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.

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Trends in technical communication 2010

Tech writers will branch out into related organizational and technological functions, according to the transcontinental webinar on “Technical Commmunication Trends for 2010 and Beyond“.

Sarah O’Keefe from Scriptorium, Ellis Pratt from Cherryleaf and Tony Self from HyperWrite gathered around a virtual crystal ball and shared six trends they’ve indentified.

I’ll summarize and comment on two of the trends that have resonated with me. The recording and slides are available on the web, so be sure to check out all six trends…

Shape an emotional user experience

Ellis sees that documentation will leave its detached attitude behind: Instead, it will be part of a more personable, emotional user experience that’s driven by mutual trust, community participation and brand loyalty. So documentation should be planned as part of a more holistic user experience. Look for docs going touchy-feely is what I was hearing.

I find that very fascinating and engaging – I’m just not sure I really see it. I’m all for making documentation trustworthy and engaging, to empower users and solicit their feedback. But unless you have somewhat homogenous user groups and know them very well, you might rub some of them the wrong way: What’s amiable to some is inappropriate to others.

Much also depends on context: If your product is hip, chime in with hip documentation, why not. But for many professional products, especially in regulated environments such as medicine or pharmacy, I’d rather play it straight to be taken seriously.

Include content curation

Sarah argues that documentation will include content curation, that is the evaluation, editing and incorporation of other people’s contents. As part of larger content strategy, tech writers get to deal with user-generated content and information by colleagues in a company where “everyone can write“. So in addition to producing content, tech writers also become gate-keepers, similar to a newspaper editor or a librarian.

Sarah added that you’ll still have to draw the line due to technology and regulations: You obviously can’t curate sources that are beyond your control (such as third-party blogs), and regulated industries may require you to keep official documentation and user contributions strictly separate.

I think Sarah’s hit on a good compromise between inviting community participation on the one hand, but retaining some (quality) control over the contents on the other hand. I believe such a curating role would make the available content more valuable by presenting it in context and by directing user attention – not unlike a museum curator does!

In fact, content curation is a good description for what I find myself doing frequently: Rather than creating contents from scratch, I collect and aggregate it, write up a nice label (like a wall text, so people know what they’re looking at) and in general make it presentable.

Your turn

What do you think? How do you see our role in the changing tech comm landscape? What does your crystal ball show? Please leave a comment.