Build and Manage Teams

Build and Manage an International Tech Comm Team in Tough Economic Times

Having the right resources, being able to depend on each other, and continuing to grow a department can be difficult in the best of times. In the current economic reality it may not feel fair that content delivery expectations continue to increase while your resources remain the same.

Your team should work more effectively to write, review, edit, and publish. Best practices can be applied to allow you to deliver the same or better quality documentation despite the challenges. By building a strong team now, you will be well-equipped to emerge stronger and more capable of facing new challenges.

Along with best practices, there are also changes that a manager can make to improve the working environment of the department and the quality of the deliverables. Some are more dramatic than others, and may include process changes, changes to hiring practices, provision of staff training, redefining of roles, or managing of project stakeholders in new ways.

This paper discusses some of the challenges facing today’s information development and content management departments, and suggests solutions to consider in response to those challenges. Many of these solutions are cross-functional in nature, and can be of use to any team facing the sort of challenges outlined below.


Problem: Most inefficiency in the workplace is directly tied to poor, antiquated, or missing processes. When inefficient processes are followed, the bottom line is directly impacted. Most inefficient process is the result of two main causes: (1) processes that are manually performed instead of automated, and (2) weak or poor processes that are followed (even automated ones) but that need correction.

Solutions may include:

  • Consider Agile processes and a more iterative development cycle; move away from waterfall and long development cycles if you can.

  • Track projects and project estimates; you can’t improve what you don’t know.

  • Find way to maximize content reuse.

  • Reassess content development tools and content management strategies; do you need to modernize older inefficient ways of producing and managing content?

  • Improve processes; reduce areas of inefficiency to free up more time.

  • Perform a maturity assessment of your department and its processes; look at areas for growth where you can make can a lasting impact to the bottom line.

Work Overload

Problem: Work overload is demonstrated when the same manual process is repeated, or any time that a "solution" in one department creates inefficiencies in another, and when projects are pieced together without clear planning.

Solutions may include:

  • Use templates; don’t waste time reinventing the wheel for each deliverable.

  • Improve the product interface and focus on making the product easier to use instead of relying on volumes of documentation to explain it.

  • Create less content, but make it higher-quality to better meet customer needs.

  • Follow established and proven processes; don’t skip them if time is tight; rely on them to save time and ensure what you deliver is predictable and high-quality.

  • Carefully estimate every project; if estimates don’t fit into a given calendar date/schedule, communicate this as early as possible to your stakeholders, and work with them to find ways of reducing scope.

Overstretched Resources

Poor management of resources results in the need to overextend what people and processes can do. A slight stretch is not necessarily a bad idea, but to force people to do so too often results in fatigue and something breaks. We all know a person overloaded with work is more likely to make errors.

Solutions may include:

  • If you don’t already have a centralized ID team in place, propose one; work is more easily shared between team members on a centralized team who share the same processes, training, tools, and manager. If you must be globally diverse, then have regional teams that answer to shared managers, with shared tools, training and processes.

  • Request a manager who is knowledgeable in the areas of usability and information development.

  • Redefine roles within the team.

  • Work closely with stakeholders to come up with realistic timeframes or reduced scope; get them to prioritize the backlog.

  • Improve status reporting vehicles and reduce the number of status meetings.

Inadequate Skill Set

Anyone who is not properly trained for a job is a liability to a team and can dramatically decrease that team’s efficiency. Without the right set of skills, a person is of little use to a team. In the same way, a team that is incomplete and lacking specific skills is of little use to a company. A team that is incomplete may be seen as providing less value, and may likely be one of the first to be let go of in tough times.

Solutions may include:

  • Redefine roles of existing information developers; start creating specialists on your team to free up others from having to do certain jobs (reduce multi-tasking); a trained specialist can do things faster and better than a handful of generalists.

  • Start hiring specialists when possible (dedicated editors, CMS administrators, project managers, graphic designers, usability experts, etc.); existing generalists on the team can focus on content creation (they won’t be switching focus several times a day).

  • Hire contractors; don’t do it all yourself; ramp-up of team members may cost more in the end than paying someone who already knows what they are doing.

  • If you can’t afford a full time editor, develop stringent quality standards and processes that are enforced (examples: create processes, checklists, and standards for peer reviews, QA reviews, SME reviews, and customer feedback).

Reduced Focus Factor

If focus on any goal is lost, even for a short time frame, some degree of ramp-up is required to return to productivity. When this type of loss of focus impacts an entire team, consider how much chaos, inefficiency, and error can be introduced. Without a clear plan that is properly developed, easily understood, and simple to follow, focus will wander and productivity suffers.

Solutions may include:

  • Improve scheduling techniques; schedule all activities, including department initiative that aren’t directly linked to product content development or usability/design; show overlapping milestones and highlight bottlenecks; break things down into small features/projects and schedule these individually (not just one long project).

  • Make your schedule visible; higher-ups can better see the bottlenecks once plotted, and stakeholders can better identify what should be considered a priority once it’s captured.

  • Take advantage of contractors and specialists; you don’t have to do it all – bringing someone in for a few hours each week or month can have a tremendous impact to your efficiency and ability to focus on more pressing activities.

  • Create a plan for every project; in it, advise how you’ll handle multiple and concurring projects that will reduce your focus and impact your efficiency; add buffer for reduced efficiency.

Dwindling Morale, Motivation, and Innovation

Lackluster performance, low self esteem, a lack of focus, an inability to come up with new ideas. If a person shows these traits, they visit a doctor, see a therapist, eat some ice cream, or go for a run. When a sports team shows these signs it’s time to consider a trade, a change in management, assignment of a new captain, or hope for a road trip. So why should a business team be different?

Solutions may include:

  • Foster innovation from team building opportunities.

  • Allow time for thinking and innovating; encourage participation.

  • Carry out team building exercises.

  • Continue niceties and rewards; regularly celebrate, congratulate, acknowledge, appreciate, thank, and encourage your team; feel free to be creative in you do this (doesn’t have to involve bonuses or expensive outings).

  • Encourage community involvement.

  • Don’t cut back on the training to save money or postpone vacation time to keep a schedule; continue to invest in your employees and provide time for refreshment to foster opportunities for innovation.

  • Be flexible, and ask team to be flexible; take hold of the opportunities tough times can offer in terms of accepting new responsibilities, new processes, modified schedules, different people/ideas.

For Further Consideration

  1. Begin customer surveys and polls; address customer complaints, gaps, and needs as a first priority.

    • Hire a consultant to get this kick started if you need to.

    • Deliver less, but ensure it is of higher quality that better meets customer needs.

  2. Change the team’s focus from writing comprehensive doc to improving product and interface usability.

    • Hire a usability expert or train staff on user experience and design techniques.

    • Integrate UI best practices into existing ID responsibilities and processes.

  3. Research Agile or other iterative development processes to see how your company might benefit from its adoption.

    • Learn about the team building advantages of going Agile.

    • Understand how daily scrums work and the importance of your team’s attendance and participation.

    • Champion shorter, iterative development cycles and the increased likelihood of hitting both cost and schedule targets.

  4. Apply standard project management techniques and best practices to projects.

    • Visit the PMI website or other PM training sites for details.

    • Take formal PM training; at minimum, train key members of the team.

  5. Consider moving to structured authoring, or DITA.

    • Several companies and consultants specialize in training, tool recommendations, content conversion, etc.

    • Maximize content reuse and better manage your company’s most important asset – its information.

  6. Hire an in-house trainer or send employees out for advanced tool training, project management training, etc. to reap the rewards of improved efficiency.

This content was originally delivered for Tekom in Germany and at the STC Rochester Spectrum.