JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director      

Does intensive internal training of employees lead to higher profits in knowledge-based industries where the main asset is skilled professionals?

That was the question posed by Joydeep Chatterjee, senior fellow at the Mack Institute for Innovation Management and professor at the University of Washington. Chatterjee found that a key to increasing the profitability of the companies was the type of training that was offered.

In a study published in the Strategic Management Journal, Chatterjee focused on computer programmers. If they received training in technical skills like computer languages, the training had little effect on the companies’ success. But if the training involved gaining a better understanding of the customers and their industries, that “did the trick.”

Even though technical skills were important, learning about the customers and the industries they worked for gave the employees a significant competitive edge. Chatterjee found that upgrading professional capabilities and perspective paid off.

As most of you should know, Comtech offers training for information developers. Some of the training focuses on technical skills, like the Introduction to DITA or the workshop on Optimizing Your DITA Authoring Environment, which teaches specializations, constraints, and Schematron rules. But most of our workshops emphasize making better decisions about content.

We teach information developers to redesign their content following the Minimalism agenda, conduct user and task analyses, and develop taxonomies that improve the findability of content, and design information websites and mobile interfaces that support customers. In all of these workshops, the emphasis is on knowing the customers through interviews, surveys, site visits, and other data collection.

Stop Writing Documentation

One of our most compelling presentations in recent years has focused changing the intent of user information. We strongly recommending a change: from documenting the product’s features and functions to helping customers quickly and effectively use a product to reach their goals. In every case, we have discovered, customers’ goals focus on getting real work done and going home by 5 o’clock.

In our presentation, we strongly recommend that information developers stop writing documentation and start working for the customers. And, the better they know the customers and what they do in their real world, the more likely the information they create will be regarded as helpful, even valuable.

Unfortunately, too often, participants in the workshops tell us that they know nothing about their customers. Many claim their companies actively block their access to customers. They’re told that customers are too busy to talk to mere writers.

Others explain that they are simply too busy getting out the next release to spend time chasing down customers. They depend on the perspectives given to them by product managers or developers on what customers need to know.

Or they insist that the new features and functions must be documented before anything else. And, those features and functions are coming at such a fast pace that there is no time to devote time to more valuable content.

Start Working for the Customer

Making a business case for training should be straightforward, especially if that training involves learning to engage with customers. Our team at Comtech not only conducts customer studies ourselves, but we coach information developers and architects in developing their own customer studies.

Attending a customer site visit with experienced experts is a great way to get started. Learning to conduct customer interviews with a web session reduces the costs of customer studies without sacrificing an immediacy that is not possible with traditional feedback mechanisms.

Build an Effective Business Case

How do you argue for training that helps you learn about customers? By referencing Chatterjee’s study, you might demonstrate how a better understanding of customers’ information needs will bring some of these measurable advantages:

  • Increased customer post-sales loyalty because the right information is available to them at the right time and in the right place
  • Reduced costs of customer support because customers find the information they need by themselves
  • Increased effectiveness of the information-development team because you focus on what customers really need
  • Decreased costs of producing content that no one needs or uses, making relevant and needed content easier and faster to find

A few months ago I invited a long-time colleague to attend a workshop that I was offering in her city. She is the manager of the information-development team at her company. She wrote me that she was disappointed that she was unable to attend. She explained that her company did not support training for technical writers or their manager.

I found her message to be deeply sad. What a short-sighted company that must be. They seem to consider writers to be clerical workers, responsible for turning out standard documents with little evidence that they are needed or even used by the customers. I’m sure that my colleague is doing the best job she can but she is stymied by the ignorant attitudes of her company’s management.

Perhaps studies like Chatterjee’s will help convince other managers that customer-oriented training does make a difference. Its value demonstrates that the better you know the customers and understand the kind of work they use your products to accomplish, the more effective your organization and your company will be in meeting their needs.