Promoting Collaboration in Information Development

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Paul Adler, Charles Heckscher, and Laurence Prusak write in their article, “Building a Collaborative Enterprise,” in the July-August 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), that a collaborative work environment is crucial for promoting innovation, creativity, and productivity among knowledge workers. Their research into the processes developed at IBM, Citibank, NASA, Kaiser Permanente, and other corporations demonstrates that organizations building collaborative communities realize significant benefits. They argue that significant increases in productivity, accompanied by the development of innovative and technically sophisticated products, require four key strategies (as quoted from the HBR article):

  • Defining and building a shared purpose
  • Cultivating an ethic of contribution
  • Developing processes that enable people to work together in flexible but disciplined projects
  • Creating an infrastructure in which collaboration is value and rewarded

Each of these strategies will help information-development managers implement a collaborative community to support the knowledge-based work of information developers and other content creators.

As managers clearly recognize, moving information developers to a collaborative environment requires significant changes in process and departmental culture. Information development has long been dominated by what the HBR authors call a Free-Agent Model. They describe Free-Agent organizations as “innovative and flexible,” favoring and rewarding individual effort, but generally lacking in well-defined and enforced standards and rules of engagement. In my experience, most information-development organizations still assign writers to books, which the writers develop by-and-large independently, even when they purport to use a reuse strategy and a standard like DITA. Writers own their books, even to the extent of developing their own formatting. However, weak ties among the information developers and with other customer-facing departments hinder the teamwork that is needed to support customer-focused innovation.

Customers’ growing preferences for widely accessible content, topics that answer their immediate questions, video, social media, and other innovative information resources require that we develop a collaborative community of knowledge workers. Without the help of a creative and collaborative community, we risk remaining stuck producing information that customers do not want or need. A department of free agents simply lacks the resources, the time, or sometimes even the incentive to innovate.

Let’s consider Adler et al.’s four strategies for building a collaborative community as they relate to information development.

Defining and building a shared purpose

Information-development managers, content creators, and other customer-facing partners need a shared purpose that defines the contributions everyone will make to the customers’ success in learning and using products and services. A shared purpose describes what you are trying to do, not in terms of platitudes, like “delighting our customers,” but in terms of real work activities and business strategy.

As a statement of shared purpose, you most likely want customers to be successful in finding answers to their questions about your products, be able to solve problems quickly, and become more productive and efficient. Unfortunately, for too many information-development organizations, the only shared purpose is to get the docs out by the deadlines. By defining a business- and customer-focused shared purpose, you identify what your customer-oriented goals should be and how these goals will help advance your business purposes.

As Adler et al. argue: “A shared purpose is not the verbiage on a poster or in a document, and it doesn’t come via charismatic leaders’ pronouncements. It is multidimensional, practical, and constantly enriched in debates about concrete problems.” With a concrete, well-shaped statement of shared purpose, your information developers know how every aspect of their work contributes.

Cultivating an ethic of contribution

A collaborative community places its highest value on working together and advancing the shared purpose. In the information-development world, people work hard at meeting deadlines and ensuring that the information they write is accurate and complete. However, their hard work is often wasted producing information that the customer does not want or need.

Adler et al. use an example from software developers at Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC). Software development at CSC follows the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) developed originally at Carnegie Mellon University and the Software Engineering Institute (SEI). The developers explain that following the CMM means going from doing things your own way to following the rules. It means going from “chaos to structure.” By following the rules and working together as a professional development team, they recognize that they advance their shared purpose.

In a collaborative community, all members believe that everyone is actively contributing to the shared purpose. No one is trying to show off or gain the spotlight. Nor is anyone simply putting in time before retiring or finding another job. The ethical behavior in a collaborative community means that everyone follows the rules and focuses on making a solid contribution to the group’s success.

Look at the move in information development to structured authoring, often using the DITA standard. Some organizations decide that everyone is a free agent and can apply DITA XML any way they feel like. In many instances, no one has even tried to establish rules to support a common structure. No information model has been established or, if it has, no one is held to follow it. Compliance to a standard is either never established or only weakly enforced. Everyone remains a free agent.

In organizations working to build a collaborative community, the rules of engagement are set. They develop an information model and work hard to ensure that everyone understands it and complies. They promote an ethic of contribution so that they achieve their shared purpose. They develop content in a way that increases productivity, reduces costs, and, at the same time, delivers what customers want and need.

Instituting interdependent processes

In a collaborative community, everyone takes part in developing processes to support the work of the group. Even across diverse projects and multiple teams, there is in place a method for keeping everyone coordinated. Members of the community shape the way they work, revising and updating as demands change, but acknowledging their need to communicate with all the others.

As part of a larger collaborative community, information developers make clear how they work, what they are seeking to accomplish, and how they provide support and need support from others in the community. For example, in collaborative communities, training and documentation work closely together. They plan a joint approach to helping customers learn and use new and updated products. In one organization, a joint project team, led either by an instructional designer or an information developer, develops a coordinated approach. Individual team members know their assignments and know that their work is interdependent with the work of everyone else on the team.

An information-development organization that jointly develops a “topic list” for an entire set of information, makes work assignments, and regularly ensures that the work is coordinated has instituted an interdependent process. All participants follow the process and cooperate to achieve a common end.

The key, of course, is communication. Everyone needs to know what everyone else is working on and must be confident that processes are being followed, and if changes are needed, those changes are discussed and agreed upon together.

Creating a collaborative infrastructure

If everyone wants to work collaboratively and individuals serve on more than one project team, who becomes responsible for making decisions, for managing the work, and ensuring that the deadlines are indeed met? Responsibility in a collaborative community is shared. Leaders emerge and decisions are made together. Managers support the collaborative model in which authority is matrixed.

Organizations, of course, have official authority, vested in directors and managers. These individuals still make decisions about compensation; they remain responsible for budgets and schedules. However, they cannot know in detail what everyone is actually doing. As a result, the leaders must collaborate, relying on informal leaders who believe in the shared purpose and ensure that contributions are fairly evaluated.

In a collaborative community, information is communicated among team members. People talk about everyone’s contributions because they know what everyone is supposed to be doing. As a result, as Adler et al. argue, management has a fairly accurate notion of individual reputations, enough to help them select people for “new and interesting projects.”

A collaborative community—what does it take?

No one, certainly not the HBR authors, claims that establishing a collaborative community is simple. As a manager trying to get the community going, you may discover that not everyone wants to participate, particularly those who relish the attention of being stars in the free-agent world or those who are too bored or disinterested to engage.

You will find that you must be constantly vigilant. You have to ensure that the community gets continuous reminders about the shared purpose. Are customers satisfied today with the information available to them? Will they continue to be satisfied tomorrow? Are new technologies available to help content creators become more productive? Is more training needed to cultivate innovation?

Adler, Heckscher, and Prusak conclude their findings with an important observation:

“… few would argue that today’s market imperative—to innovate fast enough to keep up with the competition and with customer needs while simultaneously improving cost and efficiency—can be met without the active engagement of employees in different functions and at multiple levels of responsibility. … Businesses … need everyone’s ideas on how to do things better and more cheaply. They need true collaboration.”

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.

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