JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the 5th annual Best Practices conference was the view of Elliott Bay from our conference room. The Edgewater hotel is built on pilings so that half the rooms overlook the Bay over which Seattle’s downtown is built. At first, I thought the view would be distracting: ferries plying the waters between the city and the island communities, parasailing tourists, sea lions, glaucous-winged gulls, and at least six massive cruise ships. The gulls often chose the most inopportune time to squawk, but overall the view was energizing rather than annoying. It kept us all focused on the inspiring presentations from so many CIDM members.

The best conference yet

Many of those who have attended several Best Practices conferences told me that they considered this one the best yet. Our major theme, focused around Innovation and referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Tipping Point, held up very well. The presentations were focused on the successes as well as the trials and tribulations of introducing significant change into organizations. Everyone contributed to the notion that innovation is essential but never simple.

Bill Gearhart, director of Information Design and Development at BMC in Houston, hit a nerve in the audience when he noted his most difficult goal: helping information developers understand that they are writing for the customers, not the software engineers. He reminded us that innovations must serve the needs of the business and its customers and must correspond to the strategic direction of the company.

In their three-person panel, Glenn D’Amore, ADP, gave us a six-step process to design a strategic plan for our groups, plus tons of worksheets to take back to the office. Tom Parker, ADP, presented Tales from the Crypt, his stories of successes pulled back from the brink of failure. Ann Teasley, CheckFree, noted the challenge of merging two departments with very different attitudes and goals.

Change is hard work

Ben Jackson and Paul Perotta, Cisco Systems, gave us a tremendously useful view of the challenge of implementing a major change, in the form of a new documentation Web site, in a large and complex organization. They learned that customers really do care about technical documentation. When the Web site made information access significantly more difficult, customer satisfaction rating of the products actually dropped. Now they successfully argue that technical documentation is critical to business success.

Mergers and splits once again emerged as challenges. Jennifer Porter, Symantec, described the skill of her manager in uniting distributed documentation groups behind a common goal. Diane Davis, Synopsys, explained how she was able to bring a newly merged documentation set and their writers into the fold.

Midway through the conference, Marc Gunning and Jayne Andersen, Hewlett-Packard, centered us all on the tips and tricks necessary to manage change. Jayne started off with a delightful quotation—”Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” She and Marc pointed out how important it is to explicitly describe the behaviors that our writers must change to be successful in a new information-development environment. As Marc said, “If writers don’t write for reuse, the content asset they develop is worth very little.”

Humor wakes everyone up

If we didn’t realize it already, Palmer Pearson, Cadence Design Systems, reminded us that we have a nearly professional comedian in our midst, especially right after lunch. He regaled us with stories about moments in history when things didn’t tip. It was the right caution at just the right time in the conference-just when we were feeling pretty smug about our potential for making an innovation stick. Palmer suggested we generate as many new ideas as our team members can come up with. Some of them will actually be successful.

Palmer’s colleague, Dave De Yoreo, demonstrated a sticky idea with his implementation of interactive video clips for online tutorials.

On the final day, Dean Murray and Randy Hinrichs, Microsoft, demonstrated the excitement that we can generate when we find the right innovation. Microsoft, they explained, pursues both short-term and long-term strategies to support change. They described the 3Gs of Success: gather information, gain sponsorship, and go. Randy’s account of their research base to change how people learn was stunning, supported by a significant corporate investment in the future. Many people couldn’t help but consider how much their own organizations have cut back on a pursuit of innovation in difficult economic times, reminding us that a lack of innovation can lead to an organization’s downfall, a topic I’ve written about for this newsletter.

Judy Ramey, chair of the University of Washington’s technical communication program, explained the challenges faced by educational institutions as funding sources dry up.

We end with a bang

Last, but not least, Mark Baker of Stilo ended with an incredibly stimulating session on why Desktop Publishing tipped and XML has not, at least not yet. I’ve never seen participants get so stirred up by the final presentation of a three-day conference. Everyone had something to add about the time, some 15 years ago, when information developers largely rejected markup (in the form of SGML) and welcomed WYSIWYG. Mark has agreed to develop a full article for Best Practices based on his presentation and the audience response.

As you can easily see, all of the presenters did a great job. Once again, the theme held together famously. In fact, we’re already thinking about next year in October at Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod. Plan your budget and your travel now-you don’t want to miss out!