Changing the Way We Work


December 2008

From the Director

CIDMIconNewsletterJoAnn Hackos

Changing the Way We Work

By December 2008, we are clearly in the middle of a significant economic slowdown. Each week we learn about new layoffs in technical communication. One company layed off 80 percent of its writing staff and decided to offshore even more work to low-cost economies.

What are the changes we can anticipate as a result? What changes have we predicted in the last five years that seem unlikely in the immediate future?

When our companies are simply trying to weather the storm, their interest in the quality of communication with their customers takes a back burner to more immediate sales’ efforts. Even if we don’t experience layoffs, we do experience a shift in attention. Of course, cost cutting still takes up much of our energy but it becomes more difficult to find the funding to move into content management and structured, topic-based authoring.

Staff Specialization is No Longer an Excuse

One prediction I’ve been making for some time is the increased need for staff members to specialize in new areas of information design and information technology. We definitely need people who understand information architecture, topic-based writing, and the tools associated with XML authoring and content management systems. However, with decreased staff size and less investment in training, how do we support specializations?

We have to rely on every member of the current staff to take responsibility with a personal investment in new learning. We can’t afford to have even one staff member who opts out. Everyone must participate in creating an information model for the organization that will optimize content reuse.


Everyone must participate in minimalism by

aggressively paring down content that is not immediately useful and relevant to the customer. Everyone must take a role in understanding customer needs more precisely than ever before. No one can be complacent in the face of change.

As we all know following the US presidential election, change is the major theme of our economy and our politics not only in the US but around the world. Especially important in the current discussions, I believe, is the need for everyone to become an active participant rather than a bystander. Perhaps that means a call for volunteerism in our society, something that has been downplayed in the past few years. It does mean that we cannot stand back and expect the government to do everything for us any more.

The same holds true for our obligations to our professional colleagues. We can’t assume that someone else will be responsible for preparing a new information model that takes advantage of innovations like DITA and XML-based authoring. We can’t argue that we’re too busy meeting deadlines to contribute to the development of a new information architecture. We can’t stick to our cubicles rather than getting out to meet customers, phoning them, or having online discussions.

Ultimately, actively participating in changing our working environment, savings costs, and increasing information quality and usability is everyone’s responsibility.

It’s Not Someone Else’s Job Anymore

I’m often discouraged in our consulting practice when some writers decide not to participate in the activities that the department is pursuing. They don’t sign up for tasks that need to be investigated and completed. They sit on the sidelines when others are trying out the new XML editor or experimenting with putting their content into the DITA model. They opt out of meetings because they’re too busy handling the legacy content.

Most unfortunately, we find some individuals who decide that they won’t cooperate at all. They’re not interested in fostering their own careers and refuse to help the organization as a whole. They just seem to want an “easy” job of doing the same old things that they’ve always done. Often that means updating content that no one reads or fussing with the output format in FrameMaker (that no one in the user community cares about).

In tough times, I suspect that those will be the first people to go in the next round of layoffs. The manager has to make difficult decisions, and people who can do only one thing are not the most valuable members of the team. Managers need willing participants who are anxious to learn and will devote some of their personal time and energy to the effort.

That means that we cannot afford to be specialists now or in the foreseeable future. We can’t afford to be the people who turn out the books when customers aren’t using them. We can’t afford to focus on endless format tweaks when we need energy devoted to making the formatting unimportant or eliminating it all together.

My advice now to managers and staff is to take the slowdown very seriously. Have the critical conversations within your team and be honest about the future. Change is absolutely required; it is no longer an option for any of us. If you don’t participate, you are likely not only to be left behind but to be removed from the conversation.CIDMIconNewsletter