JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

In a recent article on change management in the Quality Digest, author Joanna Leigh quoted Abraham Lincoln. He said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first hour sharpening the axe.” The story that led to this famous quotation was her observation:

“Suppose you came upon a man in the woods, working to saw down a tree. He is exhausted from working for hours. You suggest he could take a break to sharpen the saw because it will help the work go faster. “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw!” he exclaims. “I’m busy sawing!””

Leigh points out that if you don’t take time to sharpen the saw, “you won’t be ready to deal with change.”

I often hear about the trials and tribulations of managers and staff working to implement structured authoring, DITA, content management processes, and other new ways of working. They report that they have little time to devote to working on their DITA projects because they are too occupied with making the next deliverable schedule. They fear that unless they use tools they are familiar with like MS Word or unstructured FrameMaker, they will risk being accused of “delaying the release of the product” or something equally dire.

Even more often, the managers decry the lack of additional resources to ease the transition. No new hires, senior management proclaims, even though they want the new solutions as fast as possible. I often urge managers to consider hiring temporary help, not to work on the DITA project, but to handle some of the regular workload. Without time to plan, design, and implement new modes of writing and new processes, the new projects bog down.

When resources are as thin as they seem to be at present, finding time for changing work habits and ways of thinking about writing is daunting. Nonetheless, the need for change has never been greater. Customers searching for our information are changing faster than we are, largely because they face the same time pressures to accomplish their work as we do.

I ask a critical question at the beginning of every minimalism workshop:

“How much time do you spend reading new information when you are on the job?”

The most common response is “None.”

I know what it feels like myself. Sometimes when I open the latest edition of Harvard Business Review, KM World, or Technical Communication Quarterly (just a few of the publications that I receive monthly), I feel guilty, as if I’m taking valuable time away from real work.

The same question might easily be asked of the customers for whom you develop information. Just how much time do they have to devote to reading technical information in a day, a week, or a month? Customer requirements for information are rapidly changing. They want quick solutions to their problems and single topics that answer their questions. They don’t choose to read extended text because the pressure to find immediate solutions to technical problems is too intense.

More than likely, a growing percentage of customers wants to watch a two-minute video or read the advice of another practitioner on the web rather than spend time searching massive PDFs.

If Not Now, When?

Despite the hesitations and time pressures, we have to face the fact that change is necessary and omnipresent. Consider the problems that your organization faces that will require you to change.

What if … someone in your organization gets sick or decides to leave? Have you planned how you will accommodate the decrease in resources? A personnel change is equally a reality when you change your practices to accommodate more effective management of content. You have new work to accommodate with the same resources, or you must find additional resources to help you through the transition period. Was the need for additional resources during transition part of your business case? Did you communicate your resource requirements to senior management who agreed that there were business benefits to pursuing automated publishing or single sourcing, or did you figure you could do everything with the same team members?

What if … customer complaints about the lack of adequate after-sales support escalate? What if they tell enough colleagues and competitors that your product information is inaccessible and inadequate? What if the latest customer survey once again singles out documentation as a source of discontent?

If your company measures the findability of information on your website or uses the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to survey customers, you are more likely to hear about problems with information access, consistency, accuracy, and completeness. Consulting measurements of customer success in finding information on your corporate support or documentation website will help you recognize flaws in your information that you can fix with better structure.

You probably know already if your information is as effective, usable, and findable as it should be. Most of us know that the answer would be “No, it isn’t.”

Not Later But Now

Stop fighting the need to change as an individual contributor or a manager. Find the resources to make effective change possible for yourself and your team. Sure, it’s easy to fall back on complaints about too much work today and not enough time to try something new.

As we open a new year, at the beginning of 2012, it’s time to stop stalling. The benefits of new ways of developing information are clear. Topics, structure, XML, DITA—each of these gives us the basis for more radical change ahead.

Find time to sharpen your axe rather than using your resources to keep chopping away with a dull blade.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.