Lorraine Sharon, Cisco Systems, and Dave De Yoreo, Cadence Design Systems
Innovation is making something easier, doing something better, using an old device in a new way, or supporting a new technology. When people from different technical disciplines come together to brainstorm something new, innovation often occurs. Simply said, innovation is not settling for business as usual.
making improvements to old products that result in something new. E-books on iPods is a good exampleExamples of innovative discoveries are all around us. These discoveries are not only limited to developing totally new ways of doing thing, but also consider that innovation is
- finding new uses for older technologies, such as Internet-ready refrigerators or Bluetooth-enabled automobiles
- applying new technologies to existing products, for example GPS on PDA and PDA wrist watch
As technical communicators, we must foster an environment of innovative thinking because it will help ensure our success now and in the future. The technical communicator’s business environment has changed in the last few decades. We’ve moved from a “let’s document what’s being developed” environment to a technologically charged information management model. As a result, today’s business environment offers opportunities because we are no longer expected only to manage small or local problems. Instead, we are often required to solve much larger issues. For example, the impact and return on investment of single sourcing information that could span several products or project management of partnerships and outside agreements in a global environment are real-life scenarios that documentation managers and their teams face today. These complex issues go beyond setting editorial standards or organizing content. They include thinking outside of the box and coming up with innovative ideas that can help influence our successes and contribute to our added value. It is necessary to promote innovation to survive in this environment.
Technologies are rapidly changing all around. Single sourcing, content management, mobile wireless, the Internet, gaming, chat rooms, and voice technology all impact our work and home lives, so we must ensure that we have the skills necessary to meet these areas of changing and new technologies. Academia’s relationship with industry can help. Industry and academia must monitor forward, and sometimes predict, changing technologies and trends to adapt curricula, training, and tools to meet future business needs. The result of a strong relationship between industry and academia is that students will be marketable upon graduation and can fit into the business environment more quickly.
Nearly two years ago, Palmer Pearson and David DeYoreo from Cadence Systems started a local innovation council to focus on communicating ideas and building relationships with other documentation managers and representatives from academia throughout Massachusetts. In doing so, they hoped to raise awareness of the latest trends in technical communication that affect the way we develop and manage information. The present council comprises a dozen members from local businesses, colleges, and universities. The innovation council continues to meet quarterly, sometimes over lunch or during the later part of the work day. The council is a
- forum for instant and direct exchange of new practices and ideas
- mechanism to originate new best practices
- communication conduit with academia
Our ground rules are simple, and we maintain this effort as a low-pressure and low time commitment activity. At our meetings, we
- facilitate informal round-table discussions
- limit requirements for advanced preparation (no heavy lifting)
- agree not to exchange any proprietary information
We share information in a variety of ways:
- brief presentations, only if desired
- periodical library/clipping service
- email to members about innovative ideas
- informational conversations
- shared information from conferences and seminars
Many topics have been discussed since we’ve begun meeting. Some presentations and demos have been shared as well. For example, our innovation council shared and discussed these ideas, which you might consider using as the basis for meetings, as well:
- academic needs and curriculum development information exchange
- demo of a search wizard prototype and a virtual quick reference card
- customer feedback tools and techniques
- demo of structured authoring and content management
- Documentum versus Arbortext infrastructure
- review of multiple outputs (PDF/Metro, HTML, online help, and web)
- technical documentation topics delivered to hand-held computers
- feasibility of videos for hardware and software (installation and use)
- shared experiences from the Center for Information-Development Management conferences and seminars
Our members had some interesting things to say about participating in a council like this. Recent feedback from documentation managers included the following comments:
“The Innovation Council gives me a chance to meet with other documentation managers. This is especially important to me because I work in a small start-up and don’t have other documentation managers as colleagues.”
“I value hearing about new approaches and new delivery vehicles for documentation.”“I appreciate being able to get unbiased advice on software tools and methods.”
“Attending the meetings helps me do a better job and lets me put my own trials and tribulations in perspective.”
Our council members also include representatives from local colleges and universities. They had this to say about their council participation:
“I learn about trends in the industry and the current labor needs. This is very helpful to me as I plan career training programs.”
“I create and maintain relationships with documentation managers, which is extremely helpful in creating training programs with relevant curriculum.”
“It’s fascinating to hear the challenges that documentation departments face in meeting the needs of customers and gives me insight into what skills our students need to learn.”
These comments further demonstrate the benefits of participating in an innovation council. Overall, the networking and information exchange is valuable and an avenue that you may want to pursue. Ultimately, you have control over how much networking or information exchange you want to participate in. Our experience is that we have made many new friends and learned many new things along the way.
Forming your own innovation council is easy. You start by identifying potential members, recruit them, set a meeting date and location, and choose discussion topics.
The most effective group is comprised of your peers in closely related industries, along with representatives from academia and research organizations.
How can you find potential members? Perhaps you already know a few technical publications managers in area companies who you can invite. The STC membership list is also a good place to look for potential members. Check the web sites of area colleges that offer technical writing related courses. Often a professor’s or researcher’s name and contact information is posted.
Our group has limited the membership to managers and directors, but there is no reason why you cannot invite anyone you choose. It is the innovative ideas that count, not job titles. We do have one rule though: we do not invite vendors, headhunters, or anyone who is looking for sales leads. They may have interesting presentations on their latest products, but we want to keep the group purely a vehicle for new ideas among peers.
Critical mass comes easily once you have two or three members because each of them may suggest two or three other potential members.
You can use a variety of methods to reach potential recruits. The most effective method is the personal invitation, followed by a phone call, with a reminder email as a final option.
Sending email may be the least effective method for making initial contact, because, unless you know the person, it is too easy for your mail to be lost in the shuffle of all the other urgent messages a typical manager receives each day. However, once you have made contact with a recruit, email becomes the preferred way to communicate because it is quick, unobtrusive, and personal.
You may need to use your detective skills to find company phone numbers. Internet telephone number look-up sites or the company’s home page can help. Once you find the company’s phone number, the operator should be able to connect you to the right person.
A direct telephone call can be quite effective for recruiting members. But do not underestimate the difficulty in making a cold call. For some, cold calling is rated second only to the fear of public speaking. To be crisp in your delivery and to stay on topic, you should prepare and follow a script that briefly explains your purpose and gives potential members a quick overview of the concept. You can start by taking the following script and adapting it for your needs:
I’m calling because we are developing a project that we call the Innovation Council. We are recruiting technical publications managers from software companies and university professors and researchers in the area to meet and talk about the kinds of things they see, or would like to see, as the next big innovations in technical writing and documentation production and delivery. There is no homework or extra work involved, and we meet once a quarter or so at our facility here in (town).
What that lets us do is to take these ideas back to our respective companies and see if there is some way we can implement the ideas and make the future a reality.
I called you because (reason: STC list, met at a conference…).
I’m wondering if I can send you an email explaining our project in more detail, and I’d like to ask if you would think about becoming a member of our group?
Ask for email address. Thank them and sign off.
Notification of meetings
We maintain an email list and notify those on the list of the next meeting. We try to keep it to the same day of the week, and we hold our meetings quarterly.
The basic ground rules we use are as follows:
- No heavy lifting—no required presentations, homework, or work product deliverables are required.
- No pressure or extra time commitment is necessary.
- No proprietary information will be divulged. (Members are responsible for ensuring they do not violate their own organization’s policies against divulging proprietary information.)
Rotation of duties
So that the burden of traveling is shared among all of the members, we try to rotate the venue and the notification duties (setting and sending out the agenda). We do not meet at restaurants, but we simply rotate the meeting at member sites. Most members have no problem having their company (or college) host the meeting. Because we meet at 4:00 pm, the host usually provides lights snacks and beverages.
The duty of the host is to present and to maintain (but not necessarily set) the agenda. The group leader can ask for input at the end of the meeting for ideas for the next gathering. A call-for-topics email is also effective.
Although we have an agenda, we always leave time to talk about anything. Our open forum includes problems people have “what ifs” and “here is what we are doing” demos on any topic. Remember that what one writing group thinks is routine may be another team’s innovation.
Between meetings, we compile and copy articles and ads that we find in trade journals and industry publications that may be of interest to the Innovation Council. If nothing else, it is a conversation starter and a way to set a direction to research innovations that may be useful.
While the goal of an innovation council should always be to identify new and unique ideas, innovative ideas don’t always translate into compelling business cases. For example, the wireless delivery of topic-based documentation to PDAs and hand-held computers is surely a ground-breaking and innovative idea, but your executive management may not see it as a brilliant innovation whose time has come.
However, given enough time and nurturing, some good ideas turn out to be great ideas. For example, who could have seen a bright future for XML when it first appeared ten years ago? And who would have thought that adding video procedures, simulations, and even games to technical documentation would be a good idea? But now these innovations are solidly in the mainstream. Sometimes you just have to take “no” for an answer, put that great idea up on the shelf, and wait for the industry to catch up.
Remember, dreaming is hard work. But only by dreaming and developing innovative ways to deliver information can we move our organizations into the future.