JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Independence Rules in Ad-Hoc Organizations

Dr. Q, the leader of our content-management consulting team, has been working for several months with Checko Systems, a huge manufacturing company with a wide range of products. Checko is determined to reorganize its documentation staff into a more coordinated group to take advantage of the cost savings and benefits of content management.

Checko still has a number of autonomous documentation departments, but they are rapidly restructuring them back into a central organization. They have management support for the change, but they expect it to take two to three years to complete. Right now, however, two of the largest departments have joined forces.

Taking Dr. Q’s advice, the new Checko central documentation team is working on its Information Model. They are

  • beginning a preliminary user study to discover what customers think about the documentation and how they use it
  • working to define standard information types, such as procedures, concepts, and reference materials, that all the writers will be able to use
  • deciding which information types are appropriate for each user duty and set of tasks

Now—just because Checko has a plan to move to Level 3 of process maturity doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. In fact, the level of complaining has already gone up significantly. The staff members don’t necessarily agree on which information types are needed or how they should be defined. They don’t have much information about their users and don’t know how to begin their user study.

Level 2 organizations are on a journey from Level 1 to Level 3. As a result, they are in a very uncomfortable position with a lot of changes to make. The more changes, the more instability that staff members will have to deal with.

Preparing a Level 2 Organization for Content Management

For Checko to move into content management as a Level 2 organization, they have decided on a centralization strategy:

  • To achieve consistency, individual departments merge to form a centralized organization with links to other independent publications groups within the company.
  • The new, merged group begins to develop information-design standards and implement common tools and templates for all the documents produced throughout the company.
  • The merged group will provide training on the new standards and tools for their own staff and the staff of the remaining independent departments.
  • They will also begin to develop a set of processes to govern their activities that can be tested and then passed on to others.

Level 2: Rudimentary describes the state that occurs when an organization begins to establish uniform practices and consistent designs. As a Level 2 organization consolidates and unifies, it becomes increasingly ready to implement a content-management solution. It is important to point out, however, that the changes recommended here take time and concerted effort. If the company as a whole is unstable or the publications organizations encounter resistance, the process will be slowed and may be derailed.

Level 2 organizations, we find, are particularly unstable. There is great pressure to slip back into the ad-hoc world. But even if you don’t achieve full Level 3 maturity at first, by experiencing what it will take to manage the change, the next effort should go more smoothly.

Making Content-Management Decisions

Level 2 organizations are actually doing the work needed to prepare for content management and are beginning to institute content-management related activities.

As the staff members work through aspects of their Information Model, they should identify a potential pilot project to institute the new design ideas.

The pilot project is characteristic of all content-management planning, but it is particularly important for Level 2 organizations because they are not used to working collaboratively.

The pilot project must be a collaborative effort, involving representatives of the primary stakeholders in the content-management project. Stakeholders may include training and technical support, as well as possible customer representatives. If information is to change for the better and be brought under control, the potential internal users of that information should be involved in the redesign.

It is not necessary to take a modular approach to content development to institute content management, but a modular approach is necessary to take full advantage of reuse and repurposing goals. Without modules in place, writers will continue to develop entire documents on their own, in their writing flow and context, which will make reuse difficult. By developing modules and standardizing the design of the modules with information types, writers can develop content that is meant for reuse. New documents can be created out of modules that work effectively together because they are designed with the same standards in place.

Level 2 organizations are building a path to comprehensive, development-level content management and reuse, rather than simple repurposing of text into variations.

Centralizing Production

In a Level 1 organization, production teams generally concentrate on delivering books or PDFs of books to customers in print and electronically. As the Level 2 organization moves toward a more modular approach to information design, the production team will have to rethink its processes as well.

Modular content is, almost by definition, more difficult to control than whole books. Smaller chunks of content need to be correctly assembled into appropriate contexts either for delivery as books or into the networked relationships of a Web site. I believe that production teams have a considerable challenge in organizing how they will deliver content, both as static content organized into deliverables during production and as dynamic content that is updated on a regular basis.

Production teams will often find themselves moving quickly into technology to support Web content management and portals if they become serious about dynamic delivery. Maintaining dynamic delivery in the future is virtually impossible without technology support.

However, at Level 2, the production team is engaged in planning, not yet implementation. The content is not ready for full deployment through virtual assembly methods. The writers are just beginning their Information Model and considering a pilot project. The production team needs to be part of the deliberations and recognize how the changes in document development will impact their delivery methods.

It’s not too early to start planning, even if the planning will take a year or so before you are ready to implement.

Another consideration to take into account—it may be advantageous to implement a Web content-management delivery technology to handle your whole documents in PDF or HTML form before you move to a more modular approach. Automating document assembly and delivery may result in significant time and cost savings and may be implemented earlier.

Beyond Repurposing

Level 2 organizations are not yet ready for content management. They are proceeding in the right direction by establishing uniform processes, information designs, and templates before they can successfully manage content in a comprehensive manner. You may already have simple repurposing of identical documents into multiple deliverables in place. You may also be using conditional text to send portions of documents on different delivery paths.

The goal in Level 2 should be focused on restructuring documents and processes, not on immediate solutions. The solutions will come in Level 3. Nevertheless, the path is now being set that will enable successful content management.

A word of warning… We know of several organizations that decided to create modular content by splitting apart existing documents and then hoping to make sense of the chunks later. Don’t try that; you’ll regret it later. At least one organization we’ve worked with found that rethinking the chunks took more time than creating new modules would have.

Modular writing is not about new formats. It is actually a different way of thinking about content. Splitting existing documents into pieces accomplishes almost nothing on the path to modular design and may actually hinder putting good information into the repository. Just think of all the unnecessary, interconnected content that you’ll have to find and throw out or rewrite. Do the rethinking first and the modular construction later.

Timing the Effort

Generally, we have found that for large organizations of 20 or so members, the effort of moving from Level 1 to Level 3 takes at least two years. Some staff make the mental transition quickly, others wait to see what happens, and the laggards never change but spend a lot of time criticizing everyone else. You also have to convince other parts of the company that you are focused on change.

Making the changes to your information design is often your own affair in technical publications. However, you may also have to convince product managers and engineering directors that the information across products needs to become standardized. That convincing will take time.

And it will take a vision. Many organizations find that cost savings are the only motivation for change, while others are convinced only if the change can be directly linked to overall customer satisfaction. Develop a comprehensive vision. Clearly define where costs will be saved, most commonly in translation or production where time-to-market can be decreased, and how the information redesign and delivery method will address current customer issues. Deliver this message and sell your vision as often as possible to anyone who could negatively affect the outcome of your project.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with a noisy Level 2: Rudimentary organization, please send your stories to me at I’ll assemble them into a feedback to this article.