2011 megatrend in technical communications

I think this year’s megatrend for technical communicators and their managers, especially employed ones, is to position tech comm as a business in its own right – or to be redundant in the long run.

This is my conclusion after thinking about three astute predictions that Sarah O’Keefe recently blogged about.

– I know: I’m late to the predictions party. And I’m actually not very good at crystal ball gazing. I’m much better at reconfiguring what I find. So my contributions are comments and some additional reasons why I think Sarah’s right.

Three sides of the same coin

If you’ve read Sarah’s post, I’ll just remind you of the headings of her predictions:

  • A schism in tech comm (traditional vs. modern tech comm)
  • The age of accountability
  • Increased focus on business value

If that doesn’t ring a bell, head on over and read her post, I’ll wait… 🙂

I think Sarah’s predictions are really three sides (?) of the same coin. And I’d be surprised to see a documentation team experience only one of them.

Business value

The lackluster attitude about documentation of “No one reads it, but you gotta have it” has been widely replaced by close scrutiny of its value add and ROI. I’ve recently seen a doc team’s initiative that had to present the same business case, including cost saved and break even, as any other internal initiative that wanted to spend some money. But more is at stake for us writers than playing the numbers game with managers and bean counters.

The question is how the tech comm team is perceived: As a cost center or as contributing to the corporate assets. The latter is of course more desirable and can only succeed when we break down departmental silos, when collaborate with other teams and become user advocates, see my earlier comment on Scriptorium’s blog.

Now take a step back and think of what that cost vs. asset question means to your job and your career outlook. To me, it’s awfully close to being seen as part of the problem or part of the solution…

Another reason why I think tech writers do well to consider and promote their business value is…

Accountability

Sarah’s second prediction follows directly from attention to business value: Once a company expects ROI from documentation, it will want to monitor the output. And that means to hold the documentation team accountable, not by measuring the quantity of produced stuff, but by measuring the quality of useful assets that have been efficiently produced. (It’ s worth keeping in mind the difference between accountability and responsibility; link courtesy of Jurgen Appelo and his presentation on authority and delegation.)

In the metrics, you may have some leverage: If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll find it’s awfully hard to come up with reliable metrics for documentation quality. The good news is that your managers will usually find it even harder. That’s a chance for you to apply some “Top strategies to embrace cost metrics” .

If you’re alert and on top of your game, you’ll find you have some agency in how you’re measured. It won’t always be your choice alone, but to a certain extent, you can choose sides in…

The schism in tech communication

The distinction looks crude, but I’ve found that many technical writers fall into one of the two camps that Sarah has identified:

  • “Traditional tech writers” who produce communication deliverables, such as user manuals and online help.
  • “Modern tech communicators” who provide user assistance services as part of the customer experience.

Note that this distinction has nothing to do with quality! I know very diligent, highly qualified people in both groups, and I’ve seen sloppy work in conventional manuals and modern screencasts.

I believe how that schism plays out for each writer in a team has a lot to do with the accountability of the documentation team, the responsibility of the team members and the dynamics between the members: Ideally, both types complement each other – and can show management that they are strong and agile because of their complementary strengths.

Now what?

Okay, so treating your documentation as a business before everybody else does sounds reasonable. For specific next steps, may I recommend the slides from my TCUK presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer” and my other blog posts for lone writers. Even if you’re not a lone writer, you’ll find many ideas also apply to documentation teams.

Your turn

What do you think? Are these trends part of a larger movement to economize and commodify technical writing? Or is it nothing new, not worth beating a dead horse over? Please leave a comment.

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