JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

When information developers refer to Social Networking, they are usually thinking about Facebook, or something like it. According to the research referenced in the articles published by the Harvard Business Review, you’ll note that most people think of Social Networking as a means to keep track of friends. Much of the attraction of Facebook sites is in the pictures. Apparently, most people look at pictures to keep up with friends and acquaintances. I find it particularly interesting that the research points to differences between men and women using Social Networking, especially the pictures. Don’t miss out on the researchers insights—quite fascinating!

Despite the focus on pictures and friends, many managers point to Social Networking as a mechanism to involve customers in documenting company products. By setting up wiki websites, they hope to promote participation by customers who are experts in using software or hardware products. They want these customers to contribute to concepts and procedures that will help others use products successfully. Many of the same senior managers apparently hope that customers can replace technical writers in producing useful and usable product information.

Well—that’s to be seen. Or—I’ll believe it when I see it happen.

In my experience working with technical experts who are volunteers in providing help for end users, very few people do all the work. Perhaps 1/10 of 1 percent contributes anything at all. I wonder how they do it—do they not have day jobs? In the absence of thorough product documentation, their contributions are valuable but they are written with a clear bias. The underlying story seems to be that “I’m an expert, and I want everyone to recognize that expertise.” Their help is genuine but usually about the edge cases that are causing headaches.

A few perfectly knowledgeable customers don’t have time to contribute more than once or twice in a quarter. Most do not contribute at all.

Social Networking, however, does have real promise, especially as a collaboration tactic for those who are paid to contribute technical information and support a product’s practical use in the workplace.  In their recent CIDM webinar on Collaboration, Charlotte Robidoux and Bobbi Gibson discussed the importance of using synchronous communications to promote team cohesiveness and reinforce a collaborative working environment for writers. Synchronous communications are those that occur at the time the work is happening. Rather than waiting for replies to emails or comments on wikis, the interactions among the information developers occur as the work is being accomplished.

Setting up an information-developers “facebook”

One could interpret the promotion of synchronous communications as a form of Social Networking. In addition to the active pursuit of instant messaging and (dare I say it) telephone calls, collaborative and simultaneous communications help promote a network of knowledge workers who trust one another to fill in each others’ gaps and gaffs. What if we took Social Networking to mean a corporate “facebook” in which all of those contributing to the development of customer-facing information meet and learn to work as a team?

Imagine a “facebook” wall on which every team member contributes something about his or her business or even personal life. Pictures apparently are the key—they hold our attention and increase our interconnectedness. Just this afternoon, for example, I met a colleague who I haven’t seen in five or six years. I recognized her immediately, in part because I “see” her regularly on her Facebook page. There she was in person in the middle of one of the largest airports in the world. The first thing she mentioned was having seen some recent pictures on my Facebook page.

Instant messaging has the same effect of keeping everyone in synch. In our business, we happen to use Skype for instant messaging. It allows us to send messages easily to an entire group of people, creating a multi-level conversation about a business problem. We send documents and can even set up a visual call and a shared desktop. We can easily see what everyone is working on and keep the commentary up to date.

Recently, I took part in the review of another collaboration tool that allows multiple reviewers to see each other’s comments and edits in real time. It allows us to develop a conversation about the text without the linearity of email messages.

Having recently been engaged in the development of the DITA 1.2 Specification, I realize how difficult it is to write a document as a committee. We aren’t really all that collaborative since each one of us has an assigned area. But we do comment, via a wiki, on what others have written and then add notes about the suggestions taken or not taken. But it is all agonizingly slow and easily confused. We misunderstand a comment or respond negatively to a suggestion. We then exchange serial emails to try to clarify what we really meant to say.

It would be wonderful if we have a genuinely collaborative working environment, especially since we all have serious day jobs. That environment might include

  • A DITA “facebook” area where we could introduce ourselves and express our personal viewpoints about specification authoring
  • A collaborative review environment where we can see each other’s comments in real time—and comment on the comments
  • Instant messaging that allows us to exchange notes as a group
  • Instant group telephone calls so that we can discuss the changes needed in the text

Each of these collaborative techniques would make us more effective and speed the exchange of ideas and the completion of the specification.

If you are intent on moving your team to collaborative writing, consider building a collaborative work environment. Look at the successes with Social Networking as discussed by the Harvard researchers in this edition of the e-news. Consider what creates effective connections as the researchers disclose. Build a collaborative work environment by experimenting with many well-regarded activities and create new ones that work for your team.

Collaborative authoring is unlike anything we generally find among information developers. Most of us have worked with what Robidoux and Gibson call serial or parallel collaboration, rather than synchronous collaboration. We each write sections and throw them over the wall to reviewers. We write our own sections in parallel with other authors and hope that the end product comes out right.

With collaborative, synchronous authoring, we expect content to be co-developed. We share observations and analyses, change each other’s text, and add topics to a seamless (we hope) final document or website. A work environment requiring real collaboration is a challenge, especially for those accustomed to working alone. Using the tools of the trade, we can make the challenge just a bit easier to handle.

Click here to read “Understanding Users of Social Networks” in the Harvard Business Review.