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

Easy translation: a double-edged sword?

Google Translate word lens feature

Image source: Google

Big news from Google Translate: you can now point your smartphone camera at French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, or Spanish text — and immediately get an English translation. (Thanks to Danielle Villegas — @TechCommGeekMom — for pointing me to the original article by Pete Pachal on Mashable.)

As Pachal writes, “Star Trek‘s universal translator is here, and it’s on your phone.”

It’s very cool, and incredibly useful.

However, as someone who used a slide rule before pocket calculators came into vogue, I have a question.

Just as calculators (and then personal computers) eroded people’s skill at doing long division, will easy translation software make people less likely to learn foreign languages? If I can navigate around Lisbon or Moscow using my smartphone, will I bother to learn anything at all of Portuguese or Russian?

And if that’s true, won’t something be lost? After all, learning a language is more than just learning vocabulary and syntax. It’s gaining a bit of insight into the culture that produced the language, and it’s opening up a way for me to connect with people in that culture.

So, hooray for easy translation software. In the short run it’ll certainly make our lives easier. But will it prove to be a double-edged sword?

Tell me what you think in the comments.

New technologies and their stories

Machines that tell stories. What potential do they hold — both commercially and otherwise? How might they affect the professions of journalism and technical communication?

Robot reading a book

Will “robots” soon write stories and then read them to us? (Image source: Matanya Horowitz)

I came upon a fascinating article this week, titled New technologies and their stories. The article’s contents were curated by design researcher Hanna Zoon at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

I greatly enjoyed the article, despite a couple of hindrances in reading it. First, Zoon often refers to herself in the third person. Second, the article is in German. (My rusty high-school German, buttressed by Google Translate, rode to the rescue.)

Zoon starts by saying “Computers can do different things than people.” Then she describes some of those things.
Continue reading

Technology doesn’t make it Tech Comm

A colleague of mine is creating a training course for new technical communicators. In it, she includes the definition of technical communication from the STC website. (It’s easy to find: right at the top of the About pull-down.)

“Technical communication,” STC says, “is a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics [emphasis STC’s]:”

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

STC logoI’m good with items 1 and 3. It’s the second item that stops me in my tracks.

According to item 2, this blog post is technical communication. It communicates (at least I flatter myself that it does). And it’s published using a social-media platform.

According to item 2, every article in The Onion is technical communication. And every tweet by @A_single_bear.

It gets worse. A telephone is technology. So every obscene phone call — no matter what vile and/or creepy things it communicates — is technical communication.

STC, by assuming that technology implies technical, has given us a ridiculously broad definition for our profession.

My request is a simple one: Would someone at STC headquarters please fix that definition? Deleting the one bullet would probably do the trick — although you’re welcome to any of the ideas I shared in my first-ever post on this blog: What is technical communication?

That’s all. I don’t think I’m asking for too much. I’d just like to know that “the world’s leading organization dedicated to advancing the field of technical communication” (again, quoting from the website) actually knows what technical communication is.

Halfway there: Technical communication trends in the 2010s

In a couple of weeks we’ll have reached the midpoint of a decade. Five years ago we turned our calendars to 2010, and five years from now we’ll stand at the threshold of 2020.

crystal ballIt’s fun to look back five years (which is, of course, an eternity in Internet time) and see what people were predicting for the new decade. What changes, and what new opportunities, would the 2010s bring for technical communicators?

One pundit predicted that we’d see credentialing or certification: “As technical communicators vie to prove their value, I expect increased interest in finding ways to differentiate ourselves in the job market….Perhaps there’ll be a PMP-like course for content strategists or information architects.”

Oops. While STC did launch a certification program a couple of years ago, they put it on ice when demand didn’t match expectations. Now nobody is talking about certification, as far as I can tell.

So what knucklehead made that prediction? That would be me.

Fortunately, I did better at spotting some other trends. Continue reading

All I want for Christmas is…. (Tech Comm edition)

I’ve been a good little technical communicator all year. At least I think I have. If I’m on Santa’s Nice list and not his Naughty list, this is what I hope he’ll bring:Santa Claus

  • A good understanding of who my readers are
  • User stories or scenarios that accurately describe the tasks my readers are trying to do
  • SMEs who take documentation seriously and make themselves available
  • A doc plan that spells out what everyone expects of me — and what I can expect from them
  • Managers who understand that good technical communication is good for the bottom line
  • Tools that let me create and update content, store content, and (especially) publish content to different formats without turning myself into a contortionist
  • A good editor

Here are some things I do not want to find in my stocking:

  • A brand new release of the authoring software, with major changes to the user interface, right in the middle of a project
  • Overpromising by upper management: “Sure, we can ship all of those features by next month”
  • Silos that make it hard, if not impossible, to develop content collaboratively
  • Last-minute translation requirements (and come to think of it, last-minute anything)

What’s on your Tech Comm holiday wish list?

Leader, be worthy of my trust

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters

Engraving in the lobby at CIA Headquarters (source: CIA Headquarters virtual tour)

Earlier this week, in the Project Management section that I teach as part of Duke University’s Technical Communication certificate program, I told my students that trust is the currency of project management. In fact, trust is the currency of all leadership.

You can coerce people using brute force alone. But to truly lead, you have to earn your followers’ trust.

How does a leader earn trust? By showing that he or she is trustworthy. By never pursuing hidden agendas. By being truthful.

Yesterday John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, held a press conference in the lobby of CIA headquarters. Engraved in the wall next to him, according to the New York Times, was a verse from the Gospel of John: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I wonder if Brennan thought about that verse of scripture as he stood there, defending his predecessors at the CIA who’d covered up the horrifying truth that its agents — agents of my country, the United States of America — had tortured and abused human beings as part of the “war on terror.” Continue reading