Kathryn Showers, Symitar

About this time of year everyone is dreading the return to work after summer vacations. Not I, as I’m too fired up over all the ideas I was exposed to at the April 2012 CMS Conference. I’m ready to work!

Almost every minute, from breakfast the first morning to the last session I attended, I gleaned ideas I can easily put into play the moment I return to the office. Heck, I didn’t need to wait to share my discoveries with my teammates; I tweeted tidbits during every session!

Keith Schengili-Roberts, this year’s keynote speaker, gave a validating presentation. Because I am using techniques similar to the ones this savvy gentleman uses to ensure content doesn’t spiral out into infinity, I know I’m on the right track. From his stage presence to his well-choreographed PowerPoint, Keith’s presentation set the tone for the conference. One of Keith’s cool tools, which I added to my toolbox, is a method of getting useful writing metrics quickly. Keith suggests using MS Word as a way to measure a writer’s work that is subjective rather than objective. It was just what I was looking for. You can bet I tweeted that! Eager to discover more tidbits, I trotted off to the Why Would We Want to Talk to Customers or Them to Us? session.

With my boss’s mantra (Who is the audience?) firmly planted in my brain, I was thinking this would be the perfect session to explore who our audience is and how to address their needs. And it was. Speakers told the story about their writers’ going out into the field and interacting with clients. I wonder why we can’t do that. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could pair writers with sales staff just like they did? If not with sales staff, maybe writers could sit in on a few support calls? Hey, now there’s an idea!

After thinking about interacting with clients, it was only natural that I would want to find out what’s happening in the world of Social Media. This session put particular emphasis on using YouTube. As exciting and intriguing as this was to me, I was less certain that our customers would share my enthusiasm. That being said, I loved the idea of using YouTube’s private channel as a medium for posting short technical tidbits that would otherwise take a mountain of pages to explain. Video is clearly an invaluable tool for explaining technical information in the cyber world, providing a more user-friendly support for the written document.

It goes without saying that not everyone learns the same way. If we have multiple ways of presenting information to our clients, tailored to suit different learning styles, then our information products are that much more powerful. Of course, new methods can present new challenges. For example, you may have to pitch an idea to upper management that you can customize information to the end users in the way they have been demanding, that you can dare to be different, and (more importantly) you will not incur additional expense.

A buzz term I heard in many of the sessions was Six Sigma. My boss is keen on implementing the Lean Six Sigma principles, and I have found that, under his direction, we have increased our productivity and decreased wasted, redundant efforts. I know—music to any accountant’s ears! I must confess that I was a bit skeptical about introducing manufacturing processes into the world of documentation until I experienced how well it works. We are, after all, manufacturing documentation, and our clients do read our words.

I find it validating to attend CIDM conferences. When I learn of other companies doing similar things with similar processes, I realize we’re on the right track. I get even more excited about DITA at conferences, too. New ideas, fresh spins on using existing tools, and interactions with others who have been there, done that, and are willing to share their knowledge make up just a smidgen of the value I take away from these excellent conferences.

Don’t worry if you missed the last conference. Right after summer, but before the weather turns chilly, you can attend the CIDM Best Practices conference. Hmm, I wonder if I might put together a session. Boy, do I have a story to tell.