Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.
Although they create similar content, are supported by the same subject matter experts, and face many of the same challenges, instructional design and information development rarely play well together. In most organizations, they are separate entities, reporting through an entirely different chain of managers. Educationally, the staff come from different backgrounds and possess different skill sets. Personalities clash. Yet, the opportunities for sharing and reusing content abound. In an environment where organizations regularly look for cost-saving measures, the opportunities and potential benefits for working together cannot be overlooked:
- Reduced costs of content creation by single sourced shared content. Single sourcing reduces costs by ensuring that information is written once and reviewed only once by subject matter experts and editors.
- Increased content quality by enabling specialization of some skill sets, such as editing, graphics, and project management. If specializations already exist, organizations might reduce costs by sharing staff and keeping them fully busy.
- Reduced burden on subject matter experts providing initial information, as well as review time of single-sourced material.
- Shorter deliverable times through single sourcing, with the goal of having both information development and instructional design delivered with the product release.
- Increased employee satisfaction by leveraging the skills staff do best and enjoy most. For example, instructional designers typically prefer to design instructional materials, not write the detailed content. Cooperative development can allow designers to focus on design and writers to focus on writing.
How then do instructional design and information development overcome their differences and realize the benefits of working together? This article examines some common obstacles and suggests how they might be addressed.
Different Organizational Structures
More often than not, the first obstacle to instructional design and information development working together cooperatively is organizational separation. Although some companies have combined the two groups, the vast majority are separate, reporting through different managers and divisions. They are frequently located in different buildings, if not different cities, states, or even countries. Such organizational division can result in poor communication between the groups, encourage an “us vs. them” competitive attitude, and can feed many of the other obstacles discussed.
Unfortunately, organizational structure is typically well outside the control of the people most affected by it. However, it need not dictate isolation and independence. Ultimately, instructional design and information development must stop thinking of themselves as different entities. In reality, they may remain separate, but with thoughtful coordination, they can act as a unit and realize the benefits of cooperative collaboration. That’s not to say it will be easy, but despite what it may feel like, no company interested in improving its bottom line actively discourages teamwork.
However, successfully ignoring organizational divisions requires careful planning and a head-on approach to dealing with other obstacles addressed here. These obstacles are frequently the reason that combined organizations are again divided after a few years, having failed to realize the promised benefits of unification. You’ll do better addressing these obstacles first. A history of successful cooperation and realized time and cost savings may provide the impetus for combining the groups; it may not—but what does it matter? You’ve learned to work together regardless.
At many companies, information development is a cost center with a business goal of minimizing expenses, while instructional design is a profit center with a business goal of maximizing profit. The strategies used to achieve those goals can greatly impact the approach and priorities of the two development teams. As a cost center, information development seeks to reduce bells and whistles and offer the least expensive option possible. As a profit center, however, instructional design needs to establish the value-add it brings and distinguish itself from its competitors to sell its products and services.
It’s important to recognize that these business goals are not mutually exclusive or diametrically opposed. In fact, a coordinated effort between information development and instructional design can help both goals move forward. For example, by sharing common content, the production costs of basic information decrease. The corporation is not paying for the same information to be created twice, to be edited twice, to be reviewed by the same SME twice. In addition, freed from the time required to create that basic content, instructional designers can concentrate on creating value-add content, such as interactions, video and animations, and detailed scenarios and simulations.
Of course, some instructional design groups argue that they can’t use the content developed by information development—in some way it doesn’t meet their standards. Here’s where the cooperative collaboration must begin. Clearly, content must meet the needs of both organizations to be shared, but typically, no one has taken the time to learn what those needs are. When you begin to work together, one of the first steps you’ll need to take is to establish a standards committee and hold regular meetings. Include each other in your review cycles. You’ll find most differences are quickly and easily addressed, and an intelligent combination of approaches and standards improves the final quality of both group’s deliverables.
Different End Products
Obviously, information development and instructional design create different end products. Information development creates manuals and online help, while instructional design produces slides, workbooks, instructor notes, and online learning. These products look different, they feel different, and they have different use models. Documentation, if used at all, is expected to be accessed randomly based on an immediate user need. Training is an experience; instructors or the program itself guides the learner through a sequential design where information builds on the previous information and,in most cases, material will be digested in one sitting. Further, not only are the end products different, they are also created using vastly different products. Instructional design works with products such as Powerpoint, Flash, and Camtasia to create interactive and animated content, while information development largely works with desktop publishing tools to create static output.
Although the end formats may be different, much of the content is, or should be, the same. For example, the steps to accomplish a specific task are the same regardless of whether they are printed in a user guide or in a workbook with specific input for each step. In fact, when those steps are different, it can confuse the user, who expects a similar instruction and wonders which is correct when they differ. Further, most users don’t make or don’t want to make a distinction between documentation and training materials. To them, it all serves the same purpose—to support them in what they want to accomplish. They like the accessibility of the documentation, but wish for more examples and scenarios. They like the task-orientation of the training materials, but wish they could more easily find the information later.
Adopting a topic-based, structured-writing strategy facilitates the creation and reuse of common content. In addition, adopting an XML standard such as DITA, results in a separation of content from format. So while the output may be different, the building blocks of that output are the same or similar. You can still assemble the topics to address the different approaches, even using conditions to account for minor differences (such as specific data to enter on a step for a training scenario) to ensure each output continues to meet its goals. In addition, you can then output each approach in a variety of formats, including PDF, Powerpoint, and even SCORM-compliant content for a Learning Management system (LMS). Following an XML standard also allows some flexibility in tool choice. Writers and instructional designers (IDs) don’t have to use the same tools if there is a compelling reason not to, but they need not use an awkward cut-and-paste process to share information.
Different timelines and development processes
Typically, technical documentation is created simultaneously with the development cycle of the product because the product can’t be released without it. Writers work from specifications and prototypes. On the other hand, training frequently is developed at the end of the development cycle after the product is released. IDs work with the finished product and finished documentation.
The different timelines can result in significant differences in development processes. With a more aggressive timeline, information development groups frequently find they have less opportunity for direct contact with customers, while the instructional design group by its very nature works directly with customers. Information development teams are used to working with far less stable products, and their processes are structured to accommodate significant change in content. But such change in content can result in a complete redesign for a training program as dependencies and information flow are affected. Although both groups might follow rigid standards, information development standards tend to be at an editorial level, while instructional design standards are at an approach and strategy level.
A cooperative approach can address the weaknesses in these individual processes. Clearly instructional design’s direct customer contact can provide opportunity and information to the information development team. Similarly, having access to early information development drafts as well as the ability to influence that content enables instructional design to start their deliverables sooner, making it feasible to deliver training in tandem with a product release. However, the two groups must come to an agreement about process before beginning collaboration. Each person must understand what his or her specific responsibilities are, how content will proceed through a workflow, and how the teams will work together.
Different Skill Sets
As their titles imply, writers tend to have a writing emphasis, while IDs have a design emphasis. As a result, writers tend to think at the micro-level–how information itself should be architected—while IDs think at the macro-level–how a course or module should be pieced together. Writers tend to focus on what needs to be conveyed, while IDs think about how it can be conveyed most effectively.
Rather than focusing on their differences, we should recognize their similarities. Both technical writers and instructional designers are communicators of information. Each needs good language, research, and visualization skills. The beauty of collaboration is that it enables each to build on a foundation of similar skills, while taking advantage of the differences. It acknowledges the strengths of each group and enables them to divide production tasks to concentrate on what each does best and enjoys the most. Consider the following potential division of labor:
In this scenario, each group is doing what it has been trained to do and what it enjoys doing. Writers create the base content from which all deliverables are built, while the IDs focus on their specialty–identifying objectives, building instructional design strategies, and designing scenarios and exercises. Not only does this division of responsibility increase job satisfaction, but it can improve development metrics as well. Experts in a particular skill take less time to complete the task than non-experts, and people doing what they like to do also work faster and better.
Although writers and instructional designers may have different skill sets, the disciplines that support them are the same. For example, the information sources for information development and instructional design are identical. As a result, subject matter experts are frequently subject to twice the questioning and forced to correct the same misconceptions twice. In addition, both instructional design and information development require the support of an editorial staff, graphic designers, and project managers. Frequently, it is difficult for each organization to justify the cost of such specialties and to keep a full-time person busy. A cooperative development approach enables the groups to share resources, enabling both groups to benefit from the specialized skills they might otherwise have to forego.
Extending the Olive Branch
Clearly, a cooperative development effort between information development and instructional design has the potential to increase user satisfaction with information products, increase job satisfaction, and eliminate redundant work, thereby reducing overall costs. However, with so many obstacles to overcome, it’s not difficult to understand why the groups remain separate despite the potential benefits. Nevertheless, with careful planning, you can take the first steps towards a cooperative coexistence:
1. Assess your potential benefits:
- Analyze your company’s instructional design and information development products. Find where overlaps occur, estimating the potential for reuse.
- Determine how each group can benefit from the other’s expertise.
- Compile measurements showing the amount of effort each group makes separately in support of a single product or release.
- Compare workflow and standards within the groups, identifying both key differences that will need to be negotiated, as well as key similarities you can build on.
2. Suggest a pilot partnership. Based on your analysis, choose one product or release on which to cooperate. Look for a project that has high reuse potential and impact to schedule and budget. However, keep it small and contained, remembering that small successes encourage further cooperation and change, while large failures are remembered for a long time.
3. Outline process and standards upfront. Ensure that all key differences identified in your assessment are addressed up front. Don’t assume you will work everything out as you go. Make sure you establish
- a joint process
- which authoring guidelines and style guide will take precedence
- which group will own which files
- final authority and escalation procedures
- tools to be used
However, remain flexible through the pilot as discrepancies in process and standards are revealed.
4. Choose your teams wisely. Involve people who have a reputation for working well with others and who recognize the similarities in the groups, rather than their differences. Use people who will lead and influence their peers after the pilot is complete and you move forward with other cooperative projects.
5. Jointly communicate your plans to the project’s stakeholders. Outline the benefits you plan to realize and discuss any impact on them. Address their concerns and review the mitigation strategies you have in place if the partnership hits unexpected snags. Keep stakeholders informed, providing status updates more frequently than you might normally.
6. Track your results. Compare your final numbers to the measurements you gathered before the pilot. Evaluate the actual content reuse achieved. Survey your team members and stakeholders to discover what worked well and what needs to be improved for future partnerships.
7. Communicate your results to the full teams, stakeholders, and management.