JoAnn T. Hackos, PhD
Karen Steele, publications manager at Metasolv, wrote recently about the new corporate acquisitions that have added to her departmental responsibilities: “Needless to say, my hands are full, although I’m awfully grateful for the opportunities. I’m learning to balance and level resources to a finer degree than previously thought possible. I’m also learning to just say “no” to some deliverables. We’ll be combining others to maximize the talent available. For example, we’re looking at combining/replacing the training “how-to” books with the help. We’re also moving a great deal of our training to the Web. The advantages of that move are that the courseware is a bit easier and we don’t need to build custom databases for each class. Quite a savings in itself. Additionally, customers who can’t afford two weeks of stand-up training don’t seem to balk at a 2- to 4-hour webinar.
Sometimes I ask myself why things had to be this hard before we looked at some of these very obvious savings. There’s a lot we don’t know about the psychology of the various economic times, I think. I’m also convinced that as hard as this is, we’ll be doing some of our most creative work now.”
In the recent “Coping with the Slowdown” CIDM survey, I noticed that although organizations had been hit with reductions in force, the same amount of work had to be done. The content of the job had not changed, even though there were fewer people to do the work. That left me wondering: how can we manage to do the same work with fewer people? Or, are we in fact doing the same work? What suffers when the size of the organization is reduced? Can we learn, as Karen has, to just say no?
Here’s the typical scenario you find yourself in today. A series of layoffs throughout 2001 have chipped away at your ability to perform all the activities you once carried out in support of sound information development. But your goal is to keep quality high by not abandoning the development and quality assurance practices that are the core of your value proposition. You can’t perform all the same activities you did with 30% or 50% fewer people. How do you cope?
If you can do the same work with fewer people that you once did with a larger staff, you need to examine your efficiencies. Were you inefficient before? Are you cutting quality while maintaining the same volume of output? Are you cutting staff development time or work on activities that support quality? Or, does having fewer people make everyone become more efficient?
There’s a maxim that claims that people will fill the available time with activity even if they might have been able to accomplish the task more quickly. That maxim often seems to be true among information developers. Some people are incredibly efficient by nature. But others take an inordinate amount of time to perform the same tasks. When the pressure is on, performance magically improves.
Doing the same work with fewer people may result from boosting individual productivity, cutting quality assurance steps, or cutting out all professional development activities. Despite the attractiveness of such methods to management, this path eventually leads to frustration, decreased quality and customer satisfaction, and falling morale.
The best solution is to cut the work rather than cut the quality, at the same time that you follow Karen’s practice and make the best use of your resources. We all know about the information we include in customer information because the developers want to document their work effort, the marketers want to promote the product, or the support organization wants to account for every contingency. All the information requested is valuable if you have appropriate resources. But without the resources, it’s far better to stick closely to a minimalist program and focus on high-demand information for customers. In doing so, you might even discover that customers are happier with less.