Donna Marcotte, Independent Consultant

The eleventh annual CIDM Best Practices conference was held September 14-16 in Vancouver, Washington. While economic woes continue to constrain company training and travel budgets, more than 100 people attended the conference, with a strong regional showing from Washington, Oregon, northern California, and southwest Canada. Tech pubs professionals from around the country and around the world, from as far away as Germany, India, and Australia also attended.

The audience was composed of several original CIDM members attending the conference for their ninth (Palmer Pearson) or tenth (Daphne Walmer) year, as well as many first-time attendees. In another conference first, CIDM members who were unable to attend the conference viewed sessions live over the Web. This first live broadcast was run purely experimentally, free for CIDM members.

This year’s theme book was A Sense of Urgency by John Kotter. For a detailed list of conference sessions and presenters see the CIDM website

JoAnn kicked off the conference with a welcome, an overview of CIDM and its work, and an introduction to the theme book and its basic principles. She explained that creating a sense of urgency was the first step in a ten-step change process that Kotter had defined in a previous book, Leading Change. In recognizing just how crucial that first step was, he dedicated another book to the topic. JoAnn explained how particularly challenging change and creating a sense of urgency can be for technical publications organizations.

CIDM presenters showcased how they were using Kotter’s principles to create a sense of urgency in their respective organizations.

In the first session, “Never Waste a Good Crisis,” Daphne Walmer explained how she was actually able to add headcount to her tech pubs staff in the midst of downsizing at medical services company Medtronic. The downsizing yielded three one-on-one meetings with a vice president (previously her boss’s boss), and Daphne used that opportunity to educate the vice president about her tech pubs team, their workload, and their impact on product readiness and the company’s bottom line.

The conference broke for the popular “Birds of a Feather” lunch, in which small moderator-led groups have topic-driven discussions over a meal. In response to conference attendee feedback from last year, this year’s lunch was held on the first day, so that people had a chance to follow up later with those they had connected with over lunch.

In a metrics panel, Christopher Gales from Wind River showed how a program to track time and tasks for his tech pubs team yielded valuable data that showed, though a typical product release had 7 requirements categories, that the writers were spending nearly 98% of their time on just 3 of those requirements. This data facilitated change for resource planning and provided a solid foundation for discussing infrastructure and process improvements. The second metrics panel speaker, Bill Tilley from Symantec, explained how his group created and conducted a customer survey and then used the resulting data to improve their content.

Charlotte Robidoux and Bobbi Gibson from Hewlett-Packard presented “Planning Collaborative Work so that Teams Remain Efficient.” Some of the crucial take-aways from this session included: the importance of building trust within teams, learning what motivates individuals (their “personal currency”), using those motivations to reward desired behavior, and providing the “space” for team members to get to know each other and collaborate—be it physical or virtual space.

Comtech Services associate and CIDM member Bill Gearhart moderated a panel discussion on the challenges for tech pub teams when software development moves to an Agile development methodology. Carl Chatfield from Microsoft shared insights on what works well for content developers, which included the power of peer pressure to drive team members’ performance and the ability to more easily get people to do time-tracking in the context of Scrum. Beth Thomerson from BMC Software, in a witty presentation featuring Agile jargon, explained why it is crucial for tech pubs teams to be “pigs” and take their place at the trough. Bill and Ann Teasley from Fiserv rounded out the discussion with topics around the pitfalls and potentials for innovative change in managing tech pub teams in an Agile environment.

The day ended with the “DITA Olympiad,” a presentation by Kathryn Showers on how her team at Symitar implemented a migration to DITA in the midst of the regular demanding workload. A crucial key to their success included a comprehensive design document that did double duty in documenting decisions and design criteria and also served as a process guide.

Day two began with attendees getting a chance to put their day-one learning and management experience into action through interactive small group exchanges. Attendees formed small groups around seven different problem scenarios, discussed and developed solutions using key concepts from the theme book, then presented results to the entire group.

A unanimous theme among the attendee presentations was companies’ willingness to embrace one of Kotter’s main tenants of creating urgency—bringing the outside in, that is, getting customers involved in helping to set priorities and drive information requirements. Many of the attendees’ companies are already using tools such as Wikipedia to quickly place information in customer hands for fast review, vetting and feedback. Other social networking tools, such as Twitter, are fast and effective ways to notify customers when new information is available. Slides from these group presentations are also available on the post-conference website.

The next session featured longtime CIDM member, Palmer Pearson, discussing the importance of innovation in tough economic times. While delivered with wit and humor, his message that innovation will be crucial to survival and future transformation was quite serious. He discussed the results of a survey on innovation, some easy ways to get ideas and implement them, and his drive to create an “innovation manager” position in his current group at BMC Software.

Tuesday afternoon sessions featured discussions on collaboration and social media. First Helen Cavender and Paul Zimmerman from Cisco Systems explained that not all content is suitable for collaborative work and that business drivers must be the deciding factor. For example, information to satisfy regulatory, legal, or contractual requirements should be prepared by a professional tech pubs staff. However, information about product applications can benefit greatly from customers who are willing to share their experiences.

Suzanne Sowinska and Alex Blanton from Microsoft closed-out the day’s sessions with many detailed examples of how companies are using social media to connect with their customers to solve problems, build their brands, and build their businesses. Examples included: a Web campaign for customers to submit innovative ways to improve a coffee house chain, efficient and effective use of social media to quickly identify—and solve—a company’s product problem, and “corporate” bloggers who are connecting on a professional-personal level with customers, which is helping the overall business.

The third day of the conference opened with a panel discussion of Organizational Boundaries. Many technical publications groups are extending their operations beyond the traditional confines of product document. Terry Barraclough, manager at Symitar, began by describing the multi-year effort he has engaged in to increase his organization’s recognition in the larger corporation. He contrasted the negative influence of a manager who constantly complains about the lack of resources with a manager who is “the grease that gets everyone to work together.” Terry demonstrated that his team’s willingness to work with everyone and help in a wide variety of ways has paid off. They are now getting other departments to participate in their XML/DITA initiative. He even has other departments voluntarily loaning him knowledgeable staff members for special projects.

Tom Parker, VP of Product Information Development at ADP Dealer Services, showed us that the lines between departments are blurring. If “we are all in the same canoe together, at least we should be paddling in the same direction.” His writers are now cooperating with product marketing, the interface design group in R&D, the quality assurance organization, the support group’s knowledge base initiative, and the training organization. One of the challenges, he’s found, is that writers are not used to working with all these other organizations but they are learning to be successful.

Symantec has also developed a Unified Content Strategy, according to Elizabeth Anders of the InfoDev team. She described their vision of “one company, one voice” becoming “one voice, one company.” The publications teams are helping everyone recognize that content is a corporate asset. The Unified Content Strategy has enabled them to cross organizational boundaries so that they can unify, repurpose, and leverage as much reusable content as possible.

JoAnn Hackos and Maria Brownstein closed the conference presentations with a discussion of productivity measurements. JoAnn reported on the results of the recent CIDM productivity survey, which she discusses in another article in this newsletter (click here to view article). Maria, who serves as the Director of Technical Publications at Sybase, described the results of their two-year transition to DITA and a content management environment. Concerned about initial struggles with productivity, Maria is focused on using project management techniques to ensure that projects are accurately assessed and scheduled from the first. With reductions in staff, Maria finds that her organization, like many others at the conference and participating in the survey, are challenged with making sound, customer-focused decisions about their content strategy.