Supply Chain or Support Chain? Where Does Information Development Fit In?

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Bill Hackos, PhD
Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

Traditionally, we place information development in the supply chain, the process of creating and delivering new products. After all, our job is to document the product as it is being developed, right? That’s why we work so closely with the SMEs. As a result, our work as documenters is a necessary cost of development, despite the fact that customers buy a product because of its features, not because of its documentation.

Our companies also have a support chain, the process that is followed to help people who have already purchased the product. The support chain includes accessory sales, maintenance, training, and customer service, all of which are or can be profit centers, right?

Something’s wrong with these arguments. They place information development right up there with the reception and the janitorial as necessary services to support the product developers, while training and customer service are viewed by management as having a vital role in interacting with customers.

The problem is caused by a fuzzy notion of what information development is. Information development has roles to play both in the supply-chain and the support-chain process.

In the supply chain, the role of information development is product documentation. We document the design and functions of the product, producing what might be viewed as product specifications. In this role, we should work closely with the product designers, not the developers. Of course, if a product is developed without a design, then, the designer and developer are the same. Unfortunately, this situation is so common in software manufacture that we consider it to be the norm.

Our distinct role in the support chain is user information. We help customers use the product easily and effectively so they will be encouraged to purchase accessories, training, and customer service and will want to upgrade and purchase other products from us. We start sounding like a profit center!

Unfortunately, senior management rarely makes the distinction between supply chain and support chain in information development. As a result, we produce publications that mix two goals, and we make the information less useful for both the developers and the users. Organizations that maintain a distinction separate their information-development activities, resulting in better documentation for developers as well as better user information for users. Because the user information is part of the support chain, we can continue to create new information as the product matures and reaches more conservative users with less technical expertise.

Many writers have long considered the product developers the nexus of power and influence in an engineering-focused organization. They are. But being the servants of the developers is not the way to gain respect and influence. The best way for information developers to earn the respect we want is for us to be independent of the developers and become advocates for the users.

For more information, read Dr. Michael Hammer’s white paper, Inside the Support Chain.