Team Composition and Critical Skills

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Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

In the October 2015 Monthly Management Round Table, attendees discussed the composition of their teams and what skills they prioritize when looking for new team members. The discussion became a valuable learning opportunity for those on the call. A manager whose group is new to agile was able to listen to the experiences and strategies of a manager whose team has been working in agile for years. Similarly, a manager whose team is moving to DITA was able to learn from the managers leading teams who have fully implemented DITA.

Team composition varied depending on organization size and management style. In the discussion, we had representatives from large teams of over a hundred permanent employees and from small teams of fewer than ten permanent members. A manager of one of the large teams shared that his team was 10 percent managers, 15 percent project leads, and 75 percent information developers. His team is part of an organization large enough to be able to “borrow” instructional designers or information architects from other departments. The manager from the smallest team has only writers and herself.

Managers from agile environments shared their processes and the job positions that exist in their teams, which were much different from those of the non-agile groups. For them, scrum masters are in charge of their own cross-functional teams composed of writers, test engineers, and software developers. These groups are heavily reliant on collaboration and peer review processes.

A common question from attendees was how other teams approached editing and review. None of the managers present seemed to approach editing with the same strategy. For some teams, editors are contractors. For others, the only editing performed is in a peer-review process. Another manager said that they are hoping to re-introduce editors back into their permanent team.

The critical skills required of a team member in the information-development industry were divided into technical, content development, interpersonal, and management. As a group, we discussed which skills were most important for a new team member. What skill deficits are deal-breakers, and what are knowledge gaps you are willing to train? Bringing on new employees is already an investment because of the time needed to familiarize them with the projects and priorities of your team. How much additional investment can be spent on them to train them in skills that they lack?

The group agreed that technical skills are most important and also the easiest to judge in an interview or on a résumé. As long as candidates have the technical depth, managers are willing to train them to use specific tools or processes that are unfamiliar. For example, one attendee shared that she hires information developers knowing they have the technical depth necessary, and then she invests in training them to write. Similarly, it would be ideal for a manager in an agile environment to hire team members who have also worked in agile teams before, but that is also something all said they would be willing to train.

The skills that were most valued after technical knowledge were the so-called soft skills that seem the hardest to demonstrate or identify on a résumé. Some of the agreed upon skills were a willingness to change and try new processes, a willingness to collaborate, and the ability to recover quickly from missteps or unsuccessful experiments. If these attitudes are missing in team members, they are harder to work with and harder to manage. The challenge discussed was how to spot these attitudes in an interview.

Beyond different skillsets or personality traits, the importance of different mindsets was discussed. People think differently. Some people are “numbers” people or “word” people. Others think visually and graphically. Or perhaps, a team has an instructional designer who is always user-focused. A team that has a mixture of these mindsets would potentially be able to provide a much richer product for their end users.

The conversation prompted more questions than there was time to address, so the November topic will build on this discussion. Several participants in October’s discussion mentioned that their teams are heavily outsourced or reliant on a large number of contractors. In response to those comments, we will be discussing the use of contractors within an information-development team, specifically the proportion of contractors to full-time employees, the knowledge and skills required of contractors, and the management and quality assurance of their work.

November’s Monthly Management Round Table will be Tuesday, November 10 at 11 am PST. Email Lovonya Thomas at lovonya.thomas@comtech-serv.com to sign up. Recordings of all previous discussions will be available on the new CIDM Members Only site coming soon. If you have a topic you would be interested in discussing with your fellow information-development managers, please send your suggestions to Dawn Stevens at dawn.stevens@comtech-serv.com.