Month: April 2011

Being Social

I’ve written about social media before, and given presentations on Blogging and the wider use of social media as part of our professional toolbox. But that was mostly with a view to how these new technologies could be used to provide a better service to our customers.

So what does social media mean to me, as a professional?

Personally, away from Technical Communications, I’ve been involved and actively using various forms of social media for over a decade. It’s very much something I take for granted and expect to be able to communicate with people in a variety of ways. However, because I’ve been using this stuff for so long, I tend to fall prey to the curse of knowledge and forget that I’ve been through all of the decision points that many people are still approaching for the first time.

An example, which prompted this blog post, came via Twitter today when Marian Routledge asked “Social networking a valuable tool for keeping pace with developments in the world of tech comms or just another time filler?”.

My initial response was “‘another’? Social networking has been about in various forms for 10 years. If you aren’t using it, how else do you keep pace?” as, for me, use of social media is one of the most efficient ways of keeping up with all of the conversations and ideas that bloom and grow in these spaces. If I wasn’t on Twitter, if I didn’t read blogs, if I didn’t monitor RSS feeds from vendors and thought leaders, if I wasn’t on various mailing lists, then I’d have to rely on far more direct and expensive means of getting at that information.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is not a replacement for face-to-face communication, never will be, and so conferences and meetings are still required, but I’d argue that those activities are enhanced through attendee use of social media.

One thing which many people have suggested is that, as accessing information online is so easy, we in danger of filling our time with all this extra information. I’d suggest not, but I know there is a chance that you could, very quickly, become overwhelmed by the amount of data pouring your way.

However, i tend to think of all the RSS feeds I monitor, the people I follow on Twitter, and the numerous blog discussions that I participate in, as one big stream of information. I can dip in and out, safe in the knowledge that if something important passes by unseen, it’ll no doubt come floating past again when someone else mentions it.

Does that stream of information make me better at my job? I think it does. In a way it’s like an extended conference, that buzz, the sharing of common ideas, the conversations between sessions. Being involved in any aspect of social media is exactly that, an extended conversation. There are some key words in that last sentence, and this, if anything, is the take home advice from this blog post.

“Being involved” in social media is a lot different from letting it flow into your inbox and swamping you. If you are involved you will know what conversations you can ignore, and what trends/people you should be following. To be involved you need to remember that social media is, and always has been, a conversation. It’s a two way thing, and the more you contribute to that conversation, the more you’ll get out of it. Comment on blogs, reply to updates on Twitter, publish your own ideas and respond to those who show an interest and you’ll soon find yourself part of the community. It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort, at most it may take 15 minutes a day if you are diligent, but the more you get involved, the faster you’ll be able to process the information coming your way.

At this point I’ll stop waffling and point you towards the latest addition to the growing set of social media resources for Technical Communication professionals. It’s called Technical Writing World and is already shaping up to become a useful place to discuss ideas, share problems and get solutions to the everyday issues we all face.

If you are a technical communications professional, and have still to get involved with social media, then Technical Writing World is a great place to start. It’s small enough to be easily managed, and interactive enough that you’ll be able to converse with technical communicators from all over the globe.

Go on, sign up, say hi and get involved. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Home is…

It’s over six months since I moved into my flat, and it’s only now starting to feel like home.

For a while I was using the old sofa (old as in age, and as in ‘pre-divorce’) but I now have my own sofa and chairs. I have art on the walls, bookcases, lamps and, once I get a couple of plants and some curtain-like things it will really start to feel like mine.

Except it’s not mine, it’s rented. But aside from that… it’s mine. Right?

I’m still scouring shops for a coffee table, and think I might need a rug to really pull things together but I’m in no rush.

I’ve been reasonably smart with my purchases, determined not to buy things for the sake of it and to make sure that anything I buy now could fit somewhere else. My living room is huge, it was what attracted me to the flat, but I won’t be there forever so I need to keep that in mind and make sure the same furniture will squeeze into a smaller space.

Interestingly, it’s this very desire to keep things ‘small’ that has me, once again, pondering whether to ditch my home PC and get a laptop instead. Regardless of that decision, I need to get more storage space (new camera + shooting in RAW = rapidly filling hard drive) and so it seems sensible to get a network storage device first, and then I can make a decision on desktop vs laptop later.

Part of that thinking also found me clicking the BUY button and ordering a certain, well known, tablet computer. It’s called an iPad and, given that the bulk of my use of the computer is centred around consumption and social networking, it gives me a much more mobile system. My TV can handle media files so it will be interesting how my use of my desktop changes as it will mainly only REALLY be needed for doing website development work (something that could easily be done on a laptop, a nice Air-ey one perhaps?).

What has really surprised me is how much enjoyment I’ve taken from pulling together a room, but that’s maybe because I can’t change much in the kitchen, the bedroom only really needs some art on the walls as it’s not really got space for much other than the bed and some chests of drawers, and the spare room is, for now, a bit of a dumping ground. I have plans for the spare room too but I’m keen to keep it sparse, functional and not to rely on the space too much, again, when I move in the future, it might be somewhere smaller.

Turns out I’m quite house proud, and I’m really enjoying trawling shops (online and off) for decorations.

I really REALLY wish I’d bought that letterpress lamp base when I saw it though…

The slow road to content strategy

I’m always wary of buzzwords and industry fads, and will always take, primarily, a business focused view on any new theory (or strategy) that I hear about until I fully understand its real life application. Such is the case with Content Strategy.

It’s something I’ve talked about on here before (under the guise of Information Strategy) but whilst I’ve a good idea of how it could benefit our company, I’ve struggled to get buy-in. Whilst Content Strategy discussions go well, everyone thinks that a coherent and consistent set of content is a good thing, where we seem to struggle is getting commitment to getting the actual work done to bring things into line. The high level Content Audit I completed about 18 months ago is about as far as we got.

So, rather than try and get everyone on-board from the outset we are now starting from the bottom up by providing a technical product information service to our sales team. Essentially, our team will be providing source content that can be used by our PreSales team to inform potential customers what our product can do. It’s an important part of our sales cycle, and will mean that we will have a consistent set of information, used across different areas of the company, all sourced and developed with a common view (and reuse) in mind.

The route we are taking towards a company wide content strategy may take us a while (my gutfeel is that, once the ball is rolling and word gets out, other areas of the company will soon come on board) but ultimately we will end up in the same place. The advantages are that we can make decisions on the way, replan a lot more easily (we don’t need to get it as ‘almost’ right as we would if we were tackling a larger amount of work) and crucially we don’t need any ‘stop the world’ moments.

I work in a fast paced company, we are light on paperwork, and whilst we apply good rigour and quality to what we do, we only do whatever we need, and are quick to change or drop processes if they bring no value. It’s a great place to work, but keeping up with the pace of change in our product is a constant challenge to the technical writing team, so this approach to tackling the introduction of a content strategy stands a very good chance of succeeding.

Naturally this approach will present some challenges, we will probably need to schedule some form of review of the work as it progresses to make sure it’s not becoming too focused on it’s initial use, and I’ve no doubt that we may have to rework some of the content later on when we have a better understanding of the big picture, but I think it will work.

And hey, life’s nothing without a challenge!

Roll on the holidays

For various historical and religious reasons, none of which I pay much heed to, I will be on holiday from this Friday through to Tuesday the 3rd of May. Given that it’s only costing me three days from my holiday allowance, then it’s almost like a free holiday.

Part of that time will involve a trip to Skye, which I’m really looking forward to as I’ve never been that far north on the west coast of Scotland. My camera is primed, the USB stick of moosick is full (8GB of very random tuneage), and Kirsty and I are really looking forward to it.

After that it will be a lazy time for the most part, a well deserved break and a chance to properly recharge after a shitty start to the year and, if I’m really lucky, there may also be alcohol and debauchery in there somewhere as well!

In other news, my Mum is doing well, making good progress day by day. I’m really noticing big differences everytime I visit. Other than that, I’ve finally gotten my car back! I’ve not had it since the 7th February and it will need to go back in for a wee bit more work but that can wait a while.

Oh yeah and, very soon, my little sister will turn 30. I was flicking through some old photos last night, from when she was a bairn and still can’t quite believe she’s SO VERY OLD ALREADY! 😉

Saturday sunshine

A quiet moment on a sunny evening.

I sat in my chair by the window, opened a book and as the sun started to set behind the hills reached down to flick on the lamp.

On the table an ice cold beer glistened in the light, music wafted over from the far side of my living room.

A snapshot of a moment which I’ve imagined for some time now.

It’s the little things, isn’t it.

Life is good.

Piece by piece

Part way through April and the discussions and planning over the past few months look like they are, slowly, starting to come together.

The plans are ambitious, not only are we restructuring our information offering to make things easier to find, we are also attempting to change the way we document our product. Moving us away from a set of information that covers “here is what our development kit can do”, to content that says “this is what our product does and how you can extend or modify it”. In one way it’s a subtle shift, but the ramifications are still unfolding.

One area in particular will be interesting, namely that we will be asking “why that way?” a lot more than we have in the past. In the past, as we were light on content in several areas, we steered away from such questions where we could, but now we need to tackle them head on which, invariably, will mean we will start to drive some interesting conversations about how our product SHOULD be used.

None of this is, as ever, rocket science, but there is a level of change management that we need to consider.

In the end we should end up with, in essence, an information matrix.

Down the left side will be headings corresponding to the types of content we have (or need to write), and across the top will be a list of the areas of the product we document. I say “will be” because we are still trying to fully understand what those areas are, and to make sure that the terminology we use will be understand and used consistently across the company. Once that matrix is in place, we can audit what we have and see where the gaps are.

Thankfully, once we understand the new structure, the act of restructuring the information will be easy. The joys of single source, topic based authoring!

I won’t, however, mention the third level of complexity we are trying to tackle as I’m not quite sure I’ve got a handle on it yet. Suffice to say that we need to make sure the new information structure we decide on within the product documentation, also needs to fit into a wider piece that is being introduced to our developer community website (same basic idea though, creating landing pages on ‘topics’ or ‘product areas’ to direct users to product documentation, elearning material or support notes).

It’s a bit like doing a big jigsaw and at the moment I’ve only just managed to finish the outline.

Faithless

Faithless, Glasgow

I’m getting too old for the kind of gig I was at last night.

Too old to be on the main floor, arms raised, head back, jumping up and down in the midst of a writhing, sweary, ecstatic group of people all determined to give Faithless a little bit of payback for all the fun they’ve given us.

The place was packed, rammed to the rafters, there was no space anywhere so everyone just got on with things. Those that barged through had no choice, there were no angry exchanges, just bouncing, grinning, enthusiasm all round.

Epic. Was the word I used on Twitter last night and it still feels right. Maybe it was because I had no choice but to abandon myself to the whims and energy of the crowd, maybe it was because this was the ‘farewell’ gig from a band I’ve enjoyed for many years so I felt I had to give a little energy back to them, or maybe it was because their music demands such a response.

I’ve seen Faithless a couple of times before and by god do they know how to do a live show! They are most definitely a band, rather than the DJ led dance outfit which many of their tracks would suggest, and in a venue like the O2 Academy in Glasgow (an old theatre/cinema), with the bass reverberating, and the crowd in the palm of their hand, they nailed it.

The last few albums have been a bit hit or miss, so I can understand why they are calling it a day, but I’m sure they could spend another year or two touring the current setlist and still sell out wherever they go.

Epic.

ISTC website

It’s official. I’m now the webmaster for the ISTC.

Before I start talking about my plans and ideas for the ISTC website, I thought I’d give you all a bit of background as to why I’m reasonably well qualified to be taking this on.

It all starts about 16 years ago…

I joined a small software company in the West of Scotland as a “Technical Administrator” and, as well as writing some user documentation, I was sent on a course to learn HTML and then charged with creating the company website, the first version of which is still available via the Internet Archive (search for ‘crossaig.co.uk’) and was launched in September 1996. Since then, I’ve created websites for charity organisations, personal projects, and several small businesses and individuals under the moniker of One Man Designs.

Throughout my profession the internet has been there, and it’s been a large part of my personal life as well. I ran a successful blog directory for a while (Scottish Blogs) and took great pleasure in organising several “meetups” of some of the members. I’ve meet some amazing people, who I now call my friends, via the internet and it continues to delight and amaze me at how well it functions to connect people, from all over the world, who have similar needs and interests.

So what does that mean for the ISTC?

Without going into great detail here (just yet), the main focus for me over the next couple of months will be to restructure the content based on feedback from last year’s Marketing Frenzy, move the current website over to a content management system, and tweak the design to allow a bit more flexibility to handle some of the new features.

I’m keen to bring some more activity to the website, and introduce some “social features” on the way. It will mean changing some things but just as the technical communications industry is learning how to deal with social media, so does the ISTC website.