Donna Marcotte, Independent Consultant

Fortunes were favorable and I was able to attend CIDM Best Practices again this year. Here are some impressions of the conference from one attendee’s perspective.

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

CIDM BP always happens in a great location! This 14th occurrence of the annual event had us quite literally sitting on the dock of Monterey Bay at the lovely Clement Hotel. The meeting room opened out to a large deck, where we could watch seals and otters frolicking in the waves during breaks and conference meals. The scenic beauty and vacation-type atmosphere are a nice complement to the knowledge sharing and networking.

Habits Good and Bad

This year’s conference theme book—The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg—had us delving a bit deeper personally than some past themes. Duhigg provides a fascinating look at how people and organizations develop habits, which can be good and not so good for both individuals and organizations.

Duhigg explains that habits can be useful, saving us time to think, evaluate, and decide, for example, in daily routines. He cites one study of college students showing that 45% of their actions were based on habit vs. decision-making. Organizations also have habits, which can be institutionalized as corporate culture or the dreaded “that’s the way we’ve always done things.” So habits can also impede the changes necessary to progress ourselves and our organizations.

As usual, JoAnn welcomed us at the opening session and launched the conference with an introduction to the theme book, framing the discussion about habits for information developer/writers, information development management and organizations, and their context within companies.

She walked us through Duhigg’s discussion of how habits develop as a related set of cue, behavior, and reward. As part of the interactive conference we were challenged to look at our own behaviors and those of our organizations and try to determine what’s working and what’s not—no easy task (more about this below).

JoAnn went on to explain that for information development (ID) teams and managers the issue of habits has broad implications. It’s not just our own habits we need to evaluate and change, but those of our teams, our peers, and upper management.

Here are some highlights from the conference addressing habit and change at each of these levels.

Transforming ID’s Corporate Role

Ben Jackson and Paul Perrotta from Juniper Networks delivered a presentation about Juniper’s journey to move its traditional “tech pubs” group to a team responsible for the company’s “information experience” or “IX.” While identifying and changing habits was certainly part of the journey, the changes necessary for this type of transformation required a comprehensive evaluation of current state, collaborative discussions within the team and across the company to define desired state, and developing a road map to get there.

A crucial part of the process was for IX managers to become “executive whisperers.” To do so, IX managers need to break the traditional bad habit of complaining (“we’re understaffed, overworked, have lousy tools”) and learn to frame answers to upper management inquiries (e.g., “what are you working on?”) in terms that management values and will ultimately help the IX group make the changes needed.

Transforming Your Team

ID manager Emily Mydlowski from Hach Systems had a provocative presentation about transforming the work processes of her ID team—and the product teams with which they work.

Like many traditional ID teams, they support multiple project teams and documents. After a work process evaluation (identified their habits), she and her team determined that no product team had provided all of the inputs necessary to actually complete a project. This lack of completeness of the inputs had the writers switching among projects when they hit a road block, which was highly inefficient, causing delays and bottlenecks.

The ID team changed their work process, stating that no documentation project would be worked on until a specified, agreed-upon set of standard deliverables was provided to the writer. Project teams submitted input packages to the ID team, and the packages were placed in the ID work queue. If a project came up to be worked and the package was incomplete, it was sent back to the project team, then resubmitted to ID—at the end of the queue.

With this process, project teams are learning to submit complete input packages, and the ID team productivity and throughput has improved dramatically.

Transforming Yourself

On day-one, each attendee was asked to complete and submit a brief questionnaire about challenges your organization was facing and identifying a habit or series of habits that you believe needed to change to help face these challenges. The questionnaires served as input and discussion for a small-group breakout session, which was led by CIDM advisory committee member Suzanne Sowinska of Microsoft.

As was expected, most of the questionnaires focused on changes at the team level, but the exercise had also been designed to get us to look at personal habits. Suzanne kicked off the session using examples of personal changes she made that in turn had a significant impact on her team’s overall performance. These changes included 1) replacing her daily first task of email with reviewing her teams task backlog list and 2) commuting to work by bus instead of driving herself by car. Focusing first on the project backlog kept her more informed on her teams activities, so she could keep them focused and assist faster when needed. Taking the bus reduced stress, set some boundaries on her hectic day, and gave her time to safely check email while commuting.

Change is Good—But so is Continuity

While change can be a good thing, there’s something to be said for continuity of a good thing—which is a strong suit of CIDM. Here are just a few of the things I look forward to and count on each year.

Whether it’s the veteran CIDMers or the new folks attending for the first time, you find a diversity of information professionals and technologists for networking, knowledge sharing, and idea exchange. Special conference events—such as the topic-based Birds-of-a-Feather lunch, the CIDM Showcase, and the Rare Bird award and banquet—provide great ways to break the ice (should that be an issue) and interact easily with everyone at the conference.

Because of the somewhat intimate size of the group (compared to broader professional societies) and the dedication of the advisory council and members, we’re able to revisit or update topics over the years. Whether through formal presentations (such as this year’s update on metrics from last year) or talking one-on-one over any of the lovely meals, you have the opportunity to assimilate information over time.

I’m looking forward to Savannah, GA in 2013!