Part 5 of 6—Process Maturity Found: Level 4: Managed and Sustainable

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Feeling Comfortable with Mature Processes

ODS continues to surprise Dr. Q. She’s been following their progress for several years, ever since the software engineering area of the company earned a Level 4 in process maturity from the Software Engineering Institute (SEI). Implementing Level 4 processes had enabled ODS to turn things around from a money-losing to a money-making company. The careful application of systems thinking helped ODS management recognize that they needed to abandon some parts of their older technology and focus on customer-driven changes to their new products.

Cindy Andaluse had been promoted to senior information-development manager after the long-time manager had left for another company. She was aware of the progress he had made in stabilizing processes within the organization, but she also knew there was much to do for the technical communicators to equal the accomplishments of the software and hardware engineers. Cindy walked into a budding Level 3 organization; her job was to move it to Level 4. Cindy worked closely with Dr. Q to define the characteristics they needed to have in place to be recognized as a Level 4 in the IPMM (Information Process Maturity Model):

  • Strong development processes to support the information life cycle and complete dedication among staff members in following the processes. The three geographically distributed locations of the ODS information-development team meant that common processes were somewhat difficult to institute.
  • A new prominence for customer studies. Although they had conducted several customer studies in the past three years, Cindy wanted everyone to be involved in knowing customers better.
  • For several years, ODS technical communicators had a standard template and standard information types fully developed. Everyone was quite committed to following the templates as they developed their documentation set. Cindy knew, however, that they wanted to use a more modular approach to design, in keeping with the modular design of the flagship product. The developers were already using object-oriented design methods; publications needed to follow suit.
  • As a new director, Cindy had been given budgetary control over the department’s activities. They had gathered considerable data about the cost of individual projects. Now Cindy wanted to find new ways to reduce development costs while improving the quality of deliverables.

Dr. Q made it clear to Cindy that she had a strong base from which to work but she needed to solidify the previous gains and introduce more innovative approaches into the department. Without innovation, it was all too likely that they would develop a complacent attitude and become increasingly bureaucratic. Dr. Q pointed out that she had seen many Level 3 organizations turn into dead-end bureaucracies because everyone worked so well. If an organization failed to pursue continuous innovation and improvement in processes and products, they would cease to be interesting places to work. Cindy and the previous manager had attracted a first-rate staff; they needed to keep them motivated.

Innovation in Design

John Marcus headed the ODS content-management team. For the past two years, John had led the development of their CMS. Everyone was using a standard Document Type Definition (DTD) and an XML editor to create their documents, but they were still creating books. John was anxious to move toward a modular approach, but that would take a rethinking of their information design. Here was an opportunity, though, to pursue an innovative approach to information development that Cindy was pushing.

John had heard Mark Baker talk about subject-based design at a Content Management Strategies conference. He set up a team of staff members interested in information architecture to devise a modular approach based on subject matter rather than products. The team found a solution linked to the object-oriented design of the product. The engineers were creating use cases around functions that customers wanted to perform with the product and developing suites of functionality related to those business tasks. John’s team decided to follow the same pattern.

They started with an analysis of the customer goals and tasks, based upon the results of three previous customer studies. Once they had a matrix of duties (like customizing the installation and administering the operating system) and tasks (like redesigning the user interface and adding new software to the system), they were able to identify content associated with each cell in the matrix.

Writers in the group were assigned certain tasks on which to develop content. For each cell, the assigned writer identified the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) required to be successful in performing the task. At the same time, an instructional designer from the sister training organization identified the learning objective associated with the task. Together, the writer and instructional designer determined what content needed to be developed, what skills the user needed to have from training, and what abilities in terms of analysis, design, and task execution were needed to complete the task.

The writers could then focus on developing the best content to help users gain an understanding of the task. Some of the information was conceptual, some procedural, and some was detailed reference material. The instructional designers focused on creating learning situations in which the learners had to use the information to solve particular problems related to the task. Their scenario-based training modules helped users relate use of the product to their real-world situations. Once they had analyzed the situation with the help of the conceptual information, they could easily apply the procedural steps necessary to complete particular tasks.

The new information design developed by John’s team and executed by the combined force of writers and instructional designers was revolutionary for ODS’s customers. One customer called the CEO to tell him that he had never found product information so valuable before.

A Level 4 Content-Management Solution

John and Cindy analyzed their current content-management solution to determine if it could handle the changes to the information design that had been developed by the information architects. The system was certainly comprehensive. They already were using workflow, version control, security, and automated publishing of their XML content into HTML, PDF, and print. But could the current solution handle a modular approach to information design?

Finding the Best Solution

John, Cindy, and Dr. Q conduct an analysis of the existing CMS. So far, ODS has used the system to manage documents and control production processes. Their analysis shows that the CMS was not originally designed to handle the control and assembly of individual modules. Nor does their current DTD support modular writing. They need a new solution.

First, they investigate the possibility of using the open source IBM DTD called DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture). DITA is modular by design. They can easily adopt it to the modular structure they have in mind—concepts, procedures, and reference material. They will need to customize the DTD for their particular content, but the structure adapts easily. John is able to design the new DTDs.

Dr. Q suggests that they hire a system integrator to adopt the existing CMS to their new requirements. The integrator is able to provide a linking structure and a method of assembling modules dynamically using a topic-map architecture.

Getting the new technology in place is only half the battle. The ODS technical communicators and instructional designers are unfamiliar with modular, subject-based composition. Cindy puts together a team and a pilot project to transform their core information. As Dr. Q suggests, developing a small set first in the pilot project enables them to test the solution with an enthusiastic team before they try to transform the entire department.

Although there are skeptics in their midst, the very nature of a budding Level 4 information-development team means that most staff member are willing to give the new idea a try. They have all been intimately involved in studying their customers. As a result, they recognize the need for innovation in information delivery to better meet customer needs. The entire department is user-focused, which means that managers and staff work well together in developing a vision of a new user experience once the information transformation is complete.

If you’ve found yourself with a Level 4: Managed and Sustainable organization, please send your stories to me at

In the next issue, I will report on the preliminary results of our process maturity and content-management survey.

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.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM director.