Donna Marcotte, Independent Consultant

The official theme for this year’s CIDM conference was collaboration and “teaming”. (For a complete definition of teaming, see the conference web site and Bill Hackos’ review of one of this year’s two conference theme books, Teaming—How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy by Amy C. Edmondson.)

Topics and presentations related to collaboration and teaming are often about the business processes, “mechanics,” and perhaps the “politics” of these processes, which are all very important. However, the very essence of collaboration and teaming is about people; as savvy technical communicators, we’ve known this for a very long time (Hello! Customer audiences/users are people! So are our colleagues!). It seems the broader business communities are catching on to this too. So, as usual, this year’s CIDM presentations were packed with useful process information based on the real-world practices and experience of our colleagues. But many presentations this year also had some very human, personal aspects that caught my attention; I’m sharing some of my impressions from these sessions here.

Impressions from Some Sessions: People at the Center

Keynote Address. Allison Cerra, one of the co-authors of the second conference bookTransforming Business: Big Data, Mobility, and Globalization, started out a bit controversial but delivered an amazing talk that resonated with attendees throughout the rest of the conference.

Allison and her colleagues have done quite a bit of research on generational audiences and workers, looking at traits of different generations, namely Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1977) and Millennials (born after 1978). Allison, herself a “Gen Xer,” began her presentation by lamenting about the fact that before the end of the week she would be turning (gasp!) 40 years old. Needless to say in a room of mostly Boomers, she did not get a lot of sympathy.

As I told her following her presentation (when I asked her to sign my copy of her book, which she so generously provided to conference attendees), being a Boomer myself, she almost lost me with her introduction but recovered nicely. I found her captivating as she talked about the key events that shaped each generation, the “defining” personality trait of each generation, and implications for marketing, communication, and motivation. One of her final key points was the importance of “being human” in a world where we are all bombarded with information 24/7. And she very much “walked the human walk,” deliberately (but genuinely) making and maintaining eye contact with audience members throughout her talk. I looked around at the audience during her talk and could see I was not the only one drawn in.

I say that Allison’s talk resonated with the audience because throughout the rest of the conference, I think every additional speaker referred back to her presentation—either by identifying what generation they were in or by citing one of the many interesting points she made and highlighting relevance to their presentation (as good communicators do, connecting the points to drive home the message.) She sewed a thread that really connected everyone—despite our generational differences.

Joining In: Your Place in the Customer Conversation. The trio of Chris Gale (Splunk), John Frazzini (VMware, Inc.) and Michele Marques (BMC Software, Inc.) kicked off the member sessions with a panel presentation on how each of their software company employers are working to better engage with their customers. This session offered a lot of the “business process” aspects I mentioned above (for example, finding out who in your company is already engaging with customers, setting specific goals, and measuring results), but they each also had a strong emphasis on “being real” with their customers.

A standout example to me was Chris describing his company’s online environment where their users can, and do, literally “hang out” online all day, with access to blogs, a Wiki environment, and live chat, using these resources to help them do their jobs. He gave a great and human example about how he posted some incorrect information about some changes in licensing. In the online environment, he and his coworkers were able to very quickly discover the error (if I recall correctly, one of his coworkers discovered it from the post and brought it to his attention), apologize, and correct it. These kinds of human interactions actually seemed to strengthen credibility with customers in the online community. That is, customers recognize that no one is perfect and appreciate an earnest apology and quick resolution to the issue.

Don’t Talk Nerdy to Me. Doug Kim, Microsoft’s managing editor of, gave a lively and informative talk on Microsoft’s efforts to change the voice of their customer communication, including error messages and documentation, from notoriously difficult-to-understand “techy talk” to something more human, friendly, and helpful.

Doug started out by displaying the infamous Microsoft “blue screen of death”—you know, that gut-wrenching blue screen displayed when your system crashes—which included a horribly worded message implying that the crash is somehow your fault and offering little helpful information to fix it. He then showed the new, simpler, kinder, more friendly and helpful version of the message, and gave an overview of the journey from the first screen to the second.

Microsoft seems to be “walking the walk” (or perhaps in this case “talking the talk”) in that they are being candid and “human” about the past shortcomings of its unhelpful “techy talk,” and sharing their research findings and efforts in the move to the kinder, gentler, more helpful voice. Doug explained that this move is very much a communication strategy to improve customer satisfaction, not a “gimmick.” With the amount of research and work that has gone into their effort, and the company’s willingness to share that work, I believe him.

Developing Collaboration “Playbooks”. Matt Abe (Hewlett-Packard), Tom Dill (EMC), and Rebekka Andersen (University of California at Davis) presented information based on Charlottte Robidoux’s work on developing collaboration playbooks. Like sports plays, for example, football plays, collaboration plays are intended to define useful patterns or action for different collaboration scenarios, to provide a convenient and easy-to-understand go-by to help teams as dynamic, ad hoc teaming becomes the norm in business operations. The session provided an overview of the play/playbook concept, and we collectively brainstormed a list of possibly useful plays for information development teams.

Each CIDM conference features a breakout session of small groups working on specific tasks related to the conference theme. This year we worked on developing plays based on the list we created. These breakout sessions provide a chance to do some hands-on work, which helps with understanding and gives you a chance to think about how you might apply techniques in your own organization. But perhaps more importantly, breakout sessions are an opportunity to work with CIDM colleagues and learn from them. I always take away new nuggets of wisdom, and thank my teammates this year on the “Playbook Pirates.” (Despite our name, we did not steal our play.)

CIDM intends to explore developing collaboration playbooks and making them available to members, so the breakout session work was also a good first step in that process.

My Honorable Mentions. All the presentations were great; I learned something from each one. I’d like to mention two that don’t quite fit my “people-centric” theme for this article. Jamie Roberts demoed IBM’s new solution that is bringing together vast volumes of content from different sources, into one unified information delivery solution with a streamlined and easy-to-use customer experience. It’s the “holy grail” that many large companies are trying to move towards and, based on comments and questions from the audience, many of us were thoroughly impressed by what Jamie and his team have achieved.

Another favorite was Jim McQuaid’s talk about his technical communication career that has supplemented his creative careers (and his real passions) of photography, which has grown into video and short movies. Jim reminded me of several things including the importance of people (audience) and of telling a good story—even in technical information development. He also reminded me of the rich, diverse experience of the people in our field. Thanks to Palmer Pearson for getting Jim to come and talk with us this year.

Wrap-Up Session. At the end of the conference, the wrap-up session offers an opportunity to give feedback and input, which all goes into planning for future CIDM focus and conferences. This session is really useful both as a way to contribute and to understand members’ concerns. This year, a member from a smaller company asked about tailoring some of the conference content to smaller companies—perhaps by adding a second track. I wanted to shout, “Noooooooooo!” (Think one of those sitcoms with a character diving in slow motion to prevent the lead character from getting a pie in her face or some other calamity.) I understood the speaker’s point, but, to me, one of the great things about CIDM is that it’s an intimate one-track conference. I don’t have to miss anything. We are one community having a three-day-long conversation, with appropriate avenues for side talk, such as birds-of-a-feather luncheons. In fact, there was talk of providing more birds-of-a-feather opportunities during the conference and that might be a good way to focus on issues for smaller organizations (brilliant, I think).

Walking the Walk

This year the main theme was about people, connecting, and collaborating. Regardless of each year’s formal conference theme, this is what CIDM has been about since its inception more than 15 years ago. It’s a community of people, working in the same field, who get together to discuss and share their experience on trends, processes, technology, customers, staffing—what’s working and perhaps more importantly what’s not working—in an honest, candid, and helpful way. During the wrap-up session, someone commented that CIDM is similar to Las Vegas—what happens here stays here. Funny and also true. Until next year.