JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

If you weren’t at the Best Practices Conference in San Diego last week, you missed an opportunity to hear from some of the best in the industry. As I listened and watched the speakers, it occurred to me that CIDM members represent a level of sophistication in managing information development that is equal of any other profession. Our directors, VPs, and managers are attuned to corporate strategies and speak the language of senior management. It’s a wonder that more ID managers don’t pursue corporate management opportunities. They’re right up there with the C-level managers (CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, and so on).

Scott Wahl, manager of software documentation at Research in Motion, presented the keynote address. He had recommended Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat as the theme book of the 2006 conference. In summarizing Friedman’s primary argument, Scott argued that outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, uploading, and insourcing have implications for information developers. For example, the increased reliance by corporations on outsourcing and offshoring means that information developers must work with people around the world both as customers and professional colleagues. As a result of competitive pressures from lower-cost economies, we must continually demonstrate that we add value for customers and shareholders. Even now, lowering information-development costs by hiring outside the US and Western Europe no longer represents a competitive edge. We’ve “been there” and “done that,” meaning that we have to find other ways to increase our productivity. Scott concludes by asserting that we become versatilists, a Friedman coining: “Versatilists apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences.…Gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles.”

Managing a global enterprise proves to be a challenge to professional managers. We learned from Renu Bhargava of Juniper Networks and Janna Patee and Suparna Jacob of Sybase what pitfalls to avoid and how to make remote teams more successful by fully integrating them with the home teams. Even more challenging is finding a way for managers to avoid working 18-hour days across three or four continents.

Winners of the 2006 Rare Bird Award, Eileen Jones and Dave Peterson explained how they have created a collaborative global environment at IBM. Working with 10 different companies inside IBM, they have brought people together and built a virtual community through a rigorous program of communications. Members of the community can select their levels of participation, but once they have, their responsibilities are clearly defined. The various teams pursue consistency in conducting meetings, reporting results, handling procedures, and delivering standards documents. With templates in place, Eileen and Dave have built an extraordinary repository of standards, guidelines, and templates for the information developers worldwide.

In fact, developing standards and measuring quality was a recurring conference theme. Alexia Idoura of Symantec described how they have developed and enforced best practices in authoring. Although human editors play a key role, their work is supplemented by controlled language software that incorporates their authoring guidelines. Their efforts support increased accuracy in machine translations, achieving an astounding 80 percent for French and German. Next, Dawn Stevens of Jeppesen described how her team has initiated standards for their aviation course materials, used to train commercial pilots worldwide. Dean Easterlund and Craig Kronbergreported on the standards and processes they have created at John Deere to produce valued global content for customers in traditional and emerging markets. By writing in functional chunks and appreciating the cost of translation, they have effectively reduced the time required to produce content in multiple languages.

Customer studies figured in both Daphne Walmer’s and Samantha Robertson’spresentations. Daphne described how Medtronic conducted focus groups with follow-up nurses using their pacemaker devices. We learned how to run a focus group that collects usable information about users and documentation. The videotapes showed how to move customers from discussing solutions to explaining how they use information on the job. Samantha briefed us on the user scenario posters created by the SharePoint documentation team at Microsoft. Not only have the scenarios helped to refocus the writers on information customers really need, but they have also influenced the product developers and marketing professionals to ensure that the customer scenarios are supported effectively in the product design.

Suzanne Sowinska showed us how Microsoft is defining careers in content publishing in exciting new ways. She described the new career-stage profiles they have built for managers and information developers and helped us understand the competencies and experiences that they expect content publishers to have as they progress in their careers. Suzanne’s presentation suggests the changing requirements that are emerging for the information-development profession.

Vesa Purho of Nokia took the entire group through an interactive exercise on process development. Vesa has gained considerable insight into the nuances of process engineering, suggesting to us that the study of as-is processes must begin with goals rather than swimlanes. Although swimlanes are incredibly useful in describing processes, as we all learned by working through the exercise, they are not sufficient. Understanding trigger events and establishing process boundaries, as well as identifying processes that cross organizational structures, are all essential to productive process analysis and redesign.

Topic-based, structured authoring continues to be a central challenge and goal of many of our organizations. Guy Petrie described the process Medtronic has used to introduce topic-based authoring, including fundamental rethinking of their definition of a topic from initial definitions that proved to be too granular. Guy pointed out that a topic-based architecture does not happen by itself. It requires careful management of the change effort, the people involved, the quality outcomes desired, and the risks that must be mitigated. He concludes that topics improve project management because it is easier to gather, compile, publish, and analyze productivity data about topics.

Guy provided a perfect segue for Julie MacAller and Ann Beebe to introduce the benefits that accrue to information developers using SCRUM, one of the new agile methodologies that is being used to speed product development and make it more responsive to user requirements. Their team at Microsoft not only works on SCRUM teams that are initiated by product development, but they have also incorporated SCRUM methods on projects that are strictly the domain of the information developers. By dividing projects into small, doable 30-day chunks, they report that information developers collaborate more effectively because they know what everyone on the team is working on. Of course, they face challenges in estimating how long it will take team members to develop individual topics and knowing what topics should be scheduled for development at each sprint (a SCRUM word for a short project iteration). Julie and Ann pointed out that the information-development team decided to schedule documentation topic authoring one sprint session later than the development team’s work, giving the content more time to settle down.

Closing the presentations, Ken Jercha of Sakson and Taylor gave us all considerable insight into presenting our messages to senior management. He urged us to tailor messages to the audiences with whom we are speaking, noting that the interests of the CEO and the CFO might be quite different when we are asking them to support a content-management initiative. Ken believes in sound stakeholder analyses right from the beginning of a business case.

It’s quite clear that Best Practices attracts management leaders who know how to work with customers, colleagues, staff, and senior management. I hope that you’ll put the 2007 Best Practices conference in your calendar. We’ll be at Chateau Elan just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I look forward to hearing from you about topics you’d like to hear in 2007. It’s never too soon to plan.