Communicating with the Executive Team

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

It’s rare for many information-development managers to have an opportunity to argue their business case for better content management directly with the executive team. Often, it’s an intermediary, a champion of the cause, who intervenes and communicates the problem and the solution. When Comtech began our work with ITT Fluid Technology, nearly six years ago, we found such a champion. At the Content Management Strategies/DITA North America conference in La Jolla, CA on Monday, April 23, Bjorn von Euler, our executive champion will join me and Vikram Nanwani, the manager of the Xylem (formerly ITT) information-development team to discuss the tactics of executive-level communication.

When the ITT project began, Bjorn was Director of Marketing Communications, but more than that role alone, he was knowledgeable about information development and a trusted advisor of the executive team. Perhaps most important, he knew how to communicate effectively to a small group that included the CEO and the CFO. He recognized that they knew very little about the cost of information development in the organization and needed to be better informed if they were to support the proposal to change.

ITT Fluid Technology is an industrial company that manufacturers pumps and other devices and systems used to manage water and other liquids. Much of the technical information that they produce is communicated in IOMs, short for Installation, Operations, and Maintenance manuals. The manuals are distributed to dealers worldwide and end customers who purchase the products.

In many industrial companies, the executive team is ill-informed about the costs of operations, including the cost of developing, translating, and publishing technical information that must be shipped with their products. The Quality Digest, an excellent electronic publication for the quality assurance industry, often points to the lack of information about operational costs at the executive level. Quality professionals are frequently faced with demonstrating that operational costs can be effectively reduced by better systems and better management.

The facts about operational costs were exactly what the ITT team promoting a move to the DITA standard and its champion needed to explain to the executive team.

Industrial companies often rely on engineers to write technical content to support the products they develop. Unfortunately, few of the engineers are talented writers and fewer still are interested in effective communication with people who aren’t engineers. As a result, industrial companies often have few if any standards associated with their technical publications. Such was the case at ITT. Because the products were produced by what had been independent companies before they were acquired, the IOMs were all completely different.

Many of you will recognize the process, typical of many similar companies. Engineers make notes on old copies and marketing communications professionals and graphic designers lay out the copy and illustrations and make them look presentable. No one tracks the costs of the work from engineering edits and new text through basic copyediting and graphics development and production in products like InDesign or Quark. Nearly all the costs are hidden, except for the production work that frequently jams the content, such as it is, onto peculiar page layouts, more designed to fit than to make sense to a reader.

Once the manuals are prepared, they are sent out for translation, usually in a form requiring considerable graphic design expertise. And, the cost of translation is hidden in many diverse budgets. Some translation costs are assumed by sales divisions in each country, others are included with printing budgets, but nowhere is the full cost of translation and publishing in multiple languages tracked. It’s an operational cost that is invisible and it’s very high.

When we look for hidden translation costs and estimate the cost of producing technical information, the resulting calculations are often astonishing. Companies the size and complexity of ITT are assuming millions of dollars of costs for basic technical manuals. High-paid engineers develop and review the content, engineers create many of the graphics, production is outsourced to graphic-design firms, and translations are often done once and discarded, only having to be done again the next time around. One calculation showed a cost of $42 million dollars a year for publications that followed no standards and are often unusable by the customers.

Making this case to the executive team should not be difficult, but it often is. Because the costs are hidden in numerous budgets, it is difficult for executives to recognize that spending money to put a new process in place will actually reduce costs. What they focus on is the initial expenditure rather than the potential savings and the business benefits that will accrue with better processes. It takes a person with great communication skills to make the case once and many times over before everyone agrees with the change.

As I work with information developers and managers year after year, I find myself preparing them for these essential communication events. It’s often difficult, in part because many information developers don’t speak the language of the executive team.

So, please join us on April 23 for this interesting and stimulating discussion of executive-level communication. If you’re not able to attend, look forward to a webinar or an article in this publication or in our bimonthly Best Practices publication. In the meantime, identify the executive champion who will support your business case and who speaks executive-speak. Your likelihood of success in getting the support you need to reduce operational costs and build better information for the customer is sure to benefit.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.

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