Organizational Structure—The Foundation of Process Maturity

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JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Note: This is the eighth and final article in an eight-part series on the key characteristics that we measure in the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM). Here’s the sequence of articles to date:

The first questions we ask when we engage in an Information Process Maturity assessment focus on the structure of the organization:

  • Is the information-development function centralized?
  • Do all the information developers report to one manager?
  • Does the senior manager have experience in information development and is he or she concerned about the efficiency and effectiveness of the staff and their work?
  • Does the organization have policies and procedures in place to guide work practices in the information-development life cycle?
  • Do the information developers “own” the information they develop?
  • Are the information developers encouraged to learn about best practices in the field and develop their own innovative responses to their customers’ needs?

In IPMM assessments that we have conducted through the CIDM, we have encountered a Level 2 or higher level organization, characterized by a centralized and professional management team. Rarely are we engaged to do an assessment for a Level 1 organization, probably because no one is yet in charge. In a Level 1 organization, information developers report to various product development groups and have little opportunity and less encouragement, except through personal initiative, to work toward common goals and objectives. Although excellent work might be done by individual contributors at Level 1, we find it equally likely that much work is below par. Those managing the information-development activities are rarely knowledgeable about the standards in the profession and are often completely uninformed about the work that writers perform or the value they may add to the product and services of the company. Given the diversity of skills and abilities in a Level 1 organization, we give the organization the label ad hoc. Each individual does the best job he or she is capable of doing, usually without supervision and frequently with few opportunities for learning.

In most cases, some event precipitates a change to a Level 1 organization. Of necessity, that event forces a move toward consolidation of activities and people, often with the introduction of a manager who unifies the individual contributors into a central organization. Some organizations make due with several small groups with someone in a managing role. Others create a single department to which all the information developers report. The stage is thus set for progress to a Level 2: Rudimentary organization.

Why, then, do I argue that growth toward more mature processes can only occur with consolidation into a centralized organization with professionally skilled management? Introducing mature processes is a complicated affair. The staff needs to learn to work together and agree upon standards for writing style, information typing, structured writing, and audience definition in addition to basic processes for information planning, estimating, scheduling, and tracking. Their efforts to develop standards should be guided by a manager or group of managers who have a vision for the future growth of the staff and improvement of the quality and cost-effectiveness of the work.

I believe the transition to an organization with a plan and goals cannot take place without leadership. Although some ad-hoc groups may occasionally be able to work together to develop a style guide or institute some common structures, such grass-roots efforts are difficult to sustain and rarely successful over a long term and across disparate teams. As soon as someone new is hired or someone decides not to cooperate, the effort is undermined. With progressive leadership, the efforts at standards and processes have the possibility of success although the road ahead may be quite rocky.

Is it possible for an information-development organization to be centralized and still operate in an ad-hoc fashion? Yes, I’ve visited several organizations over the years that have an information-development manager who is disengaged. Generally, this manager functions as a hiring manager, adding new people to the department and conducting performance reviews. The work of developing information is still entirely managed by individual contributors. Usually the disengaged manager knows little about the projects except for their deadlines.

Based on experience with disengaged managers, I find that a centralized management structure is necessary but not sufficient for the development of mature and consistent practices that are accepted and executed by all the staff members. The necessary step is to have an organizational structure that is centralized, one in which everyone is working collaboratively toward the same business goals. If such a centralized organization is to be successful, the leadership must be fully engaged in the development of professional practices in information development. The leaders must understand the activities essential to the information-development life cycle, including information planning, information architecture, project estimating and tracking, editing and other quality assurance activities, and all the other best practices associated with the IPMM. The leaders need to commit the organization to innovations in service to the needs of the customer.