JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

The 2014 Best Practices conference was an astounding success. Our focus on a changing environment for information development structure hit just the right note for our participants. Melissa Rach directed our attention during her keynote address and her workshop toward strategies for finding the support and funding for new initiatives in our organizations. Her exercise proved that you can come up with a good estimate even if you don’t have exact numbers to prove your business case. Everyone was surprised that it was possible to estimate quite accurately the number of piano tuners in Chicago!

Cathy O’Bryan reminded us that innovation requires change. We all know that today, innovation is essential as customers demand new kinds of content delivered in more and different ways. Resources are scarce in our organizations today. We have to demonstrate that the initiatives we want to pursue will make a difference to the customer. We hope that the changes will make customers more satisfied with our products and more loyal to our brands when they get the information they need to be successful.

At the same time that customers are demanding better and different, our workforce is also changing. Daphne Walmer pointed to the results of our Changing Workforce survey, which demonstrated that we need different skills, including content management, information architecture, content curation, minimalism, and user and task analysis.

Suneeta Aggarwal, TIBCO Software, reported on the success of her new internship program, designed to attract and train new graduates in the skills needed. Padma Neppalli, Intel, told of the new skills needed on her team, including people and project management, user experience design, web development, and working with new tools. Bob Ryan, Nokia, used the ideas presented in Switch to address the emotional issues involved in change. He has integrated writers and trainers to develop educational content more quickly. He now has dedicated content developers working in DITA for the training program. Mathew Varghese has a team that is now responsible for product adaptability and customer loyalty. They act as evangelists to promote Citrix through user research, information-experience design, and content curation. He believes that these skills help to “future-proof” a writing career.

For a number of years, I have advocated a move to solutions-based content that assists customers in using suites of products together, something that is often difficult to do. Michelle Baudais and Catherine Lyman provided details about the work done successively by NetApp information developers to create new Express Guides. They see a huge paradigm shift in information standards. Content has become a service to which we must add value by personalizing information and making it proactive. We can no longer have a siloed workforce with people working in isolation on product niches. All of our developers need to learn to think strategically.

Richard Frankland, Radiometer Medical, spoke on the importance of finding “breathing space” to allow for innovation. Essentially, Richard worked on weeding out the “urgent but not important” items from his team’s queue, by using an agile backlog and a kan ban work-in-progress board. He did this by first analyzing his teams’ capacity, formally measured commitments, and their capabilities (skills and distribution of work). Next, he worked on getting the physical space where his team could work together in an agile manner and bond quickly (an “Obeya room”). The second component to space was to have time to focus on the important commitments—keeping a bank of time in reserve to better address customer needs. Getting the buy-in from internal stakeholders was important, and improved delivery times and better quality helped gain their trust—but first Richard had to lobby hard to eliminate non-priority tasks. Richard further worked to gain trust by involving stakeholders in the prioritization process and giving visibility into the work that was being done by his team and the logic of the prioritization.

Janice Zdankus, Hewlett-Packard, reminded us that we are in the information business, not in the manual-production business. She first tackled the collaboration problem. Writers were embedded in each group; she moved them to a centralized structure and aligned it to customer experience and quality. The result has been cost reduction, efficiency, and standardization.

Janice introduced the concept of relational interaction vs. transactional interaction. With transactional interaction, you are supporting the customer task and the product impression; in relational interaction, you are creating the impression of the product. She walked through the evolution of information sharing over the last 30+ years—personalized face-to-face delivery evolved to digitized delivery, which in turn evolved to on-demand, “everywhere” delivery.

Her team was concentrating on post-purchase, when there were six earlier stages in which information was required that they weren’t including in the equation; according to her chart this means they were concentrated on only about 1/3 of the information need. Customers expect a unified message and don’t care about the organizational differences that may challenge you in creating this. She talked about redefining your team around the experiences users are demanding, with an emphasis on search and analytics.

Amy Waller, VMware, also detailed her team’s move to solution guides for suites of products. Producing such content is never easy, in part because the fragmentation of product development. Often few people in the organization understand how complex product suites actually behave. Writers who are assigned to engineering teams are equally in the dark. It requires a new type of collaborative work structure to succeed in getting the right information to the customers.

We wanted to have an update from Jamie Roberts on the new IBM Knowledge Center, which he debuted in 2013. Jamie showed us how the site is now working, bringing into one location the huge diversity of IBM’s content. We saw how the filtering helps customers hone in on the right products and right versions for the information they are seeking. It’s a huge project to migrate so much content, and to decide what should not move. Again, the focus is on a superb customer experience.

Tatiana Batova, Arizona State University, brought us the results of our academe-industry first collaborative project. She reported the results of the survey she conducted on the quality of translations. She has focused on the importance of culturally adaptive content rather than straight translation because so often the content that works in one country may not work well in another country. She is hoping that the survey will lead to in-depth, on-site interviews with information developers to better understand both the importance of adaptive content and the impediments to its adoption.

Rachel Grimes, Fiserv, guided us through the saga of her teams move from technical writing to user experience design. Their mission is to focus on the conversation with the user rather than explaining the functionality of the product. Their mission statement: help people take action with confidence. They have found that writers need to change their identities to become crucial to successful information design and develop a strategy to publish less, not more.

Like many technical writing groups, Laurel Nicholes’ team, EMC Isilon, found themselves powerless in working with their engineering organization. They sought friends in finance, customer support, training, professional services, product management, and sales and marketing. They discovered that the new sales team didn’t know how to sell the product because they had no good information source. The organization formed a Content Board of Directors and instituted Content Interlock to discuss the content projects everyone is working on and the problems to fix. Most interesting, they used crowd source funding within the company to fund their multimedia productions.

Joe Gollner, Gnostyx Research, and Rebekka Andersen, University of California at Davis, demonstrated how a practitioner and an academic could aid each other in developing effective strategies. Rebekka’s research has shown that emotional and cultural factors influence the success of a change initiative. Based on the measurement tool that she had created for her research, Joe constructed a survey to measure the readiness for change in information-development teams. He found that measuring the readiness and working with the managers based on the results helped improve the success of the initiative. In fact, he found that the senior management viewed the survey more seriously because it was conducted by independent researchers and based on academic research. We hope this indicates that our academe-industry collaboration may prove successful in the future.

Kathy Watanabe and Suzanne Sowinska gave us an update on the culture changes occurring at Microsoft. We heard last year about the move to a friendly, less-technical sounding voice. That trend is continuing with increasing emphasis on only what customers need at the moment. The lesson: Don’t overwhelm customers with detail. They have required that every content contributor begin with real data about customer needs and behaviors. But they’re being careful about which data is meaningful. High page view numbers can also mean poor customer results. One technique they are using is the development of content posters that help explain product architecture and use. It was interesting that we saw the very successful use of posters by Hebe Hui from Huawei. Customers appear to value posters highly because they present a unified visual image of a product.

The presentations in Best Practices 2014 were a fantastic success. I am happy that I heard every one of them, which can only happen because we have one session that everyone joins, not multiple sessions. If you have not been to a Best Practices conference, you are missing a great experience and this year was one of the best.

Clearly, change is on everyone’s mind. The world is changing. Information is inexorably becoming key to customer success. If your organization and your management hasn’t figured that out yet, they are in for a huge surprise. But we also learned that change is not easy. People seem to be programmed to be suspicious of change and reject it if possible. As managers, we have to work hard to overcome the emotional response to change and help people learn to adapt. Best Practices 2014 was designed for that purpose. All of us there learned so much to carry home that it will take us time to absorb. But we were all glad we took part. See you in 2015.