Integrated Technical Communications: A Strategy for Technical Communicators

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Figure 1: Technical Writers today have a puzzle of different responsibilities

Take a moment and look through the archives of TechWhirl’s 18+ years of online discussions, and you’ll find that some of the same questions about our real role and value as technical writers and communicators keep popping up time and time again. Are we technical writers or technical writers, or communicators, or information designers, or content curators, or communications specialists, or…

The list goes on and on and on … do we add value; can we measure effectiveness; are we capable of leading change and of moving our organizations forward; is it possible to become more influential in our companies and our teams?  These questions and long running discussions lead to far deeper questions about our profession and us as professionals.

The Case for Integrated Technical Communications

We know that the answer to all of these questions is, yes. The fact that these questions still exist suggests that there is a need to examine how we approach our work as technical communications professionals.  Technical communications isn’t broken, but if it were a puzzle it certainly isn’t solved either.  In this article we’re proposing and suggesting a detailed conversation on an evolutionary step—rather than a revolutionary one—which focuses on the integration of our technical communications activities as well as the vision and outcomes associated with our work.

We need a change in mindset because we are being relied on more and more to be key players in our companies’ communication programs… and if we’re not, we should be.  Twenty years ago the tech writer’s job resembled a game of hopscotch.  It was very straightforward and predictable.  We were the makers and keepers of procedural documentation. Technical Writers around the world would get an assignment (hop), create an outline (hop), ask some people who know things some questions (land), write a procedure or a manual turn it in to your boss (hop and land), and wait for the next revision. And often you turn around hop on one foot and go right back to the beginning.  We followed that nice straight (and usually reversible) line, often in isolation from other business functions.  Why do you think RTFM was such a common and often quoted “solution” to users’ questions?

Compared to our current work efforts, the old days were simple, but often descended rapidly toward boring for many of us.  It wasn’t just boring, those duties often failed to fully utilize our knowledge and capabilities as professional communicators.

These days our jobs are far more complex, and we typically travel well beyond creating traditional procedural documentation.  More often that not we’re asked also create policies, troubleshooting FAQs, assembly instructions, training materials, white papers, web pages and sites, blog posts, knowledge base articles, illustrations, graphics, and a host of other “information products”…  Or utilizing our thorough understanding of the software, we’re asked to get involved with testing and customer service support. Sometimes our customer or client focus leads to forum management, or marketing and proposal work.  In other words, our actions involve us in developing and influencing a great deal of customer interactions either directly (e.g., forums) or indirectly (e.g., training materials).

Today our game has evolved from hopscotch to playing with a Rubik’s cube.  The cube is deceptively simple to play, but to solve the puzzle, we must  understand the sides work together and the best way to manage each of them to reach our desired goal.

Why has our world become much more complex?  There are many reasons but some of the key drivers include:

  • Users have higher expectations for products and are willing to share their (dis)pleasure publicly through social media outlets. (see the New Communications Cycle)
  • Extensive and often far-flung project teams are planning and deploying more complex and integrated products and services.
  • Outlets for user support are more diverse due to the rise of social media and new customer relationship approaches such as user-generated content.
  • Businesses push to be ever more productive with fewer staff and resources, so the professionals in these organizations are pressed into service on more fronts than ever before.
  • Our employers have figured out are discovering that we understand the customers–both internal and external–very, very well.

Like our communication cousins in marketing, who in the Madmen era of business were often seen as one-dimensional employees kept around to make the ads pretty, our profession can benefit from adopting a more strategic point of view.  Most marketers embrace Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) as their strategic mental model.  IMC, along with numerous frameworks, helps them look at problems from a strategic point of view rather than just a tactical one.  While tactical questions include how and when, strategic questions start by exploring the “why” such as “why should we enter this market?”; “why do we want to compete here?”; or “why do our competitors want to be in this market?”  The initial questions lead to “how” questions on development, pricing, distribution, and messaging and making them work together in the most effective manner.  From there the tactical questions and answers become relatively simple.

Integrated Technical Communications Defined

Figure 2: Think of IMC and ITC as M.C. Escher’s “Waterfall”

IMC and its supporting frameworks, like the 4Ps (product, placement, pricing and promotion), always look at the interactions and outcomes of those combinations with an aim of creating a logically cohesive final solution, or strategy.  When done correctly each of the 4-Ps supports and builds upon one another in a way comparable to M.C. Escher’s famous “Waterfall” drawing, in which the water never stops because everything integrated in a way that creates ensures a continuous flow.  When done incorrectly, a bad mix can destroy a product or company.  The high priced product promoted exclusively to low income families will have a short run  (M.C. Escher’s waterfall jumps the wall and floods the adjoining cottage).  Marketers will be the first to say that IMC is not the answer to all things marketing but its shift in emphasis on marketing as a transaction to marketing as a relationship of mutual benefit between buyer and seller has helped bring marketing from smoke-filled agency backrooms to the board level.

Many of our technical communication definitions are very similar to marketing definitions of yesteryear. Wikipedia defines technical communications as “a method of researching and creating information about technical processes or products directed to an audience through media. The information must be relevant to the intended audience.”  The Society for Technical Communications defines technical communicators as those who “research and create information about technical processes or products directed to a targeted audience through various forms of media.”

Implicit in those very similar definitions are a set of six processes that define what we do at a high level—analysis, research, content creation, production/dissemination, feedback, and archival. Less discussed, but perhaps more critical, is the strategy behind what will be communicated to whom and for what purpose.  Similar to how marketing evolved its approach to focusing on the interaction of its main elements, or processes, we as professional technical communicators need to find a strategic way to do the same by defining an approach that takes into account not only the processes but the dynamics of these processes to create final communication plans and activities.

Integrated technical communications (ITC*) is the coordination and integration of all technical communication processes, tools, functions, and sources within an organization to convey information and knowledge relevant to optimizing the users’ product experience.

The definition of ITC differs from the accepted technical communications definitions in a couple of key ways.  First, rather than focusing on the activities involved in the communication creation (research and content creation), ITC focuses on increasing the users’ understanding and experience.  Second, similar to Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC), ITC stresses integration rather than the processes, tools and functions themselves.  This leaves ample room to look for strategic coherence in our visioning, planning, and execution of technical communication activities.  Again, an evolution of thinking, not revolution because we’re not suggesting that the Rubik’s cube isn’t the right puzzle, we’re proposing a way to solve it.

Integrated Technical Communications as Problem-Solving

Applying this early version* of ITC already allows us to bring the whole range of disciplines to bear on the challenge of solving a problem or meeting a need for the customer, rather than merely creating volumes of documentation that turn into semi-useful doorstops. We can keep the focus on clear, concise and relevant information necessary to accomplish an objective, while expanding the ways in which the information is distributed and received. To step outside of the logical argument, when thinking about a technical communication challenge, ITC (at least for the authors) feels right and has allowed us to start solving questions ranging from explaining the version of software to guidance on what happens when a pacemaker is implanted, how to assemble the media center, or the nutritional value of a bagel .

Think of the six high-level processes as one face of the whole cube, each of which can utilize tactics and channels (the depicted lists are not exhaustive) to produce an outcome:

Figure 3: ITC’s high level processes compare to faces on the cube

Unlike technical communications of the late 20thcentury, outcomes are not limited what happens after the sale of the product. ITC can apply to the many areas of a business’s activity:

Product Development Operations Customer Relations \ Compliance
Product research and planningDesign and development

  • Project management
  • Prototyping
  • Testing

Production

  • Quality Control

Rollout

  • Iterative updates

 

TrainingSalesMarketingPublic Relations User assistance \ technical supportDocumentationSocial Media Interactions

We know that we are not the first to touch on the principles of ITC. Academics and some of the thought leaders of today are evangelizing an interconnected world:

  • As early as 1993, scholarly work in technical communications pointed to the need to integrate communications functions within product development.
  • Jack Molisani, producer of the LavaCon Conference, talked about the importance of “becoming hyphenated”(audio link) back at the STC Summit in 2007—Technical Writer-Usability Specialist or Technical Writer-Business Analyst.
  • Social media guru Brian Solis espouses Hybrid Communications Theory, which doesn’t explicitly call out the technical communications component, but describes how multiple approaches and channels work together to drive an outcome.
  • Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, focuses on content strategy, but ranges in many directions to discover in what new arenas technical communicators are competing—Technical Communicators “whose job it is to help consumers accomplish goals. The work of technical communicators is diverse and involves an understanding of many disciplines.”
  • And, in his blog The Fractal Enterprise, content strategist Joe Gollner references the ITC concept directly with an emphasis on business analysis.
Our proposal of ITC looks to build on the foundations of their thinking, as well as the ideas supplied by more than 300,000 messages in TechWhirl’s technical communicator email discussion archives, and on our own wide-ranging experience in communications. But ITC should be considered a thesis to prove, not the final proof itself.

Figure 4: With a good strategy for Integrated Technical Communications, Technical Communicators can be the ultimate puzzle solvers

 

We believe that integrating technical communications through a simple approach guided by the satisfaction of our users is a powerful idea that can prove useful when facing the difficult challenges of doing technical communications in a modern world.  In fact, the development of a strategic approach like ITC can bring technical communications to its rightful place at the corporate table beside marketing, public relations and internal communications.  What could be more important than product understanding?

What’s Next for Integrated Technical Communications?

It is an exciting time to be a technical communicator.  Our expertise and capabilities are in demand more than ever.  The world is broadening our horizons, so this seems like a perfect time to broaden our thinking to accommodate its many expectations and needs.

This article is the first of a series of TechWhirl ITC pieces that will look at the concept from a variety of angles such as how user support, training, customer service, marketing, knowledge sharing and other disciplines intersect. We’ll also explore strategies, delivery channels, development processes and tools necessary to execute Integrated Technical Communications successfully through roundtable discussions, interviews and articles.

Starting now, we’re looking for data that suggests our thesis is accurate, or what needs changed. Are you ready to join the discussion on ITC? What disciplines do you see as part of the integrated tech communications?  Who are some thought leaders we should interview?  Did we miss something?

Let’s start it in the comments and continue it at the LavaCon Conference, on our email discussion group, or on Twitter.

A special thank you to Adobe Systems, Inc. for sponsoring our Integrated Technical Communications column. You can learn more about Adobe’s industry-leading technical communication tools by going to their website.

* We consider this ITC Version 1.0 Beta.  We know there are most likely logical holes and areas that can be improved.  TechWhirl’s Integrated Technical Communication Article Series will explore this idea with an aim toward updating this definition as we discover more information.  

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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Al Martine

A former non-profit fundraiser and strategy \ change management consultant and now he's the head of TechWhirl Janitorial Services. If it's going well or poorly with TechWhirl's websites he's probably the one to thank or blame. You can connect with Al through his Google + page.

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