Is it about the manual – really?

How can tech comm regain agency in times of change? Imagine management decides to completely change the tech comm deliverables of your company because – it makes sense to them somehow. For example, to replace printed user manuals by iPads, as American Airlines recently got FAA approval to do. And the sense it made to them wasn’t necessarily about usability: One of the reasons given was to save $1.2 million – in fuel for flying around heavier manuals rather than lighter iPads. – Or insert your own hypothetical change of processes, tools and deliverables…

The meaning of change

What does such a change in deliverables mean for tech comm?

  • “Oh, no, another reorganization project…”
  • “Is this another shot at doing more with less?”
  • “Management has no clue how the documentation adds value to the product!”

All these reactions are legitimate, important and understandable. But they might not help us to change management’s mind, because broadly speaking we and they focus on different things:

  • We tech comm’ers focus on executing our processes and churning out good deliverables efficiently, as we should.
  • Management focuses on optimizing revenue and cash flow by changing corporate products and services, as they should.

It’s difficult to strike up a conversation if our main concern is merely a secondary factor for the other side.

It’s even more difficult if there’s not a level playing field, because we are the “change managees”, the object of change management – which is not always a pleasant experience.

So how can we regain agency in such times of change without looking like the luddite who wants to keep fiddling with layout and page breaks?

Adding tech comm meaning to change

The first important challenge is to find the meaning that’s really meaningful to managers – and nope, page breaks aren’t it. Even manuals aren’t it, if management is willing to can them. Manuals are just one way of delivering documentation – so we tech comm’ers hang our hearts on them at our own peril.

Unless manuals are the most effective and most efficient way to satisfied, productive customers, a company shouldn’t really have them – as long as it has something else which is at least as good and cheaper.

I follow a lead by Sarah O’Keefe, Ann Rockley and others who know more about tech comm-facing managers ticks than I do: We need to talk about money, either as revenue or cost. And customer satisfaction to the extent that it is tied to money:

  • The company can lose customers (= revenue).
  • Or it may find tech support calls (= cost) go up because customers need more hand-holding to get stuff to work.
  • Or it gets sued (= cost & damaged reputation), because it fails to provide legally required documentation!

These are all good reasons to insist on good, efficient documentation which requires tech comm professionals! However, they won’t mean that manuals are necessarily the deliverables of choice.

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