Lessons for technical communicators from the telecommunications sector

It’s often useful to look at the economic and technological pressures in other industries, to see if the trends emerging there are relevant to the technical communications/publications sector. In recent Blogs, we’ve covered the issues emerging in education, but the telecommunications industry might also provide some useful insights.

Lee Dryburgh, organiser of the Emerging Communications Conference, has been interviewed by Skype Journal.com  about how he see the future of telecommunication. The key points in this interview are:

  • Widespread deployment of a method of communicating, long cultural embedment, extreme ease of use and very low barriers to usage, means it’s not going away in a big way, at any time least soon.
  • We are seeing software offer a new stronger “Relationships” between people. Distribution is relatively zero-cost and it achieves unprecedented scale.

He’s talking about telephony and Skype, but couldn’t that also be true for paper and Web-based online Help?

Dryburgh sees a new phase emerging that will have deeper impact yet.  He said:

“Phase two is built around an economic model that puts human time and attention at a premium. It’s the opposite of what we experience today with telephony, where human time and attention is wasted.”

“Phase two is about intention-based economics. It’s focused on fulfilling intentions and desires … I’m not saying we need to become psychologists and anthropologists. But what we need to build for is access to ever more personal information, i.e. about the human behind the endpoint. Privacy does not exist looking long-term. Ever more personal information is the new currency, which underlies intention-based economics, and people will increasingly trade it for free access to services. “

“If any of this seems abstract at the moment, think about what makes Google money, Ad Words. Google provides search free to the consumer in order to gain eyeballs (mass attention) and takes the search parameter to try and deduce intention. It then sells that attention and intention data upstream to advertisers.”

Could this also happen in the technical documentation arena? Would seeing technical documentation in the context of new economic ideas, such as  intention-based economics  and the economics of attention, affect how and what was created?  Would it change the nature of conversations with management and marketing?

If your Technical Publications department was a business

Sometimes it’s good for managers to look at a department in a slightly different way from normal. What, for example, if the Technical Publications department was a business? If a business troubleshooter were to come in and ask key commercial questions, could they be answered?

Questions such as:

  • Would it know how many customers it had?
  • Would it know who its competitors were?
  • Would it know its competitive advantage was?
  • Would it know what its customer thought of its products?
  • Would it know how well its products addressed its customers’ needs?
  • How well does it manage its suppliers, so it can produce its products efficiently?

How would you answer these?

“Push me, Pull me” dilemma for technical authors

There are a number of posts on various Blogs, at the moment, concerning documents as conversation and moving beyond the traditional manual. Some of the comments suggest implicitly  that technical authors (aka technical writers) could end up having to resolve two conflicting views regarding communicating with users. 

The problem is that many technical communicators work in hierarchical organisations where “authority” is key. Staff (and users asking for support) are expected to follow.

However, many parts of Web-based content are not based on authority or hierarchy. It’s a network, collaborative in nature.

For an organisation with a “behind the firewall” culture – protect your intellectual property, no access to Facebook etc – that’s a really alien way of thinking.

So many technical communicators – particularly those working in large traditional companies – might, in the near future, have to deal with two different and opposing “Weltanschauungen” (viewpoints).

It may be a tension that will never go away. I hope a compromise can be reached. I think it’s possible there will be mediated/edited comments and conversations of certain topics within an overall user assistance solution.

Which model of communication will technical communicators employ in the future?

About 44 minutes into his presentation, Michael Wesch talked about network size and the effect it traditionally has on the ways teachers communicate information to students. He said as the audience size increases, teachers have found they’ve had to get their students to participate less and follow more.

He argued educators should and could move back to the more interactive and effective “network model”, by using Web 2.0 technologies.

Technical Communicators – people producing online Help and user manuals – use the Hierarchy or Mass models. We get users to follow, and to return to the Support Desk or Help file, in order to be told what to do next.

 A change to a participative approach could be a major cultural shift for them and their employers, so it’s unclear whether this shift will occur in technical communication. Do we want users to do more than follow?

The truth is, in the future, it’s likely all three models will be employed by technical communicators at different times. This means technical writers need to create content that can be used in all three models. This is easiest with re-usable chunks of content, often using the DITA XML schema. Whether the the DITA schema suffciently accomodates participative content, remains to be seen.

Is the future of education also the future of technical communication?

I stumbled across another great video of Michael Wesch talking about the issues facing educationalists.  Many of the problems they face are the same as those faced by people involved in producing user assistance.

The video is here

Dubbed “the explainer” by popular geek publication Wired because of his viral YouTube video that summarizes Web 2.0 in under five minutes, cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch brought his Web 2.0 wisdom to the University of Manitoba on June 17 (see video above).

During his presentation, the Kansas State University professor breaks down his attempts to integrate Facebook, Netvibes, Diigo, Google Apps, Jott, Twitter, and other emerging technologies to create an education portal of the future.

I particularly liked these slides:

He argued these beliefs were no longer correct,(apart from the first statement).

It’s possible the solutions for the future of education will also be relevant for the future of user assistance. Whether it answers all the questions remains to be seen.

Why pay 2.5 times the national average salary for a technical author?

We’ve just posted up a vacancy for a lead technical author in Switzerland with a salary of circa £64,000 ($105,744) – around two and a half times the average salary in the UK. So why would someone pay this amount for a technical author? After all, don’t they just write manuals that no-one reads?

The answer probably lies in the nature of the work. They will be responsible for creating and updating documentation relating to the building and commissioning of gas turbines. If the turbines don’t work or if they go wrong, then the consequences could be explosive.

In fact, technical writing is a lot to do with communicating change and ensuring conformance. Change is fundamental to a business – it’s often closely tied to management and leadership.

As a leader of a business, you need to have a vision or goal and you need to be able to communicate that to the rest of the organisation. In the UK we have a Prime Minister, who admitted this weekend he is a poor communicator. Overseas, he is seen as a great leader through the current economic crisis. Here, his party is suffering its lowest poll ratings in modern history.

Communication matters, so perhaps that’s why it’s worth paying to hire a good communicator.

The debate on the future of technical communication

My Vienna presentation on the future of technical communication and building a career has sparked a debate on a couple of Web sites:

It’s interesting getting feedback on what your audience took away from a presentation! I don’t think I’ve had quite as big a reaction to a presentation before .

As I’ve mentioned previously, for those that missed my presentation in Vienna, I’m presenting it again – in London on Monday 13th July. http://www.cherryleaf.com/careerdev.htm.

It’s a synthesis of the topics and trends we’ve been highlighting in our newsletter, presentations and blogs over the last six years – condensed into three hours.

There’ll be lots of opportunity to discuss it, too.