The Way We Were
If you’re like me, you probably aren’t thrilled to read another article, editorial, or diatribe about the state of the industry, or the world, in “these uncertain [or unprecedented] times.” Yet, as I muse about what to write that will be relevant to you, my audience, I cannot deny that the most prominent issue facing each and every one of us is the impact of an unexpected pandemic on our lives, both personal and professional. I certainly cannot claim that I have great wisdom to impart, nor will anything I say likely be new or profound, but I also feel that to ignore this crisis and write a fluffy, shallow column would give the wrong impression – an impression that everything goes on here at Comtech and CIDM as it always has and that I personally lack an understanding of and empathy for the life-changing and/or career-changing adjustments that some have been forced into. Make no mistake, neither of these is true. Although I have a great desire to channel my inner ostrich and bury my head in the sand until everything is over, as the leader of a company and organization that I daresay has been an industry influencer during its lifetime, our response has been foremost on my mind.
First, and most importantly, it is my profound hope that each of you reading my words and all of your loved ones remain healthy, both physically and emotionally. Through the “law” of six-degrees of separation, I realize that it is likely you or someone you know has lost someone, and there’s nothing I can say in this column that will make that any less painful. Emotionally, I know that many people are struggling with loss and with adapting to this “new normal,” and if this describes you, I can only encourage you to reach out to someone. Although you may have grown weary of the pandemic catchphrase, “we’re all in this together,” the value of a community to listen and support cannot be denied.
One other undeniable fact about this crisis is that the world, our companies, our lives are changing. People mourn not only loved ones, but a loss of the “known” – our day-to-day activities that we perhaps took for granted – from the simple act of opening a door or drinking at a water fountain to the more intrusive appropriation of a colleague’s mouse or keyboard to quickly show how to complete a task, we must think twice before following our typical behaviors. The question on most people’s lips is when will we get back to “normal”? Has the spread slowed enough? Will it take a proven treatment? Must we wait for a vaccine? When will things be the way they were? We long for the routines that have been suddenly stripped from us, and in our yearning, we give credence to the lyrics of The Way We Were: “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget. So it’s the laughter, we will remember, whenever we remember, the way we were.” (How we miss those rewarding discussions with our SME reviewers about the correct placement of a comma as we worked calmly and cheerfully together to create a user-beloved PDF of critical information.)
In teaching structured authoring and helping companies and individuals transition to a new way of writing, one of the critical tenets in Comtech’s courses is that technical communicators must abandon the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. We encourage authors to embrace the changes required to write in topics rather than books, to think more about purpose than format, to actively look for opportunities to reuse existing content in new ways. In these situations, the required changes are already mapped out for them, they must “simply” adjust. Today, the specific changes may not be clear and pre-defined, but I submit that it’s no less important to look forward rather than backward. The question we should be asking is not “How do we get back to what we’ve been doing?” but rather “What can we do better now than what we used to do?”
Take, for example, the CIDM conferences – DITA North America, the new Journeys conference, DITA Europe, and Best Practices. For months now, we have anxiously hoped for a return to normal so that these events can be what they’ve always been, rather than redefining what they could be. Last week, however, I attended the Confab conference, run by our DITA North America/Journeys keynote speaker Kristina Halvorson. Kristina was brave enough to rethink her event and in just six weeks, re-engineered it into a brilliant success. Acknowledging that mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery and facing the reality on restrictions on gatherings of a certain size continuing into September, it is time to reimagine our CIDM 2020 events. The key word is “reimagine” — our focus is not how do we best simulate what we had, but how do we introduce something better. We are in the midst of planning and designing an engaging virtual experience and will share all the details soon. Yes, we still look to the future where in-person gatherings will occur, but for now, we eagerly anticipate how those gatherings will evolve and improve by what we do this year.
Sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to find a better way. Today, corporations everywhere have been forced to question and reinvent the way they do business. Companies with long-term policies against working at home, for example, had no choice but to allow it and have seen that jobs can still be done and in many cases can be done better. In fact, experts predict a permanent change in the numbers of people working from home, even after we leave the pandemic behind, and many companies have already announced permanent or expanded work-from-home policies. Why not use this opportunity to take another look at changes we didn’t think were possible before?
In this issue of the newsletter, Kathy Madison summarizes the results of the annual trends survey that we conduct with DCL. We’ve done this survey for eight years with the goal of understanding the future of information development so we, in turn, can help prepare individuals for those changes. However, one of the most significant trends we see in eight years of data is that while we expect our work will change, the reality is that it isn’t changing, either at all, or certainly at the rate we expected it to. While the obstacles most frequently mentioned (time and money) are unquestionably factors, I wonder how much can also be attributed to comfortable habits that we don’t want to disrupt or let go of. Far too often, the companies I work with expect that DITA, for example, is simply another way of creating the same old information. They expect to write the same way, just using another tool. They expect us as stylesheet developers to reproduce exactly the same look and feel as they had before. This focus on the past limits what can be done in the future.
No, the pandemic doesn’t directly justify or make possible the implementation of a new dynamic self-service information portal, complete with a library of helpful video clips. It doesn’t immediately bring to life a chatbot or a virtual reality experience. However, we cannot deny that it has influenced the way people obtain, process, and share information. Gerry McGovern, author of a number of content strategy books, spoke at Confab last week about his effort related to Covid-19 and the distribution of information related to it. It was fascinating to hear how his “top tasks” methodology applied to information that we might not immediately classify as technical documentation, and it clearly demonstrated the demand for ready information, categorized in specific ways for easy retrieval. Individuals have access to large amounts of information and misinformation, and they struggle to make sense of it. Although millions upon billions of people may not be looking for information about your product and service, the situation is similar – there’s a lot of information, good and bad, available. The habits they use and form gathering information about vaccines and symptoms are the habits they will use when they need your technical information as well. What can we learn from search tactics and information processing to reinvent information distribution for the future?
Yes, we are living in uncomfortable times, and the familiar, recent past is a beacon of nostalgic comfort. As everything we’ve held dear is snatched from us, perhaps now is not the time to rethink our content strategy. On the other hand, perhaps such contemplation is essential to our careers and our industry’s future existence. Today’s reality is changing tomorrow’s expectations. Are we too busy looking back at the good ol’ days to not only step confidently into the future, but to also define it?
The way we were or the way we can be? Which direction are you pointed?