Sabine Ocker, Comtech Services
August 15, 2019
During last month’s CIDM Round Table member participants observed that all top-notch organizations must exude both excellence and quality. They identified several critical measurements, which are summarized in this article.
Support of management
Members agreed hands-down that the most important rubric for establishing excellence in a top-notch organization is management support. They further subdivided support into two key aspects.
First, upper management must view content development generally—and product documentation specifically—as a business-critical function. This acknowledgment means that the Technical Product Documentation team is typically centralized into a single fully-funded and fully-staffed organization. Although product documentation has traditionally been associated with post-sales customer activities, recent data has shown that customers also access documentation to aid with pre-sales purchase and upgrade decisions. Having documentation play an important role in multiple stages of the customer journey has helped CIDM member managers better advocate the value proposition of product documentation.
Having a strong, competent leader to head the Technical Product Documentation team is the second important expression of management support. One member likened it to sports teams who have only star players not doing as well as those who have players who merely play well together but are led by a great coach. Star power at the manager/leader level is more important than having star employees, members told us. This star power doesn’t mean the manager takes center stage. Several members spoke highly of the concept of the servant leader, one whose job is to enable the success of their reports. “It feels good to work for someone like that,” said one member. Happy employees create better deliverables. Investment in employee interests and passions is what transforms good writers into great ones, according to an article from Entrepreneur.com.
What important skills do top-notch technical writers possess? According to CIDM members, they are:
- Critical thinking
- Communication skills
Being analytical and logical is much more important than having technical knowledge. As one member put it, “you can parse a sonnet just as you can parse a computer program.” Writers must apply critical thinking in their engagement with developers to truly understand product functions. Only then can they internalize what the user needs to know and succinctly document just those functions. The ability to converse effectively with a variety of audiences is another quality of a great technical writer. Writers must interface regularly with their peers, management, engineers, product managers and, for some, users as well. Effective communication includes being a good listener in addition to asking clarifying questions. Some members believe their best writers have verbal articulation skills on a higher plane. These writers possess an intellectual curiosity which affords them the tenacity to dig deeper. This curiosity, coupled with a positive mindset, is what allows writers and other employees to see failure as feedback, rather than a cataclysmic disaster for which there is no solution, according to a Time Doc article on the “15 Qualities of a Great Team Member.”
Another aspect woven into the tapestry of a top-notch organization is how the customer perceives the quality of the content on the delivery platform. Is it the only criteria or the most important criteria?—no, but definitely one of the facets by which excellence is defined, according to CIDM members. Building on the sports metaphor, a member explained that just as a team cannot play their best game without good equipment and a solid place to practice, so product documentation can’t truly be considered outstanding without a top-notch delivery platform. When users view HTML display or search functions as modern, or even cutting edge, they are more likely to judge the content as being of a higher quality.
One member in the manufacturing space told us their organization measures excellence by whether their documentation is considered better than their competitors. Their customers are willing to “pay more to get more” from their content. Having criteria to define that competitive edge is very important. How can you know whether you have a leg up if what you are using to gauge is only your subjective opinion? Organizations need clear metrics to differentiate between themselves and their competitors in areas such as:
- Look and feel
- Depth and breadth of the content
These metrics are especially important as the role and significance of each competitive comparison category differ by industry. This member has succeeded by tackling differences between her content and her competitor’s one element at a time. For example, she compared just warnings, then did some analysis on the availability of part information on the competition’s website, and finally assessed the availability and usability of their interactive content. Focusing on just one attribute allowed her to gather more meaningful comparison metrics.
According to the Entrepreneur article referenced earlier, another important strategy for building a top-notch organization is creating opportunities for employees to flex their creative muscles. In the context of a Technical Product Documentation organization, CIDM members defined creativity as out-of-the-box thinking on how to solve a problem. Matching writer skills with a project that allows them the opportunity to grow those skills is a way to promote mastery, another key successor. When writers are encouraged to grow professionally and supported in that effort, it not only creates a stronger working environment but also brings new ideas and information into the group, which facilitates creative problem-solving. As one member put it, “One thing I have learned as a manager is to be very clear and unambiguous on what is the target, but then to unleash the team and let them figure out how are we going to get there. Empowering them to tap their creativity is a way to foster that sense of professional growth.” Another member manager responded pithily, “they usually come up with a better solution than I would have!”