Blog Archives

Content Management and Leadership. Content Playbooks? Content Leadership?

This week’s readings revisited a number of concepts that I’ve learned throughout the technical and professional communication program.

Chapters 2, 3, and 5 essentially summarize that technical communicators should not just view themselves as writers, but also rhetorical tool experts, information designers, and content managers. It was a solid review and there were actually some things that caused me to stop and think more deeply about my own role as a technical writer.

Content Management Perspectives

For instance, Hart-Davidson makes an argument that there are three perspectives for creating and managing content in Chapter 5.

  • The first perspective is making texts — this is the dirty work, the actual writing we do for clients, users, and customers.
  • The second perspective is creating and managing information assets — from my understanding, this is the process of making content reusable and “evergreen”.
  • Lastly, (and this is the part that made me think more deeply) Hart-Davidson argues content mangers should design and manage workflows and production models — this last perspective focuses on the responsibilities of those who are involved with content management in an organization context.

Hart-Davidson elaborates more on this third perspective later in the chapter:

“Here, technical communicators take on supervisory roles at the level of a team . . . They study how people work to create and manage information and they then look to make improvements.”

After reading this, I started to ask myself, “How do we do that?” Particularly when we’re not always in leadership roles to manage how other people create and manage information? The answer sounds simple, but I’ve found it to be rather difficult in some instances.

The Content Playbook

For example — this week, my team conducted our monthly content calendar review to discuss what will be published in the month of November. This meeting included my directors and other marketers. During this meeting, me and the other content manager started to discuss our process for creating and publishing new content. As we were explaining this, my director suggested that we make a “content playbook” that basically describes the process of how we publish content.

Now, this isn’t the first time my director has asked for something like this. He has briefly brought up a similar request months ago. However, I haven’t acted upon this request because it sounds like a waste of time. Not because I feel it is a bad idea necessarily, I don’t think anyone will actually use it. Immediately, my content management brain kicks in because I think, “Who is going to read that?

Should I be spending time creating a playbook for something that (that I feel) no one will read? At my work, there are only two content managers (me and another writer on a separate marketing team). I feel he would be the only other writer who would benefit from something like this. However, after reading this week’s readings, I may be feeling differently.

Content Leadership

If I was to put on my managerial content marketing hat, or as Hart-Davidson describes ” study how people work to create and manage information and then look to make improvements”, I would have a few recommendations.

One thing that I wish the other writers would do is amplify the content they have created. Once they publish an article on the company blog, they do not try to republish it on other websites or share it that often enough on social media. Earlier this week, I was listening to a presentation about why content marketing fails and the podcasters mention that writers often fail to ask this simple question during the content creation process:

why-content-marketing-fails-47-638.jpg

Source: Slideshare: Why Content Marketing Fails

I do not feel the other writers ask this question. Typically, I’ve chosen to just do my own thing and not worry about the process in which they publish content. But, our readings this week have got me thinking more about it. How do you lead others to write and manage content effectively? How do you become a content leader and inspire others?

Content Management Revisited

Like I mentioned before, the readings this week got me thinking about the content playbook. If I created a content playbook that describes how to amplify your content, would that change anything? I’ve shown my colleagues the results and statistics of amplifying their content, and that still doesn’t seem to change anything.

But maybe it’s not that simple. In the same presentation that I mentioned earlier, they suggest that content marketers don’t try enough. If their efforts fail, they should try again. Maybe I should at least try this content playbook.

I’m interested to know what you guys think. If your director suggested you write a content playbook. What would you do? Have you already done it? Do you feel others (have or would) use it? What are other ways you manage the content and information in your own organizations?

Out with the Old – But Wait a Minute!

In this week’s readings, we take a look at how social media has changed and, in some cases, re-defined the role of a Technical Writer.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the research collected by Blithe, Lauer, and Curran in their article, Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.  They point out that the job title of “Technical Writer” seems dated in this current Web 2.0 world, and the authors quote Bernhardt (2010) in saying:  “Our graduates are getting jobs, but it is becoming ever more difficult to say just what kind of jobs are out there and what kinds of skills they demand” (265).

I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Technical Communications concentration in May of 2001.  My first job out of college was a Technical Writer position with a local water heater manufacturer.  I was the sole writer at the time as the position had been created not long before I came on board and had only been filled prior to myself by a graphic design/CAD operator who had some writing aptitude.  I recall applying for positions and many companies having absolutely no idea what a Technical Writer was or what I could possibly do for their company.  I can’t even count the number of times I was asked if I was, “some kind of secretary.”  To say that our field has progressed by leaps and bounds since then is an understatement and, perhaps, social media has  played a role.

tech-writing-dilbert-4

Image from dilbert.com (August 3, 1995)

Some of the data that I found most interesting from the Blithe, Lauer, and Curran study was that most writers responding to their survey seemed to be under the age of 40 and the authors, “…admit that the survey results give us a more reliable picture of what younger alumni are doing, and a less reliable picture of what older alumni in advanced positions are doing” (270).

am-i-qualified-enough-to-apply-to-this-job

Image courtesy of http://www.prepary.com

So, what does this suggest for someone like me – someone who graduated in the field 17 years ago, took a great deal of time off, returned to graduate school, and will graduate and return to the field in the next few years as someone in the over 40-years-old category?  While I feel that my current job with Vantel Pearls has helped me to gain some social media skills and aptitude, I question whether it will be enough – or whether I will be skilled enough in the advancing trends in social media to prove competitive with my younger colleagues vying for the same positions.  I had better get to work learning these social media nuances!

But – Where is this Headed for the Social Media Illiterate?

In her article, Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South, author Bernadette Longo states that, “We in technical communication applied our expertise in what Maggiani (2009) described as ‘one-to-many’ communication” (p. 23).  “In contrast, …Maggiani argued:

In a social setting, the skill set of the technical communicator grows.  The ability to successfully apply these skills, however, become more transparent.  Ultimately, though, while the line of authorship blurs, content would become richer, deeper, more useful, and would include multiple ownership or collaboration.  A collaboration through social media, properly undertaken, results in the truest form of audience-centered content” (p. 24).

During my time as a technical writer for the water heater manufacturer, we went through an issue where I was only receiving feedback from the engineer and the voice of the user was not being heard when it came to the manual design and content.  We tried bringing in representatives from the customer service department to help bridge the gap, but it never was quite enough to make the voice of the people fully heard.  I left the position in 2003, but a few years ago, they decided to use social media to allow customers to give feedback on the usability of their current manuals.  Much has changed since this was done and the manuals have become much more novice user friendly with actual photos (rather than CAD art), larger print, online access, etc.  – check it out:   Residential Electric Water Heater Manual – Photos/online. While this social media outreach was successful, some voices were still not “heard.”

Longo speaks mostly to the way that social media is not available to everyone around the world (in developing countries) the way that it is here in the US.  But, she fails to mention that many people in the US still do not have access.  I know families in my area who still live “too deep in the woods” or “too high in the mountains” for internet providers to be able to connect them to a line – or cell phone tower signals to be able to reach their remote locations.  Then we also have to consider age as well as expense when it comes to constant connectedness.  My mom is almost 70.  She has a cell phone but feels she can’t afford monthly internet access on her fixed income.  She doesn’t own a laptop or PC and she uses her cell phone date for anything she may want to do online.  While that does mean that she is “connected,” she does not have the benefit of a a large screen or keyboard, and some companies have very unusable mobile websites.  As social media takes center stage in the lives of the current generations, some in the older generations are being left behind.  My momma would much rather make a phone call or go by and visit someone than to go find them on social media or send them a personal message through the messenger app.  As a human, that matters to me.  When we are discussing peoples’ “voices being heard,” I don’t like to think that we are phasing out the elderly and the poorer people and nations.

confusedcomputer

Image courtesy of 11point.com

I suppose you could say that, in my advanced age, I am accepting change a lot more slowly than I once did.

Becoming a Symbolic-Analytic Worker

Theodore Roosevelt is attributed as saying, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” As a relative newcomer to technical communications, I appreciated the overview in Carliner’s article “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” of how the field has developed over the past 40 years. He lays the groundwork for understanding how changes in content management and publication technology has shifted what it fundamentally means to be a technical writer. Because of the advances that he describes, notably in GUI development and the emergence of the Internet, our primary function has evolved from “crank-turners” for publication to a more nuanced understanding of content creators.

This is the shift that Dicks further explores in “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” and that I find fascinating both in light of my current job and future opportunities in the field. The key phrase that caught my attention in Dicks’ article was the evolution of technical writing into “symbolic-analytic work,” which he attributes to economic, management, and technological trends. In “Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age,” Johnson-Eilola further describes symbolic-analytic work as it applies to technical communication: “Symbolic-Analytic Workers possess the abilities to identify, rearrange, circulate, abstract, and broker information. Their principal work materials are information and symbols, their principal products are reports, plans, and proposals.”

Twenty years later, Johnson-Eilola’s description of the evolving role of technical communicators certainly seems to have borne out. Technology has advanced to the point that the nuts and bolts of the publication process are no longer a burden. Technical writers no longer contribute value by knowing which lever to pull, so to speak. Instead, in order to add value to the post-industrial society that Dicks describes, we need to be performing higher-level tasks regarding how content is created, managed, distributed, and understood.

This shift is happening throughout many sectors of the economy, as shown in the chart below, and technical communications is one example of it:

changing-skill-demand

In my own experience, I was hired in 2012 with the elaborate job title of “Writer.” The next year, the company changed the name of our division, and there was a mild identity crisis as all of our business cards changed to say “Technical Communications” instead. Although some of my more romantic colleagues were dismayed by losing the artsy flair of being “writers,” I thought that the shift was a much more accurate reflection of the scope of our work. The majority of my work day is not spent strictly writing, but rather investigating new projects, deciding which information is the most meaningful for our audience, and managing content at a much higher level. As Dicks points out, we need to re-envision ourselves not as merely documenters but “strategic contributors”.

In “The Effects of Content Management on Writing in an Administrative Office,” McCarthy brings it full circle and argues that just as the scope of our work was initially limited by the technology available to us, we should now seek content management systems that support our new roles. He states, “With the missions and desired outcomes of organizations now closely entwined with how they manage their knowledge, the ability to develop tools that support the formation and coordination of the textual representation of knowledge is extremely important” (McCarthy p. 5).

I think Carliner would agree. Technical communications evolved in direct response to the available technologies, and as we complete the shift into symbolic-analytic work, we need to seek development of tools to support it. Although I think these tools will likely look a little different in each industry and context, at the heart they need to support collaboration, flexibility, interactivity, and ease of use, allowing us to focus on the higher-brain tasks of communication and our evolving audience.

Personally, I’m excited about working in this new world where I have the opportunity to think critically, explore new ideas, and continually redefine successful communication. I find it a much more dynamic and engaging environment than simply being a “routine manual” worker, as Dicks cautions is quickly going extinct.

References:

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan (1996). Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(3), 245-270.

McCarthy, Jacob E. Effects of Content Management on Writing in an Administrative Office: Building a Way of Organizing Writing. Proquest, 2009.

Spilka, Rachel (Ed.) 2010. Digital Literacy for Technical Communications. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Van Damme, Dirk. “21st Century Learners Demand Post-Industrial Education Systems.” OECD.

 

 

Where are they now?

socialnomics coverSometimes, while I am reading through actual books (versus articles) in my classes, I wonder how fast the author has to write his book in order to go through the editing and publishing phases to get it out to the consumer before it becomes “old” information.  These days I would say they have to write with lightening speed because of how fast technology changes and how constantly new forms of social media seem to be introduced (and then disappear again).  In fact, I also often wonder if we are going to see a shift away  from paper books in classes specifically because of how fast information changes.  Don’t get me wrong, I still learn a lot even when the information is becoming dated, as it is in Socialnomics.  It almost becomes more of a history lesson – sometimes you can laugh at the information and other times it is scary how true some of their future predictions have become.  For this week I thought it would be fun to explore some of this older information and see what it looks like today.

Chapter four focussed heavily on Barack Obama’s use of social media for his elections, toting is as incredibly forward thinking: “Perhaps due to his widespread appeal to younger audiences, but more likely due to limited funding at the outset of his campaign, Obama embraced social media from the beginning – knowing he had a chance to dominate this medium over his democratic opponents” (Socialnomics, 2009, p. 62).  And this quote:  “If not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president or even the democratic nominee” as quoted in Socialnomics on pg. 65 by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post. Eric Qualman was probably correct in this assumption, especially with regards to the younger followers being the ones who were using social media very heavily at the time.   Out of curiosity I looked to see where the “follower” counts have gone since this book was written.  Obama has gone from 3.1 million fans on Facebook (Socialnomics, 2009, p. 62) to 36 million today.  His Youtube channel has gone from over 20 million views, per Socialnomics (p. 63) to 291,711,299 views today.  While I did not see mention of how many Twitter followers Obama had at the time this book was written, he currently has 37,736,062 followers. Considering Twitter was a very new medium during his 2008 campaign, we can probably assume that there were far fewer followers back then.

What is interesting is that “Obama has pledged to involve Americans in his decision making, by giving them five days to comment online on any nonemergency legislation before he signs it” (Socialnomics, 2009, pg. 74) but yet I have searched numerous different Obama internet sites and have not found any such options.  I have also seen that many of his sites have not been updated with events or activities since 2008.  In particular, the Youtube channel has not had a recent video from Obama since the beginning of the year.  I think we were all excited to hear that a fresh young President was going to make such great changes – it made him seem more down to earth.  It is just unfortunate that his ideas have not taken off like he had said they would.  Maybe because he found out how time consuming social media can be and his job is a little bigger than he thought?  Haven’t we all been there done that?!

In either case, another topic that Qualman brings up is how Google can predict future trends by looking at its own search trends and advertising click-throughs.  This is still something that Google is promoting.  I found this fascinating and would love to learn more about it.  It still seems that the privacy concerns brought up in Socialnomics are still an issue today and this information is not readily available to the public.

Finally, according to Qualman, “One thing that is surely inevitable is the introduction of online voting” (Socialnomics, 2009, pg. 83).  Well, his prediction is still not reality almost 6 years later.  Not that it isn’t still a topic of debate among those who are interested, especially Internet security types, but it still seems quite a long ways off.  Even Canada is farther ahead than we are in this debate.  I, personally, would love to see this one come true!

Books may still be valuable tools but time will tell if their ability (or lack there of) to keep current, without costing the consumer an arm and a leg, will devalue them in the future.  Might we see a real digital version that can get updated on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis without buying a whole new book?  Wishful thinking on my part, I suppose!