Best Practices 2015—Listening to our Collaboration Hit Tunes

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

If you haven’t tuned into the latest hits on collaboration for information-development, you are definitely out of touch. The 2015 Best Practices conference on collaboration offered so many exciting ideas and experiences that my head is still swimming.

Ron Ricci, Cisco Vice President of User Experience, started the assembled managers off in the right direction. At Cisco, Ron is responsible for delivering key customer experiences. To do so, he created a culture of listening to customers. But he made it clear that often traditional corporate cultures get in the way. If you hear yourself or others say that “it’s not how we do things around here,” you know that you have an uphill climb toward a collaborative environment.

Ron introduced us to the enemy of collaboration, DAN: Denial—Anger—Nostalgia. DAN creates friction, putting the breaks on change. The way to overcome DAN’s objections to change is by creating a transparent decision-making process.

When Cisco discovered that sales people were spending more time finding content than talking to customers, they knew where the friction was. Too many documents, making finding anything incredibly difficult. The collaborative team, includes sales, marketing, and IT, went from 3-4 million documents to fewer than 50,000 in 9 months.

Ron Hickman, Director of Learning Media Development at Siemens PLM, explained how those developing documentation and training learned to collaborate to produce better content for their customers. They developed a content strategy team and embedded them in any group responsible for designing and developing new content. The content strategist owns the content design, resulting in a collaborative mode that spans multiple projects.

At Microsoft, Ann Beebe had to find a new way to develop content after losing 75% of her team during a big layoff. Instead of writing content, the information developers have taken on the role of content strategist. They plan the content, assigned authors and reviewers, track progress, and check quality.

Comtech’s Dawn Stevens challenged managers to measure the success of enterprise collaboration by first clearly defining the goal of the collaborative exercise. Do we intend to increase content quality, save time and money, create a unified message across the enterprise?

The 2015 conference introduced a new format—referred to as TED-like talks after the quick and pointed presentations introduced by content architect, Richard Saul Warmann. Joe Gollner of Gnostyx Research led the way with insights into the changes that have come once content moved from printed books into digital format. Farhad Patel detailed how collaboration at Huawei has increased customer satisfaction with content while reducing the volume of content and eliminating duplication. Charles Dowdell of AGCO reminded us that Bill Gates believed that Content is King. Once upon a time, content was not cool but that is changing. I took everyone through a simple exercise to evaluate the potential for collaboration. We used Morten Hansen’s Collaboration barriers to decide if our own teams or our enterprise partners were ready to use collaborative processes to succeed.

Monday ended with a panel—four managers who have had to navigate changing requirements with smaller teams. Helen Cavender from Google, Barbara Liberty and Pat Burrows from EMC, Rachel Grimes from Fiserv, and Shante Galbraith from Brocade each explained how they were facing the challenge. Rachel explained, for example, that her team is doing less with less. Barbara is doing less but better. Each group of participants had an opportunity to solve a daunting problem to end the day.

Tuesday opened with an Agile Panel, moderated by Richard Frankland, Radiometer. Keith Schengili-Roberts of IXIASOFT provided a history of agile methods. The Implications for documentation mean working more closely with developers, becoming the communication route for the team, achieving faster work cycles, and adopting efficient documentation tools that make work easier.

Abigail Bettle and Karen Buchanan described the techniques they added at IBM to make their teams more successful in an agile environment. Abi introduced “live editing” sessions where developers and writers worked together to produce documentation and code. She introduced “ask me anything” sessions with developers that helped writers build their networks.

Karen introduced information architects (IAs) to help manage the work. A content model is already developed before the project starts. The IA defines tasks, concepts, and reference topics to be written, focusing on what customers really need. They stopped documenting the User Interface as well.

Richard introduced agile methods to reduce the stress on the documentation teams, even though the developers in this medical-device company do not use agile. His writers create the most important content for the customer, which is at the top of the priority list. Writers complete the current project before doing the next, which has increased the on-time delivery of content.

Each of these managers uses agile methods to increase the relevance of content and to focus on what customers want to do, not what the product does.

Demonstrating that a picture is literally worth a thousand words, Jake Gaylord of Almon showed how his team optimizes CAD drawings so that they are usable in interactive procedures. His work spans documentation, training, product marketing, and sales. All these groups can use parts of the interactive content. He explained that one client, Fairbanks Morse, was having warranty issues with the rebuild process of their water pumps. Animating the procedures corrected the problem.

Leticia Guzzetta, Imagination Technologies, explained how she builds an organized team from a decentralized organization. She developed working groups to establish common goals. One group developed a common set of standards for all the documentation, everything from a style guide to a taxonomy. They have put a CCMS in place and are rolling out web services in a few months to better meet customer needs.

One additional group of four TED-like talks closed out the Tuesday presentations. We heard from Jan Benedictus of FontoXML, Neville Fleet of Brocade, Joe Storbeck of Jana, and Russ Routh of Hewlett-Packard.

Jan explained how to introduce structured authoring across the enterprise. He advocated using templates to help authors find a structure easily and quickly, without having to learn about XML. By aligning author goals with the goals of the company, we can design processes and tools that make authoring easier. He advocates that product designers design for emotions, making product unnecessarily beautiful.

In defining a broader corporate role for technical communication, Neville focused on developing a strategy for technology, translation, and taxonomy at Brocade. He made their CCMS into a single source of truth, establishing a governance board that decides for each release if the right content will be available for the customer.

Joe explained how a failed project led his team to develop a better approach to content. The IA was invited to the story meetings and created a detailed outline for the content. An SME was assigned to each topic, with writing being done by the developers. Writers then edited SME-authored topics.

When content is developed by multiple groups in an organization, inefficiency reigns, as Russ explained. Documentation and training ask the developers the same questions. Customers see redundant and inconsistent content. Tools, process, and governance are incompatible.

To solve the problem, they brought everyone together to analyze the skills sets. Turns out that training and documentation actually had many of the same skills. They had all the skills needed in the team. They identified executive sponsors and change agents on the team to begin the collaboration journey.

The last morning of the conference featured three presentations and four speakers.

Kim Shain and Lauren Grau recounted how the marketing and education teams at Salesforce converged to blaze a new trail. Different working styles and conflicting time frames initially made their collaboration challenging. But they had a problem to solve. Too much content means customers did not know where to begin. The existing content really didn’t work. They needed to reinvent how customers learned Salesforce. Visit trailhead.salesforce.com to see the results.

At Huawei in China, as Hebe Hui He explained, information developers work closely with customers to understand their content requirements. She told four stories that illustrated how thoroughly the team has redesigned the content, including a cartoon approach for younger customers, customer-based workflows, mobile applications, minimized text, and simplified interactive diagrams. Animations are embedded in the manuals, which are labeled by customer role and greatly reduced in length.

We have rarely seen a more impressive application of minimalism and user-centered design principles than the work of Hebe’s information architecture team.

Helen Chambers, representing Microsoft’s Nokia team, demonstrated how marketing and support services learned to work together. Both groups wanted to develop mobile applications on the devices but had conflicting goals. But support and documentation had an advantage with an app that was part of the phone system. The two teams learned to trust one another and work together to meet both needs.

Inspired by the children’s board game “Snakes and Ladders,” Nolwenn Kerzreho of IXIASOFT and Joe Gollner of Gnostyx Research hosted an interactive workshop that compared the often convoluted and circular movement pattern of the game to the flow of a content management project. They equate the “snakes” that move a player backward on the game board to possible project risks, while the “ladders” that move a player forward are avoidance measures that can make a project more successful.

Joe and Nolwenn compared each row of the board to a project phase, such as “Discovery,” “Planning,” “Pilot Project,” “Transition,” or “Implementation.” They also provided a list of common snakes and ladders they have encountered in their practice. Examples of snakes were “Participants are too busy to collaborate,” “Management crisis changes project priority,” and “The identified tool is difficult to use or not sufficient for the needs of the project.” Some ladders were “Clearly define the roles of each participant,” “Have a universal definition of project success,” and “Identify an executive champion who will fight for the team.” In groups, workshop participants brainstormed new snakes and ladders and finally created their own “Snakes and Ladders” game board. Each group decided on which snakes were the biggest obstacles for them to overcome in their experience and which ladders would be the most helpful in overcoming them. This activity was helpful as a precursor to project planning to help a team identify their priorities and to be aware of the potential pitfalls facing them.

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