Being Part of the Product

Palmer Pearson
Cadence Design Systems

Companies that survive tough times understand that innovative ideas are what secure their future. Many great corporate names have disappeared because they could not compete with those who consistently and substantially reinvested in themselves.

How your company is structured determines how it measures its investment in research and development. Different industries have different targets, but it is generally accepted that if you want your company to be viable ten years from now, you should direct 15 to 25 percent of your revenues back into Research and Development. With most technology companies, R&D can encompass more than one third of the entire corporate population. History holds that the higher the R&D percentage, the greater the number of new and innovative products. Your future is as fruitful as the new ideas that come from your research efforts.

True R&D means experimenting, staying on top of trends, and seeking out the best minds and talent available. Budgets should include travel to seminars, conferences, and meetings with visionaries. The well known names in most industries understand all of this, of course. So, if this is a universal truth, why do we not see it occurring in the Tech Pubs space?

Companies who boast that over 20 percent of their annual revenue goes back into R&D are not talking about technical communication. If they were, they would have dedicated Tech Pubs R&D groups whose sole responsibility would be to stay on the leading edge of content and information delivery while not also requiring them to get that user manual out next week. This is far different from just maintaining an excellent writing team. The writing team needs to continually produce excellent documentation but does not have the time or possibly the skills, and definitely not the charter, to look beyond the next few releases. It does not matter if a writing team falls under R&D, Marketing, Support, or Training, the investment is still needed. This is where innovation starts.

At the Best Practices conference last October, the theme was Innovation. It was evident that a number of companies are striving to innovate and improve (which are not necessarily synonymous) on their own. At my company, and at many others across the globe, innovation in technical communication is left to a passionate few who must continue to do their “day job” in addition to innovating. Instituting monthly brainstorming sessions to seek new ideas is a concept we put to use, but it is not enough. To tap into others’ creative processes, Cadence established the Office of Innovation (OOI). This is a network of local companies and universities outside our industry whose goal is to be aware of the latest documentation trends. The “many eyes are better than a few” notion is very true in this situation. No one team has a lock on creativity, nor can they be on top of leading edge ideas occurring at thousands of locations.

As part of the OOI, we direct a portion of the budget to periodicals. A library of innovative ideas does not cost much. For example, in the current issue of Scientific American, we found an interesting article on the future of search mechanisms that will no longer be based on searching for just words—an interesting idea. Whether it impacts anything we do in the future is yet to be determined. The point is that it is all research. Trying ideas that may never pay off is still time well spent.

So, why does upper management not recognize the obvious gains to be had by adding a Tech Pubs research team? It is because they believe documentation does not sell the product (although it can destroy one), and the bottom line is always profit. The view at most companies is that if we add to the headcount in Publications solely for researching innovative opportunities, how does that increase sales?

But we are part of the product. Old products and old documentation techniques both can sink a company. Customer satisfaction numbers ebb and flow depending on what we do. So as managers of technical communication, we must either convince the executive staff why it should not ignore the “other part of the product”—user documentation—or leverage a mechanism like the OOI that takes advantage of the “strength in numbers” method of sharing information. OOI becomes your Tech Pubs R&D team.

By chance, if you are successful with the publication research argument, what should Tech Pubs’ research share of the R&D budget be: 2 percent, 5 percent, 8 percent? Even 1 percent would be a victory. What an innovative idea!