JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

I have made three New Year’s resolutions for 2010 and hope to extend them into the second decade of the 21st century. Although many reporters and pundits have concluded that the 1st decade of the century was “lost,” I don’t believe that has been true for technical information development. We have just completed a decade of amazing new developments. However, we have just gotten started, and we still have much to learn. Hence, my resolutions:

Information developers will become critical contributors in a collaborative working environment.

Information will be managed to avoid duplication of effort and cost of maintenance.

Technology that we select and implement in our organizations will result in reduced development costs and increased productivity.

Three great challenges ahead

In my opinion, managers of information development face three great challenges as we enter 2010:

  • Managing the authoring process to increase collaboration and promote content reuse
  • Managing the content management process to build an accessible, reliable database of content
  • Managing the technology that promises to reduce development costs and increase productivity

I’m certain there are other challenges ahead of us, although I hope we have a respite from the pressures of the last few years to outsource and downsize. It doesn’t seem possible to reduce our critical human resources any longer. It does seem possible, however, to make better decisions about information that is really critical to our readers’ success.

Collaboration and content reuse

For the past 30 years, for as long as I’ve been actively involved in information development, we have indulged a predilection among the people who find technical writing to be a desirable professional activity: they believe they each need to work independently.

People enter this field with a key preconception that writing is a solitary task. As a result, we have long decried the impossibility of “writing by committee.” It seemed to us that placing too many pens in the mix simply resulted in awkward, bulky prose that contributed little to the readers’ understanding.

In addition, we’ve been forced by executive decision to replace human editors with spell checkers, something I’ve always felt stemmed from the executives’ remembrances of their elementary school teachers. Anyone with the word “editor” in his or her title has been ripe for the cutting block.

Editors who had the ability to read across multiple authors and foster collaboration are often no longer part of the team. Authors thus become more isolated, knowing little about what others are working on.

For the next decade, the second of the new century, we need to change the status quo of independent authors and work vigorously to build an interactive team. In fact, we need to incorporate some of the goals that software-development managers have attempted with the advent of agile development tactics. Our authors need to plan, design, and develop information as a body of knowledge rather than content fitted into individual deliverables.

Content management

Too many managers and authors view content management as the selection of a system. The assumption seems to be that “if we buy a component content management system, managed content will automatically result.” That assumption is pure fiction.

Managing content means designing, developing, and maintaining an organized collection of information that is accessible to all and capable of being restructured based on product and customer requirements. In fact, managing content effectively depends quite seriously on a collaborative authoring environment.

In too many instances, since authors control their own content, no one has an overall picture of what is out there. I believe strongly in establishing a content resource that is one unified set that is well structured. The goal is that the content picture is visible and understandable to those team members who maintain it. It’s one “body of knowledge” that is available for use in any deliverable that someone chooses to define.

I understand the thinking about content in this way is a “tall order.” But, taken a product at a time using reliable processes for analysis, it can and should be done. Without an established body of content, we cannot know what is duplicated and what is missing. In fact, we need to think of our content in database terms. As I’ve argued elsewhere, if we have a body of unique content, we can define success as a minimum set of inputs used to create a maximum number of outputs.

Tools and technology

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems managers report about disappointing returns on their content-management investments. Where they thought development costs would decrease, they have actually increased. Where they thought development time would go down, it has gone up.

With the help of CIDM members, we’ve defined the source of the problem. We thought that moving to XML, DITA, and content management was a tools and technology change when, in fact, it is a cultural change. We’ve always bought and implemented new tools casually, like moving from Word to FrameMaker years ago or implementing a help-development system. The cost of tools has never been significant. Then, came XML and content management. For the first time, we found ourselves requesting hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for new technology with the promise of a hefty return on the investment.

It has taken many of us some time to recognize that we were ill-prepared for the cultural changes the new technology required. If it were not for reduced translation desktop publishing costs, we might have achieved little if any cost reductions. Managers now recognize that the changes required to reap the benefits of the new technology are significant and difficult.

So much of our technical-publications culture is deeply rooted in authoring independently, finessing the layout, and taking full responsibility for delivery. Our new culture requires authoring collaboratively, moving layout to a final publications process, and learning that delivery options are often best placed into the hands of the customer.

What are your resolutions?

I’m curious about your reaction to my New Year’s resolutions. Please let me know. We’ll put this article on the LinkedIn CIDM group site and invite feedback. We would also be most pleased to receive emails from you.  Tell us what your professional resolutions are and respond to mine. Let’s hope for a successful 2010 and a prosperous decade ahead.