level folks to more experienced writers who could guide their work and provide essential feedback. We might even have had an informal training program to guide new hires.
Now, we are being asked to find low-cost staff in areas where there is no tradition of technical communication. New hires often have no experience with information development at all. In fact, in many case, we hear of new low-cost hires who take writing jobs on the promise that real “computer-related” work will be available shortly.
The problem occurs when we have work sites populated 100 percent by new entry-level hires with no supervision by experienced staff. Even a locally hired manager may have little or no experience in the field. Local training opportunities are either rare or non-existent, requiring that expensive training resources be provided if funding can be found. One manager told me that it was like having hired an entire department of interns with no senior staff available. The “interns” were going to have a very difficult time coming up to speed on department policies, deadline requirements, tools and technologies, and even the basics of technical communication.
My first recommendation is to read carefully the articles in this issue of Best Practices. Mike Eleder, Mark Baker, Pat Benson, Liz Gabel, Diane Davis, and Beth Barrow look at the problems of managing from different perspectives. They each offer solutions that will undoubtedly help you solve some aspect of the management challenges you’re encountering today.
My second recommendation is to review thoughtfully the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM). In the August 2004 issue of Best Practices, I updated the model. If you don’t have access to the article, please let us know and we’ll be happy to send it. Many of the information-development departments that we study do not have sufficient processes in place to manage in this new world. They are still relying on the ad-hoc, informal methods of working with staff. At Level 1 or Level 2 of the IPMM, organizations rarely are consistent in their planning, estimating, and tracking practices. They often have no method of quality assurance aside from technical reviews, having eliminated most of the editors long ago.
Many of the management practices that underpin the IPMM are derived from the experience of large, multinational organizations like IBM, Unisys, Xerox, Digital Equipment Corporation, and others who participated in the original IPMM study. Their best practices are the product of handling the exact sort of distributed management challenges, with multi-cultural staff, and wide ranges of experience that more and more of us face today. It may seem to many managers, coming with work experience in smaller, more tightly knit software development organizations that the processes that form the basis of Level 3 process maturity are too costly or cumbersome. They need not be, especially if we take advantage of Mark Baker’s thoughts on lean manufacturing. Content management and topic-based authoring provide us with a platform that saves time and money. At the same time, they require that we have more collaboration among team members than ever before, a requirement made increasingly more difficult by the globalization of our development work. It’s now time to take process maturity very seriously, coupled with new lean methods that emphasize activities that add value and quality.