Conversation V.I.P.s

Revisiting an old post over on the Cherryleaf blog, where Ellis was prompted to ask “Can technical authors be part of ‘the conversation’ in the connected Web 2.0 world that’s emerging?” (excuse the paraphrasing).

As a long-term blogger, and someone who believes that there are many tools in the Web 2.0 world that can and should be embraced by technical communicators, I immediately started thinking about this. It’s taken until now for me to distill my rambling thoughts into something coherent. Mainly because it’s a fairly open-ended topic, and because his post includes several questions:

  1. If we are going to be part of the conversation, will we be let in?
  2. What would make people do that?
  3. Once we are in the conversation how can we best add value to that conversation?
  4. Will engaging with a community in a social networking environment create a new and better way of providing user assistance?
  5. Will social networks create an opportunity for technical communicators to eavesdrop a conversation as well as take part of it?
  6. Will the rise of streaming websites both for audio and video such as YouTube enable technical communicators to be more viral in their efforts to provide effective user assistance?
  7. Will technical communicators see snippets of their technical information embedded in other people’s Web pages?
  8. Might the lines between technical support and technical authors start to cross over?

I left a comment on the Cherryleaf blog, which I’ll expand on here, but the jist was that I think Technical Communicators are (can be, should be) the social web of the workplace.

However, I guess we first need to understand what we mean when we refer to the “the conversation in the connected Web 2.0 world”. The fact that you are reading this blog suggests that you are already au fait with the Web 2.0 world, and are probably familiar with the popular commenting system most blogs have. That is one part of the conversation, a direct dialogue with the author and with others who have an opinion on the current topic. Now, take that conversation, expand it on your own blog, mention it in your Facebook, add a publically shared link to your del.icio.us account, or even link to it using Twitter… all of those expand the conversation by increasing the audience. There are other examples but you get the gist, the Web 2.0 world allows multiple discussions, centred around one conversation, to take place in different places, with different people and provides them ALL with a way to find out what everyone else is saying.

Needless to say, information is the key component of these discussions, and it is at this point that you realise just how valuable that information has become. Because information is now passed around, diluted, distilled and deconstructed, then rebuilt, reposted and reworked, in multiple places by multiple people with multiple aims, then the person who is central to that information becomes a V.I.P. indeed.

Whether we like it or not, our primary role SHOULD become information guardians. That will mean less writing, and more knowledge/information management and architecture. It will mean a shifting of skill sets towards new areas, where there is no best practise only gut feel, and the embracing of openness. Information will still need to be filtered, focussed and published, but once you’ve set it free, you’ll also need to nurture it as it develops. The delivery of information, naturally, becomes paramount.

We are the ONLY people (in the IT space) that can fill this role properly, and so getting a foot on the rung now will stand us in good stead. Embracing Web 2.0, and thinking about content rather than documents is a small step but a vital one.

So, let’s revisit those questions:

  1. If we are going to be part of the conversation, will we be let in?
    Why are we waiting for an invite? Perhaps the future of technical communications models itself on sales and marketing rather than the technical departments. If WE want this, WE need to grab it.
  2. What would make people do that?
    Convincing others of the growing value of information is paramount. Those that get it will embrace the change and happily let us push the conversation forward, those that don’t will flounder.
  3. Once we are in the conversation how can we best add value to that conversation?
    By monitoring it, gently tweaking it, and making sure it has a useful life, wherever it is. This may mean collaborating with your competitors, it may mean sourcing information externally, but as long as you remember that the conversation is a big value-add to the information, then you won’t go far wrong.
  4. Will engaging with a community in a social networking environment create a new and better way of providing user assistance?
    Yes. How can it not? Is it better to lock away your information, leave the users to stumble around for their own solutions and create a distrust of the information you provide, or be open, honest and provide assistance as and where needed, realising the value, power and benefits of having a thriving user community?
  5. Will social networks create an opportunity for technical communicators to eavesdrop a conversation as well as take part of it?
    Yes and no. Yes, you will be able to eavesdrop but I’d encourage that to only be used in the “monitoring” sense. Get involved, ask your own questions, post your own thoughts.
  6. Will the rise of streaming websites both for audio and video such as YouTube enable technical communicators to be more viral in their efforts to provide effective user assistance?
    Possibly. I would argue that information shouldn’t be viral but expected. However, it may be a useful way of raising awareness and kick starting the conversation in the first place.
  7. Will technical communicators see snippets of their technical information embedded in other people’s Web pages?
    Yes. Why not? It’s not “your” technical information really, it’s information for the uses of your product. In fact, if you DON’T see this happening then the conversation is failing.
  8. Might the lines between technical support and technical authors start to cross over?
    Yes. There are already signs that this is happening. Ultimately, a conversation friendly company won’t care WHO is doing the talking, as long as the conversation is taking place.

There does seem to be a trend in our profession to expect things to happen a certain way, only for them to pass us by in favour of others. Ellis makes the point that Technical Communicators should’ve been more involved during the rise of Intranets, yet that never happened. The same may be happening already, with the Web 2.0 conversation already taking place. Yes, that’s right. Somewhere, people are already talking about you and your product. It may be on their blog, in a Wiki or forum, or maybe it’s all hidden away in emails and instant messages. Regardless, the conversation has already started.

So go and find these people, get to know them, make friends, chat a little. Understand what they want, find out what they are discussing and contribute.

Join the conversation.

2 comments

  1. Killer concept. I elaborated on your post on my site:
    http://charlesjeter.com/2007/12/29/web-20-one-man-writes-conversation-vips/

    I apply it towards the thread I’ve been researching in Web 2.0 and Technical Support.

    “What we’re looking at is, in this writer/technician’s humble opinion, is the new requirement of the skill set of effective written communication within the ranks of Support Technicians. This is a change that is going to require stronger skills within the support ranks than merely answering phone calls, although that will always be part of their jobs.”

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