Information Development in a Flat World
I had the privilege in October 2006 to be the keynote speaker at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Council on Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC). The CPTSC members are directors of most of the US-based academic programs in technical communication, including institutions such as the University of Minnesota, Texas Tech University, the University of Washington, San Francisco State University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The programs offer a variety of programs from certificates to PhDs. CPTSC members meet to discuss issues and recommend solutions. The theme of the 2006 conference was “Meeting Challenges of the New Economy.”
I was pleased to speak about the changes I see in information development in general and among technical communication professionals. Taking a direction that we set for the 2006 Best Practices conference, I spoke about “Information Development in a Flat World.” Information development organizations, as we all recognize, are being challenged by a changing work environment. We work with team members dispersed among numerous work places, both in our own countries and globally. We work with writers who are not native speakers of English and who are often isolated in remote locations and managed by people who are not information developers at all.
At the same time that we work in a more challenging global environment, we are under continuous pressure to reduce costs in the information-development life cycle, in translation, and in delivery methods. We have shorter and shorter development and release schedules, which means that we must find ways to increase efficiency and reduce the volume of content we produce and maintain.
As a consequence of these challenges, we find that we need different skill sets. We look for candidates both internally and externally who are experts in information architecture, information design, content management, tools and technology, localization, and customer studies. At the same time, we consider the basic skills critical, requiring that newly hired individuals come equipped with knowledge of writing (style, grammar, punctuation, spelling), editing, web and computer skills, the information-development life cycle, as well as attention to detail, ability to interact with diverse groups, and a sense of professional behavior.
More often, we seek individuals with personality types that differ from the older, introverted model that we once found sufficient. We are looking for business-oriented, innovative, resource, enterprise, and career-oriented people who can grow with our organizations and the jobs. We would like people who are familiar with the new set of international standards for technical communication, including DITA, DocBook, ISO, W3C, LISA, and more.
We want individuals who can thrive and innovation in a disciplined work structure that includes
- agile development methods with increased collaboration among team members
- structured writing
- topic-based authoring
- content normalization to facilitate reuse
- controlled language
- conformance to specifications
- conformance to time and budget
- content accuracy and relevance to the user
Within the discipline, we prefer people who can move beyond writing to a deep understanding of the technologies that they write about. It is not enough to write superficially about filling in the blanks of an interface form. We expect our staff to learn what is essential to users and what they already know how to do. We understand that to gain credibility among the engineers and software developers, our staff members have to become increasingly knowledgeable themselves.
I was pleased that the academic professionals at the conference seemed in tune with the picture I was painting. They pointed out, however, that they sometimes find it difficult to communicate the changing professional environment to their students. The students, many of whom might have been English majors had there been jobs for English majors, seem predisposed to think of technical communication as a field in which they can satisfy their creative writing bent.
The university program leaders are anxious to know more about the realities of the global work environment. When I presented my profile of the future technical communicator, they were positive and supportive. Here is the profile that I outlined.
The future information developer must be
- innovative in information design and planning
- disciplined in information development
- an expert in new technologies
- a collaborative and enthusiastic team member
- willing to develop an in-depth understanding of the global customer
- highly resourceful and assertive
- a superior communicator both in writing and presentation
- a politically savvy business professional