Donna Marcotte, Independent Consultant

The theme of the 13th annual CIDM Best Practices Conference was all about measurement: why it’s important, what to measure, how to do it, and what the results may be telling you. The record attendance of 194 was a good key performance indicator (KPI) that many information development (ID) managers and professionals found the topic to be quite valuable to their organizations.

The conference—which was held Sept 12–14 in San Antonio, Texas along the city’s famous River Walk—featured three days of learning, sharing, networking, and fun. Here’s just a few of the highlights.

Setting the Bar

The theme book this year was How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business by Douglas W. Hubbard (for an excellent synopsis of the book, see Bill Hackos’ book review). And to the delight of many attendees, this year’s keynote speaker was the author himself.

For 22 years, Doug has worked in quantitative analysis and management consulting. Sixteen years ago, he developed the methodologies and tools that he uses today to measure everything from the cost of a new piece of equipment, to environmental policies, to forecasting box office receipts for movies.

Doug enlightened us with so much invaluable information about measurement in a one-hour presentation that flew by because he was that engaging and entertaining (who knew measuring could be so fascinating?). To get it all, read his book and visit his website, with lots of great free tools. Here are just a couple of the key points that I found surprising and encouraging.

  • Definition of measurement is a quantitatively expressed reduction in uncertainty based on observations. The key to useful measurement is to first quantify and document your uncertainty about what you are trying to measure (read on, it’s easier than you think).
  • If you have a lot of uncertainty, you don’t need a lot of data to reduce that uncertainty—often only five measurements can have a big impact on reducing your uncertainty.
  • Do NOT believe people when they say, “It can’t be measured” or “We don’t’ have the data for that.” Doug says defy this “common wisdom,” and he provides six guidelines for measuring anything, the first three being: Assume what you want to measure has already been measured; you have more data then you think; and you need less data than you think.

Why this Conference is Different

From the keynote speaker, I now know there are many ways to measure the difference. But as a conference attendee and writer, here’s a qualitative overview.

CIDM director JoAnn Hackos explained that it is the CIDM members and Advisory Council that determine the theme for the conference. Presenters are by invitation only (no open calls for papers), based on recommendations from members, so the relevance and quality are high.

CIDM is a unique organization, a community of ID managers and professionals committed to their work, and to learning, improving, and sharing with colleagues. As such, the conference has a different vibe than most other conference I’ve been to. Members develop real, trusting relationships that allow them to discuss their issues candidly. I saw so many people engaged in deep conversations, often with a speaker following his or her presentation, where attendees wanted to know more details so they could figure out how to adapt that solution to their own organization.

A couple of unique conference features presented even more opportunities to engage with information and colleagues. The morning of day two featured an interactive small group session, where we got to put into practice some of the things we had learned. The afternoon featured a Best Practices Showcase, which JoAnn described as a high school science fair for information development. Several presenters and attendees created posters highlighting their company’s best practices, providing a fun and informal way to network and learn more.

The collegial atmosphere is further enhanced by the fact that the conference is always held at an appropriately sized (not too big, not too small) lovely hotel. Conference breakfasts and refreshments during the day provide opportunity and atmosphere to mix, mingle, engage, and refuel.

At the final wrap-up session, we discussed what worked, what could be improved, and future conference themes and research projects. A closing lunch provided one last chance to wrap up and say good-bye, followed by a boat ride down the river so we could soak up some of the San Antonio history and atmosphere.

Other special events (featuring bird-related names because JoAnn and Bill are avid birders) included the “Birds of a Feather Luncheon” and the “Rare Bird Award,” which is presented each year at the conference banquet.

Birds of a Feather Luncheon

For this event, members agree to host specific topics, and attendees sign up based on a topic they are interested in. Then these small groups of about eight people go off to nearby restaurants for lunch and discussion. This year featured 22 different topics and lunch groups ranging from “Agile & Minimalism working together” to “Where do we need metrics” —literally something for everyone.

I chose to attend the “Getting Started with DITA” topic, which featured a nice mix of attendees at various stages of structured authoring/DITA implementations and tools/solution vendors. The folks from vendor companies were great, viewing this as an opportunity to listen and learn. The folks from organizations implementing DITA shared lots of good insight, knowledge, and lessons learned.

One of my big takeaways from this lunch: begin your DITA implementation without a component content management system (CCMS). All present (even the CCMS vendors!) agreed that getting started with a simple file management approach makes it easier to focus on content, clearly flush out CCMS requirements, and really appreciate the value that the right CCMS brings to the process.

Rare Bird Award

This award is given each year for distinguished contributions to best practices in the management of information development, as determined by a panel of CIDM member judges. Judging panel leader and Comtech consultant Bill Gearhart said that all of this year’s entries were exceptional; it was difficult for the judges to choose just one.

This year’s Rare Bird Award winner was the Hach Company, represented by Emily Mydlowski. According to the judges, Emily’s team exhibited courage and leadership in conceiving and implementing process improvements proven by metrics to benefit internal and external customers. By moving the publications team from a “push” to a “pull” model, Emily improved on-time delivery, quality, customer satisfaction, and efficiency.

So Many Great Presentations

The single presentation track of this conference means you don’t have to miss anything, and it contributes to the cohesiveness of the group and the three-day long conversation.

Many ID groups are facing similar challenges so many of the presentations had similar themes, such as: use of social media tools and search engine optimization (most everyone seemed to have issues with users’ inability to find content); and user ranking of helpfulness of content and using that metric to prioritize content updates.

But each presentation also had its own message based on the unique combinations of circumstances that each organization faces. For example, Daphne Walmer talked about regulatory requirements that dictate the type of content that must be delivered with medical devices and metrics from her group’s 12-year-old CMS (implemented before DITA existed) in which they’ve been able to achieve 95% re-use of some of their content, a truly phenomenal achievement.

The most compelling case for measurement I heard was from CIDM advisory council member Volker Oemisch, who, along with his colleague Mike Eleder, gave an excellent presentation on how they were gathering and using measurements in their ID organization.

Volker explained that after a corporate reorganization he ended up with a new boss who knew little about documentation or their ID group. When the new boss unexpectedly dropped in one day, he recalled hearing (some time back) that the ID group had problems. Volker was able to quickly show him a graph of their most recent measurements and trends—showing product defects declining and group productivity rising—and create a 180-degree change (from problem to progress) for his first conversation with his new boss. While I agree with Doug Hubbard that anything can be measured, I’m not sure you can truly measure the real value of that result—priceless!