What makes an industry leader in the area of information development? What practices are critical to the department’s success and predictors of the quality of content produced?
For over 20 years, Comtech and the Center for Information Development Management (CIDM) have partnered with leading information development organizations to assess and monitor the characteristics that define process maturity in the creation of technical content.
Tools, technology, and user expectations continue to evolve the content we produce. Similarly, the processes followed while creating that content should also adapt.
To respond to changing demands, we must leave behind our old concepts of information development management and adopt new definitions of process maturity.
Based on continuing conversations with leading information development organizations, this presentation examines key performance indicators for 10 characteristics that define mature organizations in today’s market.
About Our Speaker
Dawn Stevens is the president of Comtech Services and Director of CIDM. With 28 years of experience, including 17 years at Comtech, Dawn has practical experience in virtually every role within a documentation and training department, including project management, instructional design, writing, editing, and multimedia programming. With both engineering and technical communication degrees, Dawn combines a solid technical foundation with strong writing and design skills to identify and remove the challenges her clients face in producing usable, technical information and training.
Date: Thursday, 5 April 2018.
by Dan Littman
Structured-content methodologies, in particular DITA, have spread inexorably through the tech–comm world over recent decades. At the EBSTC’s April 5 get-together we heard from a street–smart DITA consultant about how the methodology affects not just technical documentation, but also how companies organize themselves and operate. Our guest speaker was Dawn Stevens, who last year took over at Comtech Services, the influential Denver–based DITA consultancy started by JoAnn Hackos.
Dawn prefaced her presentation with some remarks about the changing purpose of writing technical documentation. Structured authoring, and in particular DITA, emerged as a way to “future–proof” information so it can be easily adapted for new communication technologies. Dawn points out that DITA comes with a taxonomy attached that makes it ideal for incorporation into the latest communication technology: artificial intelligence information systems. The consequence is that the technical books and procedural guides of yore are being eclipsed by small chunks of self–assembling information—a necessary transition as the audience for information moves from humans to machines.
We technical communicators have to adapt to what that demands, which includes:
- new tools, such as XML and CMSes
- new platforms, such as dynamic and social media, and of course mobile devices
- new technologies, such as video and augmented reality
- new responsibilities, such as planning taxonomies and designing for user experience
All those changes have knock-on effects for people who use our information, which in turn requires us to adapt in other ways as well. As an example, Dawn cites studies that show people average a 60 percent retention rate for what we read on paper, but only 18 percent for information on a smartphone screen—which drives an increasingly “just–in–time” approach to seeking information.
Well, after making those points, Dawn didn’t talk so much about DITA itself, concentrating more on how organizations change to make room for DITA. Her presentation, entitled “Maturing Process Maturity” (see her card deck here), zeroed in on 10 key business considerations and practices that determine whether organizations can reap the benefits of structured authoring. In no particular order, the 10 factors are:
- Organizational structure
- Hiring and training
- User awareness
- Estimating, scheduling and tracking
- Information design
- Quality assurance
- Change management
None of these practices are really new (except perhaps information design), but the challenges they present and the ways they’re executed are changing. Some requirements have clearly become easier to meet due simply to better technology. In the case of collaboration, for example, everything from email and network servers to video–conferencing and content–management systems allow tech–comm departments to work fluidly together. And when it comes to QA, there are tools available that incorporate the tech-comm department’s style guide and keep writers attuned to established procedures.
Even so, Dawn has concluded that most tech-comm departments still perform poorly on the 19th–century–sounding requirement to estimate, schedule and track their work. Budgeting also trips up its share of sincere efforts. And she finds that organizations whose functioning on many of the 10 factors is at mediocre to middling levels (on her informal five-level scale) are doomed to run aground on any attempt at deploying DITA in their operations.
At our next meeting, on Thursday May 3, EBSTC chapter president Gale Naylor will describe her journey from volunteer on an open-source project to a paid career gig at a major Silicon Valley company. It’s an interesting story, and it should be especially useful to anyone trying to find a niche in the tech–writing world. Mark your calendar for an evening at our new meeting room in the San Ramon Marriott’s Bishop Grill.