By Emma Hamer, eHamerAssociates, Ltd., special to

In conversations I’ve had recently with TechComm Managers and Content Management Consultants, as well as with individual technical communicators and instructional designers, one question keeps coming up: How are we going to cope with the changes brought on by the implementation of a content management system? The response to my question: “What changes are you worried about” varies tremendously:

  • Enforcing the discipline of structured authoring
  • Identifying enough reusable content to make it all worth while
  • Repositioning our team to the other departments: less service group, more expert advisors
  • Getting SME’s to understand how this system impacts their contributions
  • Getting my team to collaborate at all, let alone better

Although each of these points deserves an article to itself, this article will tackle the last point: collaboration – we know we need more of it, but do we even know what it looks like? And how do we get there? Is it even possible with the people we have now? And how will we know we’ve succeeded?

First of all, it’s time to dispel some myths. Many of these points are held very dear by technical communicators and their managers alike, but that still doesn’t make them sustainable in a Content Management environment. They are “the old” that must go:

  1. A group of people performing similar tasks in similar circumstances does not a team make; it’s still a group.
  2. It’s not “your” document; it’s the company’s.
  3. Working roughly in the same area, but each in their own cubicle is not conducive to collaboration.
  4. Privacy and quiet are overrated; if you want privacy – don’t come to work. Collaboration is about looking over the fence, not at it.

Allow me to elaborate a bit on each point:

1) A group is not the same as a team.

It has become fashionable to speak of one’s staff as “my team”, or “our team” and of its members as “team mates”. Calling it so, however, doesn’t make it so. There’s more to teamwork than numbers. The key difference is in the level of interaction and interdependence of team members. For a group of people to become a team, their work behaviors must change, in the understanding that they need each other’s contributions to successfully complete the tasks at hand. Writers and illustrators, editors and SME’s, illustrators and information designers, and any other combination of disciplines, must increasingly become interdependent to meet the needs of the organization and its customers.

For this interdependence to take hold, and for interdisciplinary teams to function, barriers must come down, territories must be relinquished, and frank and open discussion must replace the often defensive responses to feedback – whether on content or style.

What used to be a key positive quality in technical writers: the good ones felt a sense of ownership for their documents, is rapidly becoming a liability. See also my next point:

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© Dennis Cox – FOTOLIA

2) It’s not your document, it’s the company’s.

Since one of the key rationales for a CMS is the ability to reuse and repurpose content, chances are that new information products (and these do not have to be documents) contain 60, 70, sometimes even 80% content that already exists. Only the “really new” bits and pieces are added or substituted.

Some of the new content will be an adaptation or improvement of previous versions, some of it will be created specifically for a new product. Some of it may be in the form of text, some of it may be a new graphic, or a QuickTime movie, or an audio component. My point is: it is no longer possible to “own” a document, firstly because it may not necessarily “be” a document, and secondly, because in a CMS, a product does not actually exist until it is assembled from new and repurposed “chunks” of information. Which chunks get assembled, in which order, defines which information product emerges: a web page, a brochure text, a training module, a user manual, a packaging label, etc.

Understanding that many contribute to this information product, and that each contribution is critical and valuable, will help a sense of collective ownership grow. Everyone involved in this production is responsible for the end result; it’s everyone’s responsibility to catch mistakes others may have overlooked.

Of course, this may involve an illustrator reviewing a written procedure, and saying: “You know, I think we can get this point across more easily with two or three simple diagrams” without the author of the procedure getting defensive or upset. And vice versa, naturally. It also involves a writer telling a SME that while this procedure may sound logical to the SME, it needs to be rewritten for it to be useful, without the SME pulling rank and/or getting upset.

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© Dennis Cox – FOTOLIA

3) Working in the same area, but each in their own cubicle is not conducive to collaboration.

As a method to maximize the number of people per sq. ft., the cubicle has no equal. As a method to shut one’s self off from one’s surroundings, to barricade one’s self within a cocoon of “this is my space”, complete with the trappings of home (photos of loved ones, be they children or pets, strings of Christmas lights, humorous figurines, in short “personality”) the cubicle has no equal, either.

I’m going to say it as plainly as I can: in an interconnected workplace, where collaboration is the goal and the norm: the cubicle has had its day; it must go.

Frankly, cubicle-dwelling discourages and even stifles the kind of cross-over involvement necessary for collaboration. To collaborate with others, you need to know what they’re doing; you need to be able to eavesdrop on their telephone conversations, you need to be able to pull up a chair and join a discussion taking place between a colleague and a SME. For the creative potential of collaboration to be realized, you need to be facing one another, not holed up in a box, with your backs turned to each other.

The good news: this is easy to do: have all the hutches, panels and dividers removed, and group desks in threes and fours. Shove all the storage and filing cabinets to one or two of the outside walls of the area. Create a reference library area (bookshelves) with a table and some chairs somewhere in the middle, and designate this area as the collaborative meeting area, as well. And close your ears and minds to the deafening howls of protest. Just do it, make it a group activity, with everyone pitching in, and explain why. Explain often, and praise everyone for trying hard. Encourage discussion about the pros and cons, and point out the benefits whenever you can. Do what you need to do, but don’t back down. This is the layout of the collaborative team – the team of the future.

4) Privacy and quiet are overrated; if you want privacy – don’t come to work. Collaboration is about looking over the fence, not at it.

Technical writers have maintained that – in order to write – they need privacy and a quiet environment. Perhaps because the profession has an overrepresentation of people with an MBTI preference for introversion, this line has been swallowed like the gospel. Strange, then, that journalists – writers, too – can function perfectly well in a noisy newsroom, with phones ringing off the hook, printers whirring away, people walking by their desks talking, and assorted deadline-driven mayhem around them.

Certainly, there are times when a writer needs some distraction-free time – but that’s not all the time. In the new world of collaboration, a distraction-free zone may only be necessary for a few hours per week. For instance: to work out a rough first draft of notes taken during a content development meeting – perhaps for 3 hours. And perhaps once again, if a final – definitive – edit needs to be done, maybe another 2 hours?  In other words, instead of ‘leaving the work area’ to ‘go to a meeting with your team’, you will temporarily ‘leave your work area’ to ‘work on your own for a few hours’.

The legitimate need for a distraction-free zone is equally easy to address. Create one or two areas, set back from the main hustle and bustle area, where one can temporarily sit and work in relative quiet and isolation, until the task is done. Don’t create too many of these areas – they need to be a scarce commodity that your writers must share. No need for any kind of storage capability in these areas – no-one will stay there long enough to need storage. Just a desk, a chair, a computer. Simple.

Collaboration is more than working together; it is more than sharing resources. True collaboration involves getting to know all aspects of the work, your own, and those of your collaborators. And thinking about, commenting on, and contributing to areas that are not within your primary scope of expertise – simply because you are a collaborator , and therefore it’s your work, too.

How will you know when you’re there? When your people comment freely and constructively on each other’s work, when a SME offers to come and sit with a writer during an editing round, when an illustrator offers to go down to the assembly floor to see and capture with her own eyes how the product is manufactured. The key words are: “freely” and “offer”.

Collaboration is the strategy to develop self-directed and self-managing multi-disciplinary teams: the multi-talented work teams of the future.

About the Author

Emma Hamer BASc, is the founding principal and senior associate at eHamerAssociates, Ltd., Career & Performance Consultants. Her field of practice is human performance improvement, both for individuals and for corporations; her passion is doing things right the first time around. All are firmly founded on in-depth analysis of performance gaps and the design of creative interventions to close the gap.

Introducing and implementing new systems—whatever their complexity—means changing how people contribute to and use the systems. Matching new tasks to the right people with the right critical skills is a key area of concern. Emma provides change management support during all phases of the selection and implementation process, helping the contributors and users close the gap between intent and actual impact of the changes. Emma is an acclaimed and internationally active speaker and presenter on performance management and leadership challenges. She has presented and published on the topic of content management from the human performance and organizational development perspectives.

© 2006 E. Hamer Associates Ltd.