As an alumnus of Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, what value additions are you bringing to technical communication?
Value addition means generating greater return on investment than the cost of the initial investment. Return on investment has two important aspects: bringing in more money (by increasing users’ satisfaction) or reducing costs (such as the cost of supporting customers, or inefficient processes). As writers, we should be aware that numbers represent an incomplete picture of our contribution and often we may have to go beyond traditional lines to get credit for value that we add to the organization. In an era of increasing cost consciousness, technical communicators are under ever-greater pressure to show just how we add value and how much value we add. Our goal should be to first prove the value of documentation to those interested in the bottom line and second make that value true. As managers, there are many things we can do to use the documentation to boost the bottom line:
- Look for duplicated efforts and bottlenecks that occur because of a lack of information and use documentation to reduce negative impacts arising out of them.
- Clearly demonstrate the benefits of documentation to your audience. Incomplete or inconsistent documentation presents an image to the client that the company is disorganized and not a good one with which to do business.
- Continuously solicit feedback and incorporate them in a timely manner to silence the critics. Show that you want to work with the other teams, not against each other.
- Use a central location for all documentation. Using a single-sourcing content management methodology across departments can reduce duplicated writing efforts in many areas, such as marketing, training, product management, sales, etc.
Not everyone in your organization will understand the value of the documentation all the time, but acknowledge these challenges as part of your job as a manager and never give up.
How do knowledge-based approaches help in designing and developing documentation?
A knowledge intensive development framework is more critical in the documentation design process and has been recognized as a solution to achieve competitive advantages in product development. Knowledge-based approaches provide access to the right knowledge and to continue doing business without a drop-off in performance. From the documentation perspective, knowledge-based approaches pave the way for component-based modular documentation that provides an effective means to realize a range of customer demands in support for mass customization. The process enables customization of documentation to satisfy various product variants to meet the specific market, business, and engineering needs, and results in an integrated modular documentation set with scenario specific knowledge support. A documentation family is thus reduced to a set of variables, features, or components (smaller, independent chunks of information) that remains constant in a product and can be maintained from release to release without losing its flexibility to manage increased product variety necessary for today’s market.
Knowledge-based approaches place an emphasis on how to set up rational documentation architecture to conduct family-based design, rather than design only a single document. The knowledge-based documentation development approach usually includes two main phases:
1. Establishing appropriate documentation development and management platform.
2. Customizing the platform into individual document variants to match product variation.
Essentially, this requires documentation set to be viewed as a group of related documents that share common features or component/subsystems description, and captures the information in a way that satisfy a variety of customer groups.
Knowledge-based approaches incorporate the concept of functional modularity from the product life cycle perspective to documentation and allow the design of document families by changing a small number of components or modules. It also provides access to document variety design, including representation, measurement and evaluation of document varieties. Thus, developing documents no longer remain confined to delivering information silos, but cater to ‘information variety’—a term that refers to flexible documents that meet the best balance of design modularity and component standardization.
Could you share a couple of best practices in documentation?
Today, technology has evolved into a complex social enterprise that both reflects and shapes the system’s values. We should always be conscious of underlying concepts that drives the domain and anticipate the effects of technology. Measuring domain complexity objectively is difficult. It is more of writer’s subjective experience of complexity that might be the consequence of the nature of the task in the specific situation, in relation to specific purpose, skill, competence and experience of the writer. This means that while one writer might experience a particular domain situation as complex, another might not.
Complexity is also a pre-condition for innovation and creativity. It gives us an excellent opportunity to be surprisingly creative in our writing adventures. It helps us apply the learning in one domain, under a particular situation, to another more or less similar situation and get the unanticipated results.
As writers, we should always be looking for opportunity to transform subject complexity into a challenge, something we can explore and experience, something we can attempt to master and in the process, make it easier for our readers to understand and master. While we may not be able to influence domain/subject complexity, we can always explore innovative ways to understand how the underlying philosophy and principles in one area might be commensurable in another field. Think about innovative ways to utilize your gained knowledge to penetrate into other domains. With perseverance and practice, you should be able to develop a mental knowledge framework that helps you connect seamlessly across different domains. If you are not already thinking of applying the learned concepts and principles in one domain to another, you are already on your way to creating multiple knowledge silos that never communicate to each other and will never help you succeed as a writer in multiple domains.
What should companies consider before investing in Help Authoring Tools and Content Management Systems?
Organizations are no longer creating a single document; they are creating content, and content is meant to be connected, used, and reused with no great assumptions about how and when. The premium is placed on how the content is connected to others rather than on how complete they are in themselves.
Content Management Systems (CMS) make your life easier by helping streamlining your business and keeping you out of the nuts and bolts. However, no authoring tool or CMS you create or buy will tell you what your organization should manage or why. You must perform proper ground research and formulate all the details before selecting or designing an appropriate system.
A good way of examining your organization’s CMS needs is to understand the type and scope of information problems that the staff or customer is facing. If you do not hear a lot of issues or worries that surround the core issues of content management, you should question the need for a CMS! In a nutshell, you need a CMS if your content collection, management, and publishing processes are too complex to manage informally. You can gauge the complexity of your content on the following parameters: the amount of existing and future content, the number of contributors contributing the content, the size and complexity of the contributed content, the amount of change that you expect in your content, the number or type of publication that you intend to create or edit, and the degree of personalization/redesigns required for your content.
What would be your advice to the technical writers who are planning to move to the documentation manager role?
Project management in competitive business is rarely a job for the faint-hearted who lack confidence in their ability to learn and communicate what they have learned to others. A good manager is aware of the need to keep developing management skills on a continuous basis. If you are an effective communicator who has vision, enjoys a leadership role and working with people, and adept at monitoring project details and controlling change, documentation management is a job for you.
If your goal is to be a documentation manager, it is not enough to be a good writer or editor or even to like working with people. You must prepare yourself to play multiple roles in the organization, with responsibilities to manage the content of the projects, as well as manage the people and other resources necessary to perform the project. Your ability to communicate with team members, customers, senior management, and managers in peer organization becomes more important. You must know how to estimate and allocate time and cost. You should develop a thorough understanding and empathy for the document development process. You should be ready to engage yourself in the development process as you work side by side with your team members, and should be able to guide your team members to produce appropriate levels of quality that meets customer requirements. As aspiring project managers, you should first start developing the understanding of the needs of your team members, customers and your organization. Next, understand your corporate priorities and take initiative to get things accomplished.
If you want to get on the management ladder, then look for opportunities where you can practice and demonstrate your management skills. One way to gain expertise is to perform tasks so you can develop your skills, and the other way is to enroll on management programmes and training.
Also, beware that owing to so many diverse responsibilities, project managers tend to find themselves in the middle—pulled in a variety of directions by compelling and often contradictory forces. The most challenging part of any managerial role is managing people, and often a manager is responsible for a large number of employees. Developing your people management skills is a task that you should never ignore at any stage of your career. Additionally, look for ways to broaden your skills in different management functions. For instance, if you work in development, consider spending some time with the QA, Sales, or customer services department. This will help you improve your ability to view problems in different perspectives and help you handle issues between the departments. Look for opportunities to work on inter departmental teams to sharpen your management skills and develop a broad range of knowledge.
And before you think you are ready to apply for a manager’s role, pack a bag full of patience and curiosity—something you will probably find important to have when you reach your destination.
About the Author
Saurabh is currently with Nokia Siemens Networks, Bangalore as Customer Documentation Manager. He has an experience of over a decade managing globally distributed documentation teams and providing documentation services for a variety of domains. He has managed more than 120 documentation projects and implemented over a dozen medium/large size knowledge bases for IT, Information Technology Enable Service (ITES), Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), and product-based companies/clients globally.
He was member of the panel of Expert Evaluators for revising ISO/IEC 25612 standards and made significant contribution to the Unicode Common Locale Data Repository (UCLDR) project. He co-founded, and later served as Editor-in-Chief of, KnowGenesis International Journal for Technical Communication (IJTC). He also provided his services as Associate Editor to Directives, a newsletter published by the Society of Technical Communication (STC)’s Management Special Interest Group (SIG). He has contributed multiple works in international research publications and conferences and has conducted several workshops globally in subjects such as Content Management, Knowledge Management and Documentation Process improvements.
In addition to holding an engineering degree in Electronics, Saurabh is a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and an alumnus of Symbiosis Institute Pune and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore. You can contact him at email@example.com .