Top 3 reasons to attend Congility 2011

Relevant topics, great speakers and a price that’s hard to beat (for at least one person) make Congility 2011 a great conference to attend.

Conferences are a great way to keep in touch with fellow tech communicators, content strategists, UX experts, e-learning pros and user assistance speecialists – as I’ve pointed out before.

Congility 2011

One conference worth going to this year is Congility 2011. Here are just a few of the talks which will be good and worthwhile. (I’m fairly certain because I’ve heard the speakers on related topics before, and am convinced they know what they’re doing.)

Other talks I’m curious to hear are:

Bad news and good news

The bad news about Congility is that I won’t be able to go – they won’t hold up the production cycle for the writer to attend a conference, and the deadline looms. 😦

The good news is I can give away

one free conference ticket (valued at 495 GBP) and
a 20% discount for everyone else

Thanks go to the newly joined conference sponsors who make this new last-minute offer possible. Here are the details:

Congility 2011, May 24-26, just outside London, England, is for content professionals looking to advance their organisation’s goals with better content strategy, management and process. It is the only European platform bringing together such a diversity of content experts and learning opportunities under one roof. Learn from ‘The Mother of Content Management’, Ann Rockley, renowned content strategist Rahel Bailie, and case studies from eBay, Nokia, AMD, IBM, AGFA and more.

As part of an arrangement with this blog, you could attend completely free, by taking advantage of this unique discount code. The first person to use the code below will be given access to the conference (but not workshops) at no cost to them besides travel and expenses. Everyone else who uses the code will be entitled to the 20% discount*:

KAWCA11BLG20SD

* If you can’t go even at 20% discount, you can cancel your registration without commitment or penalty.

How to convince managers of topic-based authoring, part 2

To get managers behind a migration to topic-based authoring (TBA), focus on benefits and savings. This is the last post in a two-part series. Find the beginning and background in part 1.

I present the speaker notes and explanations instead of the actual slides which only contain the phrases in bold below.

Benefits and challenges for writers

Make documentation efficient. For technical writers, the structure within topics and across all topics makes writing topics more efficient because you spend less time stressing over what goes where and over layout.

Make documentation transparent. The structure of the topics collection as a whole makes content more transparent: It’s easier to spot a missing topic, if each setup procedure (how to set up stuff) is accompanied by an operating procedure (how to use what you’ve just set up) and by a concept topic (what is that stuff you’ll set up and operate). Thanks to their structure and smaller units, documentation efforts also become easier to estimate – though maybe more tedious to report on in their details.

Collaborate more easily. The structure also makes it easier and faster for writers to collaborate on writing, reviewing and editing each other’s topics, again, because it’s quickly obvious what belongs (or is still missing) where.

Assume new tasks and responsibilities. Challenges for writers are learning a whole new range of tasks and responsibilities, from “chunking” subjects into topics and making sure there is one (main) topic for each subject to interfacing nicely with the topics of colleagues to peer-editing other people’s topics. On the other hand, most writers no longer have to double as layouters and publishers, since that role is usually in the hands of a few people.

Migrating legacy content. Another challenge is, of course, to migrate all existing contents into topics. However, this is a one-time effort, while the benefits of clearly structured topics keep paying off.

Benefits and challenges for companies

Of course, the benefits and challenges for writers affect the company as a whole. But there are additional effects to the company owning topic-based documentation.

Leverage corporate content. Cleanly structured (and tagged) content in topics is much easier to leverage as part of a corporate content strategy. (Did I mention this was a presentation for managers? Hence the verb “to leverage”…) After all, there are other teams who may well hold stakes in some documentation topics or parts of them:

  • Product management or even Marketing may want to reuse parts of concept topics, such as use cases.
  • Training could reuse procedural topics.
  • Quickly searchable documentation can improve customer services – or any type of performance support your company may offer.

Make recruitment more efficient. Clearly structured, topic-based documentation will make it easier on a company to find and hire professional, qualified technical writers – and help new writers get up to speed faster.

Savings from topic-based authoring

Your mileage will vary, depending on your current deliverables, processes and tools. However, from the case studies I’ve seen around the web and at conferences, our numbers are not unusual. Savings are in hours for writers who apply topic-based authoring compared to their earlier efforts without TBA.

  • Writing Release Notes as usual – saving 0%
  • Writing Online Help, largely reusing Release Notes topics – saving 45-60%
  • Writing new User Manuals, by reusing some topics from Release Notes or Online Help – savings unknown
  • Updating existing User Manuals, by reusing Release Notes topics – saving 60-75%

Complementary information

To read more about measuring efforts and costs, see my previous posts about:

About topic-based authoring, I recommend these two books:

Your turn

Would these arguments convince your managers to support you in moving to topic-based authoring? What other arguments might it take? Should such an initiative to restructure documentation come from writers or managers? Please leave a comment.

How you can exploit the “Big Disconnect”

By way of consumers, web 2.0 and social media present a disruptive influence on corporate IT: Existing “systems of records” face challenges by new “systems of engagement”.

The thesis is by Geoffrey Moore in an AIIM white paper and presentation, and I’ve come across it by following some links in Sarah O’Keefe’s post “The technical communicator’s survival guide for 2011“. So once again, I find a great idea, summarize and apply it, instead of thinking up something wildly original myself. (Maybe not the worst skill for a tech writer, come to think of it… 🙂 )

Out-of-sync IT developments

Moore’s premise builds on out-of-sync advances of corporate vs. consumer IT:

  • Corporate IT developments recently focused on optimizing and consolidating otherwise mature, database-based “systems of record” which execute all kinds of transactions for finance, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, supply chain, etc.
  • Consumer IT, on the other hand, saw the snowballing improvements in access, bandwidth and mobile devices which have quickly pervaded ever more spheres of everyday culture.

“The Big Disconnect”

This imbalance leads to the pivotal insight of Moore’s analysis: As I read it, the disruptive influence on corporate IT occurs not through technologies or processes, but through people.

People are quick to adopt or reject or abandon new consumer IT tools and habits that cater to their needs. The same people feel hampered by corporate systems and workflows that seem unsuitable and obsolete. Moore calls it “The Big Disconnect”:

How can it be that
I am so powerful as a consumer
and so lame as an employee?

How consumer IT affects corporate IT

For the next 10 years, Moore expects that interactive, collaborative “systems of engagement” will influence and complement, though not necessarily replace traditional “systems of record”:

  • Old systems are data-centric, while new systems focus on users.
  • Old systems have data security figured out, new systems make privacy of user data a key concern.
  • Old systems ensure efficiency, new systems provide effectiveness in relationships.

For a full comparison of the two kinds of systems, see Moore’s presentation “A ‘Future History’ of Content Management“, esp. slides 10-12 and 16.

But does it hold water?

Moore’s analysis has convinced me. I used to think that corporate and consumer IT markets differ because requirements and purchase decisions are made differently. But this cannot do away with the “Big Disconnect” which I’ve seen time and again in myself and in colleagues. Personally, I know that this frustration is real and tangible.

Also, the development of wikis and their corporate adoption is a good case study of the principle that Moore describes. If you know of other examples, please leave a comment.

What does it mean to tech comm?

The “Big Disconnect” affects those of us in technical communications in corporate IT in several ways.

Tech writers write for disconnected corporate consumers. So we do well to integrate some of the features of “systems of engagement” that Moore describes:

  • Add useful tips & tricks to reference facts.
  • Provide discussion forums to complement authoritative documentation.
  • Ensure quick and easy access to accurate and complete documentation.

But technical communications can do one better by helping to ease the drawbacks of engaging systems:

  • Offer easy, comprehensive searches through disparate formats and sources.
  • Moderate forums and user-generated contents carefully to maintain high content standards and usability.

Tech writers are disconnected corporate consumers. So we can push for the improvement of the products and processes we describe or use.

  • On consumers’ behalf, we can advocate for improved usability and for documentation that is more efficient to use.
  • On our own behalf, we can insist to improve workflows that serve a system rather than us writers and our processes.
  • We can urge to replace help authoring systems that support only fragments of our documentation workflows with more efficient tools.

Our managers are also disconnected, most likely. So when we argue for any of the above disruptions, we can probably fall back on their experience when we have to justify them. We’ll still need good metrics and ROI calculations, though… 🙂

To read further…

The “Big Disconnect” and its effects connects nicely with a couple of related ideas:

Your turn

Does the Big Disconnect make sense to you – or is it just the mundane in clever packaging? Do you think it’s relevant for technical communications? How else can we tech writers exploit it? Please leave a comment.

Shift your perspective and learn

We tech writers can learn a lot from neighboring disciplines and from people in other professions who address similar issues as we do.

Today, I recommend a couple of recent blog posts that speak to technical writers, too.

For each post, I’ll first point out what it’s about and then explain why I find it relevant for technical communications.

So join me: Let’s shift our perspective and think outside the box for a moment. 🙂

3 Ways Document Collaboration is Becoming More Social

Joe Shepley predicts on CMSWire how writing and maintaining documents will change over the next two years or so. He’s not talking about tech comm documentation, but business documents in general. They will change as social collaboration tools help us flee the “clunky trinity of shared drives, hard drives and email”. In his words:

  1. Some documents will no longer be documents at all
  2. Some documents will no longer begin their lives as documents
  3. Some documents will remain documents throughout their lifecycle, but how they get created and shared will change

– Of course, tech writers have been thinking for years now about formats other than documents, hence the discussions about wikis for documentation and about content strategy. I find Joe’s arguments relevant for these insights:

  • Format should follow function. Choose the format that supports your content’s lifespan and frequency of change – and reader inclination, I would add for technical communications. Too often, I’ve had the format dictate how I write: I created Word documents, complete with title pages, table of contents and header and footer layout for internal communications. They would do just as well as wiki pages which are easier to create and modify, but still accountable thanks to history and rollback functions.
  • Format can be fluid. The content needs to be reliable throughout the lifecycle, but the format can actually change. Tom Johnson explores this idea in more detail in his recent post Forum → Wiki → Blog Workflow.

Stakeholder interviews for quality content: Why, who, and how

Kathy Hanbury explains on the E3 Content Strategy blog how stakeholder interviews are important as you embark on implementing your content strategy. I’m summarizing those of her points that I find especially worthwhile:

  • Interview stakeholders to establish credibility, to identify patterns and structures, and to find discrepancies and gaps
  • Interview stakeholders who know the customers, the technology and the subject matter
  • When you interview, be respectful of time, carefully craft your questions and take good notes

– For technical writers, interviewing developers or engineers, subject matter experts, as well as customers is an important skill. I appreciate Kathy’s post as a reminder of several points that I sometimes forget:

  • Interviews are essential for quality and relevance of the documentation. And nothing can replace them, really, though customer surveys can come close if done well.
  • Interviews are about covering all bases. Depending on organizational structure, tech writers have easy access to developers, engineers or whatever department they are assigned to. But documentation has stakeholders in other teams, too, for example in product management, customer service and training. Interviews can help you to ensure that your documentation is useful and balanced by addressing not only how the system works, but also how to use it efficiently and what it was designed to do.

Your turn

To learn more from neighboring disciplines, see my post about “What tech writers can learn from UX designers“.

If you have picked up insights or lessons from other disciplines, feel free to leave comment!

Welcome to summer reruns, part 2

My blog and I are taking it a little easier towards the end of the summer.

I’ve had a wonderful time with this blog so far, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, lurking or commenting. I’ve learned a lot from your comments, and I appreciate your support! It’s been a warm summer’s breeze… 🙂

As we’re gearing up for the new season, here are some reruns from the last year or so.

Popular posts from my blog

Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system

This is one of my two most popular posts by far where I draw a parallel to a department store or a library to illustrate how customers want to navigate each one.

Reality check: Writing for scannability and localization

What happens if our nobel attempts at clear topic structures and parallel sentence structures meet head on with unsuspecting readers?

Portable apps for tech writers

This is the first post in a four-part series where I recommend free and (mostly) light-weight applications that can help any tech writer in his daily tasks.

Noteworthy posts from elsewhere

If you want to get an introduction into content strategy, I think, you could do a lot worse than reading these excellent posts:

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy

Content Lifecycle

The extraordinary world of content strategists

The last two posts are beginnings of series, so be sure to follow the links at the end of each.

Welcome to summer reruns, part 1

My blog and I are taking it a little easier towards the end of the summer.

I’ve had a wonderful time with this blog so far, and I thank each and every one of you for reading, lurking or commenting. I’ve learned a lot from your comments, and I appreciate your support! It’s been a walk on the beach… 🙂

As we’re gearing up for the new season, here are some reruns from the last year or so.

Popular posts from my blog

Trends in technical communication 2010

This is one of my two most popular posts by far. With the help of several readers, we’re commenting on and discussing two trends from a Scriptorium webinar “Technical Commmunication Trends for 2010 and Beyond”. Sarah O’Keefe predicts that it will include content curation. And Ellis Pratt proposes that technical communications will soon also shape an emotional user experience. Incidentally, Ellis will speak on the same topic at TCUK, so go see him, if you have a chance!

Making it as a lone writer

This is the first post in a small series where I share lessons learned and best practices how lone writers can get ahead. Incidentally, I will speak on the same topic at TCUK, so come see me, if you have a chance!

Reading outside the tech writing box

I’ve found that reading helps my writing, even off-topic reading. Technology journalism works especially well for me. I share my favorite magazines and anthologies and link to five articles that you can read online.

Noteworthy posts from elsewhere

Speaking of reading around. If you want to read up on neighboring disciplines, I recommend these three excellent posts:

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Content Strategy

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture

Standardized Approaches to Usability