Interview with Scott Abel by Diane Wieland, special to The Content Wrangler

Diane: Scott, you’ve spoken for years about the need for organizations to control content. Now that content management is finally on the minds of the masses, can you tell us more about the difference between managing documents and managing content? That is, pieces of content?

Scott: Yes, I can. Let’s start with document management, an approach to controlling files of various types. User manuals, presentations, web pages, annual reports, brochures, animations, and white papers are all types of documents that need to be controlled. Document Management is the process through which organizations manage whole documents; move them through approval processes, control versions of the doc, and store them.

image However, documents are comprised of smaller pieces of content called components. We need to manage components of content —not just the documents they end up being used to create—in order to deliver the right information, to the right people, in the right language, at the right time, and in the right format. So, content management is really about managing all of the pieces of content that are used to assemble documents, whether they are physical documents like printed user manuals or virtual documents like Web pages or information delivered to a mobile device.

Diane: So, managing content is not so much about moving documents around as it is about managing the smaller pieces of content—the components—in ways that are beneficial to both an organization and the various customers they serve. What is the benefit of this approach?

Scott: In short, the answer to this question always relates to money. Profit, to be exact. Profits can be improved in a variety of ways. It’s not just selling more product that leads to increased profit. Reducing and eliminating unnecessary expenses can also contribute to the bottom line. The return on investment possible from effectively managing content components—the individual pieces we make to manufacture the information products we use to run our businesses—is one of the primary financial reasons why organizations move to content management. Organizations sometimes express the benefits in non-monetary terms (meeting regulatory mandates, avoiding risks, improving customer service) but make no mistake, no matter how they couch the reasons why managing content is needed, profit is almost always the primary motive.

Of course, in order for an organization to make the changes needed to efficiently manage content, they must first admit their content is a business asset worthy of being managed in a formal, repeatable, auditable process. Today, for some crazy reason, even some of the most forward-thinking organizations on the planet still don’t think of content as a business asset worthy of being managed. This is increasingly changing, but by and large, content is seen as some type of art project where creativity and writer’s preferences often guide its creation. I expect this to be less and less the case in the future.

Then in order to demonstrate savings, an organization has to know what it costs them to create and mismanage content today. Only then, can improvements be meaningfully measured. This information is not typically available in technical documentation, training, and support centers today.

Diane: Are you saying this type of information is available in other industries? Does this have something to do with why we’ve heard you say that technical publications and training department managers can learn a lot from the fast food industry?

Scott: Yes, today most technical documentation and training departments fail miserably when it comes to really managing their people and processes. A McDonald’s manager is far more likely to know more about his or her store than a tech docs, training, or support center manager knows about his or her department. This is, of course, unacceptable. And, it’s totally unprofessional. In what other professions would such an absence of metrics and control be allowed? When you think about technical documentation and training management in this way, it’s easy to see that we have a long way to go before we can seriously call what we do professional.

image Again, in organizations that value content as an asset, this is less likely to be the case. In such organizations, managers are provided with relevant training and the requisite tools needed to effectively manage their departments and the products they create. You won’t see managers in these organizations using an Excel spreadsheet to track metrics manually. Nor will you see them do dozens of other time-sucking tasks that most documentation managers do by hand today. We should rid our profession of these and other less-than-efficient mechanisms for collecting metrics. We need to admit that there is nothing professional about the way we attempt to manage content today. We need to make requisite changes so we can begin to efficiently collect metrics that can help us make informed business decisions based on observable, measurable facts.

Diane: Most managers I know have weekly meetings and just ask their teams what’s going on. Isn’t it enough to ask them and find out where they are on a project?

Scott: There’s no good reason we should be using what can best be described as psychic powers and guesstimates to manage documentation and training projects. Being an effective manager means having an understanding of exactly what’s going on in your department so you can deploy and manipulate human, financial, intellectual, intangible, and material resources to accomplish organizational goals.

Airplane pilots have a control panel right in front of them that help them make informed decisions. They can see where they are at, where they are heading, how long they’ve been flying, how much time remains before their journey is complete, how much fuel they have used, how much fuel they have left, what known natural obstacles are in need of being circumvented, and much more. There is no way any pilot—nor any passenger, for that matter—would accept anything less.

What we need is a way to see all the critical information managers need to know about the projects they are “managing.” Managers need to be able to see everything at-a-glance—who’s doing what, who is doing too much, who is not doing anything, where the bottlenecks are, how many topics have been started, how many are done, how many are in editing, how many have been approved, how many have not yet been started, how many are being translated, how many already have been translated, how many have been retranslated, how much does it cost to create a topic, how much to translate one, what is the cost of a reusable topic, etc.

These metrics (and many others) can be captured automatically by a content quality management system (a content management system that includes tools designed to provide managers with real-time reporting information that can help them make informed decisions). Using software tools to collect and disseminate relevant project information is a much more effective approach to managing technical documentation and training projects. It’s the difference between someone saying “it’s about half done” and seeing the actual progress and status data and being able to act upon it in a professional, responsible, efficient manner.

Diane: Don’t most managers have a good snapshot of this information with spreadsheets or, even a white board, for that matter?

Scott: Most managers don’t have a good snapshot, especially if they rely on spreadsheets to keep track of their efforts. Unfortunately, band-aid solutions are often portrayed as acceptable alternatives by some in our industry. While this approach may seem like a reasonable idea, it’s not. It’s based on the “good enough” mentality that plagues our industry today. When we can’t seem to find a way to do it right, we say, “Well, at least we’re doing something. That’s good enough.” When we can’t find the right tool for the job, we’ll simply misuse another tool. Email, for instance, is not a collaboration nor content management tool; it is a messaging application. But it’s misused in many time-wasting ways (like trying to schedule meetings among groups of people), something web-based tools like MeetingWizard were actually designed to do—efficiently.

Unfortunately, “good enough” is neither efficient nor sufficient. It’s nothing but an excuse for failing to manage. And, we know better. When others try using the “good enough” mentality on us, we staunchly object. We push back when software developers design systems that create unnecessary clicks or make using the software more difficult than it should be. When they say, “Hey, it works as it was designed to and that’s good enough”, we say, “No, it’s not good enough. It’s broken and here’s how it should work.” We are often one of the first to point out when things don’t work as users need them to work. Yet, when asked to examine our own work patterns, processes and content life cycle, we hide behind the “good enough” approach.

To answer your original question, there are so many things wrong with the spreadsheet/white board approach. First, it relies on human beings to collect and manage data. This is a bad practice and a recipe for failure. Humans are error-prone and don’t come with audit trail. Humans also have other characteristics that get in the way of effective management of content: jealously, emotion, forgetfulness, illness, ego, etc. Content quality management software tools are designed to help managers of technical documentation teams and training departments get a grip on their content production processes and manage their resources effectively, without any of the challenges human managers—and their staffs—can introduce.

Software vendors are starting to recognize the importance of providing software tools that automatically gather and report metrics for a wide variety of purposes. Adobe, for instance, has released RoboHelp Server, an online help and knowledge base solution designed to help technical documentation teams deploy and manage up-to-date online content, and control and monitor the use of web-based help systems they create in real time. RoboHelp Server generates detailed management reports that list online help usage activity, and streamlines publish operations by republishing only those help files that have been modified since the last publish operation. Managers can see which help topics have been visited by users and make informed decisions about what types of content users are using. This type of information is needed in order to determine whether the content we create for online help systems is actually being used at all (what’s the ROI of a help topic that has never been viewed?) and to help us examine why those topics aren’t being accessed. Of course, these metrics are useful, but they are only part of what’s needed. Managers need to have metrics at the front end of the process as well.

Diane: Are there similar tools available to help technical documentation managers automate the process of collecting and acting upon metrics?

Scott: That’s a great question. Tools like Horizon from Inmedius) show lots of promise. Horizon includes a dashboard control panel that provides managers with graphical interpretations of the metrics being collected (how many DITA topics are to be created?, how many have been started?, how many are in review?, how many are being QA tested?, how many have been completed? who completed which topics? who completed the fewest? who completed the most?) Tools like this are needed by all managers. They may not be wanted, but they are certainly needed.

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Diane: What are the practical ways in which this information helps better manage tech pubs departments and people?

Scott: Managing content creation and delivery is a complex and interdependent process. The absence of one person in the department can negatively impact other workers who are relying on content for review, approval, to do layout, to publish, etc. These types of tools could allow managers to see where any one piece of information is at any given time. For example, if your writers worked really hard to meet a deadline and get content in the system for review, a manager could track those pieces of content and see where they are in the review and approval process at-a-glance.  So if reviewers were behind for some reason, the manager could take action to move the process along.  It avoids the “hurry up and wait” way a lot of tech pubs departments work now.

And if you know ahead of time someone is going to be on vacation or has an inequitable workload, you can avoid bottlenecks in the process.  This reduces the chances that your documentation products will become back end loaded and cause delays in important product launches. No department wants to be the one that delays a new product launch and cause the company money in that way. 

These tools can also help managers assess the amount of content writers are reusing for multiple outputs.  So if Joe stores a product description that has been reviewed and approved for use, but Andrea and Bob are using a different product description, a manager can find out why writers are duplicating efforts–a time consuming and money wasting practice. The reason could be something as silly as Andrea and Joe have a disagreement on where the comma belongs. It just helps managers know what is going on with important documentation projects instead of guessing or asking all the time.

image Diane: Now I see where the McDonald’s analogy fits in. Fast food managers know exactly how many buns they have in stock, how many days it will take for them to be used, and when to reorder.

Scott: Yes. As a matter of fact, their buns are reordered automatically, just as these systems can automatically send managers an email alert when something has been moved through a process, and automatically alert a writer that a piece of content has been approved. No more “I didn’t know” excuses.

Diane: Tell us where readers might be able to get more information on this?

Scott: I’d suggest several sources. To gain a basic understanding of defects and their actual impact on business productivity and revenue, as well as the importance of metrics and strategies for acting upon them to improve quality, I recommend managers learn all they can about Six Sigma, a system of improving quality based on eliminating defects. Managers can also benefit from developing an understanding of the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) process for continued improvement. DMAIC is a systematic, scientific and fact-based process designed to help managers detect and eliminates unproductive tasks that focuses on the development of new measurements, and seeks to find ways that technology can be used to make needed improvements.

Books that managers should read include: Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy by Ann Rockley, Steve Manning and Pamela Kostur and Document Engineering: Analyzing and Designing Documents for Business Informatics and Web Services by Robert Glushko and Tim McGrath. Both of these texts are must reads for any manager serious about managing content as a business asset.

Additionally, attending conferences is another great idea. There’s a Management Summit at the Documentation and Training East 2007 conference this year (October 16-20, 2007) that offers workshops designed specifically for managers. Presenters will help managers develop strategies for communicating the value of structured XML authoring to authors, discover ways to enable interdepartmental collaboration, and understand and communicate the financial impact of moving to XML and DITA.