Mid-year Checkpoint: Top Five Trends in Technical Writing

Trend spotting is a challenging adventure, engaged in by all sorts of very respectable professions, including our own. Some of the top blogs and thought leaders in technical communications have done an excellent job in spotting the next big things in this fast changing profession, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out. Now that we’re halfway through 2011, I thought it might be interesting to see what the top five trends are from the trenches—the issues, projects and ideas coming from the conversations from our own list members, and a couple of other places where newbies and veterans hang out around the virtual water color. There’s no scientific rigor here, just some qualitative analysis around what real practitioners are really dealing with day-to-day.

5. Social media are on everyone’s minds, but not necessarily on their to-do lists.

During May and June, much of the content on TechWhirl focused on social media or web 2.0. One of our recent, and admittedly unscientific, weekly polls showed that many technical communicators are blocked from even using social media at work, much less monitoring it and using it to publish critical information. Over two thousand messages have been posted to the TechWhirl list since January 1, 2011, and not one of them focused on using Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn in producing technical communications content (although there was a lively discussion on using LinkedIn Profiles on resumes).

Perhaps the technology is simply moving faster than corporate bureaucracy can handle. Granted many large companies are embracing social media to engage their customers. But many organizations are still figuring out how social media impact corporate records management, appropriate use of company resources, intellectual property, and other policies and strategies, and are unwilling to take the risk until they have analyzed the risks and impacts on the full range of corporate functions.

4. Leaner organizations with tight budgets mean more open source tools in the TC’s toolkit.

Open source tools are very slowly becoming more mainstream, probably for several resource-related reasons. Organizations today have cut back their tech comm staffs drastically, and are often turning to freelancers or consultants to work on time-limited projects. Freelancer technical communicators often lack the budget to acquire all the tools they’ll be called upon to use or support over the course of their projects. When a good open source, shareware or freeware alternative exists, technical communicators are more than willing to share experiences with it. Any given month shows at least one or two requests for recommendations for open source tools to handle graphics, edit XML, model data, produce flow charts, generate help in all kinds of flavors, manage timesheets, or produce PDFs.

I have observed some organizations turning to open source for office productivity tools, for the same kind of budgetary constraints that lead them to dump their technical communications staffs. One telecom I recently finished a project for was planning on rolling out OpenOffice to their call center representatives to reduce the cost of software licenses. If this becomes an actual trend rather than anecdotes from some of the trenches, look for more questions about integrating available open source tools, and then consultants specializing in making various tools work together for more robust processes and improved productivity.

3. Tech Communications is moving to the Cloud–kinda.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.” Practitioners on the TechWhirl list are looking for tools to author help in the cloud, while many others are questioning how to publish help or other documentation securely. On the other hand, many technical writers take on help/documentation projects for Software as a Service (SaaS) projects, so to the extent that new web applications are being documented with existing tools, tech comm has already moved to the cloud.

However, no clear indications currently exist as to what other types of documentation traditionally produced by technical writers are being moved to the cloud. Process documents, policy and procedure manuals, product development documentation, and others can be subject to complex review and revision cycles, as well as stringent security and compliance requirements. Likely, as these issues are explored and addressed at the enterprise level, the amount of and methodology for producing documentation in the cloud will increase.

2. Proving the value and ROI in technical communications is more important than ever.

Face it, the Great Recession, whether past or still continuing, made a tough employment situation that much tougher. TechWhirlers are asking, with more frequency that ever, how to justify their salaries. They’re asking about the tools, methodologies and frameworks that can track their organizational impact because upper management is obsessively focused on squeezing every last penny out of an organization to help increase cost reduction.

We do seem to be getting better at this stuff. During the last downturn, I remember some older threads from back in the early 2000’s that vehemently debated how, and whether, to measure technical writers through some type of objective criteria. Today, Technical communications teams appear to be starting to master the art of the business case, taking lessons from project management, product development, and marketing. And, because the lines between marketing, product support, training, and technical communications blur more today than ever, a more holistic approach to communicating with stakeholders should prove to be an area in which many technical communicators can prove their worth.

1. To be successful in the future, technical communicators will become specialized generalists … or general specialists.

Twenty years ago, top tech writers were using antique tools like WordPerfect or Wordstar in DOS to create detailed tomes on a huge variety of products, services, policies and contracts. They relied on graphic artists and illustrators—real people with airbrushes and Xacto blades—to create visuals that went along with the explanations, and deadlines revolved around how long it would take to print and ship the books. If you worked for a Really Big Company, they might even have a videographer, a scriptwriter and an editor to create videos to be used for orientation or at tradeshows. Everybody was specialized, and it took a long time to finish any communications for any audience.

Now, everyone is a generalist, and the barriers to entry to the profession have fallen. Pretty much anybody can download and try out a graphics program, shoot video from their cell phone, ask and answer questions in a forum and create content to post on websites. A lot of questions in the technical writing forums display a concern for that “anybody can do it” mentality, and rightly so. Concern regarding outsourcing is being displaced by concern for commoditizing technical writing. And contributors to TechWhirl and other forums often discuss the importance of proficiency in more than “just writing.”

Technical writing as a specialty is morphing into technical communications as a strategic function, because organizations need communicators who can do at least a couple of things well (gather requirements, design pages, develop taxonomies, create graphics, develop proposals, analyze processes, manage web content etc.) , and do them within significant time and resource constraints. It’s likely that brittle tech writers (with apologies to Scott Adams) will go the way of the dodo bird or buggy whip makers. Successful technical communicators will bring to their organizations an integrated set of skills, mastery of an integrated set of tools, and an integrated approach to identifying needs, designing solutions, and communicating those solutions to a wide range of audiences.

Some of the trends in tech comm will likely make a top five or top ten list continuously, ad infinitum. Doing more with less and measuring value seem to be constant goals throughout every aspect of business, not just communications functions. Delivery, platforms and tools may change, if not by the end of the year, then soon enough to spot a new trend.

What do you think the big trends in technical communications are? Am I spot on or did I miss the boat completely? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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