JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Oblivious Organizations are Alive and Well

In response to my December e-newsletter article on oblivious (Level 0) organizations, I received two interesting accounts that are included in this issue (see the Responses to Oblivious Organizations). Both writers found themselves to be the first communicators in otherwise oblivious organizations. Both struggled to communicate the need for an organized structure in their work to their managers and colleagues.

This month, we turn to Level 1 of the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM): the Ad-hoc organization.

Independence Rules in Ad-Hoc Organizations

Dr. Q, the leader of our content-management consulting team, has been asked to work with Checko Systems, a huge manufacturing company with a wide range of products. When it was a fledgling start-up, Checko had a central technical publications organization.

Today, however, Checko has a number of autonomous documentation departments, each associated with a set of products. All that is left of the original central organization is a production unit. Dolores Jones, production head, is very interested in developing a content-management system to deliver documents to the company Web site and release them on CD-ROM. She needs the cooperation of all the other departments, some co-located and others distributed around the world at company plants. Some of these documentation departments were once part of the central group; others have had little or no contact with Dolores.

Dr. Q’s initial investigation centers on structure standards:

  • How similar or different are the documents created by the diverse, autonomous departments?
  • If they are different in their information structures, do they share common desktop-publishing templates?
  • Are common processes in place among the departments? Are the staff willing or able to cooperate?

After several meetings with documentation department leaders and Dolores Jones’s team, Dr. Q concludes that she is dealing with a Level 1: Ad-hoc organization. Processes, information structures, and even templates differ markedly from group to group. Although all the documents are delivered to customers on a single CD-ROM, simple searches reveal that each document opened is a complete surprise. Terminology is not standard; tables of contents for similar products are different; the users cannot easily tell which product or release they are reading about when they use full-text search.

From the 30,000-foot view, a Level 1 in process maturity appears much like Level 0. The difference—in a Level 1 organization, professional technical writers are, for the most part, responsible for document development. Some Level 1 organizations, like Checko, have department leadership handled by experienced communicators. Other Level 1 organizations, closer to Level 0, depend upon technical managers to supervise communicators. Still others have a mixed approach.

With so many diverse approaches to document design and information structure, Checko is not ready for corporate content management. Individual departments are too small to justify an investment in a formal content-management system (CMS). To justify a CMS, the departments will have to pool their resources, creating a unified approach to information development.

Preparing a Level 1 Organization for Content Management

For Checko to move into content-management, they may consider several possible strategies:

  • Individual departments or even individual communicators may pursue single-sourcing solutions independently using their existing tools and templates. Their solutions, however, will be limited to the subject areas covered in their departments.
  • The central production unit may continue to repurpose existing documents to PDF for electronic delivery with no changes. However, without agreement on a corporate-wide information design and the development of standard templates, customers will continue to be frustrated by inconsistency in the documents they receive.
  • To achieve consistency, individual departments must form a coalition to develop information-design standards and implement common tools and templates for all the documents produced throughout the company.
  • Once standards are in place, individual departments will need to train staff members to use the standards effectively.
  • Standards in document design must be accompanied by developing unified processes. The same processes must be used in each sub-organization to develop documents so that documents are consistent, not only at the level of formatting but of content and style. For information to be shared in the future among different product areas, the level of detail and coverage, as well as the writing styles, must be the same.

In short, Checko must move from a Level 1 to a Level 2 in the IPMM by implementing rudimentary standards in three areas: process management, information design, and technology. Level 2: Rudimentary describes the state that occurs when an organization begins to establish uniform practices and consistent designs. At Level 1, in which uniformity does not exist, creating a comprehensive and unified content-management solution is not possible. Unless the individual departments are large and rich enough to support independent CMSs, the best they can achieve is limited repurposing and single sourcing.

Making Content-Management Decisions

Level 1 organizations have much work to do before they can move to more sophisticated content-management solutions. However, individual departments or writers may easily achieve some degree of systematic reuse without a corporate-wide initiative or even a department-wide initiative.

Individual communicators, working independently, often decide on their own to repurpose or single source their content. Repurposing refers to the process of delivering the same content in multiple media. For example, a writer may create content as a book and deliver that same content electronically using PDF, HTML, or a help system (HTML Help, WinHelp, JavaHelp, and others). Typically, the writer uses a conversion tool to develop the multiple output formats necessary. We have seen individual writers, working closely with a product-development team, create Help systems and PDF or HTML versions of their documents for delivery with the product.

In single sourcing, the writer selects different content for different media, typically a subset of the content developed for the printed books. Again, conversion tools may help label and select content for different outputs. For example, the writer may use a subset of book content in a help system by appending conditional labels to the print version of the document. Some help-development systems allow conditional formatting during the conversion process; sophisticated desktop publishing tools like Adobe FrameMaker allow for conditional labels to be included in the original documents.

In the same way, individual departments may use desktop-publishing or help-development tools to support repurposing or single sourcing the content they produce, without regard to the rest of the publications developed by the organization.

Individual Initiative in Level 1 Organizations

In observing many Level 1 organizations, we have always noted the strength of individual initiatives that foster innovative approaches to delivering content. But it is this individual behavior that limits Level 1 organizations to ad-hoc approaches that succeed only when they are limited in scale. For an organization to work toward a uniform, standardized solution involving more than a handful of people, staff members will necessarily have to work together. Ad-hoc organizations, by definition, do not have the degree of collaboration or cohesiveness necessary.

Once staff members in a Level 1 organization decide that they will benefit by working together and agreeing on standards in process, design, and technology, they are already on their way to becoming a Level 2.

Centralizing Production

Level 1: Ad-hoc organizations often begin to standardize by developing a central production team that is responsible for final deliverables. Typically, such centralization occurs when it becomes cost-effective for an organization to publish technical documents jointly. The organization decides to issue a single CD-ROM with all their documents or place the documents on a joint Web site.

Typically, the work of a central production team is repurposing. They take the documents produced by the writers in different parts of the corporation and issue them as a unit. Costs are saved because only a few people are responsible for production activities (producing PDFs, creating CD-ROMs, posting to a Web site) rather than everyone working independently or in departmental groupings.

With a central production team, an organization may consider implementing content management for Web delivery (Web content-management systems automate the deployment of content to a Web site, often cutting final production time from weeks to hours or minutes). An organization may even consider converting existing documents to XML to avoid the tweaking often required with proprietary authoring systems. Or, an organization may move document development into SGML or XML to avoid the conversion process.

In such cases, I have observed the format of the original desktop published documents is maintained. The popular DOCBook DTD provides a cost-effective means to author in a non-proprietary language without making any changes to existing book structures.

However, smoothing the production process, automating many activities, and using non-proprietary tools results in significant returns on investment. By reducing production costs and time, documents are not only less expensive and less time consuming to produce but more time is left before production to ensure accurate content.

Beyond Repurposing

Level 1 organizations are not yet ready for content management. They need to establish uniform processes, information designs, and templates before they can successfully manage content in a comprehensive manner. Simple repurposing of identical documents into multiple deliverables provides an initial solution but offers little opportunity to increase efficiency or provide more flexible deliverables to customers. Simple single sourcing, in which elements of content are conditionalized for multiple outputs, can be effective on a small scale but becomes difficult to manage as the number of conditions grows and multiple conditions must be applied to portions of the same text. Without the means to store content modules and assemble them to produce unique deliverables, a Level 1 organization will achieve limited success.

To manage content for reuse in multiple contexts requires a modular rather than a document approach to information design. To manage content that can be reused in multiple deliverables requires a comprehensive information model, one that identifies the categories of content beyond the document level. In the next installment of this series, I discuss the organizational requirements behind a successful content-management solution that provides continuing opportunities for growth.

If you’ve found yourself in the midst of a Level 1: Ad-hoc organization, please send your stories to me at I’ll assemble them into a feedback to this article.