Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Emperor's New Clothes

What do you get when you have 593 years of work experience, a lot of which is as a manager? It’s the TC World Executive Conference!

Oh the title got your attention? Mission accomplished! Let's see if you can figure out why it's titled like that.
We’ve always had management tracks in most documentation conferences, and we’ll always have them. But here was an attempt to organize a conference focused only on managers in technical communication. And did it work? Well the testimonies at the end of the program sounded positive. This is not a new concept, at least to me. Triumph India had a similar program that they used to organize where their managers and other managers from their clientele would meet to discuss Tech Comm topics, or listen to a specially invited speaker. Of course this was on a much smaller scale, but it was fairly regular and yeah... sooo long ago.

Let’s start with what I thought was the best session of the day. It was an Innovation workshop... on steroids. With an almost lethal sense of humor, he’s often left detractors red faced, even before they knew what was happening. He's extremely sharp, thinks really fast and has an answer for almost anything. He’s now a consultant in gamification. He’s also doing something creative in the headhunting business.
Now imagine the same Edwin Skau on steroids. Literally. (He has some health issues for which he’s being treated with steroids.) You decide if that was good news for us or not.
If you've not heard of gamification before, here are a couple of really good videos that could give you an idea. The Ananth Pai video is brilliant and really inspiring.
Very rarely do you come across a presenter who starts his presentation by strumming a guitar. But that is how this workshop started.  Edwin strumming the guitar and the audience being made to chant "dum dum dum". This soon became "la la la.." because, as he put it, some people were taking things personally! I wish they allowed him time to complete the workshop. He had to pretty much stop abruptly, as we ran out of time. But not before I managed to jot down a few things.

  • One of the aspects about creativity is that you need to have time for it. Pressure doesn't bring out the most creative solutions. In pressure situations, the intent is always to somehow get the stuff out of the door.  Some of the folks in the audience disagreed and said they knew of situations where people had come up with creative solutions when under pressure. But I tend to agree with Edwin on his view point. The argument in this case would be to give the same people some more time. Would they come up with a better solution? The answer is usually yes. “It could have been better if I had a little more time”. “I could have done this also if I could think clearly….” , “Looking back, since the pressure to deliver is over, here’s what I would have done…” We’ve heard these comments over and over again.
  • Other aspects to be considered when speaking about creativity is that there's always a beginning and an end, there should be sufficient time, must involve risk, must be fun and must have wins.
  • Everyone is creative. Look at the excuses people come up with when work is not done, was his argument. I don't agree with this view. Can everyone be an Edwin? In the right circumstances maybe? But I’m sure we’ve all got at least one person in mind who could easily disprove this. It’s like saying all people are beautiful and ugliness is a myth :)
  • How do you measure creativity? Organizations often end up measuring activity instead of impact.
  • Some ways of measuring creativity include identifying value added, problems solved or revenue generated.
  • It’s important to redefine an issue before you attempt to think of a creative solution
  • There's more, but I was so fascinated that I stopped taking notes! Besides, he didn't complete the presentation. So I'm hanging on for his presentation, just like you.

Sarah O Keefe spoke to us from the US. She manages a company called Scriptonium. Here are some notes from her Webmeeting.
  • She talked about how technical communication could not only save costs but also add revenue and be considered a business asset.
  • She stressed on the importance of showing value to get funding for any initiative. She took the example of how a small script could shave off a couple of hours of writing time and how to present this data as a business case. This cumulative time saved over a week or month when considered with the rate of pay per hour, adds up to some number. It's now easier to show value as the savings of a 100 dollar script now compares with several hundred dollars worth of writer time. No brainer.
  • She  then took us through some common reasons for documentation that could be used to build a business case. 
  • Sarah then talked about some myths when it comes to bad documentation.
  • Bad documentation also resulted in
    • Higher call volumes to customer support
    • Product returns, lost sales
    • Contradictions to marketing literature
    • Regulatory delays, legal issues
    • Huge globalization and localization costs
    • Content duplication
  • Efficient content development can be discussed under reusing content, localization and formatting and production
  • 6 to 20% of revenue is spent on support. This number is larger for smaller organizations
  • Companies pay $6 to $36 per transaction of customer support
  • Obstacles that hinder efficient phone support
    • Time to load (Large PDFs are bad. Seriously!)
    • Local knowledge bases that don't have the official and most updated information
    • Conflicting information from customer support that does not match the documentation
  • Premium products must also have premium documentation.
  • If you are modularizing content for reuse, as a thumb rule, copy paste is a bad idea
  • Tech communication can support marketing with by creating the technical part of the content
  • We can also increase product visibility and help build user communities
  • Content must not only be searchable, but also findable. SEO ensures content appears at the top of your search results
  • Content must also be discoverable. It’s a futile exercise to hide your content and not make it accessible to Google because you are scared that the competition will steal your ideas. Sarah was convinced that the competition already had all the information they wanted!
  •, has several case studies and sample cost calculations.
Tony Self, who is also called Dr DITA talked to us from Australia. He spoke about DITA adoption and best practices. This was also a Webmeeting.
  • It’s not a good idea to port legacy content as is. Trying to do so is like putting lipstick on a pig! And we weren’t talking about Babe here.
  • It makes more sense to start from scratch.
  • Importance of fidelity and ability to curate content when it comes to DITA
  • Everyone needn’t adopt DITA. It doesn’t make sense to blindly adopt DITA. You need a strong business case to do so
  • Allows writers to focus on the content as it is separated from format
  • Important to understand what can go wrong during DITA adoption
  • Important to establish metrics to measure progress
  • Develop a strategy for DITA
  • Discussed case studies from various companies that have adopted DITA and have had varying levels of success.
  • Implement in a phased manner. Writing – Design – Assembly – Publication
  • New skills required when moving to DITA includes modular writing, topic based writing, adding metadata, writing to a specific audience at a micro level
  • Tony urged the audience to join the DITA Linkedin group, attend conferences and read several white papers on DITA
Kapil Verma, a product manager from Adobe, also used the webinar route to speak to us. He shared several interesting statistics on how structured authoring has improved documentation
  • Structured authoring has increased reuse in content in some companies by 10 to 15 %. In other companies, reuse is as high as 65 to 90%.
  • Time spent on fixing formatting issues has reduced between 30 and 75%. This enables authors to focus on the content.
  • Errors have reduced by as much as 34%
  • Time to market now takes 40% less time
  • Content can be easily ported to multiple output formats
  • He talked about how Ipads are now being used by pilots to access documentation and how that changes delivery for tech communication
  • It’s not just aerospace, but the mobile trend is now embraced in the telecom, energy and other domains.
  • More statistics on the use of Rich Media
    • 60% of users use images / vector art
    • 40% of use videos
    • 33% use interactive hot spot linked images
    • 18% use some form of audio files
    • 11% use 3D graphics
  • Kapil stressed on the economic condition and the increasing pressure to do more with less.
  • Statistics on collaboration
    • There are about 230 million tweets per hour
    • Facebook status updates add up to about 30 billion in a month
    • 48 hrs of video are uploaded to Youtube per minute!
    • Wikipedia has 3.5 million articles to date
Sandhya Prasad conducted workshops on setting up a documentation department and on quality concerns in Documentation, well mostly on the former. The audience was randomly split into groups and each group was asked to discuss one of the following topics.
  • Strategy
  • Hiring
  • Training
  • Operations
  • Credibility
  • Stakeholders
  • Team Building
  • Retention
Each team had to discuss challenges with respect to the assigned topic and then come up with best practices. We had to list down our findings on charts and hang them on the wall. You’ll notice that there are 2 charts on strategy and none on Retention. That probably explains why retention is a problem!
Pardon the poor quality, but here is a link to pictures of the charts.
We then had to present the best practice creatively using a skit or a song or whatever we could think got the message across. Boy, was this fun! While one team performed a jingle, the rest were all short skits. We do have some good actors too!
The final event was a Panel discussion. And this is probably where the emperor’s new clothes come in. Everyone knows this, but too much of emphasis is placed on a title. Does it really take a director to provide direction? Sometimes it’s just a title! Some may have earned it, others are still in the process of earning it. Why attribute leadership and the ability to provide direction, to a position? There are so many folks who have never been a director, but could provide much more inspiring insights. Edwin did briefly touch upon the way titles are misused. Personally, I would have preferred allowing Edwin the extra time required to complete his presentation.
But let's look at the discussion. The panel comprised of Directors from Dell, Alcatel Lucent, EMC2, Vestas and SAP. Some of the points discussed are listed below
  • Is the documentation industry in India facing quality issues? Most of the panel felt that this is not entirely true. However, they agreed that not everything can be defended.
  • Some of the quality issues were attributed to unrealistic expectations and ‘offshore politics’.
  • Some members of the panel felt that customers value accuracy of technical information more than perfectly written English
  • Discussed patents filed by writers in various organizations
  • Importance of succession planning
  • Managing employee expectations and successful experiments in relocating writers across the globe.
  • Challenges faced include meeting employee expectations
  • One of the panelists likened the trend of job hopping to employees treating an organization as a transit lounge!
There's also a lot to look forward to in February when the main TC world conference is being planned. Since a majority of tech writers are women, there are plans to set up a day care for kids so that the Saturday event attracts more women.
The men can just hope that the following year, they'll plan something for the wives too!
And if that happens, please remember to ask for identification!

1 comment:

  1. This was first published on Twin - on Nov 21, 2012.