Part 6 of 6—Process Reinvented, Level 5: Optimizing

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JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Going Beyond the Ordinary

“Does a Level 5 of process maturity exist in the information-development world?” wondered Dr. Q. The Software Engineering Institute, from time to time, reports on a Level 5 organization, based on their analysis of software development. Most often, however, Level 5 activities are confined to particular projects that are run exceptionally well. Whole organizations that operate at Level 5 are few and far between.

Dr. Q has been concerned about the apparent lack of Level 5 information development. She helped ODS define their Level 4 processes earlier in the year and has watched them begin a transformation to a greater focus on customers. However, Level 5 organizations would be in the thick of customer studies, relying on customer input to guide innovation. In these tough economic times, Dr. Q hoped that a Level 5 organization might emerge in a leadership position.

A favorite Level 5 candidate a few years ago had seen its role dissolve in the face of layoffs, budget cuts, and the somewhat reluctant retirement of their inspirational leader. Under better conditions, this leader had surpassed almost every other group he worked with. They were recognized for their expertise in user experience at the highest level of management. Their senior manager held a respected position in the senior leadership group. He had gained for his team a significant role not only in innovating in publications and training but also in assuming responsibility for the design of user-friendly software interfaces for the products.

Unfortunately, as their industry lost economic ground, the underpinnings of this department’s support were weakened. Even after winning an award of excellence from the corporation at large, they could not withstand the pressures to retreat.

Defining an Optimizing Organization

In the absence of a clear role model for Level 5 of the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM), Dr. Q felt it necessary to create a comprehensive picture of an optimizing organization. She was acutely aware of Clayton M. Christensen’s management standard, The Innovator’s Dilemma (Harvard Business 1997). In it, Christensen argues that older companies in the high-tech industry are likely to be challenged by the innovations of newcomers. The newcomers are able to react more quickly and are hungry enough to take chances on new ideas.

Many of the organizations in the Center for Information-Development Management were part of mainstream high-tech companies. In fact, most of the publications managers running these organizations had been in the field for 20 to 25 years. They had a lot of experience in putting excellent processes in place and were successful in introducing innovations. However, they also experienced significant internal pressure to cut costs. They were often able to invest in content-management systems (CMS) to save costs but found themselves stymied when they tried to change the way information was delivered to customers.

These observations drove Dr. Q to outline the requirements for design and development that might characterize a Level 5 information-development organization.

Characteristics of a Level 5 Organization

In discovering a Level 5 organization, an astute observer might be surprised by its external similarities to a Level 1: Ad-hoc organization—everyone appears to be acting independently, but their independent behaviors have a context.

  • Technical communicators in a Level 5 organization are self-actualizing. Although they work closely together on information development, each team member is charged with the responsibility for developing content that is most useful to customers.
  • Communicators take personal responsibility for understanding their customers’ needs. They are involved in user groups, call on customers regularly for insights into requirements, and have even begun to look at the customers of their customers for new ideas.
  • Communicators are accustomed to following standards because they know intimately how important standards are, not only in making their own jobs easier by taking time out of mundane processes, but also by invoking consistency of presentation that reassures readers that they have found what they are looking for.

No one in a Level 5 organization needs prodding to follow templates or maintain best practices in the information-development life cycle. They know that a lot of hard work has gone into designing effective information standards and that the best practices the department has instituted actually save everyone from boring work. In fact, Dr. Q knows that one of the hallmarks of a Level 5 organization is the enthusiasm of the staff for best practices and new ideas and the esteem with which they are held by the rest of the organization.

Dr. Q’s vision of a Level 5 organization centers on a customer focus around innovation. Rather than be satisfied at following industry trends in areas like electronic delivery, content management, and minimalist design, a Level 5 organization would learn lessons about information development directly from its customers.

“I’d like to see technical communicators on the front line with the customers,” Dr. Q explained.” It’s too easy to take direction about customers from marketing, sales, or even engineering. But these organizations don’t pay much attention to how customers use information to learn and maintain products.” As a result, she advocates several new roles:

  • Never write an installation manual in the office. Send writers out with engineers on the first few installations of a new product. Have them watch what happens and take lots of notes. After the installations, make sure the writer works with engineering, production, and maintenance to learn how the problems will be solved in the next installation. As the problems are solved and best practices are worked out, the installation procedures will emerge.
  • Get writers direct lines to key customers. These customers are interested in calling when they run into usability problems or are confused by instructions. Rather than be frustrated by a lack of detailed knowledge of the documentation in customer support, these privileged few can directly call a writer who will find a solution. Together, the customer and the writer reinvent the instructions so that they actually work.
  • Organize an advisory council of customers interested enough in documentation that they’ll spend time reviewing ideas and giving advice. Use advisory council members as entry points into customer site visits. Use site visits to conduct analyses of customer goals and tasks that will become a basis for modular content.

Spending time with customers is recognized as a core activity in a Level 5 organization, not something you do only after everything else is done first (which usually means never). What role, then, does content management play in a customer-focused organization? Doesn’t the pursuit of continuous innovation preclude the use of technologies that tend to reinforce standards? Aren’t standards stultifying? How can an organization be innovative when everything has to be written in the same way?

A Level 5 Content-Management Solution

Like the Level 4 group at ODS, described in the Level 4 article last month, a Level 5 organization has a strong content-management solution in place. Standard templates promote modular content development. Library services like check in/check out, version control, and security assure standard practices. An information model, based on comprehensive metadata, facilitates accessibility to information by writers and customers alike. Modular content is published in collections that are customized for particular customer characteristics (geographies, industry specialties, job roles, and so on). Modular content published on portal-like Web sites enable individual users to find the specific modules they need to answer questions, pursue troubleshooting solutions, and support cross-product innovations.

In a Level 5 organization, content management is simply part of the infrastructure, a little like email. Once you have it, you can’t figure out how you existed without it.

What is the role of innovation and its relationship to content management? A sound content-management solution must be able to accommodate the special needs of a highly innovative organization:

  • A Level 5 content-management solution needs to be developed with flexibility in mind.
  • Information designers must be able to update existing information types and create new ones in response to customer needs.
  • Metadata needs to be designed to accommodate the needs of users rather than only accommodating the needs of information developers. With dynamic metadata, information can be directed to specific user needs through search (pull) and updating (push).
  • A solution must have the capacity to grow with expanding needs. In a Level 5 organization, more opportunities are quickly uncovered to manage information creatively for the benefit of customers.

If you believe you’re in a Level 5: Optimizing organization, we want to hear from you now. We want to study Level 5 organizations to get a better idea of how they work. Please send me an email at

Click here to read Part 1 of JoAnn’s six part series.
Click here to read Part 2 of JoAnn’s six part series.
Click here to read Part 3 of JoAnn’s six part series
Click here to read Part 4 of JoAnn’s six part series.
Click here to read Part 5 of JoAnn’s six part series.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM director.