An Interview with Joe Gollner
Joe Gollner has been dubbed the Content Philosopher, and it’s a label that suits him. He has a professorial, almost serene way about him that harkens back to his Masters in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. But Joe also has an extensive background in the Canadian military, and many years “in the trenches” of managing large technology and process implementation initiatives. A highly regarded content development consultant who recently started Gnostyx Research, Joe’s wide ranging experience and interests inform his insight into the current challenges and future opportunities presented to technical communications by the content revolution.
As a keynote presenter at the LavaCon 2011 Conference, Joe described the intersections of content strategy, technical communications, and social media as a revolution. And, as he noted in a blog post following the conference, he quickly identified integration as one of the major themes coming out of presentations, workshops and conversations. In our interview during the LavaCon conference he argues persuasively that integration is one of the core tenets of a successful enterprise content strategy.
Defining Integrated Technical Communications at the Enterprise Level
Two recent columns in Tech Writer Today illustrate the importance of a technical communications approach that places the function closer to the center of an organization’s business strategy. In Integrated Technical Communications: A Strategy for Technical Communicators, Al Martine and I describe an initial framework and develop a definition for Integrated Technical Communications. In the next ITC article, Anna Parker-Richards recently proposed a method for visually defining and communicating ITC and its strategic value in her piece, Integrated Technical Communications: A Map to Better Understanding.
Joe introduced the idea, well before Al, Anna or I ever took up the concept, as a way to combine the best of business analysis and technical communications. Then in his conference keynote, Joe identified “The most important trend is the need for organizations to continuously refine how tightly they integrate their products, processes & content.” During the interview, Joe was quick to note that he is not a technical communicator, but he has led large implementations of content management systems and publishing processes for many years. “I come at it from the enterprise-level rather than from somewhere within tech comm—I’m ‘the bringer of trouble’- the one who introduces new systems and processes that often turn the technical communicator’s world upside down.” Joe continued, “I see the changes occurring in content technologies as an opportunity for people in tech comm and the skills they bring to have a strong voice in the Integrated Product Teams (IPT) that drive modern product lifecycles. Technical communicators in fact play the invaluable role of bridging the various lifecycle stages all the way from concept development and product engineering, through to user experience (UX) refinement, and then on to documentation, training and community support as the products are finalized. The potential role of the technical communicator in this new integrated product team approach is even more important than it sounds. The concept of the Integrated Product Team utterly depends on effective communication.”
Joe noted that that the IPT is a proven concept, particularly within large, complex military projects from which it emerged. In practice, the IPT can be a challenging model to implement because most IPT participants have been historically disconnected from each other, and from critical sources of expertise and reusable content. Reconnecting them is a role technical communicators should be well suited to. “One thing I have frequently observed is that many of the key participants in initial product development end are not as well connected with their customers as they should be. In fact, they are often buried within layers of bureaucracy that effectively cuts them off from the real world. And sometimes this is unavoidable because their specialized technical expertise makes interacting with the customer, and specifically the user, very difficult. The IPT process however, demands that we establish a vital connection between these product designers and the customers and users they are trying to serve.” In this scenario, Joe contended, the IPT “can involve technical communicators in one of the things that they are really good at – understanding audiences and their needs. In this way the technical communicator becomes a valuable part of market research and requirements validation.”
Thus implementing integrated technical communications strategy relies on structuring productive roles for technical communications within the IPT.
Integrated Product Teams and the Organizational Challenge for Technical Communicators
These kinds of activities are often outside the experience or scope of technical writing groups. Joe explained that this disadvantage actually occurs within other functional areas of the organization. “Within doc groups, people often don’t “see that there are other parts of the process,” he said. “Conversely, engineering, development and manufacturing often don’t see the document and end-user support parts of the process.”
“The Integrated Product Team model helps us to stop thinking in our disciplinary silos,” Joe claimed. “How do you get the people who worry about spare parts and inventory management involved in the product lifecycle? It’s the same thing with the documentation team – they need to become a part of the process early on and stay involved over the course of product development and deployment.”
Early involvement from all functions, as the most basic level of integration, ensures that product development focuses on meeting the requirements of the customers and that the processes used to go from concept to production are effective and efficient. On one level, this concerns bringing together the different players, including the technical communicators, to form a more collaborative approach to driving the product lifecycle. On another level, there are implications for the approaches used for creating and leveraging content. Specifically organizations must move toward using open standards—the Extensible Markup Language (XML)—to design, create, manage and publish their content. Only in this way will it be genuinely possible for content to move along the product lifecycle, and across the many different software tools that participants use.
“With these two levels of integration at work it should come as no surprise that implementing the IPT model will be a ’risky venture,’ and largely because there will be a natural and understandable resistance to change. We can’t disguise the fact that change is hard.” Joe believes in using techniques that can really help address some of the challenges associated with overcoming resistance to change and realize a new and more integrated approach to the product lifecycle.
One such technique is the content scenario, which provides a methodology for capturing the knowledge held within traditionally separate functions and for demonstrating how business processes can change when information flows freely between participants. He recently described the purpose and value of content scenarios in his blog, The Content Philosopher. “Content Scenarios provide a tangible demonstration of how new strategies for acquiring, managing and delivering content will make a difference to customers, users and business stakeholders. The most important feature of Content Scenarios is that they must be meaningful to Business Executives who do not care about the technology behind the scenes.”
Technical Communications in Strategic Content Development
All this requires a shift in thinking on the part of technical communications teams whose traditional focus on technical writing tasks must be redeployed to demonstrating strategic value with the Integrated Product Team model. And this can be quite a challenging shift to make. However, when you really look at it, the IPT lives or dies on communication and all the technical communicators need to do is jump in a do what they do every day: identify audiences and information needs, and then get down to the business of making sure they are satisfied. In no time at all, every participant in the IPT will come to recognize and appreciate that this service is hugely valuable.
Strategically, the unique skills of the technical communicator allows the IPT to “develop a knowledge base for the product and this knowledge base informs not just the users activities but the product design itself.” Indeed, Joe foresees the possible roles of tech comm morphing into “choreographer, curator, facilitator and community builder” working concert with engineering and product marketing to manage iterative refinement cycle more effectively. “As the ‘time-to-market’ windows for product releases shorten, technical communicators are in a good position to interact with customers and accelerate the product innovation cycle. In effect, the communicators learn to catch those customer fast balls and organize the input for engineering. This allows the engineers to do what they are really good at, which does not necessarily include facilitating communities or providing direct service to customers,” he said wryly.
When I asked “What are some key thoughts that content developers, architects, and managers should keep in mind,” Joe re-emphasized the holistic view of enterprise content strategy and integrated product team approach. He took the opportunity to describe another facilitating technique where communicators have a lot to offer: “Demonstration-based development.” In a typical product development project, he said, “the product only crashes when it’s important – when there’s an important audience watching. Demos crash at these inopportune moments because, suddenly, you find yourself exercising scenarios that really weren’t on the radar for the engineers.” Within the demonstration based development technique, what is normally avoided becomes something you actively seek.
“In every IPT you want to assemble a working group that will use one or more content scenarios to prepare and deliver a series of demos. The technical communicators get involved to ensure that these demos illustrate integrated functionality that neither the engineers nor the marketing team will necessarily think of but that will make tangible sense to the customer. And then you take the bold step of showing it to customers. Risky, yes, but profoundly valuable. And because it’s risky, when the technical communicators volunteer to lead this effort, it is unusual for anyone else to volunteer instead.”
Joe proposed that an effective enterprise content strategy supports IPT to bring those scenarios into the development process early on. “Demo-based development follows a path similar to agile, but it differs in that you need to engage real customers, and to look at the emerging product in light of the customer.” Thus content that matters to the customer becomes part of the product development process. He noted in his keynote “Customers decide what a product is for & how it’s best used. Customer content provides the feedback that drives product evolution.” Technical communicators are uniquely equipped to facilitate this high-value dialogue with the customers.
As a specific example, mobile users are now on everyone’s radar. It is essential that organizations deliver useful content to these mobile devices, and so this becomes one of the channels that needs aggressive development. In Joe’s enterprise view, addressing mobile devices must not lead to a new content silo being introduced. “It would seem folly to treat mobile delivery as something separate,” Joe said. “It’s not particularly new, and it’s only sustainable if we’re doing it from a common store of intelligent content. From the affordability perspective, we have to sustain all forms (mobile, eReaders, print, web, etc.) using standards and automation to maintain and publish content. We’ll go insane if we don’t follow that path.” Mobile content within the enterprise strategy represents one more area where technical communicators can jump in and help their organizations. They can develop mobile-specific content scenarios and prepare demonstrations that help to refine the real business needs of the customers. This can be fed back into the product design process and into the evolution of the content management system that supports it.
Technical Communications, Integrated Product Development, and the Road Ahead
As technical writing, content strategy, user experience design, information architecture and other disciplines race toward a common horizon, Joe sees the opportunities arising as fit for professionals who are T-shaped people. “Everyone should have one strong specialty (usability specialty, technical writing and so on) and have a good awareness of other disciplines so as to be able to fully engage in the product and content lifecycle.” Actually, Joe believes “inukshuk-shaped” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inuksuk) people are best suited to success in the content revolution. Inukshuk statues were created by the arctic first nations as a navigational marker and as a symbol of friendship. Such a shape features two legs and at least one horizontal bar. “Everyone who is a communicator should have a least two areas of specialty to plug into multiple points in the product development lifecycle as well as a strong appreciation for the roles of other specialist participants.”
Another technique growing in importance within the context of the Integrated Product Team is topic-based authoring. The concept of topic-based content has at least two decades of history behind it, and it is most recently being popularized with of the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA). It is essential that technical communications teams adopt topic-based authoring to successfully manage content development within integrated product lifecycles. Joe further noted, “Reusable topic-based content components can be managed within the regime of the product lifecycle and this is fundamentally important. It is in fact, the most important benefit of topic-based content management, and interestingly, it is one of the least appreciated.” Drawing from experience on large content management projects, Joe explained, “With well-designed topic-based content components, you know exactly what product feature the content is related to and therefore when it has to be modified in the light of product changes. What this then means is that the content becomes an integral part of the product as opposed to an afterthought.” Joe predicted, “Non-topic-based content is slated for extinction.”
Joe is fully invested in the concept and potential of product and content integration, but he recognizes that change management will play a large role for some time. “Change management is such big challenge because so many participants in the product lifecycle remain locked into their organizational silos and often struggle to think outside their disciplinary domains,” he said. “In an ideal future, the integrated perspective will prevail and collaborating across organizational and disciplinary boundaries will no longer be new. It will be just something you do as the natural part of your job. Some of the things we cling you in our little silos and cubicles will just go away.”
What does that mean for technical writing teams in the near and long-term? “An increasingly integrated work environment,” Joe confirmed. “A much more collaborative IPT incorporating customers and their perspectives.” His eyes sparkle as he describes his vision of integration—content, technical communications, integrated product teams and the products themselves. “Technical communicators, to my mind, have a key role to play in making all this happen. They are perhaps the best positioned of all the IPT participants to leverage their horizontal competencies to build cross-team understanding and to diffuse conflict by facilitating high quality communication. It is the only way the next generation of products will come into being and be both sustainable and responsive to market demands. The marketplace demands it, so it is going to happen. It is an exciting time for technical communicators!”
Download Joe Gollner’s LavaCon 2011 Keynote: http://www.slideshare.net/jgollner/the-content-revolution-lavacon-2011-keynote
View a video recording of Joe Gollner’s LavaCon 2011 Keynote: http://vimeo.com/32255004
T-shaped People described in Strategy by Design: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/95/design-strategy.html
Overview of Integrated Product Teams: http://www.npd-solutions.com/ipt.html
Joe Gollner’s Blog – The Content Philosopher: http://www.gollner.ca/