Stanford business school professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton recently published Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). In this book, they consider the dangers inherent in popular but potentially harmful management practices. Two of these practices resonate with information development: casual benchmarking and doing what has worked in the past.
At the CIDM, we have long advocated the importance of benchmarking among information developers. The Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM) is based upon the importance of benchmarking our efforts against industry leaders. The CIDM has sponsored numerous benchmark studies, most recently the study of information development activities in China. Each benchmark study is carefully planned, and the final reports provide context for the actions described as effective. We are especially careful to explain that what works for one organization does so because of a complex set of circumstances that may be difficult for others to duplicate.
Pfeffer and Sutton point out that benchmarking must be done with care. They argue that it is often far too informal. Senior managers hear about an interesting business innovation and decide to pursue it, especially if it has been adopted by the competition. Much outsourcing to China and other low-cost economies seems to occur because of casual benchmarking. How often have we heard about an information-development management being told to start a writing group in India, China, Uruguay, or elsewhere despite well-reasoned argument and data that predict failure? How many organizations are pursuing single sourcing without really understanding its costs or the structural requirements necessary for it to succeed?
Too often, we copy only the “most visible, obvious, and frequently least important” practices without understanding the underlying culture that has made these practices a success. Pfeffer and Sutton point out, for example, that United was singularly unsuccessful in copying Southwest Airlines low-cost performance. United dressed everyone in casual clothes, eliminated food service, increased flight frequency, and flew smaller planes but still ended up well behind Southwest. What United did not emulate was Southwest’s culture and management philosophy.
As you consider the ideas that you get from others, including those from CIDM benchmark activities, be careful. Ask yourself what is really important about the practice you hope to emulate. If a company has been particularly successful in single sourcing, is that because of the nature of the information it develops, or its ability to foster collaboration among its writers, or because it just purchased a content management system?
Information developers place a great emphasis on tools and technologies. It’s always amazing how well attended the sessions on tools are at conferences. People flock to presentations about the latest content management system, help development tool, or XML editor. They prefer speakers who give them easy solutions, preferably with lots of bulleted lists. They stay away from sessions and speakers who emphasize careful planning and clear design. It all sounds too difficult when there must be an easy fix out there.
Instead of blind copying, ask serious questions about the practice or the technology. Decide upon the exact relationship between the practice and the improvement in performance or costs that you want to emulate. Be careful about people who make something sound too easy. Question whether they are really gaining from the practice.
I hear, for example, about organizations that have spent considerable money on converting existing documents into topics using “easy” conversion tools. As a result, they have many topics in XML and in a content management system. They can assemble the topics to produce—exactly what they started with. What have they gained? Without using the move to a new technology as an opportunity to clean house, they get the same old mess in a new environment. Not only is there no gain, but the change in technology may have increased the difficulty of managing the information.
Doing what has worked in the past
Think about how much of what you do today is a carry-over from what you’ve done in the past. Many of the practices used in document design are inherited from book publishing, including prefaces and introductions. I often hear writers exclaim, “But we’ve always done it that way” or “It’s required by our style sheet.” They have a difficult time letting go of the way it’s always been done.
Certainly, we have a lot to learn from experience. Inexperienced information developers make the same mistakes time and again until they learn differently through the guidance of more experienced colleagues. However, we also need to learn that the environment changes and what might have been effective in the past now presents problems.
Do you have, for example, as much time as you did 10 years ago to read in the workplace? Can you sit down with the latest manual for the new version of a tool and learn how it really works? Or, do you dive in and hope for the best? If your answer is “yes,” consider that it’s also true of your users. They have just as little time to read documentation as you do. Should you continue writing the same content or adding even more with each release? When does minimalism become a priority?
It’s wise to learn from past experience without becoming tied to practices that need to change. It’s good to learn what others are doing to improve their information development without blindly copying whatever seems easiest to implement.
Careful benchmarking, industry best practices, and innovations are essential parts of our management education. Just be certain that you understand the environments in which successes occur. If the environment is close to your own and the circumstances surrounding the changes are well explained, you will have a better chance to use the change to your advantage.