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TechCom Case Study: Putting it All Together

by Pat Grabill

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I am not a techcom manager. I AM a teacher with 30 years experience managing high school (and some college) students in classroom situations. I have also been working as a technical writer for Precisely Write in Indianapolis, IN. So far, one of my largest projects at Precisely Write required me to write help files for medical software, edit other writers’ work, and help the project manager keep everyone on schedule. I also worked closely with software developers, because we did not even see the finished software product until almost all the Help files were completed. It was an interesting project and I learned a great deal. Both my classroom experiences and my writing experiences inspire me to address a situation that managers may face when attempting to incorporate a new enterprise into an already existing one. What follows are suggestions that may help.

Here’s the scenario:  You are a techcom manager who has just been informed by the boss that, due to budget constrictions, one department of the company will be shut down and its remaining employees transferred to your department. Those transferees might be engineers or software developers joining a group of writers—or vice-versa. Your assignment is to assist with the transition so it appears seamless.

Robert Slavin is an educational psychologist at Johns Hopkins University; he has done extensive work in teaching people how to build teams of individuals so that the teams are congenial, collegial, and profitable. Slavin cites what he calls “key teacher skills,” which I believe are also key management skills: PreparationAttentionClarityQuestioning,MonitoringFeedbackSummarizing, and Reflection (DiGiulio, 2004, 10). I would add one more: Rewarding.

If I were bringing in new people to an already existing group, I would begin by studying everything I could find about the strength, weaknesses, personalities, and interests of all the people who would be working together. One thing I know from putting together teams of students is that managers (whether in the classroom or in business) need to base teaming on the strengths of the participants and not on the weaknesses. Therefore, during the preparation step, I would identify each person’s strengths. I would access whatever personnel records are available—written evaluations, performance ratings, interviews—to determine each person’s business strengths. For example, as a teacher, I had many written evaluations and in-class observations. My evaluations always mentions “classroom management”  as one of my strengths. In non-teacher language, that means I started class on time, made sure my students were on task, and was very well organized. Two of my strengths: efficiency and organization. You’d put me on a team that would allow me to bring those strengths to the table. Everyone else can bring a different strength. The Preparation step is the most time-consuming, but I have found that good preparation reaps great rewards.

Once I knew the strengths of all the people in my group, I would begin a group orientation by teaming them. What I am suggesting is a method of organizing the department that smoothly integrates those employees who are new to the group. Once again, I consult Slavin for tips on teaming. I understand, of course, that putting adults into teams is not the same as placing students in teams. There are, however, some similarities:

  • The manager does the teaming. It is the manager who has studied the attributes of employees, so it must be the manager who decides how the teams are constituted.
  • Each team should consist of four to five members. Among those members should be an equal number of people who are new to the group, and people who have been with the group for a longer period of time.
  • Each team should be mixed as to strengths (determined earlier), gender, and ethnicity (Slavin, 1986, p.6). For example, when I team, I attempt to have an equal number of males and females, diverse ethnicity, and varying strengths.
  • Each team should remain together as a team for a period of four to eight weeks (or perhaps a bit longer, depending on the manager’s evaluation of how things are going and how often the teams meet and work together). The teams become mentor groups, where members serve as information sources and support one another.
  • At the end of the teaming period, the manager is encouraged to re-group members into new teams until each person has had a chance to meet and get to know every other person.

As I said previously, Preparation is key—and takes a bit of time.

Now what do you do once you have (at least on paper) organized your department members into teams. You FEED them!  One thing I’ve learned in teaching thousands of students over a 30-year period is that if you feed them, they will come. I’ve discussed more than one serious issue with my teams of students over homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Arrange a meeting of new and old department members, and invite them to join you in a relaxed space, preferably one with round tables. Instead of allowing them to sit wherever they like, have names at each place so that employees will sit where you want them to and with the people whom you have chosen to be on their teams. You don’t even have to call them teams. Call them groups. Call them genius groups. Call them techies. It doesn’t matter what you call them. It DOES matter that they group together. Have beverages available for them—coffee, tea, soft drinks—and whatever food you think is appropriate. Pay Attention to the details of teaming, and you will increase your chances of success.

With Clarity, explain the process for the meeting:

  • Tell the members that you have two or three tasks for them to perform together, one of which is to help them get to know each other better.
  • Then ask each person at the table to briefly interview the person immediately to his/her right. Have a few questions ready for them, such as (1) where is your home town? (2) how long have you been with the company? (3) what do you do for fun ? (4) what’s your favorite sport/sports team/movie/tv show (any or all of these). Each “interview” should take no more than 5-10 minutes.
  • When everyone is finished, each person at the table tells everyone else at the table something about the person they just interviewed.
  • Allow 30-45 minutes for this first step.
  • Upon completing this step, ask team members to introduce the person they interviewed to the rest of the people in the room. They should say the person’s name and something interesting about him/her.

After the initial food and “getting to know you” process, begin the Questioning portion. Ask each person in each team to respond—within the team—to a question which you have written about the company/the department/ the process of integrating new people into the department. Make it an important question and one to which people will be willing to respond and share their ideas and feelings.

Monitor the process. Move around the room from team to team. Listen carefully but DO NOT comment. Listen only. Make mental notes of interesting comments that you heard. You may want to write comments later, but do not write while you’re listening. Taking notes will usually make people speak less freely.

After another 30-45 minutes see how the conversation goes among teams. When conversation starts to lag, move to the next step: Feedback. Encourage as many people as possible to relate how their team members responded to the question you gave them, or ask each team to choose a spokesperson and report for the team. Use a whiteboard or a flip chart to write the comments of participants so everyone can determine that you correctly heard what they said to you.

When everyone has had a chance to comment and you have finished writing, Summarize what the group has said to you. Reflect—and ask for further comments—on what the group should do/discuss the next time you meet.

Before you send the members of the group back to their jobs, review the following:

  • Remind the people in the teams that this group is their home-base group, and they are to rely on the people in the group for answers to questions, etc. They are to mentor each other. Especially remind the people who are new to the department that there is no question too silly to ask.
  • Announce the time/place for the next gathering. It would be good to meet once a week?  Once every ten days?  Perhaps start in the morning with coffee and donuts and, once again, a department question about something that requires discussion. By the time you schedule the third meeting, you may want to ask participants to submit questions for discussion to you, and then you can choose from among their questions. These follow-up meetings don’t have to be lengthy.
  • After the initial teams meet for four-six weeks, change teams so that each person will have the opportunity to get to know most of the people in the department.

How much teaming you are able to implement depends on how large your department is and how much control you have over scheduling these meetings. I can tell you, however, that using teaming with my students raised student achievement considerably and also helped my students gain confidence in their abilities. My classroom became fully integrated using these methods.

Some final words about Rewarding. Even though I was well paid as a teacher and had good benefits, the rewards that meant—and still mean—the most to me were the praise and “thank you” comments I received from my supervisors, my students, and their parents. Even if monetary rewards and company bonuses are sometimes hard to come by in difficult economic times, it takes very little time for you as a manager to compliment an employee on a job well done. It takes only a moment to stop by someone’s desk and tell them “good job,” or to write a note and leave it in an employees mailbox or on his/her desk. As you work with your departmental teams, you, as a manager and monitor and mentor will know your employees better than you have before, and they will respond very positively to your leadership.

Works Consulted

DiGuilio, Robert C. Great Teaching: What Matters Most in Helping Students Succeed. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press, 2004.

Slavin, Robert E. Using Student Team Learning. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University, 1986.

About the Author

After 30 fulfilling years of teaching writing and literature, Pat got tired of grading papers but not tired of teaching. So, she began a second career as a technical writer at Precisely Write, Inc. in Indianapolis, IN. She has degrees from Purdue and Ball State Universities. She’s married, a mother of two, and a grandmother of two. In addition to her teaching and writing talents, Pat is also a painter (watercolor). She serves on the board of Indiana’s Watercolor Society, and on the board for the Storytelling Arts of Indiana. Pat is very active in her church, an avid reader, loves to travel, and is considered a notably good cook. To her literary credit, she’s had several articles published in professional journals, and, like most teachers of writing, she says she has more than one book outlined in her head that she just needs to get on paper when she finds the time.