What Does Hiring Have To Do With It?

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JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director
www.infomanagementcenter.com

This is the fourth article in an eight-part series on process maturity. Here’s the sequence of articles to date:

April 2005—the importance of estimating
May 2005—the effect of planning
June 2005—the role of quality assurance in building customer-focused communication

For July, I want to consider the relationship of hiring to process maturity.

When we look at immature information-development organizations, we often notice that hiring is in the hands of the product developers. Writers are hired as individual development teams to supplement the activities of the engineers and programmers themselves, often with the comment that “we could write this ourselves, but we’re too busy.” When writers are hired as developers, the hiring criteria are evaluated in roughly this order:

 

  • Technical expertise in the developers’ subject-matter area
  • Tools knowledge, i.e., MS Word or desktop publishing
  • Ability to write effectively and meet the needs of the audience

 

Because writing ability is difficult for non-writers to evaluate, the ability to develop usable and readable content is often given short shrift. If fact, if you tell them you’re a writer, you probably get the job as long as you know something about the technology.

At present, we see this fixation with technical skills running rampant in the hiring that occurs among many offshore outsourcing vendors. We hear horror stories about agencies hiring computer programmers as technical writers with the promise that they’ll move up to programming jobs as soon as an opening occurs. As a result, the turnover among the so-called writers is rapid.

Only when hiring shifts into the hands of information-development professionals do we begin to see a focus on the ability to communicate effectively.

Hiring a Jack-of-all-Trades
At Level 2 in process maturity, a time when an organization is in transition between an ad-hoc, technology-dominated environment to a professional environment, we frequently find that managers prefer experienced information developers who can manage the entire process and themselves in the bargain.

Just a few days ago I received a job announcement asking for applicants who were expected to be completely independent in their work environment. Quite clearly, successful information developers for this position would be able to manage their own projects, write and edit their own work, handle all interactions with other departments, and compose and publish their own deliverables.

This notion of the information developers’ role reminds me of an elderly great aunt who had come to the US from Germany in the 30s. She grew up on a farm in East Germany and brought with her a set of linen towels from home. Her mother had grown the flax, spun the thread, woven the cloth, and hemmed the towel with a minute hem stitch—a model of production that we usually refer to as craft.

When we review the practices of a Level 2 organization, we find the craft model hard at work. Each department member is expected to perform the entire job, often in complete isolation from co-workers or the manager. In such an organization, we notice that managers, although responsible for hiring and evaluation, often know little or nothing about the work being done by the staff members. Nor do co-workers know anything about the practices being used or the content being developed by their peers.

As a result, we certainly have great independence and self-sufficiency among the staff. However, we also have duplication of efforts, inconsistency of style and format, and gaps in the information provided to the customers. We also find that staff members spend a lot of time performing mundane clerical tasks because there is no one else available to assist with the process.

Although the organization may have rudimentary style sheets and editorial guidelines in place, the independent staff members feel privileged to override the corporate styles whenever they perceive a need for a new approach. As a consequence, the product delivered to the customers is frequently inconsistent because everyone is doing “his or her own thing.”

Hiring for specialization
In the move up the process maturity scale, managers come to recognize that hiring practices must shift from total independence to specialization and teamwork.
Specialization often occurs as a department grows or as it moves into content management. In a larger department, with 10 or more staff members, the need for specialization becomes obvious. Types of specialization that we first begin to see include:

 

  • editorial experts
  • production specialists
  • graphic artists

 

Management learns that technical communicators become increasingly inefficient and expensive when they are expected to edit their own work, see all the deliverables through to final production and distribution, or produce their own technical illustrations. Each of these jobs is better handled by experts than occasional practitioners.

Specialization of tasks also becomes essential when an organization begins to implement structured authoring, reuse, and content management. Not only are editors required to ensure a common look and feel among the authors, but individuals must take on responsibility for information architecture, repository management, tools management, and information output design. Although these roles may be assigned part-time to authors and editors, they are unique jobs that are best learned through specialization. If we ask everyone to take on all these new responsibilities, we are both misunderstanding the promise of increased productivity and neglecting the potential for automation to provide a return on investment.

Certainly we may want to cultivate new skills among our existing staff. However, if we find opportunities for new or replacement hiring, the itemizing of specialized skills and clear descriptions of roles and responsibilities will aid in identifying the best candidates. As we increase the specialization, we look for people with qualities and interests that are miles away from the jack-of-all-trades.

Hiring for collaboration
Beyond the basics of establishing specializations within the organization, the increasingly mature organization begins to recognize the importance of a collaborative environment. Contributing to a single-source information architecture means that team members must work together to produce a body of knowledge from which information can be customized for delivery to users.

Collaboration seems to be mostly a state of mind, an ability to work with others toward a common goal and to abandon an ego-driven attachment to one’s own control over everything. Much to the detriment of a collaborative environment, we have cultivated an increasingly inopportune independence in the technical communication profession.

In a collaborative environment, responsibility shifts continuously among specialists. People with expertise in architecture help direct planning activities early in the lifecycle. Those with expertise in information design take responsibility for final deliverables, developing the look and feel of electronic and print output. Throughout, however, staff meet and consult, agreeing on a single approach to content development. In such an environment, team members produce a well conceived body of knowledge about a subject domain in the form of standalone topics. Topics, authored by specialists in the subject areas, are assembled into myriad forms to best serve the needs of diverse customers.

The best collaboration doesn’t exist in a vacuum of leadership. In a collaborative work environment, leaders make final decisions but also encourage consensus building. Leaders manage projects to ensure that all work is on track and that conflicting demands are reconciled and compromises reached that are both responsible and ethical. Leaders, in fact, know what is going on throughout the development activities at the same time that they rely on the expertise of others to best serve the needs of diverse customers.

Hiring in a new global environment
Quite obviously, hiring for a specialized, collaborative environment is not easy. We look for people with special interests that can be fostered, and we look for people who thrive on teamwork. We need managers who want to be fully engaged but are anxious to take advantage of everyone’s contribution.

Not so easy, you might say, to find and develop a new breed of information developers but essential if we are to build mature organizations that can be efficient and effective in an increasingly competitive global environment.

 

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