Turning employees’ knowledge into an asset for the organisation

In July 2010, Mark Prisk, UK Minister of State for Business and Enterprise said:

As the events of the past two years have made painfully clear, we must leave behind the over reliance on financial services and support a renewal in modern manufacturing, so we are able to grasp the huge opportunities of the low carbon age. The ideas, skills and innovations of manufacturers will be just as important to our economic future, as the mills and mines were in our past.

Ten years ago, you’d find many consultants raising the issue that an organisation’s ‘knowledge assets’ walk out the door every evening.

Today, that’s still pretty much the case.

Organisations found it was difficult to capture the knowledge locked in employees’ brains. Many invested in expensive systems that offered poor authoring environments and complex ontologies. Retrieving the recorded knowledge could be a dreadful user experience as well.

With the economic future of countries such as the UK being based partly on creating wealth from the ‘knowledge economy’ and Intellectual Property, and with the recent, exciting, developments in technology (such as the semantic web, screencasts, wikis and open source software) now is the ideal time to revisit the issue of how to capture, collaborate and disseminate knowledge within and without the organisation. For a business working in a difficult climate, it can be the equivalent of finding loose change down the back of the sofa.

Building intelligence into business documents

Often business documents, such as sales proposals and annual reports, are a joint effort between various people and departments. It involves collaborative writing and incorporating existing content. For printable documents, this collaboration can make it really difficult to maintain a consistent level of quality, writing style and “look and feel”.

For Technical Communicators, there’s an opportunity to provide their organisations with systems that produce key business documents in a more efficient way. They have the skills and experience to build systems that can (a) guide a writer through the process of developing a new document, and (b) enforce content and layout standards.

The advantage of a such a system is that writers who might not be familiar with writing a particular document are no longer faced with a blank sheet to begin with. It’s possible to create a system that can build the bulk of the document in a matter of minutes, leaving the writer with the task of customising the information to suit the requirements of each particular situation.

The result of this approach is that:

  • A document is pre-structured in the appropriate format
  • Mandatory information is included automatically in the document
  • Actual writing time is greatly reduced
  • The skills required to produce high quality documents are significantly lowered
  • People can contribute easily, and can be guided on how to best write their contributions
  • The organisation creates more consistent documents

To build a system like this, the organisation needs to:

  • Create a global design for the document, including contributions from other departments
  • Define the workflow and sign-off procedures
  • Develop base content and reusable content objects from various departments
  • Create boilerplate documents for various situations
  • Deploy the system to the contributors and editors

The good news is, if it has a Technical Author working for them, then the organisation already has someone with the skills and experience to carry out these tasks correctly. If you don’t, then don’t forget Cherryleaf can help.

Here are some of our recent videos

Here’s a playlist of recent videos we’ve put together. To play a video, click on the title of the video.

UPDATE: For some reason, the playlist does not appear when you view this post on our blog’s Home page. If you click on the title of this blog post, and view the post itself, you’ll see the list. If you can see the playlist above the video box, then ignore this update.

Videos – you can use the black scroll bar on the right to move up and down the list

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Video of a simple report writing solution

Here’s a video of a proof of concept prototype we’re putting together for a client. The system automates the creation of field reports. It creates a skeleton document, with key content populated. Many pages contain guidance on what to write.It is probably the lowest cost content management system we’ve put together.

If you can see the video below (there’s a problem viewing it on the main page of the blog) you can view it here.

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Why do Technical Authors only use two of the three qualities of good design?

Why do Technical Authors only use two of the three qualities of good design?

  • Vitruvius, the Roman architect, claimed a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas and venustas: it must be solid, useful and beautiful.
  • Paul Mijksenaar, a modern day Information Designer, turned these qualities into a practical three-point formula: Reliability, Utility and Satisfaction.

Though Mijksenaar did not design his device specifically to analyse information products, Anne-Florence Dujardin (of Sheffield Hallam University) argues you can use his gauge to rate and assess user documentation.

So why do Technical Authors often focus only on Reliability and Usefulness, and fail to take into account Satisfaction? Beauty is an emotional relationship with an object, so perhaps Technical Authors should be (a) measuring users’ satisfaction with what they produce and (b) creating more emotionally engaging documents.

How to you take into account users’ satisfaction with the information you publish?

The Economics of Content Strategy

One of the recurring themes at recent conferences on technical communication has been content strategy. You see speakers commenting that writing skills are valued less, and so Technical Communicators should look to become more strategic and managerial. In this context, content strategy is a focus on improving efficiency and productivity of content creation, management and publishing.

Underlying this is the premise that content nearly always has a value. However, that’s not always the case. We all know an Accountant or an Economist would be likely to treat only a tiny amount of the content created within a business as an asset. A lot of it has a limited shelf life, or it wouldn’t cost a great deal to have the content created a second time. If Technical Communicators are to convince management that content strategy is “a good thing”, then they need to focus on the content that does have value.

In economic terms, one of the key factors in creating value is scarcity. So when is information or content scarce? It’s situations such as when:

  • Someone with knowledge and expertise is leaving the company and is taking that knowledge with them
  • A project team is being disbanded
  • You’re paying for a consultant’s expertise
  • An individual whose time is highly valued is tied up communicating information to others

Content also has value when it can be sold, such as training courseware and other Intellectual Property.

Content has a value when it can be used to save money, such as translation costs. However, often the content leads to an indirect or deferred saving, such as fewer product returns. It can be hard to measure. This means time needs to be spent establishing a direct relationship between the content and a particular cost saving.

So what about one of the most often quoted benefits – being more efficient in the way content is created? The truth is, that only matters to the organisation if content costs it a lot to produce. It may irk a lone Technical Author if they are repeating work, but this may not matter to the business if the cost of that labour is relatively insignificant.

In short, Technical Communicators need to focus on the content that has the greatest value and look at how they can value other content that is currently hard to quantify economically.