Scary ideas

Zineb El Rhazoui, a columnist for Charlie Hebdo, recently gave a talk at the University of Chicago. She spoke about living under the constant shadow of death threats issued by the Islamic State.

Judith Shulevitz, in a New York Times article titled In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas, describes what happened next:

During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to [Charlie Hebdo’s] apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.”

Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,” and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.

A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure “that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.” Ms. El Rhazoui’s “relative position of power,” the writer continued, had granted her a “free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.”

Fortunately, other students at the university rallied to Ms. El Rhazoui’s defense. Still, isn’t there something backward about people feeling threatened by ideas, especially when the people voicing those ideas are being threatened with literal death?

Cap and deploma: censoredShulevitz also reports on a dust-up at Smith University over a speaker who refused to use the euphemistic “n-word” in a discussion about Huckleberry Finn. The speaker, Wendy Kaminer, is quoted as saying “It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism.”

It’s amazing to me too. Continue reading

An object lesson in damaging your personal brand

Tai Tran, Social Media Marketing Manager at Cal-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, posted a perceptive article about why Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign failed.

Starbucks cups with #RaceTogether written on them

Image source: LinkedIn (uncredited)

You probably heard about #RaceTogether. Designed to stimulate conversation about race relations, instead it touched off a firestorm of social-media derision directed at Starbucks.

Tran says, and I agree, that three factors led to the campaign’s going awry:

  1. Poor brand alignment: Does it make sense for Starbucks, a brand many people associate with high prices and gentrification, to lead a discussion about race relations?
  2. Lack of authenticity: Starbucks asked their employees (“partners”) to do the heavy lifting for #RaceTogether. While they’re expert at making coffee drinks, these “partners” have no special training for facilitating a knowledegeable, nuanced conversation about race. The result? #RaceTogether looked like a simple publicity stunt.
  3. No plan for handling blowback: Soon after word got out about #RaceTogether, customers and others began complaining on social media. Starbucks had no answers. Soon, the Twitter account for Starbucks Senior VP of Global Communications was taken down. It’s hard to believe Starbucks didn’t at least consider the possibility of negative feedback, and that they didn’t have a contingency plan for handling it.

The bottom line: despite good intentions, #RaceTogether damaged Starbucks’ brand – damage that easily could’ve been prevented.

As individuals, we can learn a lesson from #RaceTogether. Everything we publish on the web — an article, a blog post, a comment, a Facebook update — has an effect on our personal brands. Most times the effect is innocuous, but sometimes the effect — for good or ill — is huge. It’s hard to predict when those times will be.

The best policy is to start with a clear vision of your personal brand and what you want it to be. Then publish only those things that fit that vision. Had Starbucks done this, they either would’ve found a better way to achieve their hoped-for outcome or they would’ve realized it was nothing they had any business doing.

What lessons do you see in the #RaceTogether experience?

Time to follow a new technology path?

In his keynote talk at the recent TC World conference in Bangalore, Tom Johnson makes the case for creating customer documentation through the use of modern web-development platforms that treat content as code.

Jekyll software logo

Jekyll (software) Logo – source: Wikipedia

Tom invites us, the Technical Communication community, to get past our fascination with XML, which many web developers regard as dated. Instead, he wonders if the time is right to start developing content on popular platforms like Jekyll.

Tom being Tom, he backs his words with action. He’s about to embark on an experiment in which, using Jekyll, he’ll try to replicate the features of DITA. He describes this experiment in the comments section of the same blog post that contains the recording of his keynote talk.

DITA logoI’m an old Tech Comm guy, more a dabbler than a true programmer, so I’m a bit intimidated by the idea of tossing aside my comfortable tool set for something I’ve never used. In fact the phrase “treating content as code” sends a chill down my spine.

Yet I believe Tom is onto something. At a time when we talk about breaking down silos, about leading the effort to unify content throughout the organization, why would we want to wall ourselves off by using our own specialized, peculiar tool set?

I encourage you to listen to Tom’s talk. Then, I’d like to know:

  1. Whether you agree with him — and why.
  2. If you have experience developing documentation using one of the web platforms Tom is talking about. If so, were you successful? What advantages did you find to using the web platform? Disadvantages? Problems you overcame?

I’m sure Tom would like to hear about your experiences too.

I can’t wait to hear about the progress of Tom’s DITA vs. Jekyll experiment. And I hope we can have a fruitful and sustained conversation in our profession about the pros and cons of using web-development platforms — and of using collaborative approaches like GitHub — for creating documentation.

Five reasons you have to vote in the STC election

Forgive the clickbait headline. But, dear STC member, you have to admit it worked. Here you are reading this page.

STC Election 2015Now that you’re here, without further ado:

  1. In 2012 Ray Gallon was elected to the STC Board of Directors by one vote. That’s right: every single person who voted for Ray had a direct effect on the composition of the Board throughout Ray’s two-year term. Everyone who supported the losing candidate, but who didn’t bother to vote, had a direct effect too. Your vote does count.
  2. In 2011 Tricia Spayer was elected to the Board by two votes¹. That’s just in case you thought the 2012 result was a fluke. A golfer getting struck by lightning while sinking a hole-in-one. No, it’s not like that.
  3. Here are the percentages of STC members who did not vote in the last four Society elections: 81%, 84%, 83%, 85%. In an organization that depends on its members’ participation, that’s shameful. Appalling. Pick your adjective. The only way to change it is for each of you to vote, one by one.
  4. I myself have recited the mantra that every candidate is well qualified, and therefore STC stands to gain regardless of who’s elected. (Sounds like Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average.) By expressing that view, perhaps I’ve unwittingly helped tamp down the voting percentages. Why vote, if all of the candidates are equally good? Because every candidate is different. Every candidate comes to the election with their own set of priorities for STC, and their own set of experiences. Take time to learn which candidates’ views and experiences align most closely with your views about what’s best for STC. Then vote for those candidates.
  5. STC shouldn’t be one of those organizations you join just to get the membership card, just to add a line to your resume. It’s an organization where, the more you participate, the more you get back. If you’ve never participated in STC, why not start by casting your vote?

Tell me what you think in the comments. If you’ve already voted, tell me why you did.


Note 1: All election results are published on the STC website. Just search for STC election results along with the year.

Leading through sacrifice and strength

Photo of the Dalai Lama

The 14th Dalai Lama [Flickr:christopher]

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. The New York Times reports that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, is threatening not to reincarnate after he dies.

In response, the Communist Chinese government is saying, “Oh, yes you will.”

Most of us in the West don’t believe in reincarnation, so on the surface it sounds absurd. Can a man – even one as exalted as the Dalai Lama – control what happens to him after he dies? Can a government – an atheistic one at that – dictate how he exerts that control?

If it sounds absurd to us, it’s deadly serious to the people who are directly involved. And while I don’t believe in reincarnation, I do believe in genuine, sacrificial leadership.

Continue reading

IBM Verse: A new way to work, or just solving an old problem?

Have you heard? IBM is giving us a “new way to work.” It’s turned up its marketing fluff machine full blast, on behalf of software called IBM Verse.

According to the fluff, IBM wanted to create a technology platform that would make workers more efficient, by finding and connecting the myriad pieces of information they had at their disposal. To build this platform, they say, they decided to start with email.

Screen image of IBM Verse user interface

IBM Verse user interface





Yep. Email. If you listen to the fluff, email is the bane of every office worker’s existence. IBM’s webinars and YouTube videos describe the demoralizing and productivity-draining experience of starting each day with an overflowing inbox and never being able to catch up.

Maybe that’s how it is at IBM. But here in the rest of the world, that sales pitch is outdated.
Continue reading

What one thing isn’t Tech Comm doing?

Hand holding a penOn this third day of the third month, I have three questions for you about the Technical Communication profession:

  1. What one thing isn’t Tech Comm doing, that it should be doing?
  2. What needs to happen to get us started doing that one thing?
  3. What are you personally doing about it?

So much has been written and said about how technology is evolving, how marketplaces are changing, how all of us need to learn new skills just to keep up. It can feel overwhelming.

So let’s boil it down. Pick one thing, and use the Comments section to tell me how you, and we, can make it happen.

(Part of the inspiration for this post is a fantastic article by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Content Amid Chaos, in which Sara advises — among other things — approaching a big problem by starting with just one thing.)

Leading silently

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we honor today, once said:

I am rather inclined to silence, and whether that be wise or not, it is at least more unusual nowadays to find a man who can hold his tongue than to find one who cannot.

Statue of Lincoln at Lincoln Memorial

Image source: Jeff Kubina (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m glad to hear that, for I too am rather inclined to silence. I like to think that, whatever my silence might cost me in terms of renown, it at least sets me apart from the crowd.

Lincoln certainly stands apart from other great historical figures, in that he was serenely confident in his own beliefs and abilities. When you have that kind of confidence, you don’t need to talk about it.

Lincoln surrounded himself with people who were not silent — men who were considered great in their time and who, in many cases, thought of themselves as great. Lincoln never worried about these men stealing the spotlight or claiming the credit. Yet, through persistence and determination, Lincoln always had the last word.

History has rightly judged him as greater than all the great men who shared the stage with him.

I appreciate Lincoln and the example he set: a silent leader, leading with humility and resolve.

Your guide to content strategy maturity models

I can tell that the science of content strategy is maturing. Why? Because I’m seeing more and more maturity models.

This week’s inbox contains a link to Suite Solutions’ Knowledge Value Maturity Model, which  describes levels of Lagging, Performing, and World Class for 10 aspects, or “tracks,” of content.

Click any image to see a larger version.

The Knowledge Value Maturity Model

The Knowledge Value Maturity Model by Suite Solutions (source: Center for Information-Development Management)

For me the Suite Solutions model falls short because it doesn’t crisply differentiate between content and corporate knowledge. Content refers to published matter, for both internal and external consumption; knowledge is (or ought to be) much broader, encompassing processes, business intelligence, and so forth.

Also, some of the tracks are way less relevant than others. Display format, for example, defines the World Class maturity level as “wearables and glasses” — where, in fact, the best display format is simply the one that best meets the needs of the audience.

I can’t help comparing the Knowledge Value Maturity Model with the Content Maturity Model published last month by Kathy Wagner of Content Strategy, Inc. I think this one is closer to the mark — for starters, because it focuses on content rather than on the broader knowledge.

Content Maturity Model

Content Maturity Model (source: Content Strategy, Inc.)

Continue reading

On greatness and elevating others

Doug Glanville, the baseball player turned author, described what it was like to play against the men who were recently elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Randy Johnson

What it looked like to bat against Randy Johnson [John Froschauer / Associated Press]

According to Glanville, playing against those great players — in particular, pitcher Randy Johnson — made him into a better player.

Glanville recalls a spring training game, very early in his career, when he hit a triple off Johnson. His confidence soared as a result: “at a young age,” he writes, “I had a tangible baseball result to go with my faith in my ability.”

He concludes by observing that “true greatness means more than a chain of personal bests. It also means bringing out the best in others — teammates and, maybe even more so, opponents.”

I never was an athlete. But I’ve long understood that I play my best when competing against opponents who are really good, no matter what the game: tennis, bowling, chess. I didn’t fully understood why, though, until I read Glanville’s article. Continue reading