Part 1 of 6: Oblivious Organizations and Content Management: Not yet ready for prime time

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Gert Kindergarten, marketing director at Hyperactive Software, has just returned from the Content Management Strategies conference. He attended two sessions espousing the advantages of moving documents into a content-management system and using XML markup to enable reuse1 and repurposing2. He announces to his staff that the company needs to “get into” content management right away for all its marketing and customer documents, especially the product manuals. His senior writer suggests calling in a consulting team to help.

At the first meeting with Gert and members of the marketing team, Dr. Q asks

  • Who creates the marketing and customer documents today?
  • What process is used to create, review, approve, and publish these documents?

Gert and Georgina, the lone technical writer, explain that many people in the company create the documents. Three research and development (R&D) teams write their own product specifications and a few of the engineers and programmers put together the user manuals for the products. The field installation and maintenance team in customer support creates install guides and maintenance manuals that go to some customers. Customer services, the phone team, develops FAQs for the company’s Web site and creates ad-hoc documents that they send to customers in response to queries.

In brief, documents are created everywhere by everyone. They each develop the documents any way they like, with no common look and feel. Company officials have vehemently opposed hiring technical communicators for the R&D teams. They feel that the engineers know the products best and should be able to write about them. Marketing materials are created independently by many different marketing staff members, outside contractors, and even by executives who regularly post announcements to the company intranet and Internet sites.

When it comes to publishing the final versions in print and on CD-ROM, once again, staff members use a wide variety of processes, each developed and implemented independently. They use several different printers and generally burn their own CDs and ship them to the fulfillment house to be included with the product CDs.

In the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM), Hyperactive Software is a Level 0: Oblivious. In an oblivious organization, management does not yet recognize the need for standard publications. We generally don’t learn about oblivious organizations, however, until they hire their first technical writer. That writer has the inaugural view of the mess the documents are in and is often charged with trying to do something about it.

Despite the marketing director’s interest in content management, Hyperactive Software is not yet ready for prime time. They need first to pursue several important and potentially difficult steps toward standardization before content management makes sense.

  • Review who creates documents and what documents they are creating (an inventory of existing materials).
  • Understand the processes being used throughout each document-development life cycle.
  • Query customers, both internal and external, about the successes and failures of the current documentation set.
  • Create a standard set of documents related to the products being delivered and the users’ needs for information. For example, you might have standard installation and end-user documents.
  • Adopt a standard document design that takes into account relevant differences among the various document types. Create a template for each document type with common style names across the template set.
  • Train staff members on using the standard.
  • Institute a quality check process (run by the lone technical writer) to ensure that the outgoing documents follow the standard design and template.

Rest assured, these steps will not be easy to pursue. Dealing with an essentially ad-hoc organization is always difficult. In an oblivious organization (not yet ad-hoc), people don’t see the point of standardization. They value their independence in creating whatever they want, rather than the need to deliver a common look and feel in the documents going to customers. Impressing everyone about the need for standardization is especially difficult when no experienced technical communicators are part of the picture. Amateur writers often have no interest in standards or patience with process. Because document development is not part of their regular job description, it’s low on their personal priority lists.

Even if you are working with designated technical communicators (more on Level 1: Ad-hoc organizations in the next installment of the e-newsletter), you are likely to encounter resistance from staff who have long been independent. We all know, of course, that even under the best of circumstances, communicators find it difficult to compromise on style preferences. Everyone thinks his or her way is best.

Quite clearly, an oblivious organization is not ready for content management. We find that if they invest in a content-management system, they will use it as an expensive file server with version control. Version control alone provides minimal calculable return on investment. In my view, the only viable path available to an oblivious organization wanting to take advantage of content management and reuse is through rudimentary standardization.

Perhaps the best means of achieving some success is to garner the support of a champion in senior management. Georgina might be able to persuade Gert to become such a champion, but his position in marketing will likely preclude influence over R&D. Georgina needs to find a champion among the executives high enough in the company to influence all or most of the teams, such as R&D, services, and support.

Champions among senior management are most likely to emerge in response to customer pain. Customers unhappy with the current confused state of affairs are bound to be vocal about their problems. Georgina needs to ferret out the complaints and bring them to the attention of the right people. Gert in marketing may be that person, at least as a starting point.

Oblivious organizations are on the slow path toward content-management solutions. I’ve found that it often takes two years to move an organization one level in the IPMM. Georgina has her work cut out for her; she’ll need plenty of stamina to survive two years of oblivion. Fortunately, just hiring her is a step in the direction of Level 1.

1 Reuse refers to the process of using chunks of content in more than one context (or document).

2 Repurposing refers to delivery the same information in more than one medium (print, HTML, help, and so on).