Working with Indian Technical Communicators—Collaborate for Success

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August 2005


Working with Indian Technical Communicators—Collaborate for Success


CIDMIconNewsletter Susan Alexander, Write Concept; Tharun K. Unni, FaceTime Communications; Ravishanakar R., Cisco Systems

India has been an actively sought software- development destination for the last decade. While everyone today is aware of the prowess of Indian software engineers, Indian technical communicators have much to learn before they receive such a stamp of approval. This article is an attempt to present the reality of working as a technical communicator in India and to dispel common myths about this community.

Is Cost the Sole Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of the Indian Technical Communicator?

Organizations send technical communication work to India for the following reasons:

  • To reduce product development time. The time difference between India and the US, Europe, and Far East is advantageous if organizations allocate different work components to different locations, thereby getting more work completed on a given day. Corporations that engage in cross-geographical and parallel product development have seen the advantage of this kind of operation. Technical documentation is a vital part of the product development process.
  • Knowledge transfer to Indian technical communicators is easier when software and hardware components are also developed in India. A common cultural background and close proximity facilitates faster information sharing between technical communicators and developers. This helps Indian technical writers develop accurate and thorough documentation.
  • Technical communication teams in India can deliver on schedule and at acceptable quality levels. Nearly every major IT corporation in the world has an Indian operation that has one or more technical communication teams that develop documentation for their products.

It is unlikely that lowered costs are the deciding factor when organizations resolve to move technical communication jobs to India. There has to be a worthwhile contribution from Indian technical communication teams because the cost of correcting language and technical defects would not make it worthwhile to send writing projects here.

One senior technical communicator claims,

 

“On at least three occasions and in three different companies, my experience has been that I started as a lone writer and had to prove that I could deliver according to expectations. Starting with virtually no introduction to my role-in one instance I was given a set of CDs from which I was expected to understand everything I was supposed to know-I was successful in meeting expectations and was asked to grow a team to handle the work. In each situation, the team developed a documentation process and followed style guides widely accepted in the industry. Outlines of guides were circulated, reviewed, and approved before starting the writing effort. Defects and feedback on documentation were constantly reviewed and monitored to closure. The documentation process included peer and technical reviews and was followed rigorously before documentation was released. The teams also followed standard configuration management practices.”

 

The situation described above highlights the capability of Indian technical communicators to adapt to new situations and requirements.

Understanding the Indian Technical Communication Environment

If your organization plans to set up a technical communication team in India, you are likely to have several questions about the environment in which you intend to work. Table 1 presents some questions you might have and their answers.

Table1
Table 1. Setting Up a Technical Communication Team in India—Questions and Answers

Challenges Faced by Indian Technical Communicators

Discussions with writers in various companies brought out the following challenges to their being able to work to their greatest potential:

  • There is sometimes no scope for handing over or taking over documentation that moves from a parent company to its Indian subsidiary. Sheer geographic divides as well as not being able to find the original authors of the documentation result in the unexpected. At times, technical communicators in India are not informed of the extent of updates completed, details of the templates used, or where graphics can be found. In more esoteric cases, no one is informed of the use of a company’s proprietary fonts that are obviously found “missing” by FrameMaker or hard coding in RoboHelp files that have ramifications when the Help is updated.
  • Requirements are not clearly explained. The Director of Technical Communication located in country X says she wants a simple update and it should take a single day. This is for an existing product that was ported from one operating system to another. The requirement is that you replace “Windows” with “Linux.” No big deal-until the writer in India realizes that the product works completely different on Linux and this project can never be completed in a month, let alone a single day.
  • Legacy documentation has associated snags. When sections of a document are updated and the document is reviewed by editors outside India, harsh comments are made on the language. When the documentation manager does a check, it is revealed that the areas where these problems exist were not those done in India. In some instances, the language in templates with boilerplate text given to the Indian technical communicator did not follow the company style guide nor was the boilerplate text checked for grammar.
  • Managing expectations is at the forefront of an Indian documentation manager’s responsibilities.

Let’s look at some real life instances:

  • Local management and technical communication managers in the parent company demand innovation and excellence while the work at hand involves stiff deadlines and requires updates to lengthy legacy documents.
  • There is little communication of what writers are expected to do when they actually visit their parent company in country X. One writer was asked to make a visit to “understand” the product. She sat in meetings the entire day taking copious notes. However, it was heard in India that the writer was not doing all that was expected. It was later found that parent company personnel also expected her to make updates to documents.
  • When the Director of Technical Communication at the parent company of an Indian subsidiary had to attend to a personal emergency, the Program Manager of a flagship product to be developed in India asked the Technical Publications Manager in India for the Documentation Plan. This was discussed by the Indian Tech Pubs team, written, and submitted as there was no idea when the Director would return to work. The plan was commended by the Program Manager but when the Director returned to work after three days, the Indian Technical Publications Manager was queried as to why the plan was submitted without his approval.

How these Challenges can be Addressed

When it is decided to move technical communication components to India, a well-thought out model is required. This could be based on the model that Information Technology companies use to transfer technology and skills to engineers. This would require that companies:

  • Identify the technical communication areas that will be moved to India.
  • Arrive at a model that adequately staffs the writing team. This could draw from projections made for development and test teams. Example: One technical communicator for every 10 developers.
  • Encourage the documentation, development (engineering), and test teams to “co-exist” in the same location (preferably in the same building) until the teams have a strong rapport.
  • Invest in a structured training program that initially covers the documentation tools and documentation structure.
  • Develop good “Transfer of Information” documentation for future reference and new employees who will join the technical communication department. This would list all information sources that will be required to handle the documentation such as style guides, templates, process-related artifacts, workarounds, special treatment of certain items, and company-specific information.
  • Continue to monitor and provide minimal support to the team for six months until it can function independently.

To ensure that your Indian technical communication team will develop and grow into an entity that is vibrant and self-sustaining:

  • Encourage Indian technical communication teams to create, innovate, and improve their documentation and the processes used to develop it.
  • Communicate expectations clearly and in advance so that everyone involved is sure of what needs to be done. Emails that can be re-read are a good way of ensuring that all the points have been communicated.
  • Empower Indian technical communication managers so that they feel they are really leading a team as opposed to being a “mailbox” that receives documentation requests, assigns them, and monitors their completion. This means that managers should be given the leeway to suggest new tools, processes, and be assigned wider responsibility.

An Aside: Technical Communication in India

Technical Writing, or technical communication, has become fairly well-known as a profession in India only in the last decade. In 2005, there are at best “pockets” of technical writers in Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Pune. A cursory glance at the educational qualifications of technical writers in the country shows that the large majority hold masters degrees in arts or science disciplines. Within most established technical writing teams, several members have technical qualifications such as a Master of Computer Applications, Master of Science, and degrees in a variety of engineering disciplines.

Technical communicators in India have realized that knowledge is critical to their professional success. The absence of formal technical communication degrees in the country led to the rise of mailing lists such as Technical Writers of India (TWIN) and informal information-sharing sessions in various cities in the early 1990s. The STC India Chapter was instituted in 1998 and received Chapter of Distinction awards in 2004 and 2005. INDUS, the chapter’s newsletter, has won awards over the last four years. Many other chapters now request permission to use articles published in INDUS and authored by technical communicators in India. Since the India Chapter was created, education has been a primary consideration. Nearly 70 learning sessions were conducted in different Indian cities in 2004.

Academic initiatives in the field of technical communication are on the rise. In the past five years Calicut University has successfully conducted a semester-long technical communication course as part of the Mass Communication and Journalism degree program. Stella Maris College, Chennai, offers an elective course in Technical Writing at the Masters Degree level. The University of Pune launched a two-month diploma course in technical communication in 2004. CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Authors

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