Trends for 2000: Moving Beyond the Cottage
At STC’s Annual Conference last May in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jaap van der Meer, CEO of Alpnet, a provider of translation services, noted that his company and others have been working to turn translation from a cottage industry into a global business. I believe that the same transition is occurring and will continue to occur in technical communication. In the past twenty years, even with the phenomenal growth we have seen in technical communication, we have tended to resemble a cottage industry. To survive and thrive, we need to take a strong and professional business perspective, moving from the cottage to the corporation.
Let us look at some of the characteristics of a cottage industry. Traditionally, cottage industries have been dominated by craftspeople working independently and isolated from one another. The craft world has developed individual definitions of quality, with workers doing what they believe is valuable, often despite outside pressures and customer needs. Craftspeople design and create what is important to them.
The craft world also traditionally has taken great pride in tools and technologies of the trade. In many instances, the craft world has developed its own tools, uniquely suited to the tasks at hand. The skilled craftsperson becomes an expert in the use of these tools.
Craftspeople are often fiercely independent, preferring to work alone or with a few assistants. If they form coalitions, they form them as cooperatives, because they seek to avoid the structures and responsibilities that come with creating significant business ventures.
Since the advent of the PC twenty years ago, technical communication has grown as a cottage industry, even within large corporations. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of independent contractors, who either work completely alone or form loose cooperatives. We have seen a similar increase in the number of people working at home, which many argue dramatically increases their productivity. Even within a corporate environment, we find most technical communicators working in groups of three or fewer people, often in close association with engineering or software development. And within these small groups, individuals often know little about the work being done by their colleagues. They behave as independents even though they are housed together.
Even in the largest organizations, those with thirty, sixty, a hundred, or even two hundred or more technical communicators under one management, we find the same “cottage industry” in place. Managers serve chiefly as project and personnel administrators. Communicators work independently, often having total control of their own deliverables.
The problem with this model is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The demand to reduce costs, increase productivity, accommodate shorter schedules, and justify the return on investment in information development has changed the model. Managers who want additional funding are being asked to justify what they do in terms of value to the customers. And, as I see it, as the cost savings from electronic delivery are realized, corporate management will begin to look toward other means of cost savings, which will not be as simple to achieve. Abandoning paper has, in fact, been an easy mark. The next set of demands will require significant changes in the way that we do our work. Independent ownership of the output of our efforts will become less and less likely.
I argue that technical communication is on the verge of a major paradigm shift, one that will take us away from the “cottage industry” that has been growing since the advent of desktop publishing. Following are some of the trends I believe have begun to put pressure on the independent technical communicator’s prerogative to craft a personal vision of a document.
Pressure to keep staffing low results in too few technical communicators to allow everyone to craft individual books and help files. We find that many organizations believe that they do not have enough staff to meet all demands. Consequently, staff members are responsible for multiple deliverables, and individuals are required to assist their colleagues in meeting deadlines.
Especially in the United States, low unemployment figures mean that a department may not be able to find qualified individuals to fill open positions. Many managers report that they have open requisitions or are hiring less experienced individuals. Unless an economic downturn occurs, I expect no short-term relief in the race to do more with fewer trained people.
So far, it has been easy to hide minimal productivity gains under the cost reductions and schedule tightening of electronic delivery. That will change as electronic delivery becomes the norm. Already, many managers I work with are being asked to report on the number of projects completed in relation to the total staff hours expended. Senior management expects to see increases in overall productivity with the same or smaller staff.
Continued use of contractors
Because of limitations on hiring and restrictions on number of personnel, organizations have satisfied some of their needs for additional people during peak periods by hiring contractors. In the United States, tax regulations have limited the use of independent contractors, resulting in the growth of the contract agency or “job shop.” Recent court decisions have made it increasingly difficult for companies to retain contractors for long periods.
I believe that the use of contractors will continue. However, their roles will continue to evolve. In the future, more contractors will be “short termers” with little connection to the core activities of the organization. At present, the industry is experiencing an increase in the number of permanent positions that companies hope to fill because of high and continued long-term demand for technical communication. In the current high-growth economy, the trend toward more in-house positions should continue, but the need for short-term contractors will remain high. As long as there is a population of technical communicators who prefer short-term assignments and are willing to do more maintenance than design work, good opportunities for continued work will exist.
At the same time, we have seen a decided downturn in the past five years in the demand for large-scale, project-oriented design and development work. The large organizations with sophisticated management that used to provide most of this work are long gone, replaced by smaller organizations with less experienced managers who are more comfortable hiring individuals full time as contractors to work in house.
Complex delivery requirements
In the past five years, I have heard many technical communicators complain about the number of tools they have had to learn. Reviewing résumés these days is like reviewing a tools catalog-communicators list all the technologies of their craft that they have mastered.
Unfortunately, there is no rest. The delivery technologies that are available to us continue to change and continue to display a frustrating lack of standards. Everything works differently everywhere.
As a result, we are now seeing an increase in the number of organizations using production specialists to handle the technologies of final delivery to customers. In a way, this is a backward trend. When publications departments relied upon typesetters and print specialists, they had groups devoted to handling production issues. Only with the introduction of desktop publishing in the mid-eighties was it assumed that individual writers could handle a document all the way through final production.
Not only has the diversity of delivery methods contributed to increasing specialization, so too has the growing recognition that the craft model in which an individual handles all aspects of document creation detracts from content development. In one organization we recently studied, more than 75% of an individual communicator’s total time was taken up by page design and final page production. Less than 25% of time was devoted to user analysis and content development. The introduction of new tools and a specialized production staff to handle them is the direct result of customer complaints about the quality of the content and the lack of understanding of their information needs.
With the increased use of short-term contractors and the continuing craft environment, opportunities for telecommuting have either grown somewhat or have stabilized. In general, I have not seen a great increase in telecommuting for technical communicators except in a few companies with space problems. The need to interact with the engineering or programming teams often precludes working at home for long periods.
In fact, I believe we will see a decrease in opportunities for large-scale telecommuting because of the increasing use of information databases and the need for information reuse. The use of databases and the cooperation needed among the team members reusing information will make it much more difficult for team members to be absent for long periods.
In addition, the need for a customer focus, rather than an engineering focus on information design means that team members must cooperate more. People designing user interfaces, embedded help, performance support systems, and domain-centric information cannot work as isolated craftspeople. They must function as fully involved and cooperative team members. Technical communicators who need to work closely with marketing, support, development, and consulting team members to better understand customers cannot be “home alone.”
Shorter cycle time
We have all experienced product-development schedules that are getting shorter and shorter in response to competitive pressures. Shorter schedules mean that our organizations need to find ways to eliminate process steps or decrease the amount of time we take to perform them. The simplest way to do so is through technology. Many departments have learned that if we can automate production steps through technology, we can shorten cycle time without risking quality.
We can also shorten cycle time by adhering to standards and using standard processes and practices. Standardization, however, comes with some consequences. Innovation becomes less a matter of individual preference and more a matter of organizational decision making. In fact, an increasing number of organizations are moving to standard formats controlled either by ordinary templates or by SGML. Shorter cycle times demand that we seek enterprise-wide solutions to process issues rather than trying to resolve those issues individually.
Our companies are facing increased globalization of their markets, which requires that information be translated into multiple languages and localized to meet international customer requirements. Many companies are facing enormous translation and localization costs. One company was shocked by the potential costs of translating 8,000 pages of documentation into multiple languages. The company is now asking its technical communicators just why there are 8,000 pages. It also wants to know why there are no terminology standards, why the same information is written differently in multiple documents, and why highly personal writing styles make translation memory systems almost useless.
To minimize translation and localization costs, we need to learn to maintain strict standards on terminology, style, and document design. We need to increase editorial review to ensure that standards are maintained. We need to maximize reuse of information so that automated tools to support translation actually function as they are supposed to. Once again, individual choices need to be sublimated to the needs of the organization.
Customer focus in maturing markets
Although the need for standardization and structure is being driven by the need to reduce or contain costs, other factors are driving the need for innovative information design. Many areas of the computer industry are becoming mature, which means that customer information needs are changing. Where we once had innovative customers willing to take on more responsibility for learning new products, we now have pragmatic and conservative customers who demand more support for learning and using products effectively in their industry-specific domains.
Need for domain knowledge
The need to help customers adapt our technology products to their industries means that technical communicators must take responsibility for gaining domain and customer knowledge in addition to understanding the technology. At present, many technical communicators work closely with developers to understand the product and capture product specifications. In increasingly conservative markets, we have new roles to play, showing customers how products will affect their work.
System-based information and task orientation that starts with system tasks are fast becoming obsolete for customers. In other words, users don’t necessarily want to know what the product can do; they want to know how to do what they want to do. To produce truly viable customer information, we must “go to work for the customers.” That may mean abandoning the existing goal of “sitting with the engineers.”
Increased customer focus may also lead to the need for two groups of technical communicators: one that works with development teams to gain product knowledge and another that works with customers to understand their information needs. This division of labor offers exciting opportunities for communicators who want to specialize in creating effective information for customers.
Outsourcing in commodity markets
In the past few years, we have witnessed an increase in wholesale outsourcing in companies that produce commodity products. Commodity markets experience enormous pressure to reduce costs; one way to do that is to outsource activities not considered core. In some companies, technical communication is outsourced because management has not recognized the role of communicators in supporting the learning processes of commodity customers.
Technical information managers have the responsibility of communicating customer needs and finding ways to maintain core staff even while outsourcing some functions. Managers of outsource companies also need to take responsibility for organizing their staff members to take advantage of cost-saving technologies and putting key processes into place to perform quality checks and reviews.
Electronic delivery of information
Except for a few holdouts and a few organizations that are sensitive to customers’ needs for paper, we have experienced a complete transition to electronic delivery. Most of that delivery, however, has taken the form of book files saved as PDFs onto CD-ROMs or Web sites. Electronic delivery is still being driven by cost savings rather than utility. Electronic delivery can be counter productive, especially in global markets where Web access is not ubiquitous.
Technical communication managers are discovering that electronic delivery is not enough to satisfy demands for increased productivity and reduced costs. Now they are beginning to look for technology that will decrease the manual labor of creating and posting files to the Web. I’d suggest that all the effort to learn new coding schemes may be quite short-lived. We cannot afford the time and effort of hand coding; new technologies already automate the process of file conversion.
The dramatic increase in interest in single sourcing and documentation databases in the past year represents a recognition that the cost savings from electronic delivery of information have already been achieved. Organizations are now looking for additional means to reduce costs: information reuse, dynamic updating, decreased production times, decreased development times because of standardization, and so on.
Maximum benefits from single sourcing come from structured writing, enforcement of standards, teamwork, and collaboration. That means a reorganization of the technical writer’s environment. No longer can we work independently, responsible for crafting whole books. We need to work as teams, with some members responsible for technical content, some for customer requirements, and others for design and innovation. Working as teams means everyone must know what everyone else is doing so that we can support the team goals for information design and development.
Documentation databases will also prove the demise of desktop publishing, I would predict. Many information managers have told me that desktop publishing and WYSIWYG have been the worst things to happen to their organizations, and they are happy to see an end to a focus on “tweaking” the appearance of a page.
SGML and XML
A few years ago, I really thought that SGML was dead as a tool for structured content and format. Yet, in the past six months, I’ve met many managers who are introducing SGML into their organizations. The reason—more standardization. They see SGML not as a way to facilitate printing on multiple platforms (its original purpose) but as a means to standardize information and maximize reuse. In every case, these same managers view SGML as a stopgap on the way to a full implementation of XML.
Does that mean that technical communicators need to go out and learn SGML or XML? Well, perhaps-at least to know what they are and what they can do for us. Unlike HTML, the tools for SGML and XML require less, not more, understanding by the person doing the writing. The tools are better and much of the conversion into XML will be automated. So we needn’t expect to know XML coding; it won’t be necessary. And, unless you want to be the organization’s tools expert, there’s not much to know about SGML either. Once an SGML system is designed, the writers follow the rules. Some of the SGML editors are more user friendly than others (FrameMaker+ SGML being one of the friendly ones), but the data-entry rules are specific to the organization and to the information types.
Cross-functional design teams
I’ll end with what I view as a continuing trend rather than a new one. The trend toward including technical communicators on cross-functional design teams was first mentioned almost five years ago at the first Trends Panel at the STC conference. All the managers and industry pundits participating in the panel focused on the need for people who could “hold their own” in a cross-functional environment. I think this trend continues and is changing at the same time.
The demand for skilled designers, knowledgeable about user needs and design issues, to participate on product design teams is already very high in innovative companies. I know at least a half dozen information-development departments that have assumed major responsibility for interface design and embedded performance support. This evolving role requires people who have learned a lot about design, work well in a cross-functional environment, and are willing and eager to keep learning. People who do well in this heady atmosphere tend not to be typical technical writers. Managers are looking for a new type of communicator who is very self-confident, viewing other team members as equals rather than superiors.
If you want to know what this emerging specialization looks like, I recommend Alan Cooper’s new book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum (Indianapolis: Sams, 1999). He describes interaction design and outlines the skills needed to do it well. It’s an exciting frontier for technical communicators-and the time to move in the direction of interaction design is now.
Taking a business perspective
It should be obvious that I am urging you to take a strong business perspective on your future in technical communication. If you most value individual craftsmanship, there will be places where your skills will continue to be welcome. But you may well be missing out on the major paradigm shift and the greatest challenges we face. At the forefront of the field, among the leaders, traditional technical communication (the design of manuals) is being challenged. Massive volumes of information that describe how products were designed, help systems that no one uses, system-oriented tasks, individually crafted masterworks, and so on are all fast becoming obsolete. You can accept the changes and add value, or you can drag behind. The decision is yours to make.
Reprinted with permission from Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. Arlington, VA, U.S.A.