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.


One Response

  1. Hi Kai,

    This post definitely touches my sweet-spot in terms of interest and career focus. I advise clients to present ROI stories broken down as follows (part of this comes from a SWOT analysis, but I’m breaking out the bits of the taxonomy most relevant to this post):

    Benefits Vision & Competitive Landscape
    Opportunity – Revenue
    Opportunity – Efficiency

    I’m going to focus on the first two as I think you’ve covered the last two.

    Management come in various flavours. Some are motivated by the big picture (vision stuff) they don’t want details of any kind, they want to know what the “shape” of your offering is and how it compares to competitors’ approaches. Some managers focus on squeezing cost out of the system (efficiency) – typical penny-pinching CFO mentalities. They like to see numbers, and %s saved.

    I have to remind clients that not all managers care about efficiency. TechComms people tend to think of themselves as cost centres so they think of risk avoidance and savings as what they can offer to the business. TechComms however can deliver positive growth to the top-line, not just protection to the bottom line. Lots of companies do loads of content “donts” and get away with it. Customer experience is a holistic thing, so if you’re sufficiently strong on some points with your customers you can be weak on others and make enough money that no one in management cares. 5% horrifically angry customers are still just 5%. If that 5% isn’t growing, but your customer base *is* growing – rapidly – those 5% can just keep being angry as far as some managers are concerned. That type of cold level-headed, big-picture thinking is part of what made them managers. This is especially true for young, fast-growing companies who have to worry more about effectively managing their growth than fending off competition. TechComm’ers in market-leading companies need to be aware that “We’re wasting huge amounts of money” isn’t as motivational to all managers as you might think.

    I’m not saying not to include everything in your business case, but remember that not every manager is motivated by savings or efficiency or scared of waste. Those managers want to know “How will you enhance the brand so that the rate of revenue growth up tweaks up on the graph a few percent per quarter? Your answer will differ from situation to situation but the message is “our content can make our customers happier than they thought they could be” not only “our content can keep our customers from being unhappy and/or suing”.

    In terms of techcomm adding top-line value, I talked a bit about this here with the impact of embedded help: and also, when properly SEO’d, tech content can also help your products be found online and close sales more easily in pre-sales. This isn’t losing existing customers, but avoiding the loss of potential ones. Maybe you were thinking about point senses of “loss” in your comment above but I think it bares making explicit. Finally, tech content can enable cross-selling opportunities to existing customers if add-ons and upgrades are properly linked from tech content.

    In the end, this is about going not only from a content-centric mentality to a revenue-centric mentality, but from a cost-centre mentality to a profit-centre mentality.

    I’m think I’m going to generalise this comment for all kinds of content and blog it as I think this is not a TechComm specific issue.

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