Structured topics, taxonomies & lightning at #STC14

More than 600 technical communicators met for the annual STC Summit in Phoenix, AZ, to demonstrate and expand the many ways in which they add value for users, clients, and employers. In a series of posts, I describe my personal Summit highlights and insights that resonated with me.

The journey to structured topics

I’ve framed my presentation “From Unstructured Documentation to Structured Topics” as a journey to a fjord precipice: Daunting, but nothing you cannot achieve with a some planning and a little bit of confidence.

Concluding slide for my presentation on structured topics

The summary outline during Q&A, photo by @dccd.

In this “project walk-through mini-workshop”, I outlined how we can combine core tech comm proficiency, such as topic-based authoring, with content strategy and project management skills to master the migration to structured topics. The applied skills and the resulting content architecture can be a solid foundation for a full-blown future corporate content strategy that highlights technical communicators and their skills.

The engaged Q&A afterwards showed that the ideas resonated with the 80+ attendees. Many technical communicators are comfortable and well qualified to expand their topic-writing skills into information architectures and content modelling.

The trip to taxonomy

In her session “How to Create and Use a Functional Taxonomy“, Mollye Barrett told of a similar challenge: She was originally brought in to create the documentation for a highly customised implementation of financial software. When it became apparent that not just the software needed documentation, but also the workflows and processes which it was supposed to support, she wound up creating a taxonomy!

As she laid out her case study, Mollye showed how technical communicators’ core skills of task analysis and task-oriented documentation qualify them to create a taxonomy of business functions that maps a software’s functions to specific user tasks.

The project essentially consisted of explicating the company’s multi-faceted tacit knowledge and connecting all the pieces:

  • Create a consistent terminology by defining the standard financial terms in use.
  • Describe and classify the various functions of the software.
  • Identify and describe the users tasks which need documentation.

Mollye studied disparate, unstructured legacy documents, examined the software, and worked with specialists from the business and IT sides. Her main driver was her persistence to eliminate ambiguity, her goal to define clear terms – or put more simply: to create order out of chaos.

Lightning strikes twice

A popular staple of the STC Summit is the two lightning talk rounds, moderated with understated wit by Rhyne Armstrong.

Liz Herman drove forward the multi-skilled tech comm theme with multiple costume changes in her talk “Perfecting the Hat Trick, Why My Hair’s Messy“. She demonstrated how tech comm’ers don the hats, caps, and helmets of sailors, fire fighters, cowboys, football players, the Irish, something I’ve forgotten and many more in just five minutes:

Liz Herman wearing different hats

Liz Herman dons diferent hats, photo by @dccd.

And Viqui Dill showed us how to use social media right in “Social Media is not the Devil“, her rousing karaoke performance to the tune of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”:

Viqui Dill's karaoke lightning talk

Photo by @marciarjohnston.

 

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Skill map, wicked ambiguity & influence at #STC14

More than 600 technical communicators met for the annual STC Summit in Phoenix, AZ, to demonstrate and expand the many ways in which they add value for users, clients, and employers. It almost sounds like a non-theme for a conference, but that was a common impression I took away time and again, prompted by my personal selection of sessions, no doubt!

This thrust is actually very much in line with the STC’s revamped mission statement (scroll down a bit) which includes these objectives:

  • [Support] technical communication professionals to succeed in today’s workforce and to grow into related career fields
  • Define and publicize the economic contribution of technical communication practices […]
  • Technical communication training fosters in practitioners habits […] that underpin their ability to successfully perform in many fields

I’ll describe my personal Summit highlights and insights that resonated with me. For the mother of all STC Summit blogging, visit Sarah Maddox’ blog with a summary post which links to posts about no fewer than 10 individual sessions!

Connecting across silos with diverse skills

A good illustration for how easily tech comm skills and tasks connect with and seep into other job roles is Red Gate Software’s Technical Communication Skills Map. It appeared at least twice at the STC Summit: In STC CEO Chris Lyons’ opening remarks and again in Ben Woelk’s lightning talk.

Tech Comm skill map from Red Gate Software

Depending on a tech comm’ers talents and tasks, he can collaborate closely with – or develop into – a product manager or project manager, a UX specialist or tester.

Standing united against “wicked ambiguity”

Jonathon Colman, content strategist at Facebook, took a very high-level view of our profession’s challenges in his keynote address on Sunday evening. Technical communication that travels millions of miles on NASA’s Voyager or that must last thousands of years unites us against ambiguity – regardless of our different skills and various everyday tasks.

Jonathon Colman at TC14 keynote

Such ambiguity can become “wicked” in fields such as urban planning and climate change, because it makes the issue to be described hard to define and hard to fix with limited time and resources. The solutions, such as they exist, are expensive and hard to scope and to test. Still we must at least attempt to describe a solution, for example, for nuclear waste: Tech comm must warn people to avoid any contact in a message that is recognizable and comprehensible for at least 10,000 years.

Jonathon ended on the hopeful note that tech comm’ers can acknowledge wicked ambiguity, unite against it, race towards it, embrace it – and try the best we can.

Wielding the informal power of influence

Skills are not always enough to connect us tech comm’ers successfully with other teams and departments. Sometimes, adverse objectives or incentives get in the way. Then we need to wield the informal power of influence. Kevin Lim from Google showed us how with witty, dry understatement – a poignant exercise of persuasion without resorting to rhetorical pyrotechnics.

Kevin Lim on Influence Strategies

Influence, Kevin explained, is the “dark matter of project management” that allows us to gain cooperation with others. We can acquire this informal power by authentically engaging colleagues with our skills and practices. (The “authenticity” is important to distinguish influence from sheer manipulation.) To optimize our chances for successful influence, we need to align our engagement with the company culture, a corporate strategy, and the objectives of key people, esp. project managers and our boss.

Put everything under a common goal and engage: “Don’t have lunch by yourself. Bad writer, bad!” – appropriate advice for the Summit, too!

– Watch this space for more STC14 coverage coming soon!

Pattern recognition for tech comm as STC webinar

If you’ve missed my session on “Pattern Recognition for Technical Communicators” at the STC Summit in Chicago, you now have another chance: On Wednesday, 8 August at 1 pm EDT / 7 pm CEST, I’ll be presenting the session as a live webinar.

Session abstract

Pattern recognition is an essential mental strategy for acquiring and disseminating knowledge, though most of us are not aware of it. When applied consciously, technical communicators can employ pattern recognition processes to develop effective documentation more efficiently and help readers orient themselves.

Learn what pattern recognition is and how it works, what pattern recognition strategies you may already be employing without even knowing it, and how you can employe those strategies to efficiently acquire information, structure documentation, and support users to:

  • Make sense of new subject matter
  • Start to build new documentation
  • Design and structure documentation
  • Support users efficiently

What attendees said

Attendees at the STC Summit came away with these insights (according to session evaluations):

  • “Pattern recognition can help chunk topics, find reuse opportunities, & help your reader navigate.”
  • “The session confirmed what I believe is needed, in that users want to know what to expect in each chapter, or book, that that is done by applying pattern recognition. I just didn’t have a term for it before.”
  • “Classifying TOC as top down, search/index as bottom up, combining the two to find a balanced form of communication.”

Sign up

You can sign up for the webinar at the STC web site. See you on the 8th! (Well, not really – but we’ll be able to hear each other… 🙂 )

P.S. This will be my second webinar – and I’ll be sure to take the lessons and suggestions from my first one to heart!

What is a global tech comm association?

As our tech comm jobs are getting more and more global in scope and reach, it seems professional associations haven’t quite kept up with the times.

I’m a tech writer working in Germany for a Danish software company. I write in English for customers across Europe, North America, and other places. And it’s been difficult to find a professional association that represents my interests.

The options

tekom logotekom, the German association, has a regional chapter which regularly meets in my hometown. I attended several events, but found few fellow tech writers who documented software, let alone did so in English. Heavy machinery, yes. Industrial part catalogues, yes. But it’s been years since I’ve worked in German, and I’ve never written a standardized warning for life and limb. I just didn’t find I had much in common with my German colleagues. The tekom/tcworld conference does have “Associations World” where other organizations exhibit, ISTC among them, but not STC, if I remember correctly.

STC logoSTC, the American association, has as one of its goals to “promote STC as the global leader in technical communication”. But it has only 3 chapters in Europe, none in Germany, and has limited offerings and hamstrung operations for Europeans. See the discussion in the STC’s blog for details. (To its credit, the STC has sent out strong signals at last months’ summit that it understands these issues and will work to improve the situation!) At the STC Summit, I didn’t see any mention of other associations, though two tekom officials were present.

ISTC logoISTC, the British association, has a large share of people in software, and most of its members work in English, so that suits me well. It was actually coincidence that theirs was the first door I knocked on, and they welcomed me warmly, both at their conference and as a contributor to their quarterly magazine. So joined ISTC, even though it’s not present in the two countries I work. At the TCUK conference, I don’t think I saw any mention of other associations.

A modest proposal

In my opinion, there is no global tech comm association at the moment. Some are global leaders, but I don’t think any one is the global leader.

And that’s probably fine: While our scope and our customers become more and more global, we still lead local lives. Most of us have very few locales where we work long stretches at a time. That’s where we want to meet other tech comm’ers to network – or complain – over a beer, that’s where we look for jobs.

A federation of tech comm associations is my modest proposal: We probably don’t even need a global association, but existing ones should make it easier for its members to network, travel, and move. Maybe offer reduced event rates for members of other associations – as I know some of them already do.

I regularly meet with tech comm’ers in Denmark, and I look forward to visiting some in the US. The tech comm community is already international. And I think it’s time the associations also get along. Tech comm’ers do. Even their topics do! It’s the tech comm way.