Information Development in China
In mid-April 2006, I was pleased to attend the LISA (Localization Industry Standards Association) conference in Shanghai, China and present in two sessions. The first was a presentation about the DITA standard with Dave Schell from IBM. The second was a panel on the value of content management solutions in managing the information-development life cycle. Additionally, I took time to meet with IBM’s information-development managers at their Shanghai facility and had a chance to learn about technical information development at Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.
Let me begin by expressing my amazement at Shanghai itself. It’s a city full of excitement and energy and growing at an unbelievable speed. The population of Shanghai is about 21 million, with large numbers of people moving to the city from the countryside to take advantage of the opportunities. The city has hundreds of multi-story skyscrapers, including the 88-floor, third-tallest building in Asia. The skyscrapers, all built within the past 20 years, are designed by the world’s leading architects.
The buildings are uniquely beautiful and intricate, having been designed without the stark modernism of Bauhaus that influenced the black, solid-curtain wall that we see in New York or Los Angeles.
The buildings are lit with multiple colors, reminding me of a combination of Las Vegas and Manhattan (especially Times Square) but 10 times larger. The streets are filled with big European and American cars, driven fast with little regard for traffic laws. The bicycles and motorbikes have their own, separate lane on the streets. You see people on bicycles piled high with boxes or even furniture, right next to Mercedes and BMWs.
I was amazed by the age of most of the people I met—very young, at least in comparison to me. They appeared to be mostly 20-somethings. In reading about the changes in China, it seems that young people are leaving the farming villages and migrating to the cities to make their fortunes. You see very poor dwellings and businesses immediately next to multi-million dollar edifices. Many of the Chinese attending the LISA conference also looked quite young, especially compared to a similar audience in the US or Europe, where so many technical communicators are in their 40s and 50s.
IBM’s information-development team is about 40 strong and has been developed only in the past two years. The writers are often new university graduates with degrees in engineering, computer science, and English. The English majors have little education in technical fields, having prepared for careers as translators, for the most part. The engineering and computer science majors may have weaker English skills but the background to understand the technical content. IBM has spent considerable effort on training and mentoring to develop a successful writing team. For the first year or so, each Chinese information developer had an experienced US information developer as a mentor. One of the managers is a Chinese-American who spends a high percentage of her time in Shanghai, helping to develop the team.
Information development is most definitely growing in China, although often by fits and starts. There is virtually no technical writing education available in the universities, and the instruction in professional writing is very different from what we would expect in the US. Daniel Ding describes his experience working with university students and faculty in China in his article in this issue. I’ve learned that most of the US and European companies wishing to add information development to their Chinese operations must train the staff in all aspects of technical writing. Carol Barnum and Ken Rainey at Southern Polytechnic have established a joint program with a Chinese university to offer a technical communication degree. The students take their first two years in China and their last two years in the US. The first students will arrive in September 2006 in Atlanta, hopefully prepared to handle coursework and writing in English exclusively.
The lean, task-oriented technical writing that we expect of writers in the West is not intuitive in the context of Chinese cultural norms.
I learned that American technical writers are strongly in demand in China. I met one woman who moved to Nanjing, just outside Shanghai, because of the challenge of living and working in such an interesting place. She is engaged in writing technical documentation in English for a local company. She started out with no knowledge of the Chinese language and has been learning “in the community,” as it were. Of course, she is paid a Chinese, not American, salary.
Some Chinese companies are also hiring technical writers in India because of their experience and stronger English skills. Indian technical writers are more expensive than Chinese technical writers, of course.
If your company is considering developing an information-development team in India or China, I urge you to read our latest CIDM white paper, based on a benchmark study conducted at the end of 2005. The India portion of the study is an update of our earlier India benchmark. The CIDM member price for the study is $149; the non-member price is $295. I think you’ll find the studies invaluable to your planning.