Cindy Frakes, Oracle Corporation

Moving to a structured authoring model requires a massive amount of work and a 360-degree approach. As a member of an Information Development Management team, I have found that the planning phase seems to take forever because there are business plans to write, authoring and content management tools to review and select, presentation after presentation to get buy-in from peers and upper management, and collaboration with other teams to integrate the new authoring model into the overall product development lifecycle.

With all this work to do, the Information Developers can get lost in the shuffle. They need to be trained on the new model and build new skill sets to support this. They have a lot of questions about how the changes may impact their careers and what it means to them in terms of future employment, knowledge and skills they need to be successful, and how they will fit in to any new organizational model required to support the new authoring model.

This article covers how one organization, early in the DITA adoption process, moved their Information Development organization into a new authoring model, using a career ladder to assess current skill sets and provide a career path for individual contributors and managers. Although some of the barriers have disappeared with the mainstream adoption of DITA, there is still a cultural shift in the organization that is required to succeed in the move to the structured authoring model.


In this organization, after many business plans, discussions, meetings, and ROI reviews, the decision was made to move to DITA. The writing team

  • was proficient in authoring books and API
  • had varying skill sets from extremely technical to more functional
  • waited for the development organization to set any new documentation architecture vision
  • lacked knowledge about technical communication/information development trends and practices
  • focused on more documentation instead of high quality, translatable documentation
  • was disempowered and had low morale

It was important to change the skill set of the team because the new authoring model required us to collaborate more closely not only during development, but for translation, quality assurance, support, and product management. The desired profile included these skills and abilities:

  • Structured authoring
  • Information architecture and analytical skills
  • Collaboration
  • Championing a new authoring model
  • Deep product knowledge for an assigned product as well as those products integrated with assigned product
  • Understanding the product development lifecycle
  • Knowledge of technical communication/information development trends and practices
  • The requirement to be empowered and confident to work as an equal with their peers in other organizations

The initial staff development plan included training to build skill sets and the creation of cross-functional and within-team working groups to complete tasks such as researching authoring tools, creating new style standards, and developing new processes. These activities assisted in the goal of improving collaboration and developing information architecture and analytical skills and providing exposure to developing industry trends.

While the initial staff development was being executed, the Information Development Management team, working closely with the Human Resources business partner, created a new skills matrix and career ladder. After the career ladder was created, a skill set assessment was conducted across the organization. The process was completed when the manager and team member agreed on a career path and goals necessary to achieve the objectives in the career ladder.

Creation of the Career Ladder

Although there are many ways to create a career ladder, our Information Development organization decided to create a career ladder that included a skills matrix. The skills matrix defines the skills and the level of each skill required by individuals in a team. This skills matrix was tied to job titles and grades, and documented the progressive increase in skill set requirements to create the career ladder or technical ladder.

Creating the career ladder consisted of the following steps:

  • Identifying job levels or grades
  • Deciding on job titles
  • Identifying competencies to measure against

The competencies were fairly easy to create. Most Human Resources departments, if they have technical or career ladders for other organizations, can assist in this process. Based on review of other career ladders in the company and through a few management meetings, our team decided on the following competencies:



Knowledge and skills

Technical and functional knowledge about the product areas; job skills; ability to learn and extend knowledge; ability to execute and apply knowledge; problem solving; appropriate use of tools


Total value of work over review period, scale and complexity; consistency of performance; productivity; flexibility; overall effort

Quality and continuous improvement

Understandable, technically accurate, thorough and complete user assistance; considers customer’s needs, requirements, and ultimate satisfaction; understanding, following, and contributing to the improvement of processes, procedures, and standards


Display of innovation and invention; contribution to advance products


Degree of positive effort applied for the benefit of coworkers and the company; and ability to constructively work with others

Leadership and influence

Measure of leadership; scale of positive influence on product direction, internal tools, and staff

Independence, judgment, and accountability

Self-sufficiency, organizational skills, and supervision required; decision-making skill consistent with corporate values; meeting commitments in both letter and spirit, resourcefulness; ability to meet goals and schedules

Communication skills

Overall ability to communicate, including listening, writing, speaking, and presenting


Years of experience in the industry


Degrees obtained


Once these competencies were created, the performance requirements and expectations at each job grade were written to create the career ladder.

As you can see from the example above, the depth of experience at each level is progressive. In addition, the complexity and visibility increases as team members move through the technical ladder.

When creating the career ladder, make sure:

  • Your management team and Human Resources will support the move from one level to another based on achievement. If management does not support this, the team members may not take the career ladder seriously because once they attain the next level, they will not be rewarded for the effort.
  • The descriptions are clear and measurable goals can be written against them. If you are successful in writing clear descriptions, team members can self-manage their career progression with management support.

Conducting skill set assessments

Once the career ladder was finalized, the Information Development management team conducted a skill set assessment with each team member.

To complete the assessment:

1. Each team member completed a self-assessment by highlighting the skill level they felt they were performing at and justifying the level they selected and forwarded to their manager.

2. Independently, the manager completed a skill set assessment for each team member.

3. The manager compared the assessment they completed with the team member’s and noted where the results of the assessment were different.

4. The management team met to compare findings across the organization. This process ensured the releveling was done consistently.

5. The manager reviewed the skill set assessment with the team member and discussed where the team member was leveled.

6. The manager and team member identified the team member’s goals for the next review period.

When completing the skill set assessment, make sure that

  • each team member understands the guidelines for the skill set assessment. For example, one of our guidelines was the understanding with HR and the management team that even though the skill set reassessment may appear to indicate the team member at a lower level on the ladder than they had been, the team member will not be releveled. Instead, the manager would work with the team member on goals to bring the team member back to the level they were.
  • Each team member understands that the skill-set reassessment is not punitive but actually an aid to help them reach their career goals and to empower them to manage their own career growth.

Career Ladder Implementation Benefits

The career ladder implementation benefits were more far reaching than our management team expected. Although the career ladder was initially put together to provide a career roadmap and determine the team’s skill set gaps to move forward in the new structured authoring environment, some of the other benefits included

  • empowering team members to manage their own careers
  • creating a less subjective approach to yearly performance evaluations as well as any reduction-in-force decisions
  • raising the visibility of the Information Development team within the company
  • providing hiring managers and interviewers with a clear set of criteria for hiring
  • making it easier to transition acquired organizations into the centralized Information Development organization because expectations were clear


The investment to change a documentation model is large, no matter what the model. In the case of moving to a structured authoring model, the lesson learned in this particular migration is that nothing is more important than investing in your people. Although initially the Information Development management team spent a lot of time selling the company on the move to structured authoring and tool assessments, the investment in moving has to include releveling of team member’s skill set expectations and investment and support in upgrading skill sets.

The creation of the career ladder assisted in the releveling of the team’s skill sets. However, there were unanticipated advantages to completing this exercise, including higher morale, a more empowering work environment, more confident team members, and less stress on managers. It also created a more objective appraisal system which decreased the level of stress and surprises during the annual performance review discussions.