JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.


If you’ve been in technical publications, as I have, for more than 30 years, or even more than 20 years, you’ve seen reductions in force before. Perhaps one of the hardest hitting was the economic slowdown in the early 90s when many large corporate publications organizations were severely downsized. Not only were staff members cut, but many traditionally centralized organizations were split apart and assigned to engineering groups, resulting in the loss of many experienced managers.

I started CIDM in 1998 in part to ensure that new managers had mentors from the ranks of their more experienced seniors. At the tip of the last downturn, we held a fabulous New Managers Conference. Unfortunately, just when the need was greatest, the economy tanked and fewer people were able to attend than we had hoped.

Nonetheless, we haven’t had to plan for significant layoffs in technical publications organizations for quite a few years now. The last time I wrote about the slowdown was 2001. At that time, part of the problem was the shift of jobs to low-cost areas of the world. Today, even though that trend continues, the problem is due to the global economic downturn. Even staff members in low-cost economies appear to be at risk as sales and revenues slow.

The response of many publications managers to the slowdown in the late 90s was a move to greater operational efficiencies:

  • minimalism to remove content from the maintenance mix
  • topic-based authoring to reduce duplicate or near-duplicate content
  • language quality management to reduce the need for extensive rewriting
  • translation management to translate fewer different words and fewer words in total
  • content management systems to consolidate stores of content and make the workflow more efficient

At this time, we see little or no slowdown in the move to operational efficiencies, although high-cost investment in tools is likely to be a tougher sell. More difficult will be a commitment to changing the authoring environment with fewer people available to undertake the hard work and still meet the regular deadlines.

Yet, the motivation to become more efficient remains the same or has become even stronger. If a manager loses staff, he or she has fewer people to maintain the status quo of supporting every product with the same level of information. In fact, we’ve noticed an increase in the number of people interested in pursuing the minimalist agenda and getting staff members trained in new ways of thinking about “completeness.” Learning that you don’t have to document everything is remarkably liberating.

Protecting your investment

If you’ve already taken steps to improve operational efficiencies and invested in content management, you’re focus should be on maintaining your investment. That means protecting the intellectual capital of your staff members.

  • Consider preparing an evaluation of the key strengths of each staff member, from tools expertise to information architecture to product knowledge. Be ready to demonstrate to senior management how much you would lose from a well-functioning organization and how long it might take to recover from a setback.
  • A shift to new employees in a low-cost economy might seem like an immediate cost savings until you explain how costly it will be to train people. Calculate how many years of investment you already have in your staff, especially for those skills that are most difficult to replicate elsewhere. Do you have people who administer your CMS, know how to process XML files and assemble final output? Do you have someone who understands the repository of content to ensure that it is being reused rather than rewritten? Do you have people with key technical expertise in the product or with exemplary knowledge of the customers? Now is the time to publicize the strengths your team has built over the past years.
  • Prepare a presentation (with slides, of course) that shows how you are adding to the value of your company with its user community. If you’ve been investing in an information wiki, what level of participation have you seen? How does your staff leverage the user inputs to make them valuable to a wider range of customers? Is your staff responding to user inquiries and requests for improved information? Have you added metadata search or helped to customize output to reduce search time? Customers are a more important commodity than ever before. Keeping them satisfied and ready for more information is critical to your organization’s and your company’s survival in hard times.

Handling Fear and Anxiety

At the New Managers’ Conference in 2000, Brad LaBroad of ADP Dealer Services provided the following advice for managers faced with layoffs despite their best efforts to preserve their teams.

Brad cautions managers to tell the truth, at least to the extent possible given company security requirements. Understand that you must deal with the trauma experienced by the people remaining. Recognize the stages:

Shock -> Denial -> Resistance -> Searching -> Solution

For the people remaining, give them as much information as you can and as quickly as possible. Enlist support from your Human Resources organizations. They may have trained facilitators who can provide assistance for you and your staff. Acknowledge the reasons for the downsizing and support the decisions to your staff, even if you might not agree with them yourself. Remember that you represent management. Your levelheadedness and calm will be appreciated in the long run and help your staff reach a new equilibrium.

The June 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review included an analysis of typical responses to a downturn and compares them to best practices employed by companies that have weathered downturns and come out on top. Darrell Rigby of Bain & Company summarizes the result of a two-decade long survey of 377 Fortune 500 companies and more than 200 senior executives. He first charts the Conventional Approach to a downturn. This approach will seem frighteningly familiar to many publications managers.

First Phase = Denial

Executives deny that the downturn will affect your company. Consequently, they make no early moves to strengthen the company’s position while revenues and profits are still respectable. In fact, many of them keep spending money wildly on acquisitions and mergers, many with companies having only peripheral connections to the core business. They feel that any contingency planning will only make the troops and the stockholders nervous. Unfortunately, after investing in marginal new businesses and spending on outlandish bonuses and executive rewards, they are primed to find the company with redundant staff pulling in multiple unrelated directions.

Second Phase = Panic

When the downturn finally hits, the reaction is total panic. Managers are told to cut everything in sight. Quick fixes result in slashed budgets everywhere but especially in anything that might resemble a perk. Employee morale is crushed when all opportunities for learning and growth are eliminated. No training, no travel, no professional development investments get approved.

The problem is not with cautious spending but rather with acting differently in a crisis than in good times. Profligate spending results in devastating cutbacks. And cuts that are dumbed down and implemented across the board mean that everyone suffers.

Rigby points out that layoffs rarely make sense. The average US company has 15% to 20% attrition each year. The typical downturn lasts about 11 months and results in sales lowered by less than 10%. The scramble to fire—and then rehire and retrain—Rigby notes, is not a sound business strategy.

Third Phase = High-spending frenzy

Downturns do not last forever, although it may seem so to people who have not experienced them before. Some of us have lived through half a dozen downturns in our careers. The Conventional Approach teaches that a company has to spend its way out of bad times. Because the panicked actions have destroyed employee morale and disgusted customers, the only response is to buy back loyalty.

Rigby goes on to explain that successful companies take a different path. Because they weren’t profligate spenders in the good times, they have the ability to weather the downturn without panic. They are careful to invest wisely during the downturn, using it as an opportunity to overcome competitors and gain market position. When the turnaround arrives, they’re stronger than ever before. But they don’t sink into a spending frenzy either.

Looking Out for Yourself

Despite all the possible advice we might offer, we should each consider how to prepare for the worst—a personal job loss. One of the best preparations is networking. It always seems too time-consuming to network when jobs are secure, but it is worth the effort. Consider the social networking, business-oriented sites like LinkedIn. I’ve been a member for several years and would be happy to link to any of you. I know of several managers who have found rewarding new positions through their LinkedIn contacts.

Don’t forget about local business groups, including STC local chapters. They often run job-location services for members. We are happy to post management positions on the CIDM website for members. If any CIDM member company has a management opening, please let us know the details. Consider other organizations that offer contacts in your field. Is there Knowledge Management group or an industry-specific organization that supports your area of expertise?

Be aware of a trend we’ve noticed. The most expensive individual in a publications organization is often the first to go. It appears that the Powers That Be believe that publications staff can get along without a knowledgeable, skilled manager. Watch out for potential age discrimination in a downturn, especially if the people being laid off are over 50. It seems that other parts of the organization don’t forsake their senior managers during a downturn—just those that are considered overhead.

Participating in Information Gathering

We’re preparing a survey of our members and colleagues so that we can gather information early about moves in the industry. I expect it to be ready in the next few weeks. Be ready to participate. Keep your ears open about your company’s position. Was it already struggling before the economy went south? Does it have a strong competitive position? Has it already been investing in innovation, including investment in information development?

We can’t predict the future, but as the Harvard Business Review author tells us, most economic downturns don’t last very long. Let’s hope that prediction holds true now. If you’ve been smart about change already, you’ll be well prepared.