Information-Development Project Management as an International Standard
JoAnn T. Hackos
International standards for information development, under the auspices of the International Organization for Standards (ISO), have been developed and published since the mid 1980s. Originally, the STC sponsored the membership of delegates to the ISO standards committee and supported standards work. More recently, ISO committee members from the United States are represented through membership in the standards body of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). My March 2016 IEEE Transactions article on the development of international standards for information development, “International Standards for Information Development and Content Management,”1 outlines the process used to develop standards within the ISO community.
In the IEEE Transactions article, I explain why standards are important for information developers. Standards provide direction and guidance for students of information development, for those entering the profession without training or education in the field, and for experienced practitioners. I place standards for information development in the context of the worldwide development of standards for all types of industries and activities.
Many of the organizations that employ information developers, especially those engaged in the development of machinery, medical equipment, and computer software and hardware, rely heavily on ISO and other industry-specific standards. For those information developers working in standards-focused industries, understanding that there are information-development standards and applying those to work practices provides legitimacy and equivalence to engineering best practices. Consider that university engineering programs regularly include the study of standards as part of required course materials. Information-development standards would be more widely recognized and adopted in the United States if university programs referenced them and included standards as part of reading requirements. Information developers adopting standards in the workplace would align information development with engineering practices.
One of the suite of information-development standards developed by the ISO team is the recent revision of ISO/IEC/IEEE 26511: Systems and software engineering — Requirements for managers of information for users of systems, software, and services (scheduled for final approval in 2018). This revised standard focuses on the role of the information-development manager in orchestrating a strategic direction for information development in an organization and the role of the project manager in planning and managing an information-development project and team.
The strategic and project management standards in the revised ISO 26511 are supported by the practices I developed in Managing Your Documentation Projects2 and further in Information Development: Managing your Projects, Portfolio, and People.3 Both books have influenced a generation of information-development professionals through workshops offered worldwide and are used in some university programs. Experienced information-development managers in the US are already likely to be familiar with many of the practices in ISO 26511 but not with the standard itself, because the use of standards has not been institutionalized widely in the US. Information-development standards are more often embraced in Europe and Asia than they are in the US, because standards are viewed by senior management as a significant commitment to best practices.
As an example of European interest in standards, in November 2016, several of the ISO committee members responsible for information-development standards presented a panel on standards development at the Tekom conference in Germany. It was one of the most heavily attended panels at the conference, which hosted more than 3,000 people. Because standards are widely adopted throughout Europe, the interest in these standards among the conference participants was very high. A session on the revised management standard was equally well attended.4 European university programs and corporations are more likely to educate people on the use of standards and to proscribe their use in organization practice.
I recommend that standards be incorporated into academic programs in information development. In a recent graduate project management course that I taught for the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, the graduate students, many of whom were managing information-development departments and projects, learned that there were best practices they could follow based on international standards. During the course, they applied the project-management practices to a project in their work environment and found that following the practices gave them a significantly better understanding of how to manage their projects and communicate with their team members and with fellow engineering-team managers.
In the newest revision to ISO standard 26511: Systems and software engineering — Requirements for managers of information for users of systems, software, and services, the role of the information—development manager is outlined, as is the role of the information-development project manager. The information-development manager is responsible for the strategic direction of the organization and the building of an effective team. The information-development project manager is responsible for planning a project, whether that project follows a traditional waterfall approach or is developed in an agile environment.5 The development of a project plan, based on a careful analysis of the users and their information requirements, is a crucial foundation upon which a successful information-development project rests. Without an information-development plan in place and an effective way of communicating with team members, information development may deteriorate into a set of procedures that account only for the basic features and functions of the product rather than the information needed by those who want to use the product to reach their goals.
An information-development project plan sets the stage for the information-development project, defining the goals and the scope of the project, the various user communities that the project will serve, the type and extent of the content to be developed, the translation and localization requirements, the project deliverables whether in print or online, the quality metrics or standards, the key inputs required from the product developers to complete the information project, and the amount of staff time required to complete the project successfully by the deadline.
To support the management of an information-development project, the project plan includes a detailed schedule for developing the information, an account of the potential risks involved in meeting the schedule, the required staffing and budget to complete the project, and the roles and responsibilities of the project’s team members as well as the participation of the product developers and other stakeholders in information development.
A project plan is appropriate for information-development projects of all types, from entirely new projects to those that account for changes to existing information as products, systems, or services are updated. Project plans also serve to detail the expectations around projects that are solely focused on information development, such as policies and procedures for conducting business.
In accounting for the topics to be developed, whether they are collected into print or electronic books or are delivered using a documentation portal and dynamic publishing, a project plan initially ensures throughout the project that user needs are addressed through a comprehensive content strategy. User needs include not only procedures for performing basic tasks with a product or system but also understanding what can be accomplished using a product or system, what data is needed to support successful task completion, and how to respond when something goes wrong. A content strategy may also address how new or updated information fits into the product portfolio and the portfolio of existing information products. Including an annotated topic list as part of a project plan ensures that user information needs are carefully and systematically addressed initially and updated by the team as the project progresses.
Using a project plan to estimate the time and cost required to complete the project successfully also helps to ensure that projects are adequately staffed and that staffing levels take into account the inevitable changes that occur during a project life-cycle. Without a sound estimate of time required, based on data from previous projects, a poorly planned project can easily result in inadequate time for review and testing of the content or the assurance that the content is uniformly structured and written according to established rules and guidelines.
Once a comprehensive project plan has been reviewed and approved by the stakeholders, it becomes the basis for managing the project. The project manager tracks the project according to the deliverables, schedule, and staffing laid out in the project plan, adjusting the content to be developed, the staffing, and the schedule as the project progresses. Even in agile projects, an overriding project plan provides an epic story, an overall content strategy, that guides the work of individual team members who are often assigned to multiple agile teams with challenging work schedules. Without an overall project plan in place, it is too easy for individual team members to become focused on meeting the demands of the product developers to document features rather than focusing on the needs of the user community.
A sound project plan enables an information-development manager to ensure that quality goals are not lost in the pressure to meet deadlines. A plan may accommodate extending delivery dates, shifting task milestones, adding writer resources to a project, or reducing or eliminating some deliverables, while ensuring that the quality of the final information products is not compromised.
Without adequate project planning, we have seen projects that amount to little more than anecdotes that describe how users might make sense of and work with a product or system. Much crucial information may be overlooked, especially information that provides users with a conceptual understanding of a product or system as a whole or supports troubleshooting problems successfully.
The role of the information-development project manager is essential to the development of the quality and timeliness of information products, and project planning is an essential ingredient to that development. By incorporating an ISO management standard into the work environment, an information-development manager can communicate to senior management that information development is well grounded in best practices that have been formulated and approved by the international standards community.
Project Manager Role in Quality Standards
Economic and structural transformations in the workplace and the near ubiquitous use of information communication technologies are leading to increasingly networked organizations with decentralized team structures and changing production cycles and processes, but one constant is the need to produce quality content—and to be able to verify the level of quality delivered. Even more important is the ability to predict the quality of content that will be delivered, thus avoiding the cost and customer impact of defective or inferior communication products.
As the workplace structures change and processes and team leadership become more asynchronous and decentralized, the role of a project manager with a broad view of standards across the organization becomes more critical than ever. A small scrum team with a single information developer has no way of assessing quality without the ability to compare across a much larger spectrum of information samples. A decentralized team of several information developers operating within an agile process cannot afford the time or resource to assess broader competitive trends or develop reliable customer-based evaluation methodologies. And best practices developed in one LEAN team are not likely to be replicated across similar decentralized teams without the oversight of a project manager responsible for quality practices across the networked organization.
To gain this broad-based view of quality, project managers at the micro team level must coordinate to share best practices, and set and measure quality standards, or a project management role can be established with cross-team responsibility and oversight specific to quality standards, practices, and assessment. Such a role includes management processes for defect identification and for establishing and measuring indicators of customer satisfaction.
In the newest revision to ISO standard 26511: Systems and software engineering — Requirements for managers of information for users of systems, software, and services, the project manager has clearly defined responsibilities related to the delivery of quality communication products, regardless of the process or organizational structures in place. Small, lean, decentralized, or agile does not change the fundamental requirement to produce quality documentation, and to do so requires standards, metrics, and a process proven to produce communication that meets or exceeds those standards, both for defects and customer satisfaction.
As expected, the revised ISO standard continues to require a base set of metrics to be used across an organization for all projects, and a documentation plan that includes the metrics to be used and the data to be collected, at the outset of any given project. The standard emphasizes that measuring quality and customer satisfaction is essential to continuous improvement of the documentation and underlying process. Collecting and analyzing measurements over time also enables the project manager to use trend analysis to substantiate and quantify improvements in documentation, as well as identify problem areas that need correction or remediation. Instances of especially successful documentation, as well as successful process approaches, can be identified as best practices to be replicated across teams.
The revised ISO standard identifies five key roles for the project manager related to quality:
- Identify the set of metrics to be used to assess quality across projects, including defects and customer satisfaction.
- Ensure a process is in place as necessary to collect the specific measurements for each project.
- Use the measurements to correct defects and, through root-cause analysis, improve the documentation process.
- Where possible, use customer feedback to validate the measurements of quality and customer satisfaction.
- Strive to develop predictive metrics that can be measured in-process (during development) to take preventive action before content is delivered.
The last point warrants special focus as we think about the changing role of project managers in an agile, networked, or decentralized environment. Teams that form and re-form on demand have little historical data in common and yet will be held to an always increasing expectation of quality by the company or organization employing them. Higher productivity demands a better understanding of the process that will most efficiently lead to the best quality. A project manager with a broad view of process and practices, and access to historical data reflecting defect rates and customer satisfaction, can drive the development of metrics that can be predictive of quality or satisfaction when measured in-process (during development), so that preventive action can be taken before content is delivered.
A predictive measurement is one that is correlated over time with a given quality or satisfaction result. For example, a project manager might analyze poor customer satisfaction ratings of documentation over time and determine that a common process characteristic across those instances is a low number of subject-matter expert reviewers, or, in some cases, only a single technical review meeting. If no documentation with 10 or more SME reviewers and two or more technical reviews has been found to have poor customer satisfaction ratings, this becomes a predictive, in-process measurement that should trigger preventive action before completing the information development cycle. That is, if a set of information has a review with only six SMEs and only one technical review meeting, then the process should require a second review meeting or additional SME reviews before the documentation is completed for delivery.
As another example, a project manager might analyze poor customer satisfaction ratings of English-language documentation over time and determine that a common characteristic across those “poor” instances is a measurement of 50 or fewer on an automated syntax tool used to assess clarity of text for translation. Perhaps the recommendations from this tool were not required to be addressed for documentation known to be shipping in English-only. However, based on customer satisfaction analysis and correlation, this rating now becomes a useful predictor of quality and satisfaction even for English-only documentation, and a minimum rating can be added to the process as a criterion for passing the information development phase across any project.
Of course, the role of the project manager in identifying and correcting defects, in assessing and responding to customer satisfaction, and in constantly improving the development process based on defect and satisfaction metrics remains critical and core to the success of any technical and professional communication project. Though team structures and process definitions change, the need to deliver quality communication remains constant.
About the Authors
JoAnn Hackos is President Emeritus of Comtech Services, a content-management firm based in Denver she founded in 1978, and Director Emeritus of the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM), an organization focused on management best practices. For more than 40 years, Dr. Hackos has worked with information developers and managers worldwide on strategies for content management, customer studies, information architecture, and tools and technology selection. She has authored or co-authored eight books and is a Fellow and Past President of the STC. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Fisher has 30 years of experience in Silicon Valley as an IBM executive for Information Development, an instructor in the management certificate program at UC Santa Cruz Extension, and a judge in STC’s Northern California publications competition. She is an STC Fellow, chaired STC’s Quality SIG, and served on STC’s international Board of Directors. She now lives on Maui, volunteering for the local business community through Maui Business Brainstormers.
Manuscript received 27 August 2017; revised 15 January 2018; accepted 12 February 2018.
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