Implementing a content management system may seem a little outside the purview of the technical writer. But, according JoAnn Hackos, technical communicators and other content creation and delivery specialists can indeed play a pivotal role in the success of a content management project. In this exclusive interview, Scott Abel chats with Hackos about how to prepare for a move to content management and who needs to be involved in the process.
SA: JoAnn, thanks for allowing me to interview you today. For my readers that have yet to discover you and the valuable resources available from the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM), tell us a little about yourself and the CIDM.
JH: I founded Comtech Services in 1979 as a document design firm. In the early 1990s, we moved our focus to management consulting, working with information-development managers around the world. We created the Information Process Maturity Model as a standard against which to measure the performance of departments. We conduct audits and deliver extensive reports. As a feature of our work with information-development managers, I founded the CIDM in 1998. CIDM provides a forum for managers to learn about critical issues and strategies. Topics at annual conference have included Balanced Scorecard, Six Sigma, process management, outsourcing, and this year’s focus on global enterprise.
I started working in technical information development in the 1970s, writing, editing, and producing publications in addition to heading the technical communication programs at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado at Denver.
SA: As a content management professional with roots in the technical documentation space, I understand the many challenges that content creators face when they start to think about moving to content management. I’ve been called in to help several organizations revamp their content management approach. You know the drill…they tossed the content management project over the wall to IT and let them design something without fully understanding the implications of such an approach.
In your experience, what are the implications of an organization treating a content management initiative as an IT project? Should technical communicators and training development professionals be part of the team solving the content management challenge? Why or why not?
JH: Without the close involvement of information developers in documentation or training, the content management solutions are unlikely to meet their needs. We see so many flavors of content management being marketed and purchased by IT professionals, including web content management, records management, document management, and so on. Most of the time, information developers need tools that support complex information-development processes and workflows and support the management of information chunks that are smaller than entire documents and require conditional processing. Many content management systems do not support the functionality needed by information developers nor do the IT professionals understand how the various needs differ so significantly.
I find many organizations struggling to use inadequate systems that create more problems than they solve.
SA: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of determining whether an organization needs a content management system or not. Doesn’t everyone need a content management system? What process do I use to determine whether I do or not?
JH: Organizations with either smaller information sets or great discipline definitely survive using ordinary file systems. However, as soon as you begin to divide chapters and sections into many topics, the number of files increases significantly. It’s difficult to use the ordinary file and folder structures to keep track of all the pieces. If you are producing information in multiple languages the problem multiplies.
It’s important then to assess the needs of an organization before making a content management decision. Are you ready to move to topic-based authoring? Are you translating topics into multiple languages? Do you require more sophisticated version control than can be done by hand? Do you want to maintain versions throughout the course of a project or archive comments received from reviewers? Does handling version control manually require more time and energy than it’s worth?
Content management systems that handle topics are rapidly becoming more sophisticated, providing functionality that goes far beyond simply storing files in a database. They support multiple languages, conditional processing, workflow, and project management, all designed to decrease the time spent on otherwise manual tasks. Because we are intent today on increasing productivity and devoting more time to content creation than to content publishing, we need to incorporate tools that decrease work effort at every point in the process. The best content management systems are designed to do that.
SA: I don’t think a lot of communication professionals have the business decision-making and project-planning skills they need to move to content management. I’m not sure many IT pros have those skills either. Maybe this helps to explain the fear some have and the many mistakes made by those who charged ahead with such projects without really knowing what they were getting into. Is this why you recommend using a Balanced Scorecard approach? What is it and how can it help a team of content professionals succeed with a content management project? Oh well, I just remembered track changes. I didn’t make any other changes before this.
JH: The Balanced Scorecard is a superb tool to evaluate a business strategy. It was designed by Kaplan and Norton of Harvard Business School. The core of the model is that decisions must be made by taking many aspects of a company’s processes into account, not just the financial goals. Typically, a Balanced Scorecard is built around four quadrants, with revenue or profitability increases only one of the quadrants. The three other quadrants are customer satisfaction, process control, and employee learning and growth.
In making a business decision, we must have a balance. A decision that simply reduces costs and increases profitability but causes customers to be dissatisfied or a skilled workforce to quit isn’t a sound business decision. A balanced decision weighs all four factors equally. A content management solution is usually designed to improve processes. If it’s well conceived and carefully selected, it should also enable the technical writers to learn and grow in the profession. If they can devote less time to publishing tasks and more to producing sound content, customers should be happier with the results. If customers are happier, they buy more products and recommend the products to others. Voila, the financial results are achieved.
SA: If I’m a technical writing professional involved on a content management project, why do I need to know about “implementation”? Isn’t that something IT guys and gals do?
JH: Most of the implementation tasks have nothing to do with IT. Certainly, IT professionals need to get the content management system up and running, usually with the vendor’s assistance. But the information developers need to learn how to use the system effectively. They need to create an implementation plan that includes information modeling, metadata structures, folder organization, workflows, process descriptions, author guidelines, and so on. Usually a full implementation requires one to two years to be complete. Even an initial pilot project can take several months to get good output from a system.
The worst thing that an organization can do is simply to dump existing content into the content management system and assume it will organize itself. They’ll get nothing more than the mess they put in, and it will be even more difficult to fix. Automated conversion tools can’t take a desktop-published file and automatically add semantics required by a DITA-like XML standard. You cannot produce information in the target when there is little or no information in the source. You cannot get uniformly designed, structured topics out of most unstructured content. To get the most value out of a content management system, you need a plan to transform your content into something that will yield the financial results that you’ve been promising your management.
SA: One last question. Content management projects can be difficult beasts to tackle. They can take considerable time and budget. How can learning about implementation issues help folks get projects done in a reasonable amount of time?
JH: I’ve seen many projects go off wildly in the wrong direction. It’s best to develop a plan that is informed by people who have been there and done that before. Training and consulting are invaluable tools that do save time and money and a lot of frustration. It’s very easy to get no return on your investment, even after lots of time. Training and consulting from experienced professionals cuts down on wasted time by helping you develop a specific set of tasks and activities to accomplish and indicating just how much effort is needed.
Content management projects never manage themselves. They require teamwork that is going in a productive direction from the first. I remember a colleague many year’s ago telling his management that they wanted me to work with them on their project. The reason – I would save them time spent going in the wrong direction.
SA: Thanks for your valuable time and insights, JoAnn. We really appreciate it.
JH: Thank you, Scott, for taking the time for this interchange. Hope to see you and all the participants at our workshop in October.
Editor’s Note: October 4-5, JoAnn Hackos will present a two-day Content Management workshop, in conjunction with the Management Summit at the PubsNet Documentation and Training Conference in Boston. To learn more about the workshop or the conference, visit http://www.doctrain.com or contact PubsNet at 978-649-8555.