Sarah Leritz-Higgins, Mentor Graphics Corporation

People first, then money, then things.” Why, you might ask, am I introducing this article with a quote from Suze Orman, the renowned personal finance expert? And what does personal finance have to do with technical communication, anyway? Well, I think Orman’s mantra succinctly summarizes one of the main concerns of managers in any organization: prioritization. Yes, of course you have a budget to manage, tools to evaluate and purchase, processes to implement, commitments to negotiate, and documentation and other materials to deliver. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the people who comprise your staff. Smart managers know that you must put your people first. But how does putting your people first enable you to meet your business objectives? My belief is that there isn’t any other way to successfully manage your organization.

This article pertains to “putting your people first” in an environment of business upheaval. I’m confident that it isn’t earth-shattering news that the Technical Communications field is undergoing upheaval. With off-shoring, out-sourcing, reduced head counts, organizational adjustments, slashed budgets for tools, and the emergence of new communication methods (aka Web 2.0), there are a plethora of challenges facing technical communications managers. In this environment, one of your primary challenges is to manage change across your organization. There is a wide array of business books that address how to manage change; I will focus on a “people first” strategy that can help you manage change in your technical communications organization.

Putting People First by Considering Motivation

One key aspect of “putting your people first” is to consider motivation. What motivates your staff? Numerous studies about motivation in the workplace have yielded interesting results: you may find it surprising that it’s not primarily about monetary compensation, benefits, or even job security. (This is probably reassuring to you, given the current recessionary environment of stagnant wages and reduced benefits.) Instead, employees report that what motivates them most is a sense of respect and worthiness in the workplace. Consider this excerpt from a recent McKinsey Quarterly report, November 2009, in an article entitled “Motivating people: Getting Beyond Money.”

A chance to lead projects is a motivator that only half of the companies in our survey use frequently, although this is a particularly powerful way of inspiring employees to make a strong contribution at a challenging time. Such opportunities also develop their leadership capabilities, with long-term benefits for the organization. One HR director in the basic materials industry explained that involvement in special projects “makes people feel like they’re part of the answer—and part of the company’s future.”

That is, employees want to feel appreciated; that their work is valued; that their contributions are recognized; that their suggestions are seriously considered; that they have a stake in the business and its results. (Aretha had it right: it’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.) How can you foster an environment of mutual respect that motivates and even inspires your staff? One strategy is to embrace the importance of training your employees, and then implement programs that reflect your commitment. Such training programs motivate your employees, because your commitment to their success and to the success of the business is transparent.

Training: A Key Aspect of Change Management

As organizations manage change (whether it’s an organizational change, a new tool, an altered process, or an evolving business relationship), an often over-looked and under-estimated aspect of change is training. The truth is, as any experienced manager will testify, you cannot successfully implement any significant change across your organization without adequately training your staff. Employees must “buy into” any organizational change before they will make the effort to pursue that change. You’ve got to show your staff that “what’s in it for me” is the opportunity to participate in a worthy and viable endeavor. You cannot overestimate the importance of adequate training. But how do train your staff, given your limited resources?

Leverage Your Internal Staff

As you develop your plan for implementing an organizational change, consider ways to employ your existing internal staff to develop and deliver a training course. This enables you as the management team to avoid the costs of outside training vendors, with the added benefit of leveraging your internal expertise. (After all, no one knows your company’s idiosyncrasies like your own internal staff.) This strategy also provides professional growth opportunities for your employees to lead a project, an important motivating factor. In any kind of change management, you have to direct those with organic expertise to be the leaders of change. These internal leaders then spread the word about the benefits of the change, which dramatically increases the chances that your change program will be successful. If you simply do not have the staff or the spare cycles to employ your existing staff to develop and deliver the training, you can still reduce your costs by hiring training vendors as consultants rather than as curriculum developers and course instructors.

Practical Tips

The following are some practical tips based on actual experience. Remember that your mileage will vary, depending on the size of your organization, the skill sets of your staff, your corporate culture, your available resources, and other factors.

    1. Recognize that developing a training curriculum and delivering a training course are non-trivial tasks. You must allow your staff adequate time to develop a curriculum that will successfully serve as the backbone of the course, complete with labs and exercises.
    2. Recognize that you may not have any employees who currently have the skill set to develop a curriculum and teach a training course. But keep an open mind and do not underestimate your staff; with encouragement and reinforcement, you may find that some members of your staff have dormant skills just waiting to be tapped. Many employees actually thrive when presented with specific challenges to meet. (Also, remember to give equal consideration to employees working at home and other remote employees; they may even be particularly interested in working on such a training project.)
    3. Recognize that course development and training delivery use different skill sets. You may have one employee who is particularly skilled at developing a course or may want to become skilled at such a task and another who is particularly skilled at instructional training, or may want to become a trainer. Remember that one of your tasks as a manager is to get to know your staff in terms of the skills they presently possess, as well as the skills they may want to develop. You can make the training course a “team effort” by employing the skill sets of several individuals on your staff (but be careful not to over-populate the team, as this can result in stagnation of the project).
    4. In this environment of dispersed staff (people working at home or other locations), take advantage of technologies that deliver training online. It is imperative to foster an environment of inclusion, such that your remote employees have access to the same or similar training experience that your onsite employees have.
    5. Ensure that you allow adequate time for your employees to attend and digest the training course. Set aside a specific time and date (driven by the depth and breadth of the curriculum) for your staff to take the course. Do not tell your staff to “learn it on your own time” during the evenings or weekends. Similarly, do not send your staff to a web site or email a PDF file and tell them to “learn it on your own.” Instructor-led training (whether it’s an actual classroom or conference room, a video conference, or webinar delivery) is invariably preferable to the “learn it on your own” option.
    6. Remember that one of the fundamental tactics of delivering training to adults is to place the material in context. That is, present the new material by contextualizing it within something that they already know.
    7. Break down your training course into digestible modules. Use this basic outline to craft each module of your training course:


    1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them
    2. Tell them and show them
    3. Remind them what you’ve told them and shown them
  1. Make the course professional. Distribute course materials, such as bound training books and USB drives with course materials, to all staff. Consider posting the training materials on your intranet site. You may also want to provide a trinket, such as a coffee mug or key chain, like many training vendors provide. It is important to provide your staff with tangible items from the course to reinforce the importance of the training.
  2. Enable the employees who attend the training to provide constructive feedback to the course developers, the instructors, and the management team. There are numerous online survey tools that you can use to collect feedback, such as Zooomerang or SurveyMonkey. This type of continuous improvement is beneficial to the creators of the course and to the management team, and it demonstrates to the staff a strong level of commitment.
  3. Remember that the change management does not end after your staff has attended the training course. Offer “continuing education courses” or consulting opportunities that reinforce and enhance the original training course. These post-training endeavors will yield data as to the success of the training program. You cannot overestimate the importance of these post-training activities.

Training your staff is an investment in change management, which of course is an investment in meeting your business objectives. You do have to balance the costs of internally-developed training with your existing commitments. You must realize the importance of training in any kind of change management as a critical aspect of success.

Motivating people: Getting Beyond Money
McKinsey Quarterly, November 2009