In the May 2003 e-Newsletter, I wrote about strategic and operational competencies and gave some examples. In this article, I give my view on what the essential strategic competencies are in the current business world. Naturally, they may differ in detail depending on the industry you work in, but they are applicable in most cases. The competencies are in no particular order.
Business understanding. Business understanding means understanding the nature of the business your company is in and what kind of a role your company plays in its industry. What are the strategies your company is using to keep up with and overcome the competitors? You need to understand the strategy models your company is using and apply them to documentation development. Business understanding also covers a basic understanding of business finance, mostly return on investment (ROI) calculations (the benefits and pitfalls of the method). Finance knowledge will help you to talk with management, decide where to focus your resources, and identify where you can do with less.
User and task analysis. Without understanding who the users of your products are and what kind of information needs they have, you are likely to waste your resources in producing information that is not actually needed or you may not provide information that users actually need or you may present the information in a way that they find hard to use and understand. You should have solid knowledge of the different methods that you can use to get information about the users and learn what method is best in which situations.
Usability. Closely linked to user and task analysis, usability skills help you design documentation and other information products that are easy to use. You should know different usability design and testing methods, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Information architecture. Being able to plan information structures so that they fulfill the users’ needs and are intuitive to use is not easy. Information architecture includes not only information structures but also navigation mechanisms, and understanding when people use them and how.
Project management. As cost controls are still tight and you have to cope with fewer in-house resources and more contractors and outsourcing companies who may be in different countries, good project-management skills are essential in handling complexity. Good planning and especially, effective, change management during the project are the keys for good end results.
Negotiation skills. If you are dealing with other companies, whether it is buying resources or selling your own skills, you quickly learn that getting a contract signed is not always simple. Negotiation skills help you create the win-win deal, get yourself out of a corner, and recognize the negotiation tactics the other party is using. Negotiation skills also help when you are in a situation where you sell your services internally or have to fight for resources with other departments.
XML technologies. XML seems to have made it. At least it has received more support than SGML. Not only do XML-based standards have a role in the documentation world, but they are also geared toward programming. You should know the implications of various standards and what you can and cannot do with them. You don’t have to be able to apply them yourself (like coding a DTD), but you should keep your eye on what they are good for and how much support they receive among a wide audience. Unless you are willing to take the risk of relying on a standard that is not yet widely accepted, you should wait a while until applications are available that seem mature enough.
All the competencies mentioned above are useful in contexts other than documentation; mastering them will help you to move vertically within your company to other positions. There are many resources for improving your competencies: books, magazines, websites, distance education programs, mentoring by an experienced person, and learning by doing. For example, with usability skills, you can start small by conducting some usability studies of your internal websites and then expand from that. Perhaps the most important skill in today’s business world is the skill to learn new things and adapt to new situations. The rate of change is fast and increasing, and if you don’t follow, you are in danger of being dropped out.
This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.