Responding to an Economic Downturn
In April 2001, I published a Director’s Column in response to the economic slowdown that followed the Internet bubble of the late 1990s. Late in 2000, we had conducted a CIDM Staff Resources benchmark study in which publications managers expressed concern that they were not able to fill vacant or new positions on their staffs. The economy was booming, and the shortage of writers acute. The Information Technology Association of America reported in their April 2000 study, Bridging the Gap: Information Technology Skills for a New Millennium, that only half of the predicted vacancies for technical writers would be filled in the coming year because of inadequate supply.
Now, once again, in early 2009, we are faced with a global economic downturn in which companies are reacting with panic rather than planning. The article I wrote then continues to resonate. Here it is again for you to be the judge.In April 2001, the situation had changed. Managers began to report layoffs as stock prices decline and companies cut back on expenses to eek out a few more percentage points of profit. The pressure to reduce costs also revived the decentralization monster. We have received reports of strong, effective departments broken apart in a misguided focus on short-term gains. If the writers reported to the product-development managers, a layer or two of technical-communication management could be eliminated.
How do we survive the (what we hope is a short-term) roller coaster that seems perennially to affect our corporations and our departments? Should we preserve the staff we have? Do we need to evaluate competencies to maintain the strongest and let the weakest go? Is there a better idea that we can pursue rather than succumb to sheer desperation? Well, it depends.
The First Reaction is to Panic
It would be easiest to hunker down, hide in the cubicles, and go into hibernation. Alternatively, we can work harder and fight to get everything out the door using the same brute force methods we have been applying during the madness of the past few years. The route many of us have followed is to do more and more; we produced more pages, more help topics, more and more information, much of it unlikely to be read or used. We hired more and more people to produce more and more words. We’ve agreed that there was no time to study customers, to learn exactly what they need from us—we simply had to produce more, faster.
Present conditions, despite superficial signs to the contrary, offer opportunities for significant change. Instead of succumbing to the tendency to buckle down and ask more of everyone, I recommend that it is now time to build for the future. The slowdown will eventually end; the profit panic will diminish; you need to be ready. Creating a stronger organization, building capacity for the future is the direction more likely to benefit your staff and your own ability to serve as a key member of your corporation’s management team.
Building a Stronger Organization and Preparing for the Up Turn
I met with a manager recently who is sending her staff members to as much training as she can manage. That means resisting the pressure to eliminate the training budget. By increasing skills in critical areas needed for future growth, you build future capacity in your organization. If your travel budget is affected, look into local programs. Bring programs inhouse to increase coverage. Find ways to pay the instructor to do the traveling. Use your education budget (often separate from your training budget) for courses at local colleges and universities. Experiment with Web-based training opportunities.
Pursue New Technologies
The rapid increase in interest in single-source technologies has been a surprise to those like me on the bleeding edge of change. Recognizing that single sourcing is likely to require significant changes in practices within our departments, managers and staff members are still pursuing content-management strategies vigorously. Despite the continuing pressure to make the latest deadline, you will be well served by finding the resources to create a comprehensive Information Model and standardize your information types to maximize re-use opportunities.
Ensure that your staff members are learning about content management, translation memory, re-use strategies, minimalism, structured writing, and so on.
Too many technical-communication departments fail to measure and control how they conduct projects. Time and time again, managers tell me that they keep no records of how much time and cost they spend on their projects. Without information about current projects, they never have the means to estimate new projects.
Once again, I recommend that you insist on record keeping. In times of cost cutting, you need to know where to cut costs. How long does it take your team to coordinate versions of your documentation? That percentage of time could be used to make a business case for single sourcing. How much time do you spend getting antiquated software or hardware to work? What level of productivity would you gain by adding a few new resources?
Is there a particular software engineering team that demonstrates best practices in managing their development? How much do their processes assist your team to save development costs? How do the costs of their best practices compare to the costs generated by the worst practices of another team?
Use your metrics to reveal that controlling change rigorously saves development time and funds. The product-development managers are also being asked to reduce costs; find ways to partner with them in this effort.
I’m not talking about managing your people; we have many examples of good personnel management practices in technical communication. I am talking about managing the work being done. Make sure that your staff members are doing excellent work to produce useful and usable learning products. Ask people to create design plans based on the best concepts in the industry and review them rigorously. Don’t settle for work that simply describes the software or the hardware or pretends that system tasks like “completing the X dialog box” represent what users want to do. Insist upon customer contact and institute a sound program from observing and analyzing customers’ information needs. Don’t just continue to produce the same old thing. Find ways to cut the volume of information, reduce the verbiage, and use minimalist techniques. Send people to minimalist training, and be sure that you understand what needs to change.
By reducing the volume of useless information produced, we have the opportunity to increase productivity, reduce costs, and increase quality all at the same time. Phil Crosby once wrote a book he titled, Quality is Free1.
Well, not only is quality free (doing good work takes no longer than doing poor work), but quality increases productivity.
Make productivity increases your primary objective in the next year. Move fast to institute controls, to measure, and to design and plan. Then you’ll be ready for the next big growth spurt that appears inevitably to follow declines.
1 Philip B. Crosby, Quality is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain, 1979, New York, NY, McGraw-Hill Book Company, ISBN 0-451-62585-4