Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

Beware the monster of change management: THE MAGNIFIER

April 15, 2014 by

For his 1959 horror movie The Tingler, director/producer William Castle had movie theater seats rigged with buzzers to scare moviegoers during a scene when the Tingler creature is loose in a theater. Patrons in those seats probably didn’t enjoy the jolt—or making a spectacle of themselves because of the Tingler’s “attack.”

If you’re managing the implementation of new processes and tools as part of your job, you’re in a hot seat of your very own—and you need to be on the lookout for another horrifying monster: THE MAGNIFIER.

Poster for The Tingler showing a chair and the words, Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?

Poster for The Tingler (Columbia Pictures)

When you’re determining how changes will support corporate goals and calculating the potential return on investment (ROI) for process improvements, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement generated by the positive things that new processes and tools will bring.

But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by all the goodness. Lurking in the darkness is the Magnifier, and it will pounce on you if you let your guard down.

So, what is the Magnifier? It’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed again and again on process implementations: the very act of process change can magnify existing personnel problems in an organization.

For example, if employees do not have a significant understanding of the company’s products and goals, they may create a lot of busy work to mask their lack of domain knowledge. When it comes time to update processes, “busy worker bees” want the details of their unimportant work codified as part of the new processes to make themselves relevant and indispensable (at least in their own minds) in the new workflow. These employees are less interested in the company’s goals than saving their own skins, and that trait becomes even more evident in times of change.

Employees with control issues are highly inflexible and want everything done their way. During process change, they will take a “my way or the highway” approach. For example, if they are dead set on a particular tool set, they will sandbag the tool selection process by exaggerating the feature set of their favored tool and by overemphasizing “problems” with other tool solutions.

Before you think I’m wallowing in unproductive negativity here, please understand I have witnessed the preceding poor behavior on multiple consulting projects (and I’m not even close to cataloging all the bad stuff I’ve seen). As the manager of a process change project, you must be prepared to fight the Magnifier. Effective weapons against it include:

  • Outlining clear business goals for process change. If a proposed tool or process does not support the company’s end goals, it should not be part of the solution.
  • Establishing clear communication among all parties. Start the communication channels up early as possible, and involve everyone, even those who are indirectly affected by the process changes. The company’s business goals should be front and center as part of all change-related conversations. As the project manager, you need to differentiate between legitimate concerns and outright recalcitrance during conversations. Pushback from others can help you identify weaknesses in the proposed workflow that you had not considered.
  • Hiring a consultant, even just part-time. A consultant has seen the Magnifier do its evil thing on other projects and can therefore help you locate and dispose of it early—before it does too much damage. Because consultants come from outside the company, many employees give what they say more credence, even if the consultants end up repeating the very things you’ve been saying all along. A consultant can also act as the “bad cop” in unpleasant situations, particularly ones involving personnel changes (detailed in the next bullet).
  • Realizing that successful change management may depend on personnel changes. Implementing new tools and processes is not going to magically transform poor employees into model workers. In fact, bad employees will have a negative impact on process change. If an employee’s recalcitrance is having significantly detrimental effects, consider reassigning them to another project (for example, maintaining the legacy system), placing them on a performance plan, or even terminating their employment. You must weigh the employee’s value to the company against the drag he or she is creating on the project.

Have you fought off the Magnifier in past projects? Please detail your battle scars in the comments below.

 

Tools, the content strategy killers

March 17, 2014 by

Quick! What’s the first thing you think about when you want to change your content strategy (the way you produce and distribute content)? If your answer is “tools,” you’re in good company.

First considering the technical aspects of a project is a common and understandable reaction. However, focusing too much on the tools can be the very thing that kills your content strategy.

Image of Jack killing the giant

Jack killing the giant (from The Chronicle of the Valiant Feats of Jack the Giant Killer, 1845)

Soft—or non-technical skills—are essential to evaluate when you’re hiring new staff. By extension, the non-technical aspects of new processes require your attention, too.

You can implement a rigorous tool selection process and spend a lot of time vetting tools, but those investments are useless if you don’t communicate the value of process change. Getting buy-in from all affected parties means you need to offer tailored messages to the different groups. For example:

  • Executives: increased revenue because of shorter times to market.
  • Middle management: cost reduction through more efficient workflows.
  • Content creators: eliminating tiresome manual chores and learning new skills for career longevity.

Your well-selected tool will make it easier to justify process changes to all parties, but it is not going to introduce itself to the different stakeholders, explain its value to them, or train users.

That’s why your content strategy team’s soft skills—particularly in communication—are as important as the tool itself.

 

Greatest hits for your listening content strategy pleasure

February 10, 2014 by

Transitioning to new publishing processes? Release your greatest hits collection first!

Fortunately for the vocally challenged like myself, I’m not talking about songs. I’m talking about a compendium of samples representing the content moving into the new processes.

On content strategy implementations, the lack of a good file testbed is a big obstacle to thoroughly testing how well new processes work. You can use sample files provided with your new tools, but how well do those samples correspond to your content and requirements? Not at all, based on my implementation experiences.

So, it’s up to you to create a useful, relevant greatest hits collection.

Here are a few tips for developing your collection:

  • Album cover for Bach's Greatest Hits

    flickr: bjornmeansbear

    If you have content for multiple audiences, collect samples for all audiences. For example, if you have content for users and administrators, pull some sections for both groups. It’s likely that content for different audiences contains unique constructs you need to maintain in your new processes.

  • Identify common content elements as well as outliers. You probably have a core group of styles, formatting, or elements that occurs across all information types. That core will be easier to identify. What’s not as easy to figure out is what outliers you need to preserve as you move forward. Are special constructs merely overrides that rogue writers created to do things their way, or do they provide value worthy of consideration for the new workflow?
  • Album cover for Donna Summer's On the Radio

    flickr: exquisitur

    Work with someone experienced in the new workflow to adapt your samples for the new processes. As part of your move to another workflow, you may have hired someone experienced with the new tools, or maybe you have a consultant on board to help with the transition. It’s critical that a seasoned user of your new processes have a lot of input into moving your samples from the old process to the new workflow: creating testbed files from samples is not just a matter of conversion. For example, if you are moving from desktop publishing to an XML-based workflow, there are multiple combinations of XML elements you could use to create a valid version of a particular sample. However, valid content doesn’t always equate with best practices. It takes an experienced user to know the difference.

  • Exact re-creation of your samples in the new workflow isn’t always the right goal. If you’re working in a regulated industry, you probably don’t have a lot of wiggle room in how to present information. Standards dictate organization, appearance, and so on. Your sample files should therefore look the same in both old and new processes. If you’re not constrained by regulations, however, a slavish devotion to the old way of doing things may not serve you well. Evaluation and guidance from a third party—a new employee or a consultant—can help you figure out what’s working in your old content and should be preserved (and what should be banished forever).

Have you released a set of greatest hits files? Please leave your tips in the comments.

“You don’t own me—or your content!”: the motivated consumer’s mantra

January 13, 2014 by

I love Downton Abbey. I love my Honda Fit.

And I will consume content about those things—even when their creators would prefer I not.

Today’s digital world means that information is global. Sure, ITV can release Downton Abbey in the UK during the last quarter of a year, and PBS can rebroadcast it in the US just a few weeks later. But if ITV and PBS think they can keep the show from American audiences during the initial UK broadcasts, they are very mistaken.

I saw information about the fourth season of Downton Abbey in my Facebook news feed while it was airing in the UK, and headlines about the show from UK-based sites made their way into my RSS feeds. Also, I’ve heard it’s not too hard to find the latest episodes on various not-entirely-legal file sharing sites. Die-hard fans in the US aren’t going to let intellectual property concerns block their immediate access to the Dowager Countess’s sharp tongue and poor Edith‘s latest jilting. Many folks over here watch the show pretty much in real-time as it airs in the UK, even though I’m sure PBS would strongly prefer that Americans watch the official US broadcasts—which seem to correspond with pledge drive season (ahem).

Meanwhile, in Japan, Honda released the third generation of its compact hatchback, the Fit (known as the Jazz in some markets),  in September. That new model won’t be available in the US until later this year, and Honda just launched a site to give US residents a glimpse of the new model. If I kindly give Honda my email address and phone number, they will send me more information on the new model. Oh really, Honda?

I don’t need to cough up my personal information to see photos and specs for the new Fit. I can check out non-Honda sites and blogs (such as this post from July 2013) to get information on the car and what I can expect in the version released in the US.

As content creators and managers, we have to realize that motivated consumers are going to ferret out information through unofficial (and even legally dubious) channels—particularly in situations where releases are staggered across different geographical markets. While there are legitimate reasons for releasing products at different times across world markets (and localization lag time is not a good reason, BTW), our product and content strategies must account for those who really want information—and don’t give one whit if it comes first from an unofficial source.

You cannot control the flow of content once it’s out there or pretend like it doesn’t exist because you didn’t release it. Copyright issues aside, you can’t hold on to antiquated notions about “owning” information in the Internet age. Consumers will speed right by you if you’re not giving them the information they want when they want it—and they may never turn back to your official content again.

P.S. My apologies to Lesley Gore for appropriating the title of her hit song:

Marginalizing tech comm with four little words

December 16, 2013 by

“I’m just the writer.”

For your 2014 New Year’s resolution, please stop yourself from verbalizing those words if they pop into your head. I ask this as someone who has both thought and said (doh!) those very words, especially during my early tech writing career.

Many companies are grappling with a common problem in their technical content. The content covers the what but it is light on the why and how. As a result, frustrated customers call support and create a financial double-whammy: a great deal of money is wasted on shallow, unhelpful technical content, and that costly failure is compounded by the additional support costs.

One way to deepen the context in your content is by providing rich, real-world examples that illustrate the why and how. Unfortunately, the only way you can develop those examples is by truly understanding the products you’re documenting.

Does this mean you need to become a product developer? Nope. But you do need to communicate and collaborate with product developers/SMEs more on their level. These days, a lot of SMEs are being asked to contribute content, so it’s not unreasonable for you to contribute your brainpower to a deeper understanding of your employer’s products.

So, next time you feel yourself flailing in a mire of technical detail about the product you’re documenting, take a deep breath and fight the temptation to fall into the trap of “I’m just a writer.” You must be more more than a stenographer and desktop publisher for product developers. Don’t let anyone—particularly yourself—marginalize tech writing in such a manner. If we act (or are merely viewed) as stenographers, there is little value placed on the content we create.

And that is when tech comm becomes expendable.

Cover from record for practicing stenography. Shows record player, typewriter, and rotary phone.

Stenography in tech comm is as forward-thinking as record players, typewriters, and rotary phones (flickr: epiclectic).

Are you ready to rumble for your content strategy?

November 19, 2013 by

If you can’t handle some rough-and-tumble adversity, you are not ready to manage the implementation of a new content strategy.

Implementing new processes of any kind is rarely a pleasant experience. Even the most meticulous planning won’t eliminate every bump (or enormous sinkhole) in the road. HR consultant Bruce Clarke says:

A normal person sees struggle or failure and averts their eyes. They want neither to be a witness nor part of the cure. They are simply grateful it was someone else.

That means you need to be one of those abnormal managers who is willing to address struggle head-on, even when it is tempting to take the easier route of avoiding difficulty or conflict.

Rock'em Sock'em Robots photo

Flickr: Jeff Sandquist

What’s your biggest adversary in the ring of content strategy implementation? New tools and technology are certainly formidable challengers, especially when you’re just learning about them as you are evaluating them. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with tools, but you can rely on the advice of a consultant to coach you through the tool rounds of your content strategy fight.

As tough as new technology can be, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that tools are your biggest challenge. People are.

In general, people in professional environments do not like change. They become proficient in the current processes and comfortable with routine. So comfortable, in fact, they often can’t see how the inefficiencies of current processes do not support the greater business goals of the company.

Managing people’s resistance to change is by far the most important thing you will do during your content strategy implementation; conflicts will inevitably arise as changes are discussed and then put in place. You can address those challenges with:

If you go into the ring without these things, you’re going to find yourself knocked out in a very early round.

Years ago, a coworker at another job said to me, “People! Who needs ‘em?!?” after witnessing some colleagues behaving badly.  Well, as the manager of an implementation project, you need people, even if their behavior is sometimes less than stellar. Your colleagues can become your biggest advocates and evangelize process change to those who don’t buy in early on.

With additional advocates communicating about—and fighting for—the implementation, you can more easily overcome resistance and win your content strategy fight.

Impressions of the tcworld conference from a jet-lagged mind

November 11, 2013 by

BIG.

That’s my first impression of the tcworld conference, from which I just returned. I’m still jet-lagged from my trip, but I wanted to briefly share my experiences with those—especially from the US—who are considering attending in the future.

  • Even if you are warned ahead of time that the event is big, you still will be overwhelmed by its sheer size. We heard there were roughly 3900 attendees at the tcworld/tekom/trade show events. (See Kai Weber’s blog for an explanation of tcworld vs. tekom and the trade show.) That number is 4 to 10 times the number of attendees I usually see at US-based conferences. The number of exhibitors and halls for vendor booths is also way beyond what I see at US-based tech comm conferences. The booths are big and elaborate, and some featured bartenders and baristas serving drinks. There was even a blimp floating around.
  • You’ll learn about vendors you know nothing about. Take a look at the list of vendors attending, and you’ll quickly realize there are different ecosystems of tools and vendors in Europe and Asia than the US. (Yes, there is some overlap with the US, but not as much as you might think.) After one of the workshops Sarah O’Keefe and I did, I talked to an attendee who knew nothing about Scriptorium and what we do. It was a humbling and eye-opening experience. Never, ever assume everyone knows—or even cares—about what your company does.
  • The focus on standards is much greater in Europe and Asia than in the US. There were many presentations devoted to different standards that can affect tech comm, and I had never heard of many of them. The presentations I attended on standards were not particularly exciting, but I needed to attend sessions on topics that were new to me.
  • Learning about and experiencing other cultures is as important as attending the event. You can learn a lot about different cultures by merely talking to vendors and participants about topics other than tech comm. Also, I recommend that you make time to visit the city around you. Yes, the conference schedule is very full, but you can have dinner out during the evening (or maybe even miss a particular time slot at the conference so you can walk around the city during the day). I walked around Wiesbaden in the late afternoons just to soak up the city a bit. I was fortunate to have a free Saturday after the conference to visit the nearby city of Mainz, which has a beautiful, 1000-year-old cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum. Being inside a building that’s stood for a millenium should give anyone pause, but it was particularly affecting to me as a citizen of the US, where our historical buildings are generally less than 300 years old.

Special thanks to everyone who gave me really great advice before I left for the conference. I was glad to meet many of you face-to-face.

P.S. Ellis Pratt, I never saw a Flachspüler, and I can’t say I’m unhappy about that!

Help this first-time tcworld attendee, please!

October 29, 2013 by

Whew! I’m just back from the excellent LavaCon event in Portland. I have (mostly) recovered from that trip, so now I’m focusing on the upcoming tcworld conference in Wiesbaden, Germany. And I need your help!

tcworld 2013 logoNext week will be my first visit to tcworld (and to Germany). Veteran tcworld attendees are accustomed to seeing Sarah O’Keefe there,  and Sarah’s already given me some great pointers on what to expect. I’d like to get some advice from you, too, on:

  • Choosing sessions. Do you have a strategy for picking sessions? What’s on your must-see list?
  • Visiting the trade show. What should I expect from vendors? I’m bracing myself for a bit of cultural shock on two fronts. Scriptorium won’t have a booth at this event, so I won’t have my usual booth duties. Also, I’ve heard booths are a bit more elaborate at tcworld than many of the events I attend in the US.
  • Networking. I’m attending the International Networking Dinner on Wednesday, where I’m sure I’ll meet many, many people. Any other networking suggestions?
  • What to wear. Any article of clothing you wished you had brought (or left at home)? I’ve seen photos of past tcworld events, and it looks like tcworld attendees dress a notch more professionally than those at US-based tech comm events, where I see more casual attire. Is my assessment accurate?
  • Food, food, food. If you follow Scriptorium’s blog or my Twitter feed, you probably know I like to eat (and I’m partial to good pastries and chocolate). What culinary adventures do you recommend in the Wiesbaden area?
  • General travel advice. I’ve been to Europe before for business and vacation, but this will be my first visit to Germany. Any travel tips? (My years of studying Latin have helped me somewhat with Romance languages, but they won’t be so helpful with German!)

I look forward to meeting you next week—especially those I’ve known for years through blog interactions, Twitter, and webcast events but have never met in person. Also, I’ll be helping Sarah out during The Game of Content Strategy presentation, which runs on Wednesday and Thursday. Hope to see you there!

P.S. If you’d like to schedule a meeting with Sarah or me during the conference, send us a message through our contact form.

How the “we-meeting” kills good tech comm

October 14, 2013 by

Does this sound familiar?

One reason for lack of accountability is the we-meeting. You know the one: “We need a new process for handling customer service issues.” Lots of discussion follows, but no clear direction is given, nor is any responsibility taken.

Bruce Clarke (The View from HR column) referencing consultant Kathleen Kelly

Having worked on many content strategy projects, I can confirm the “we-meeting” is a huge problem for tech comm professionals—particularly when it comes to getting subject matter experts to review technical content.

Photo of ax

Flickr: Martin Cathrae

A solid technical review can be the difference between technical content that merely rehashes the patently obvious (“Press the Print button to print.” Oh really?) and content that gives users depth, context, and useful examples. A technical review must be a collaboration between the SME and writer. Unfortunately, some SMEs (and a handful of tech writers) often see reviews as cursory obligations that should get as little attention as possible. That attitude is deadly for useful content.

What’s the cure for these useless, superficial review cycles? Accountability, which can take many forms, including:

  • Using workflow tools to assign and track content reviews. For example, software companies already use bug tracking tools, so consider using the bug tracker to track review comments, too. Component content management systems often offer collaborative review tools and include ticketing systems, tracking mechanisms, so on.
  • Building in reviews as part of the development process. Scheduling reviews not only sets aside crucial time for reviews, but it also sends the message, “Reviews are an official part of the process.”
  • Specifying what’s in and out of bounds for technical reviews. For example, nitpicks over formatting should be outlawed. If formatted content is what’s being reviewed, technical reviewers should not be requesting changes to line spacing, formatting, and so on, particularly when that formatting is merely aesthetic. (A bad line break in a code sample that could cause errors is another story, though.) If you’re working in an XML-based environment, you may have some options to present review content in a vanilla, formatting-neutral manner that stops useless formatting feedback in its tracks.
  • Instituting consequences for reviews that are late or do not meet criteria. Management has to step up and do icky management things when reviews don’t occur when they are supposed to. If reviewers and content creators aren’t giving reviews time and care, they are failing to meet their obligations as employees.

Codifying review cycles and their objectives is not fun. But you’ve got to do it to get “we-meetings” out of your tech comm.

 

 

 

Blemished—but better—tech comm?

September 4, 2013 by

Consumers’ demand for perfect things drives a lot of pesticide use….Ninety percent of pesticide use in apple crops is to get the last five percent of quality of the fruit.

That comment near the end of an On Point podcast confirmed that accepting a few blemishes on an apple treated with fewer or no synthetic insecticides is a compromise I am willing to make. It also made me think more about a tech comm–related post I saw last week.

There have been more than 100 responses to a LinkedIn post in the Technical Writer Forum about whether one or two spaces follow the period at the end of the sentence. I suppose I should be happy that the tech comm community has active social media networks, but my response was a lot less positive:

I’m skeptical that end users of technical content are that concerned about the number of spaces of following a period. The technical writers’ desire for writing that perfectly adheres to a rule is what’s “driving demand” in the case of that post.  Tech writers are not the true consumers of technical content. The end users are.

I’m not advocating style guide–free writing here. Style guidelines are important because they are the foundation of consistent writing, which is easier to understand and translate. But style guides are a small part of what makes good technical content. Stylistically pristine content is useless if it is technically inaccurate or doesn’t address the audience at the right level. It’s also a waste if it’s locked away in a PDF file that end users can’t find online, for example.

apples

flickr: ollesvensson

Technical writers are generally better writers than most, but we can’t let our writing skills be our primary defining factor. Being a good writer is just a prerequisite in tech comm today; you can’t sustain a career in this industry by focusing on writing ability and style guides as your areas of expertise. (Besides, there are now tools that can automatically enforce style guidelines. Keeping a solitary focus on style is particularly foolhardy when a tool can do it for you.) We also can’t project our need for excellent writing on the audiences for technical information. For them, stylistically “good enough” writing is often plenty enough.

Move beyond the mechanics of writing and ensure your content reaches your audience and gives them the answers they need. If the time it takes to make your content more accurate, accessible, and intelligent means there are a few stylistic blemishes—many of which end users won’t even notice—so be it.

I think it’s a worthy compromise.

P.S. I have a degree in English and worked as a technical editor for years. Style guidelines are probably floating around in my bloodstream.