Documentation teams and company mergers at STC Summit 2013
This week I’m attending STC Summit 2013, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I’ll blog about the sessions I attend, and give you some links to other news I hear about too. You’ll find my posts under the tag stc13 on this blog.
Kirsty Taylor’s presentation has an intriguing title: And Then There Was One … Documentation Team. Her team of technical communicators has recently undergone a company merger, and the documentation team has merged with another global team. Kirsty will tell us how to keep our sanity under such circumstances, while looking at the aspects of “culture, standards, time differences, and multiple Englishes”.
Setting the scene
Two years ago, the company Kirsty worked for was bought by a huge conglomerate. The conglomerate then acquired another company, and merged Kirsty’s documentation team with the teams in the other company. They now work together as one team. The company is in the business-to-business area, in the mining and defence industries.
The content team consists of 21 people, over 3 continents, and 11 offices. Kirsty manages the Asia-Pacific region, which covers 5 time zones. Kirsty’s team is also responsible for producing the classroom training materials for their consulting services.
In the last 5 years, there have been multiple acquisisions. The development and documentation team have been merged into one. It’s a distributed team, but with a central function and reporting structure.
This has involved aligning tools, standards, styles, responsibilities and roles. As technical writers come in from each organisation, they learn to use the standard tools. Their roles are aligned with the rest of the team.
One of the really strong things about the team is that they strive for consensus. There’s not always agreement, but there is consensus.
Mincom was added in 2010
This was the largest acquisition to date, in terms of merging of tech comm teams – there were 9 technical writers at Mincom. At first, the two R&D groups worked independently.
Technical writers are inherently curious people. So Kirsty and the other writers from both teams found each other and started talking and comparing notes. The structures and development team were still silos.
There have been many changes at top-management level too.
At the end of 2013, the R&D teams started working together. The technical writing team are still the teams who work most closely together. In March this ear, the VP of Quality Operations started, and the technical writers became part of the QO area.
Kirsty says that this was not like a takeover. It’s a much more collaborative environment, where they’re working together to decide how to move forward.
When the merger finally happened, the brand had to change. Luckily it was just the logo that needed to change. Not much else.
The team decided to form a standards committee for online help. There were too many writers to include everyone in the meetings, so they decided to involve the key team members with clever ideas.
Quick wins and collaboration
They looked at the things they could do to improve collaboration and get quick wins early.
- Style and standards for online help. This can be tricky, because everyone feels passionately. People had just recently redefined their styles, and didn’t want to change again. The approach was “not to kill anyone’s babies”. Don’t enforce the standards unnecessarily. Be grateful that we’re working together
- Output format. They focused on this because they’d be able to show stakeholders they were working together.
- The aim was to start looking like one company, in terms of the documentation, and to show they’re working together as a team, even if not a single team.
- Knowledge and experience gained from earlier mergers and acquisitions. It was incredibly useful having people who had already gained skills in negotiating decisions.
Problems and challenges
There are some problems to tackle.
Time zones. Kirsty has one person in Perth, while most of the team are in Atlanta. The time difference is 12 hours. There are 21 individuals in the team. Some like/need to start early. Others want/need to start late and work late. This makes team meetings difficult. One trick is to shuffle the meeting times, so that it’s not always the same people who have to work early or late.
The Australian team is used to having the team get together and make a decision, then go back to their desks and make the change. Now it takes adaptation to make the decisions monthly via a standards committee.
It’s tempting to group and name things for the former region or company. But this can create division. Management needs to guard against this. Instead, create a sense of unity and team. Use the words “our team” and “we” frequently and by default. Foster and develop relationships between team members across the pond. Buddy up the technical writers. Make sure they have the facilities (WebEx accounts, for example) to work together.
The company is still consolidating the tools to be used. For example, at first they used GoToMeeting. Then that was no longer available, and they’ve tried Telkom, WebEx, Skype. All have their problems. You need special headsets, or Skype credits, and so on. These ongoing changes can cause problems that can upset team members.
Other important tools are those for content creation, publishing, eLearning, etc. What is standard in one office is not necessarily standard globally. This can cause confusion.
There are changes to content style and writing standards. For example, do you use US or Australian spelling, syntax and punctuation? The information architecture needs to be consolidated. Think about the voice of your content, and more.
Encouraging the team to collaborate
Kirsty mentioned the idea of a team-building exercise somewhere half way between Atlanta and Brisbane. Hawaii, for example! But she laughed and said this probably wouldn’t happen.
Hold a global team meeting. Use games to help people get to know each other, and slide with a photo and short bio.
Have some internal social networking, in a tool like Chatter. Encourage team discussions, share articles and blog posts, ask questions, and respond when others ask questions. They do have SharePoint too, but felt that Chatter is more collaborative.
Pair people on projects, as “buddies”. Be flexible. Allow people to work from home for early or late starts.
Within SharePoint, try a shared team task list. This was a great initiative from the US team. A team task list is a request list from any team member who may need help from another team member. People can ask for a review, or help with something specific like CSS. This is also a useful tool for managers to see when team members need help, or someone is regularly giving help.
The team needs some way of sharing ideas. Hold virtual brown bag sessions, via webinars and recorded sessions.
These are the main themes Kirsty has noticed so far:
- People. It’s all about change management and working on team relationships.
- Processes. When you’re aligning your processes, it’s a really good time to see why you’re doing something or not doing something. This can be really hard to justify.
- Collaboration. Focus always on co-operation and the fact that you’re one team.
This was an intriguing glimpse into the issues that arise when global teams are merged, and the creative solutions Kirsty and her team are putting in place. Thanks Kirsty!