Turning technical communications into a business asset, according to Sarah O’Keefe, is mainly about justifying cost; it is necessary, but possible. Her session at tekom12 was part of the Content Strategy stream, presented as last year by Scott Abel.
How expensive is your documentation – really?
Much progress in a tech comm department gets stumped when we, the tech writers, say: “Ah, that’d be great – but they’ll never pay for it!” What that really means is: “‘They’ don’t see the value (or the urgency).” So to prove the value behind tech comm, we need to justify how we can either save money (by reducing effort) or how we can generate additional revenue (by producing value that exceeds our cost).
Sarah points out several way to do this:
- Show how tech comm can address legal or regulatory issues. Avoiding lawsuits is a great way to save your employer’s money!
- Control the real cost of tech comm, because “cheap can be very expensive”: Yes, you may get something akin to documentation from a secretary or an intern, but…
- Is your documentation efficient to maintain?
- Does it scale or allow publication in other formats?
- Does it actually satisfy your customers and support your brand – or does it stab your corporate value statement in the back?
Cost containment strategies
Sarah mentioned several strategies to control documentation cost.
The first bunch has to do with efficient content development:
- Reuse as much content as possible: Write once, use many times, either in different places of the same format or in different output formats.
- Automate formatting: Manually handcrafted formatting of deliverables can be a huge cost factor. It’s not uncommon for tech writers to spend 20% of their time (and hence a sizable chunk of money) on formatting output. Automate this, by relegating format either to templates or CSS.
- Localization scales content efficiencies: Localizing or translating your content will be all the more inefficient, the more inefficiencies you have in your original documentation processes. This applies to content reuse, inefficient content variants and formatting.
Then there’s cost reduction outside of the tech comm team, for example, in tech support:
- Consider whether your documentation is good enough to deflect the maximum possible number of support calls. Anything that users cannot find in the documentation, whether it’s missing or unfindable, drives up costs for your tech support staff.
- Ensure your tech support staff has access to your documentation in formats they can work with efficiently. Downloading and then opening a document of 10 or 20 MB, is not only clumsy in its own right, it’s also likely that it doesn’t present the required information in the most efficient way…
- Ensure your documentation content is actually useful to tech support staff: It must not only be accurate, but also up-to-date. Consider the nightmare in terms of costs and maintenance if tech support spun off their own documentation to augment the “official documentation”. Instead, invite them to contribute to the documentation you create.
Make documentation more strategic
Then there are a few strategies to make documentation more strategic, or rather, more strategically valuable:
- Ensure your documentation is not only searchable (so it’s captured by publicly accessible search engines), but also findable (so people know where and how to get to it) and discoverable (so people link to it, from blogs or forums or twitter or the like).
- Align tech comm to larger business goals: Find a corporate goal, preferable one that is tied to revenue to be made or cost to be avoided and show: If the tech comm team did this, it could contribute approximately that much money (in savings or additional revenue) to that larger corporate goal.
Sarah’s talk was geared towards the strategic angle of tech comm, but succeeded in making valuable points very clearly. Whether you can actually apply her advice in your situation may depend on how much managers with budget control feel the pain of improving tech comm.