The Changing Landscape of Technical Communication: Tips and Tricks for Staying Relevant

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A beautify Japanese garden. Photo by Rachel Houghton.

How does the flow of technological change impact our professional lives? (photo by Rachel Houghton)

If there’s one thing that all technical writers can agree on, it’s that we never always agree on anything. Agreed? Moving from that logical quagmire into another one: I think we can also all agree that this rapid rate of technological change is having a large impact on our professional lives. On our personal lives too, but that’s another article.

What kinds of technological change am I talking about?

  • Mobility: The proliferation of mobile devices, resulting in information and connection anywhere, any time.
  • Speed and bandwidth: The widespread use of high-speed internet and the resulting tools that are based on that speed (Skype and Google Video for starters, but I could list thousands here).
  • Connectedness: The use of social media as a means of communication in many forms, from a method of product support to an avenue for job hunting.

As I see it, these changes are all based in the realm of communication. They transform it, they speed it up, and they make new things possible.

As professional communicators, it’s our habit to see these changes in terms of our output: how will our users access information, what will they want and need? But we’re ignoring the other side of the coin: our internal-facing communications are impacted just as much. Our working environments are undergoing a massive change.

Beyond Tools and Content: Managing the Technical Communication Work Environment

In these articles, I usually talk about the first category, discussing the tools and strategies around content meant for our users, the lifecycle around creation and consumption. For a change, I’d like to talk about the second category: our working environments.

Mobility, speed and connectedness mean that more and more workers are facing huge changes to their workplace (and the changes will continue for an increasing number of us over the next decade because they are great cost-saving strategies). Intelligently managed organizations are finding ways to save money, be innovative, and be flexible with working options.

The typical workplace of brick, mortar, and cubicle life is going the way of the PDF: it might always be around but is slowly getting trampled on by more dynamic possibilities.

Examples:

  • An international team can now communicate and collaborate using Skype, GoToMeeting, wikis, and virtual whiteboards.
  • A consultant may only meet most clients virtually, but can still deliver quality services, often with greater efficiency.
  • We, the writers of TechWhirl, sitting in a dozen different locations around the world can brainstorm our ideas in real time.
  • You may never/rarely meet your immediate supervisor in person.
  • You may manage a team whose members will never meet each other.
  • A team of writers, editors, and designers may all work from their respective homes.

While this is all very cool and may mean that you get to wear your pajamas to work more often, there are some serious consequences to these changes. You can’t rely on your old skill set for meetings, information gathering, or even problem solving and critical thinking. It’s time to adapt or get left behind.

Adapt and Maintain Your Social and Virtual Skills

First of all, if you are working remotely, do not lose the existing interpersonal skills that come from working in a physical workplace. It can be hard to regain the ability to read facial and body movements, to do a quick elevator chat, or to plunk yourself down with a SME and some doughnuts to pick his/her brain. Be aware that these skills will atrophy without proper exercise. The plight of recent graduates should be a warning to us all that moving the social into the virtual realm leaves us awkward dolts when it comes to doing the same thing in person. On the other hand, workplace veterans and senior management focus on the physical social skills, while failing to recognize virtual skills for the value and the opportunities they represent (e.g. crisis response, customer engagement, and brand-building).

Often you need to retool a skill rather than learning it from scratch. If you used your co-workers to bounce ideas off of (to jumpstart your problem solving), then keep doing it. It may mean using Skype chats, Google+ hangouts, or quick phone calls instead of leaning over a cubicle wall.

Don’t forget to keep speaking to real groups of people. Seriously. It might be your kid’s soccer team or Toast Masters, but the ability to clearly and confidently address a physical group of people is always going to be a crucial skill. And now you’ll have far fewer opportunities to do it.

The other side of this issue is that you need to develop your new skills to suit your work environment. Figure out what keeps you happy and productive in your new environment. For example, you may find that you just don’t work as well when you’re wearing pajamas; so dress like you’re going to work.

Your new skills also include developing an online presence, even if with just with your co-workers. What will you do to indicate that you’re available or that you can’t be disturbed? Your coworkers may not be able to see a closed door or your shoulders hunched over the keyboard, so managing interruptions and distractions will take new techniques. Be aware of new cultural norms (wikis versus email, virtual meetings dos and don’ts, support for teleworkers, etc.). Possibly most importantly, know how performance is measured (if you can’t see me, how do you know I’m working?).

The top people in the technical communication field have mastered not just one, but all of these strategies. They are good at one-on-one conversations and can also present engagingly to a room full of people. They have a virtual presence too, where they are building brand, communicating with peers, and developing a solid reputation. They are early adopters of new tools and applications that can help their careers. What they do better than most is see the value in the diversity of communication methods, each with its strengths that they can wield for their own purposes.

Timeless Strategies for Professional Success

Like the good little information architect that I am, I recommend developing strategies, not mastering tools (that comes later). Focus on what is important for your successful professional life.

  1. Maintain strong intra-team communication. A project’s success is greater than the sum of the team members’ successes. Supporting and communicating with team members means you can draw on a pool of experience, not just rely on your own knowledge. Back in the day, this usually happened in meeting rooms before the meeting started or in front of the water cooler. Now, we don’t necessarily have those avenues. Instead, we need to explicitly and continually keep the information flowing freely. The result will be a level of excellence in individual contributions, which cascades into overall excellence for your project.
  2. Accurately portray yourself. Be real. Know your abilities. Be confident but realistic. Be willing to learn. Don’t promise anything you can’t do. Reach out for help when necessary.
  3. Develop a reputation for excellence. Do what you say you’ll do. Do it on time. Go that extra mile. You can’t necessarily control your reputation (what others say about you), but you can give them something great to work with.
  4. Manage expectations.  Be clear about what, when, and how you’ll deliver a project. Define what “success” means for every project. Take the time to evaluate what went wrong last time and take the necessary steps to improve next time. Keep metrics.
  5. Manage your manager. This means keeping the lines of communication open so that you both understand what you expect from each other.
  6. Maintain a good work/life balance. As with all things, good balance is necessary for sanity. And, let’s face it, only sane people can produce consistently good content for their users.

Individual contributions combine with teamwork to produce successful technical communication efforts (photo by Rachel Houghton)

The face of communication is most definitely changing. We have new ways of working, new ways of communicating. As technical communication professionals, we should be taking advantage of these methods, but doing so wisely, knowing that even the greatest tool must be wielded with wisdom and purpose.

Jacquie Samuels

Jacquie Samuels is the owner of Writing Wise. She endeavors to help everyone create documentation that is stronger, faster, and smarter. You can connect with Jacquie through her Google Plus page.

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