JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Lawyers keep track of their time because they use the information to send you a bill. The story goes that lawyers invite you to dinner, expect you to pay for the dinner, and bill you for the pleasure of their company at dinner.

I think this lore about lawyers tends to make time tracking a suspect activity. We exclaim that “we don’t track our time because we don’t want anyone to mistake us for those pesky lawyers.”

Despite the bad rep that time tracking may have, it is, nevertheless, an essential ingredient in the management of professional activities. Yet, publications managers tend to neglect time tracking because they don’t recognize opportunities for using the information to estimate the resources required for future projects, support requests for new resources, build a business case to fund an innovation, or determine the value associated with a task in the information-development process flow. Let’s examine these opportunities and discuss how time tracking data provides a foundation for business decisions.

Estimating future project resources

The most obvious reason for time tracking on current projects is to build a database of metrics to use for future projects. Accurate information about the time required to complete current and previous projects is essential for responsible estimating. You can track each project by determining hours worked on the project by your project managers, information developers, editors, production specialists, and all other participants from your team. Hours worked include writing and editing time, as well as time spent data gathering, performing user and task analysis, planning, estimating, scheduling, tracking, managing the project, and generally performing all tasks associated with the project. The only time that typically doesn’t get counted is the time spent by outside experts in providing and reviewing information.

Using this data to estimate future projects means applying not only the average time spent on projects, but taking into account the time required for more complicated and less complicated projects. The dependency calculator (available on the Comtech web site) shows you how to account for project dependencies such as access to developers, amount of change in the project, and other elements that influence your ability to estimate individual projects.

In addition to using time tracking data to estimate new projects, you can use the data to estimate the effect of changes on your ability to complete the project. For example, you may find you’ve used half the hours allocated to a project, only to discover that you have completed only one quarter of the work. This circumstance occurs when projects become more difficult over time, often because of changes in the development process and schedule. You can use your time data to estimate how much additional time you will need to complete the project.

Requesting new resources

Requesting new resources is fraught with difficulty today because of the pressure to contain costs and increase productivity. However, without data about existing projects, you have little ammunition to make your case. With good information about what it takes to complete projects, you are better able to present your case to management for additional resources. In addition, you can use your project data to demonstrate that without adequate project resources you must make cuts in the scope of the project by eliminating deliverables, reducing quality assurance activities, or generally making the project less time-consuming to perform.

Funding an innovation

Time tracking data can also play a big part in helping you calculate a return on investment that justifies funding an innovation. Today, managers want to engage the staff in user studies, fund the development of structured development and content management, be able to support educational opportunities for staff, and so on. Each of these innovations may require funding.

However, begging for funding rarely gets you very far. By calculating your current costs (based on dollars per hour of time), you can show how specific innovations will result in cost savings. For example, we know that information developers have demonstrated that single sourcing reduced development time for a set of related information deliverables. Instead of requiring two writers to complete a suite of documents for related products, one organization discovered that they were able to complete their project with one writer because the writer built a repository of topics that could be used between the deliverables.

By knowing how much it takes to complete a project today, you can demonstrate cost savings realized by the application of new technology or innovative information design. You can also use tracking data to show that an innovation is in fact costing more than expected. One organization demonstrated to management that offshore outsourcing was actually increasing, rather than reducing, their costs. Because the outsourced writers had no product experience, limited English writing skills, and no experience producing technical documentation, the home staff was required to spend extra time in communicating, managing, editing, and more to deliver reasonable content to customers. By showing with data that extra costs were mounting up, the organization was able to restore resources that had been lost.

Performing a value analysis

A value analysis allows you to calculate the costs of individual tasks that you and your staff perform during the information development life cycle. Senior management asks us to remove costs from the life cycle by ensuring that each task returns value in relationship to cost. We may discover, for example, that production tasks take a significant percentage of costs during the last quarter of a project. By automating production and eliminating detailed hand work, we can reduce production costs while continuing to produce high quality deliverables.

Note that time tracking has a significant role to play in professional management activities. Not only does a database of projects provide you with the means to manage current projects and estimate new ones, but a database of project information enables you to build business cases for your innovations. Remember that when you are trying to communicate with people who depend on data to support their decisions, you need to speak the language they understand, a language of numbers.