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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9 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Kai. So “modern tech communicators” would break away from producing online help and manuals and do what exactly? Think of technically inclined users trying to install complex software. Wouldn’t they find a printed manual more helpful than a screencast?

    Context is key, and that’s where “customer experience” happens.

    Speaking of customers, let’s not forget that our co-workers also form part of our stakeholders. Our processes (SME interviews, UI reviews, etc.) help facilitate and clarify the company’s understanding of the product. We have a place in product development that’s not solely tied to the deliverables we create. That should secure us of our jobs even in an era of crowdsourced documentation.

    I’m for expanding our turf and skills set in interactive/social media especially as we see our users increasingly turn to such channels. This divide between “traditional” and “modern” though sounds a bit suspicious, especially since most of us breathe technology day in and out.

    • Thanks, Raymond. I agree that context should determine how tech comm can best support the user experience. And if a manual is the best medium given the context, I guess “modern” TCs would use that format, too. New isn’t good per se. But users in your example might also appreciate an interactive installation wizard that combines information, instruction, and installation routines.

      I think that a “TC as business” attitude can work well inside a company and outside: If you clearly define your services and how you interact with any stakeholders, in other words, if you market documentation well, you’ll also help internal stakeholders and the company as a whole.

      I guess the reason why the divide appealed to me is that I’ve seen tech writers who are serving the product more than the company or the customers and who carefully craft manuals that focus more on the product than on how to create useful user assistence efficiently.

  2. “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?”

    Neither. I see these trends as a way of RESISTING the movement to economize and commodify technical writing.

    I like how you’ve spotted the thread that’s common to all three. However, I agree with Raymond that the schism isn’t about media (new versus traditional). It’s about recognizing that the role of technical communication must change lest it become a mere commodity. Here are a few more thoughts on the subject.

    • Thanks, Larry, for setting me straight and pointing out how treating tech comm as a respectable, serious business is actually the opposite of commodifying it. Now that tech comm, a long neglected craft, has been dragged into the business realm, let’s make sure it’s taken for all it can be worth, for the sake of our companies, our customers and our careers.

  3. Hi Kai,

    I like how your self-described “mashup” ends up making me sound coherent. 🙂

  4. I know I’m late on commenting on this one, but I think that it’s a very interesting point and I’ve actually come back to read it again. I have very strong feelings on the schism in tech communication (old .vs new), and also where the future lies. So, I’d single that out as the one that rings most true for me.

    If tech communications becomes a business in its own right, whose to say that it will stay structurally the same as it is today, and even involve the same people?

    I think we’re going to see people who are ‘traditional writers’ moving into new areas, adapting skill sets, and collaborating with user experience designers, internet marketing staff, and other communications specialists in the business to engage with more of the whole brand lifecycle.

    Traditional Tech Writers usually envisage their work as almost a purely ‘post sales’ contribution, *if* and when someone clicks help or opens a manual. Before that it’s everyone else’s problem.

    I think that’s wrong and no one in the business should kick back and wait for the sale to complete before demonstrating their value add.

    As globalisation advances, we’re going to see service and content (pre and post sales) become brand differentiators. Organisations will be judged more on how they can communicate knowledge at every stage of the customer lifecycle – this will shove Tech Communicators out into new spotlights that I believe most aren’t even considering today.

    Couple that with social media (article of my thoughts on that here), and how many tech authors are trying to ignore it, and you get quite a severe schism indeed!

    • Thanks, Noz, for your comment. I believe that tech comm will change, is already changing – and that to position it as a business is one of the best things we writers can do to take charge ahd shape what our jobs will look like in the future, exactly for the reasons you mention!

  5. You describe the docs team as if it is a self-contained entity, disconnected from the larger group that includes training and support. No wonder such a setup would be ripe for the plucking.
    The future of our trade is “performance support,” which teams up the writers with other user resource teams, integrating content and ideas.
    Your false dichotomy between old-school and “modern” writers leaves me wondering what you’re smoking over there in Germany.

    • Thanks for your reply, John.

      Yes, in many companies I know in Germany and elsewhere, the documentation, training and support teams (still) operate as self-contained entities, more or less. In such cases, we tech writers often lead the efforts to move towards “performance support”, ahead of managers and senior executives.

      Note that I borrowed and adopted the distinction between “traditional” and “modern” tech writers from Sarah’s earlier post.

      I don’t smoke and never have, and neither do most tech writers I know in Germany. Maybe there’s a (ill-founded) cultural cliché that Germans smoke?

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