JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Introducing new ways of planning, creating, and publishing technical content is the order of the day in 2007 and beyond. Most organizations begin by acquiring new tools and technologies. But buying new tools is the easy part. Changing how people think about their roles is not easy. As managers, we must recognize the challenge of building a collaborative team environment and develop a creative strategy for making it attractive.

In their book, First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals (FreePress 2002), Patrick McKenna and David Maister argue that managers need to make a strong commitment to the success of the new work environment and communicate that commitment to the staff. Maister argues that we “… have to understand that shifting from individual work to teamwork isn’t an intellectual process; it’s an emotional one.”

The basic personality type of so many technical communicators makes collaboration challenging. We know that many of our colleagues are introverts, preferring to work alone and focus on a clear set of goals. Technical communicators work hard to meet deadlines and value the standards inherent in the profession. At the same time, they value their personal creativity and the responsibility for developing a complete publication on their own. They tend to enjoy doing everything from writing, editing and page layout, tographics, technical content, and more.

Working as part of a team to create a single set of deliverables, handing over responsibilities to fellow team members, and trusting the work produced by others does not come naturally.

For topic-based writing, it’s collaborate or fail

The good-old days of assigning a book to individual information developers who may be working at home in another state, country, or continent are over. Topic authors do not author whole books but may write about a particular feature of technology over many documents. Each author needs to collaborate with the organization’s information architects, with information developers writing other topics, and with editors and production specialists. Topic authors must write to conform to the information model, they must be aware of the implications of the style sheet on their content, they must develop metadata associated with their topics, they must be in sync with the organization’s terminology database, and they must be aware of production issues.

The bottom line is that modern topic-based writing must be a collaborative effort with challenges and rewards for the team, not the individual authors.

What then are the actions you should consider as you work to move your team members to the new world of collaboration and team work? Lauren Keller Johnson provides five key steps in her article, “Give Your Team a Challenge They Can’t Resist”

[Harvard Management Update, November 2007].

  1. share information
  2. balance freedom and guidance
  3. give people room to stretch
  4. have some fun
  5. make the challenge visceral

Share information

I usually call this a “sense of urgency.” No one is willing to change from a position of comfort unless there is a compelling reason to do so. Managers must be absolutely clear that business as usual is no longer viable. We can no longer afford to produce personally-crafted documents with idiosyncratic style and language. We need structured and consistent content that can be used in more than one customer scenario. We need content that can stand alone and effectively combine with material developed by colleagues throughout the organization.

Presenting the business case for change is the first step to fostering change. Managers must explain why a collaborative work environment will produce better results. We need to recognize that outcomes from diverse groups of people are likely to be more innovative and responsive to customer needs than deliverables created by isolated staff members.

When I led the technical communication instruction at the Colorado School of Mines, we placed our engineering students in collaborative teams. We were convinced that the students would be better prepared for future jobs in the mining and petroleum industries if they learned to work together. Feedback from industry leaders, those who hired Mines’ students, reinforced our position. Industry leaders we surveyed explained that our students failed to advance to more responsible roles even though they were well-prepared technically. Not only did they need to know their engineering disciplines, they had to communicate effectively, write well, and work in a team environment.

Communicating the prospective of the CEOs and head engineers of leading companies helped us convince students that this new way of working was critical to their future success. We even invited leading CEOs to speak to the students directly, explaining the realities of business world.

As you introduce a new working environment, explaining carefully and calmly the realities of your business world is an essential first step. Create a sense of urgency in your team members. Inform them that they have no alternative but to change.

Balance freedom and guidance

At the same time that you provide business reasons for a new collaborative work environment, provide opportunities for your staff to express their own ideas. Invite them to develop innovative solutions within the framework of the business demands. Many technical communicators enjoy solving new problems. They like to learn to use new tools, to produce new deliverables. In the past 30 years, technical communicators have embraced desktop publishing, help system design, and web-based publishing. Adding structured writing and information reuse to their bag of tricks is a natural.

Give your staff members the freedom to find ways to make collaboration effective. At the same time, be firm about the need for change. Make it clear that keeping to the old ways of working is not an option. If team members present new ideas, ask them how the ideas will support collaboration and result in faster, efficient, and more effective content for customers.

Our engineering students were surprised by the program that immediately put them into collaborative teams. We asked them to work together to develop solutions to engineering problems grounded in practical business scenarios. It wasn’t enough for them to “do the math”; they had to apply the solutions to real-world problems.

The most innovative solutions came, invariably, from the most diverse teams. We used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to help students know their own personality types and those of their team members. We monitored the teams, which were set up randomly. Those with the most diverse personality types arrived at the best solutions to the problems.

However, some of the brightest students tried to convince the faculty that they be allowed to work alone. They were used to being rewarded for the individuality. When we insisted they work with their team members, we encountered resistance. Staying firm about the “new way” was essential.

As a manager moving staff to a collaborative environment, you should give people opportunities to contribute to the way the change is implemented but you should never back down from the collaboration goals.

Give people room to stretch

Managers know about stretch goals. Getting people to move beyond their ordinary comfort levels is important if they are to grow. By asking your team members to work in areas that are new, to look for new ways of developing information, to better understand what customers really need, you require them to stretch.

Assign people to new roles in their new teams. Give writers accustomed to developing 1000-page tomes the responsibility of innovative quick reference tools. Give help writers the challenge of designing websites that present information in entirely new ways. Ask individuals to take on a new area of technical content, encouraging cross-training. Combine instructional designers and technical writers on the same project teams, and ask them to reverse their roles. Ask writers to learn how to teach and trainers to learn how to deliver content in writing.

Have some fun

If your new team environment is going to be truly collaborative, you need to add activities that build esprit de corps. Look at the way the military handles collaboration. They build trust through challenging team activities, some of them tough and some of them fun. Think about the techniques used by sports team coaches in honing their teams. They work together, but they also play together.

However, be certain that the fun is not separate from the working world. Design activities that are work related, that help to achieve the new design objectives that you establish, but are also challenging and exciting for the teams. Establish competitions, such as a reward program for the team that creates the most innovative new information design. One team held a competition to reward the team that could build the best quality information with the fewest words. Another challenged writers to get the lowest possible quality management scores on their content.

Make the challenge visceral

The technical communicators, meeting real customers in their real-world environment can provide a wake-up call for change. The team that learned that none of the customers they visited had ever used the help system forced them to rethink their design assumptions. The team that learned that most customers tossed the manuals in the trash pile challenged them to find better ways to communicate.

One of the most stunning challenges I’ve seen came from a mechanical engineering team I worked with. They had been hearing complaints from the users that the platform on which patients were placed for radiation therapy was difficult to position correctly. The awkward interface of the hand controls and the imprecise response of the platform caused unnecessary hardship for ill and frightened patients. But the engineers weren’t convinced; they thought their design was just fine.

That is – until the team manager took the team members to a radiation therapy clinic and had them experience a full therapy session as patients. Once the design engineers were strapped down on the platform and forced to endure the awkward positioning process, they understood what patients were feeling. Their emotional response was strong and led to an impressive and innovative new design. They told us that they had never really understood the users’ world.

Consider what you might do to help your people feel the challenge of changing the way they develop information.

Remember that changing from individual contributor to collaborative team member is an emotional change. Recognize the emotional component and find ways to respond.