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Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler

The field of technical communication is going through a period of significant change. Several of these changes are challenging traditional ideas about the role of technical communication — and technical communicators — something that makes the change-adverse in our industry nervous, to say the least. But, like it or not, change is taking place all around us. Organizations of all sizes are adopting new approaches to communicating with customers.

Some are adopting structured information standards (think XML, DITA) and using component content management systems to help them dynamically deliver documentation to those who need it, when and where they need it, increasingly, on a wide variety of mobile devices.

Others are socializing their product documentation, pushing it to web-based communities where customers can interact with it, augment it, improve it, comment on it, and share it. In some situations, customers are encouraged to (gasp!) create it.

And still others are getting rid of traditional forms of documentation altogether, or drastically minimizing its footprint, opting instead to create engaging, interactive customer experiences by leveraging photographs, 3d images, infographics, video simulations and other rich or augmented media in lieu of user manuals and online help systems. And, they’re delivering this digital content in eBooks, in apps, and via the social web.

At the recent Adobe Enterprise Technical Communication Summits (Boston and San Jose) I was asked to deliver the keynote address. Instead of focusing on DITA topics, video documentation, or EPUB (eBook) files, some of the many useful content types the Adobe Technical Communication Suite helps TechCommers create, I decided to focus on the real problem. We allow our traditions to get in the way of our productivity and advancement by avoiding the adoption of manufacturing principles into the content production lifecycle. We cling to the “we’re different” line of thinking, pretending that it’s true by hiding behind some fictional wall that separates technical communicators from everyone else whose job it is to create products. We even manufacture the need for “certification” programs that will further differentiate us from other types of communicators not included in our specialized domain.

The way I see it, the “we’ve always done it that way here” approach to creating documentation and training materials is preventing us from meeting the goal of the customers we serve: getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right language, on the device of our customers’ choosing. Our outdated ways prevent us from operating efficiently. By continuing to cling to traditional ways of creating content, we fail to demonstrate our true value to others — leading to technical communication being thought of as a necessary evil, a cost center with little value, at least when compared to marketing and sales content. We hold on to outdated notions of what’s important based on ideas espoused by old school academic types and others (you know who they are) with a stake in maintaining the status quo.

The irony is, customers increasingly use the web to research products before they make a purchase decision. And yet, most product information is stored in silos (online help in our products, support content in our knowledge centers, marketing on our product websites and newsletters, training on our “customers only” extranet). Because much of that content cannot be seen by search engines, it isn’t working for us as a magnet, drawing people in to interact with us. And, even when the content is exposed to the web search engines, it’s nothing more than static content, lacking in the rich interaction that users have grown to anticipate — even desire — on other places they search for answers on the web.

Add to the challenge that seldom do the people involved in the creation of customer-facing content work together to create a unified customer experience, opting instead to create content in the way their department prefers to do so (usually the most inefficient way possible), without any concern for the customer experience. This problem isn’t limited to our efforts. It’s a bigger problem, something most enterprises have yet to acknowledge. But, the costs of such inefficiency (conservatively estimated at over $1 billion in waste annually in some industries) is gaining some attention.

When organizations showcase their technical communication products on the web, in the way that Autodesk and ExactTarget do today, they experience many benefits, including deep knowledge about their customers that allow them to make valuable incremental improvements to the customer experience.

Organizations like iFixit.com are taking that approach a few steps further by creating technical documentation that is designed to sell products. I bet there’s a product manager in nearly every organization that would love to understand how technical communication can be leveraged to sell content. Just ask one.

Regardless of how your organization decides to create, manage and deliver content to your customers, it’s critical that you stop pretending to be different from those who build the products and services you sell. Customers only care about differences when they negatively impact them. They don’t care how your organization is organized or why your product marketing is totally disconnected from your product training, customer support and technical documentation. But, you should. And, if you’re like me, I bet you do.

If there was one challenge technical communication professionals should work to overcome in 2012, I believe it’s to rid our industry of the notion that we are somehow different. The smart ones among us will work to partner with marketing, develop relationships with product managers (and others concerned with sales), and find ways to showcase our values that don’t have much to do with our mastery of our native language, punctuation and grammar — all things wee learned in high school.

We need to find ways to expand our sphere of influence by learning from people outside our industry. Just once I’d like to see an entire day of learning at our industry conferences presented by people who don’t write technical documentation for a living. And, conversely, I think we ought to be sharing our knowledge and experience at other types of communication events. Chances are the approaches we use — single-sourcing, multi-channel publishing, content reuse, socially-enabled support and the like — might solve problems other communicators are now struggling to overcome.

The real value we provide is not our mastery of the style guide. Rather, it’s our ability to impact the customer experience in positive ways. When done right, our efforts can lead to improved efficiency, reduced costs, enhanced findability, a sense of community among current customers, and a new revenue stream that leads to increased sales.

What do you think the biggest challenge for technical communication is today? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and let’s discuss.