Everything is connected

This post has been bubbling for the past year or so, ever since I started this blog. It’s a bit of a ramble but if I don’t publish it now I’ll just keep adding to it and it’s long enough as it is!

I question everything. It’s part of the way my mind works, and is something I’ve embraced and believe it makes me better at my job as a technical communicator. That attitude has also helped me realise that there is a common thread that can be found across several different areas of our industry, which I (and others) are slowly pulling together. Convergence is the word that springs to mind, and as businesses clamber onto the social networking bandwagon, now is an excellent time to grab the reigns and take control.

Let’s step back a little.

Late last year, on two separate mailing lists, I followed discussions about what the myriad of people who share my profession have as job titles. I prompted one discussion on the ISTC mailing list, and chipped in some thoughts on the TechWR mailing list before dropping out later on when the noise ratio, as ever, got too high.

I wonder how much useful information I miss when I do that? Ahhh something else to ponder. But not today.

Anyway, discussions around how we as a profession should be referring to ourselves, envitably leads to discussions and thoughts about what we do, where our skills lie, and the benefits we can bring to an organisation. Something I’ve toyed with before, but which is wrapped up in many layers of ifs, buts and other such caveats.

Following on from that, I read an article by Virginia Lynch in the CIDM newsletter (and if you aren’t subscribed to their newsletter, you should be) entitled Information Developers – The New Role of Technical Writers in a Flat World which encapsulates a lot of my current thinking on how to take my current team forward, making sure we are matching company strategy whilst allowing the team members to retain a focus on maintaining and developing their core skills. The article title rather neatly alludes to Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat: The Globalized World in the Twenty-first Century which is certainly worth a read.

Virginia mentions that JoAnn Hackos recently referred to these core skills as “Basic Hygiene”, citing the fact that, regardless of how the collation and production, distribution and usage of information may change, as we explore the burgeoning arena of new tools available to us under the banner of “social web applications” our core skills remain. Typically they tend to drop off as we are pushed to create more, faster, with a rise in quantity favoured over a maintenance of quality.

style, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and even clarity seem to have been sacrificed for quantity —JoAnn points out that knowledge of basic writing skills is still critical to our success as writers. Basic Hygiene also comprises an understanding and appreciation of editing, the information development life cycle, fundamental web and computer skills, and of course attention to detail.

However it is important to note the nod towards quantity being a business leader, and those of us tasked with managing a team need to consider how we achieve that business aim, without impacting our integrity as Technical Writ… umm… Information Developers?

So, how do we produce more whilst maintaining quality?

Wait! What’s that coming over the hill? Ahhh yes, the shining white knight of single source, armour gleaming, his trusty DITA (or DocBook) in hand, ready to do battle against the ills of productivity measurements and over-zealous QA departments. What else were you expecting? Ohh more resource? No, not these days when everyone is a “content creator”, not these days when we should be embracing and encouraging our audience to help plug the gaps in our information dykes (I really must stop mixing my metaphors).

Topic-based writing certainly seems to tick the required boxes and every business case and ROI I’ve read (and I’ve written a couple myself) points us towards the promises found over the horizon and the “he’ll be here real soon, honest” arrival of the aforementioned white knight. The trouble is that, whilst it is easy to agree with the theory, I’m not all that sure the white knight is all he seems. Certainly as we climb the hill towards him, auditing our content, deciding on chunking levels, agreeing metadata requirements, we begin to see that that armour seems a little thin and dented in areas, and I’m not entirely sure the knight is filling that armour as much as he should. Aren’t they supposed to be big strapping warriors? He looks a little weedy to me…

Topic driven content written with a minimalist slant, deferring here to the instructions of Strunk and White* rather than Roy Carroll, are where we seem to be (need to be?) heading and that’s fine and good from where I’m sitting.

* A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.

On the flip side, there is a definite growth in awareness around the use of Web 2.0 technologies and systems, building online communities, integrating Wikis, blogs, RSS feeds into the information flow either as part of end user deliverables or as methods for encouraging information creation by everyone involved with the product, internal or external.

A large part of our job concerns the collation and filtering of information so as far as I’m concerned anything we can do to make the creation of source information easier has to be welcomed. Extending these mechanisms beyond internal usage means it should be easier to provide information to the people who really need it, with the added bonus of a greater level of trust in that information. Don’t believe me? Which type of information do you put most weight on, the information passed to you by a trusted colleague who you know uses the product heavily, or the product documentation? (and bear in mind that we technical writers pre-disposed to favour the work of our peers). That in itself is another issue which may be alleviated by embracing social content creation, pulling on the goodwill generated by openly inviting contribution and collaboration, whilst giving technical writers a chance to show their worth in full public view.

So where is all this heading? I’m not sure if anyone is too sure but there do seem to be some trends appearing. The use of Wikis to host documentation, the creation of community websites with few restrictions, and more. There are plenty of tools, and with a little work you can get them talking to each other. Technology is not the limiting factor anymore, attitudes are now the only things stopping us trying these wonderous new things. It’s a big step for some companies, and some people, to free their information, to pass their hard earned knowledge about willy-nilly without a clue as to how it will be used.

Once you’ve gotten past the limitations, the real effort, once you have your community or collaboration up and running, is the surrounding processes. Do you want to pump content into the website regularly? (yes). Do you want to allow anyone and everyone to contribute to that same store of information? (yes). Do you want to allow others to quietly correct your mistakes? (yes). Do you want to give the people who need it, access to information about your product, regardless where it originates, trusting them to use their judgement? (yes).

The final pieces of the jigsaw are the finer details of implementation. Presuming we want to reuse information as often as possible where do you store information and how do you allow access to it? Who should be involved in verifying new information? Where/how is the level of trust established?

Pulling together the threads of this emerging role is tricky, with so much overlap into multiple areas and so much to consider there is a danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. This post is an attempt to step back and make a little more sense of what I can see, what I know, and the changes starting to drag our profession in interesting new directions. I fear I may have muddied the waters, but hopefully they’ll settle and things will start to make sense.

Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, one thing is for sure, these are exciting times and we have a great opportunity to finally leverage technical communications into the spotlight. The value of information is finally being properly realised, and we are ideally placed to help any organisation make the most of what information they have and help them understand and create the information they really need.

3 comments

  1. “Topic driven content written with a minimalist slant … are where we seem to be (need to be?) heading.”

    Hasn’t it *always* been about topic-based writing? People have been writing excellent topic-driven tech doc for decades without anything more than a word processor or even typewriter.

  2. I completely agree Becky, but my point is that without that fundamental basis then we would lose a lot of opportunities.

    That said, there are still a lot of technical writers out there that enjoy prose a little too much (IMHO)

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