Virginia Lynch, Deutsche Bank and Maud Keisman, The Thomson Corporation


In her September presentation to the New York Metro chapter, JoAnn T. Hackos discussed the challenges that we writers face in the dawn of the 21st century. Technology has enabled organizations to work across cities, states, countries, language differences, and time zones. In our increasingly global world, companies now create products and services for use in multiple countries, necessitating different technologies, requirements, processes, and languages. Our offices and colleagues are spread all over the map. In many cases, we don’t know our international users, but we continue to design and write information that is supposed to help them use our products.

How is that possible? With years of experience as a lecturer, consultant, and author in the field of technical communication, JoAnn offered a pragmatic set of tools to meet these challenges. A key tool in her toolbox is what she calls “Basic Hygiene.” Even in this fast paced world where deadline is king—and style, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and even clarity seem to have been sacrificed for quantity —JoAnn points out that knowledge of basic writing skills is still critical to our success as writers. Basic Hygiene also comprises an understanding and appreciation of editing, the information development life cycle, fundamental web and computer skills, and of course attention to detail. Perhaps less obvious to our writer selves is the importance of effective oral communication skills, and professional appearance and demeanor, all of which are as critical to our success as our writing and organizational skills.

With the threat of outsourcing looming large in the technology community, we must find new ways to reinvent ourselves, beginning with our title and job description. It is no longer enough to be a skilled writer, so we find ourselves reborn as information developers. Today’s information developer is a career-oriented individual, constantly searching for new resources and solutions to today’s organizational and communication challenges.

In line with our expanded role, JoAnn recommended that we upgrade our skill sets with knowledge about current innovations in the areas of information architecture, information design, content management, technology development, content localization/translation, and customer studies. We should be attentive to new international information standards such as XML, OASIS Dita and DocBook, ISO, W3C, and others. Whether or not we use these standards, we need to be familiar with the terminology so we can communicate effectively with our domestic and international colleagues.

The rapid growth of remote work groups requires us to implement different kinds of disciplined work practices to maximize our efficiency as a team of geographically disconnected individuals. To facilitate teamwork and interoffice collaboration, we might take advantage of currently favored development cycle methodologies, such as agile software development, which involves working on small-scale units of a project rather than focusing on the larger project life cycle.

The need to create reusable content calls for topic-based authoring. We cannot continue to produce gigantic documents without at least opening our eyes to the trend toward minimalism. Our language must be controlled; we must conform to specifications; our work must stay within time and budget. And we must produce content that is accurate and relevant to our audience. Indeed, our credibility—and job security—hinges on our ability to communicate a deeper understanding of our subject matter.

Creative desktop publishing is fast being replaced by a manufacturing discipline that falls under measurement and performance scrutiny to ensure that the value of documentation is commensurate with the organization’s investment. Information developers are now part and parcel of a competitive global environment, and outsourcing continues to remain a threat unless we can repeatedly prove that we add value.

So, where do all these changes lead us? They bring us to a present and a future in which we can play a bigger role in the technology world than ever before, earning well deserved respect for our growing role in the development process. Our business savvy will ensure that we continue to grow and prosper in this new global world, now “flattened” due to technology advances. Companies will start to recognize the importance of our in-depth knowledge of the global customer base, and value our ability to communicate that knowledge effectively to all of our audiences, while adhering to the organizational standards, deadlines, and budgets specified for each project.

Be sure to check out JoAnn’s latest book titled Information Development: Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio and People (Wiley 2006).