Why you need a tech comm mission statement

A mission statement for technical communication can help everyone in your company (or you and your customers) to stay on track in pursuit of a common goal of what your documentation can and should achieve.

Just like a corporate mission statement, a tech comm mission gives all parties who are involved with documentation direction and a common goal. It describes the purpose and benefit of the documentation and how it is achieved. It helps to define processes for creating the documentation as well as metrics whether the documentation is successful. If the mission is well-conceived, it guides documentation strategy without prescribing it.

For example, if you want to focus on usability and speed, a mission for your documentation could be: “Our product help answers any user question about product use in no more than three mouse-clicks.” Your strategy would then aim for a well-structured, easily navigable context-sensitive online help – with printed user manuals and closely tied in training materials taking a backseat.

A more comprehensive mission could be: “Our product help provides users with relevant product information at the right time in the right format.” This would set you on a quest to find out who your user types are, which product information is relevant for them and which formats it can be provided efficiently.

A mission statement in itself cannot be right or wrong. But it must be useful in several respects. Specifically, it must help:

  • Your customers and users by guiding you to provide useful documentation.
  • Your company externally to provide documentation which improves the perceived product quality.
  • Your company internally to anchor the importance and function of documentation.
  • You as technical communicators to make appropriate strategic decisions about documentation, for example, which users to address, which deliverables and processes to define, which methods and tools to apply.

What do you think? Is a mission statement for tech comm necessary? Or merely helpful? Or a vain attempt at putting on corporate airs when the writers should just buckle down and get the job done?

(Edit: The discussion continues in “Getting mileage from a tech comm mission statement“…)

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10 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, Kai. Some really good ideas.

    I wouldn’t say that a tech comm mission statement is necessary, since I’ve managed to muddle through 30-plus years without one. But I agree that it would be helpful, particularly for focusing the attention of the tech writing staff and for demonstrating your value within the rest of the company.

    Of the two examples you gave I prefer the second one: “Our product help provides users with relevant product information at the right time in the right format.” Although it’s a bit wordy for a mission statement, it captures the right ideas. (IMO the first example is too tactical, especially in that it mentions mouse clicks — something that won’t make sense in a couple of years when we’re all writing documentation for tablets and smartphones.)

    It looks like you’re seeking advice on whether to craft a mission statement for your team. I’d say go for it — IF both management and rank-and-file will commit to taking it seriously. If it’s just going to be stuffed into a drawer (or taped up on the break-room refrigerator) then no, I wouldn’t bother. Hope that helps.

    • Thanks, Larry, for your comment. I guess it depends on your situation whether you really need a tech comm mission statement. If the objective for your documentation is clear to all stakeholders, it’s probably less necessary. I’ve found it especially helpful when embarking on a major project to change documentation processes.

      And I guess you’re right, that first example is too tactical, too concrete what with the three mouse clicks. 🙂

  2. Writers should just buckle down and get the job done. There is a lot to do. Always. But…

    This is probably exactly where a mission statement, or whatever someone wants to call it, could be valuable. The buckling-down writers are like hamsters caught in a hamster wheel. They never go anywhere – fast.

    By stopping for a moment and reflecting on where they are going, they could sketch out plans and strategies for the here-and-now and for the future.

    Reflecting on past jobs or discussion groups where I have seen (or read about) hamster writers or been a hamster writer myself, I think the worst thing to say is “let me just finish this and then I’ll make some plans”. That never happens. And that is what keeps them bent over their computers non-stop.

    I really think a mission statement, as you describe it, can 1) provide a bit more focus for the writer, 2) help raise awareness in the company – especially for the Lone Writer, and 3) get them off the hamster wheel.

    • Thanks, Karen, I hadn’t even thought of the hamster wheel scenario. For such writers, a mission statement could be a first anchor from which more plans could be derived. Unfortunately, it takes quite some time to hammer out first the mission, then the strategy, then further plans – but maybe the mission alone can provide enough leverage with management to make it easier to do the next steps as well.

  3. I think a mission statement, like your second one, would be valuable in keeping both the tech comm team and the rest of the company on track and focused on WHAT you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to achieve it. For example, with such a mission statement, it is easy to look at a request to do XX and see if it matches your goal. If it doesn’t, you either need to change your goal, or you politely refuse the request to do XX as it won’t help you achieve that goal.

    For that reason, it shouldn’t be too prescriptive (which the first example is — that’s more a set of metrics, than a goal), and should be amenable to review and change over time.

    I particularly like the focus of #2 on users, and how having such a goal would give you the opportunity to actually speak to/watch users to find out how they use the current doc set and how they may use it in the future. We often assume we know what users want (I’ve been guilty of that!), but we don’t often ask them or watch them using our doco/product etc.

    Of course, the goal/mission statement or whatever you want to call it, needs to be signed off by not only the tech comm team, but also others further up the corporate hierarchy. Once signed off, it becomes a mandate for you to undertake activities that relate to that goal. And may just get you/your team off the hamster wheel! (Love that analogy, Karen!)

    • Thanks for your comment, Rhonda!

      Indeed, I have seen a tech comm mission statement like #2 have the effect you describe. But it seems to take some getting used to: When a request on documentation was denied because it didn’t fit the mission, there was a bit of a shock of recognition: “Oh, they ARE serious about it…” 🙂

      Thanks for tying the mission to the user survey. It seems when done right and done first, a mission can be an anchor for a lot of strategic moves, from surveys to deliverables and process definitions!

      And you and Larry have convinced me that #1 is not really suitable. 🙂

  4. Great idea if it helps to prevent the inherent bias against the “non-technical” technical writer by the “technical” others such as the developers and testers.

    • Hi, Vishnu,

      thanks for your comment. I find a mission statement is even better to show managers that tech writers DO understand business and commercial accountability – and arguing for ROI is a still better way way to convince them. (I’ve seen developers and testers who don’t care a lot for mission statements, they just want to do their work, so tech writers on a “mission” don’t necessarily convince them we writers are technical.)

  5. […] For more about mission statements for tech comm, see my earlier post Why you need a tech comm mission statement. […]

  6. […] Why you need a tech comm mission statement, by Kai Weber. […]

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