Archive for January, 2009

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Intelligent Content 2009: Day One

January 30, 2009

I’m in Palm Springs attending Intelligent Content 2009, a very interesting conference hosted by The Rockley Group. The venue, Le Parker Meridien, is a very nice “boutique” hotel. The conference rooms are well set up and private, and the grounds are beautiful.

The conference started off with an introduction from Ann Rockley, whose company is the sponsor. Her objective is to provide a small, focused conference. To that end, her team worked with the speakers to make sure the talks were of high quality and focused on the objective. So far, most of what I have attended has done that. This entry will provide a few highlights from the first day of talks.

Salim Ismail gave the opening keynote. The question he addressed was “What makes content intelligent.” He defines intelligence as the ability to take patterns from one context and use them in another. In a sense, Intelligent Content boils down to the idea of using embedded information, along with information about the user (i.e., context), to deliver customized information. Although it wasn’t clear at that point, the rest of the day reinforced this as the central element of intelligent content.

Next up was Scott Abel, who provided examples, both good and bad, to illustrate the idea of intelligent content. His recent post on The Content Wrangler describes the “bad” in detail. Apple provided most of the “good” examples, with the central theme being that Apple uses all of the information available to the company about a customer to provide a personalized experience targeted at increasing sales. As always, Scott gave a spirited and informative talk.

This was followed by three parallel sessions. The first I attended described a system being developed for breastcancer.org, a site devoted to helping women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and their families. Derek Olson and Ron Daniel discovered some interesting, and not immediately intuitive, things about personalization. The central problem they faced was how to gather accurate information from each user so they could select the most applicable information for that particular person. The obstacle was that users often incorrectly characterize the state of their illness, which makes it difficult to give them the right information. They built a flexible taxonomy, which helped considerably, but in the end, the most useful help to users was input from other users, who independently devised a reasonably standard way of describing the critical factors about their situation in signature lines. This ad hoc metadata helped users help themselves. Overall, a nice example of user created design.

Rober Lee, of Symantec, gave an excellent talk about optimizing search results. Unlike standard SEO, which seems to be primarily aimed at drawing the maximum number of hits, his objective is to analyze search results to make sure users get good answers for their searches. Here are a couple of key points:

  • Look at search logs
  • Look for top search terms
  • Test those terms (and look for terms that yield no results)
  • Optimize content, then re-test

Optimizing content involves getting the right content for the right search terms. Suggestions for doing this include placing search terms in titles, in the first 100 words of content, and in the filename. One counter-intuitive point is that minimalist writing might not be the most effective way to get search engine hits. Repetitive text early in the content, what he called “stupid text,” helps with this, even though it offends the best instincts of tech writer. Overall, an excellent talk.

There were a couple of other talks, but I needed to duck out early, though I did leave a copy of Managing Writers to be used as a door prize during the evening festivities.

More to follow tomorrow.

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Rewards and Performance Evaluations

January 14, 2009

I just read a great article by Joel Spolsky, Thanks, No Thanks, at Inc.com. Spolsky examines the question of rewarding an employee for exceptional performance and finds it to be much more difficult than you would think at first blush.

There is a real dilemma to rewarding employees. If you don’t reward exceptional performance, you risk losing the employee, but if you do, pretty much everyone will be unhappy. The employee is likely to think the reward is smaller than he or she considers fair, and peers are likely to think it is too large or undeserved compared to their own performance. (That’s one reason companies tend to keep salaries and bonuses confidential).

There is a similar problem when it comes to performance evaluation. Most companies (at least the large ones) like to assign every employee a rating (you know, categories like: exceeds objectives, meets objectives, meets some objectives, and the dreaded needs improvement). However, unlike salaries and bonuses, when you rate employees, by definition you give them enough information to know where they stand.

For those in the top category there’s no problem, they are almost always happy. Those in the bottom category get a strong message, though it should be a message that is no surprise (if you are doing your job as a manager).

The problem is for everyone in between; at best their rating is a no-op, at worst, it is a strong de-motivator. Quite possibly, they will come away with the idea that they should have been rated higher. It’s also likely they will have no clear idea of how to improve their rating (you can give them all sorts of suggestions, but they will know they’ve got to claw their way past at least some of the folks in the higher categories, so just doing better is not a guarantee of a higher rating).

To make things worse, most companies severely restrict the number of people you can put in that top category. Therefore, as many as 90% of your team may live in limbo between the top and bottom.

I discussed this problem in one of the most troublesome to write chapters in Managing Writers. This chapter was previewed in a four part posting (The full chapter begins here, but Part 4 is where I discuss the pathologies of rating and ranking; beware that this particular chapter was significantly re-written between the preview and the book, but the section on problems with rating and ranking is still pertinent).

However, don’t expect too much from the book or from Spolsky’s excellent article; the truth is that rewarding employees, whether through bonuses or the normal PE process, is one of those intractable problems that you really can’t fully solve. You will sometimes over-reward and sometimes under-reward (there is no “perfect” reward; read Spolsky’s article if you don’t believe that), and whichever you do, you will make someone unhappy. The best you can do is strive for fairness and avoid placing too much emphasis on external rewards; you will be much better off in the long run if your team is internally motivated.

Shameless plug: the Performance Evaluation chapter in Managing Writers goes into this topic in depth and is much improved over the previewed version.

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Managing Writers Published

January 7, 2009

Managing Writers is complete and is now available through the XML Press E-Store or Amazon.com. You can find information about the book and links to purchase a copy here.

I’m pleased with the result and hope it will be interesting and useful.

Thanks to everyone who posted comments on this blog while I was working on the book, I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

Now that the book is complete, I plan to turn this into a more traditional blog, covering a variety of topics of interest. That said, I will continue to post news about future publishing ventures.