Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy consulting

tekom 2016—Götterdämmerung?

November 21, 2016 by

After the anti-DITA insurrection at tekom 2015, the 2016 conference took a turn in a different direction.

Here are a few highlights. Keep in mind that the conference is huge; it would take a platoon of people to cover the 250 technical sessions.

The overarching theme of tekom 2016 was intelligent content, which was covered in several complementary tracks:

Façade of the Stuttgart convention center with teton and intelligent information decals

tekom at the Stuttgart convention center // Photo: Alan Pringle

  • DITA Forum (English), organized by Kris Eberlein and me, focused on case studies and concrete implementation experiences in DITA. Alan Pringle of Scriptorium and Tina Meißner of parson AG discussed the development of the English and German versions of LearningDITA.
  • Intelligent Information (German) asserted that “dynamic delivery of user information is the future of technical communication: personalized information at the right time in the right location in the right format. Requirements to create intelligent information include structured authoring, component content management, metadata, intelligent delivery, use cases, and user experience.” (source)
  • Information Energy (English) largely focused on the need for Information 4.0 in response to Industry 4.0.

iiRDS standard

The tekom organization is working on a new standard, iiRDS, the Intelligent Information Request and Delivery Standard. The standard was introduced by Michael Fritz and a team of industry experts during the conference.

Here is the description from tekom, along with my translation:

Die Bereitstellung von Nutzungsinformation muss automatisiert werden, damit diese kontextabhängig und individualisiert geschehen kann und sich in Konzepte wie Industrie 4.0 oder Internet of Things integriert.

Um dieses Ziel zu erreichen fehlte es bislang an einem branchenübergreifend akzeptierten Standard. Diese Lücke will die tekom-Arbeitsgruppe “Information 4.0” aus namhaften Vertretern von CMS, Industrieanwendern, Beratern und Wissenschaftlern mit dem tekom-iiRDS schließen.


The delivery of user information must be automated to enable context-independent and personalized publishing and to enable integration with Industry 4.0 and Internet of Things applications.

Until now, we cannot achieve this goal because we do not have an accepted cross-industry standard. The tekom working group Information 4.0 intends to close this gap with the tekom-iiRDS standard, which is being developed by leading representatives of CMSs, industry, consultants, and researchers.

Ulrike Parson of Parson AG provided a detailed overview of iiRDS. She writes this:

We need to standardize the metadata that we deliver together with our documentation and which makes our content semantically accessible. Only this way can documentation content become exchangeable and usable for multiple producers. That’s the fundamental concern of iiRDS.

Tekom plans to launch the standard with a Request for Comments phase on March 31, 2017. The standard will be released under Creative Commons license. Currently, there is minimal information on the tekom site, but you can sign up for a newsletter.

It’s too early to provide any assessment of the standard still under development, but I have a few comments and questions:

  • The working group is a who’s who of German tech comm experts.
  • It’s unclear whether iiRDS will be a competitor to other modular standards, like DITA and S1000D, or whether those standards could be integrated with iiRDS.
  • There are a lot of flavors of Creative Commons licenses, and I’d like to know exactly what the license will be.
  • I’d like to know more about governance of the standard.
  • It’s fascinating to see the German CMS vendors support a standard after arguing vehemently at tekom 2015 that their various flavors of XML, bound to their individual systems, were Just Fine Thank You.
  • What differentiates iiRDS from DITA? (I think the answer is a metadata classification scheme based on PI-Classification.) Ms. Parson also says in her article that iiRDS will be a standard for interchange and not authoring.
  • Could that metadata be implemented in DITA? (Yes, via a metadata specialization and/or subjectScheme?)
  • Why choose iiRDS? Why not?
  • It is really open? Open source? Usable? Configurable?
  • Will the market support this new standard?

Information Energy

The Information Energy track focused on how information must evolve to meet the requirements of Industry 4.0. Briefly, the Industry 4.0 is the concept of the intelligent machine—a factory where machines are interconnected. The concept is related to the Internet of Things, but where IoT usually focuses on consumer use cases (the refrigerator that automatically reorders food), Industry 4.0 focuses on the business applications of connected machines.

DITA Forum

Interest in DITA was strong at tekom 2016. The DITA Forum sessions were well-attended. The DITA Forum offered several case studies (SAP, rail industry, e-learning), an overview of specialization concepts, and a panel discussion on DITA versus custom XML versus no XML.

Other DITA content

Confusingly, there were other DITA presentations in addition to those in the DITA Forum. Dr. Martin Kreutzer of Empolis provided an excellent overview of different ways to manage variant content in DITA. (Slides in German)

Meanwhile, Karsten Schrempp of PANTOPIX delivered a presentation entitled, Was wir von DITA lernen könnten – wenn wir denn wollten! …What we could learn from DITA—if we wanted to! (Slides in German) Please note the use of subjunctive mood (in both his original German and my English translation).

This was an interesting presentation. Mr. Schrempp outlined various DITA features and described how these features, if not the standard itself, are potentially useful even in Germany (where DITA is notoriously unpopular). There were a few assertions that stood out to me:

  • Several times during the presentation, he reminded attendees that referring to DITA advocates as the “DITA Taliban” was not very helpful or productive. It was quite amusing, even as the repeated reminders took on a tinge of “But Brutus is an honorable man…”
  • DITA versus CMS. Mr. Schrempp tried to close the gap. In Germany, there has been the argument that DITA is “merely” a standard for content development on the file system. He pointed out that DITA used inside a CMS is still a DITA system. In German tech comm circles, this is a controversial assertion.
  • Toward the end of the presentation, in almost a throwaway comment, Mr. Schrempp mentioned a key difference between DITA CMS systems and the proprietary XML CMS systems more popular in Germany: Purchasing a DITA CMS does not lock a customer into a specific content delivery portal. Some of the DITA CMS vendors do provide content delivery portals, but DITA content can be delivered in any DITA-compatible portal. By contrast, most German CMS vendors create both authoring systems (CMS) and content delivery systems. Because each CMS uses its own flavor of XML, choosing a CMS effectively means choosing the content delivery system at the same time. This selection is decoupled in the DITA market.

In a later discussion, I spoke with Mr. Schrempp in more detail about this issue. He pointed out that the new iiRDS standard could enable a customer to buy a CMS from one vendor and a content delivery portal from another vendor. iiRDS could provide the middleware layer to cross-connect the otherwise incompatible content models.

Politics at tekom

The US election, which occurred in the middle of the conference, was a topic of discussion throughout the event. A few serious conversations drove home the worldwide impact of developments in the United States. From an Indian participant, I heard concerns about possible changes to the H1-B visa program. From an Eastern European participant, there was grave concern about the US’s continued commitment to NATO and to former Eastern Bloc countries that are now NATO members.


The theme that emerged from tekom was the need for integration of information from multiple sources. This integration requirement is driving interest in standards. The iiRDS standard is clearly aimed at the huge German machinery documentation market.

Claire Parry of CMP Services has a tekom takeaways article.

What did you think of tekom 2016?

Easy ways to undermine marketing with content strategy

October 24, 2016 by

Does your content deliver on your marketing promises?

“Our products lead the industry…”

but we can’t create a decent mobile experience.

Karen McGrane writes in the Harvard Business Review:

You don’t get to decide which device your customer uses to access the internet. They get to choose. It’s your responsibility to deliver essentially the same experience to them — deliver a good experience to them — whatever device they choose to use.

Any claim of cutting-edge industry leadership must be supported by a good web site experience, and that includes the mobile experience.

“We serve clients in 47 countries…”

provided that they speak English, because we do not offer localized products or content. Also, we use a lot of jargon in English, so good luck to customers with limited English proficiency.

“We care deeply about our customers…”

but only those users with perfect color vision, excellent fine-motor control, and pristine hearing. We use tiny, trendy low-contrast type. We do not provide alternatives to mouse-based navigation. We make heavy use of video, and we do not provide captions as an alternative to listening to the video.

“Our product offering is flexible and configurable…”

but our web site doesn’t work on Safari.

“We offer a luxury experience…”

as long as you don’t need help charging the batteries because that document is incomprehensible in any language.


I’m not sure why, but it makes me think of this:



Consulting lite: life at Scriptorium

September 26, 2016 by

Scriptorium is hiring. Our consulting jobs are a unique blend that you don’t see in many other places. Over and over, I’ve found myself struggling to explain this blend to candidates. So here is an attempt to describe life at Scriptorium.

Job structure

Our technical consultants are full-time, permanent employees with benefits. Our interns are full-time temporary employees with benefits. After 6-12 months, interns are eligible to become permanent employees.

Client load

Employees typically work on multiple client projects in a single week. You might deliver a draft document to one client, then turn your attention to updates on another project, receive a few review comments from a third client, and clear a support ticket from another client.

Each project has a project lead. For small projects, the lead might also do the work; for larger projects, the lead coordinates the project team.

One of the biggest challenges is remembering different communication requirements. For example, we use Basecamp for project collaboration on some projects. For others, we use client infrastructure (usually SharePoint).

Client mix

Our clients come from a cross-section of industries: finance, life sciences, education, high-tech, heavy machinery, telecommunications, state and federal government, non-profit associations, semiconductors, and others.

We specialize in working with organizations that have content problems, and they are found everywhere!

Our consultants are exposed to content workflows across many industries.

Sales and marketing responsibilities

Unlike freelancers, our employees are not responsible for hunting down their own new projects. But our employees do have some sales and marketing responsibilities. These include:

  • Participating in social networking
  • Writing blog posts or other articles
  • Presenting at industry conferences
  • Ensuring that clients are happy
  • Noticing when a client asks for additional work and making sure their issue is addressed promptly
  • Contributing to proposals


All of our consultants travel. Some of that travel is for conferences and industry events, and some is for client visits. No consultant is expected to travel more than 25% of the time.

Cloud systems

Our office space is in Research Triangle Park (Durham), North Carolina. Most of our employees are based there, but all of our systems are cloud-based. Employees can access the information they need at home, or remotely, or while traveling.

Scriptorium versus corporate life

It’s hard to generalize about Scriptorium versus All Possible Full-Time Jobs. But here are some things to consider:

  • Domain knowledge (expertise about the company’s products and industry) is more valuable in a corporate job. Scriptorium employees move from project to project, so the domain changes constantly.
  • If you like change, Scriptorium may be the place for you. We learn new things in every project, and we are always looking for better ways to do things. If you prefer to develop deep expertise in a single set of tools or a specific approach, this is not the right place for you.
  • As a change of pace from client work, you might find yourself working on, writing blog posts, or working on internal processes.

Scriptorium versus freelance life

Bring on the additional generalizations! Working as a consultant at Scriptorium is basically Consulting Lite:

  • Like a freelancer, you have project variety and an ever-changing list of assignments.
  • You do not have to do all your own sales and marketing work.
  • Scriptorium handles administrative support (payroll, taxes, invoicing, and office management tasks).
  • You are paid a salary and not an hourly rate.
  • You have coworkers who can QA your work before it’s sent to the client.
  • You have an office location (if based in RTP), and an internal communication network to discuss projects, share juicy gossip, and abuse the emoji capabilities.


Does consulting lite sound appealing? We’re hiring.


Glue strategy: connecting web CMS to CCMS

September 12, 2016 by

Web sites are fantastic at content delivery and generally terrible for content authoring. If you’re old enough (like me), you may have experienced the pain of hand-coding HTML or even editing HTML files live on your web server.

These days, hardly anyone codes HTML by hand. Instead, we use web content management systems (web CMSs), such as WordPress, Drupal, Magnolia, and many, many others. Web CMSs have two major functions: letting authors create content, and running a web site to deliver content to readers. The problem arises when web CMS A provides great authoring functionality and web CMS B provides great web site functionality. Which do you choose? Do you make life easier for your authors or for your audience?

After sufficient pain in that area, you eventually decide to decouple the web site and content management. This approach lets you choose the best option for authoring and web site, but it also requires you to glue the two components back together. Somehow, you have to move your content from the content management (authoring) system over to the web site:

Content management icon, arrow labeled glue pointing from CM over to a web site icon

Decoupling CMS and web site

A decoupled CMS enables you to take advantage of new and innovative technologies for creating rich web and mobile experiences, while ensuring your content authors and editors have a consistent approach to content management. (Spelling out the advantages of a decoupled CMS, CMSWire)

The decoupled approach lets you choose a content management system with a great authoring experience for the authors and a web site delivery system that meets the needs of your web site visitors. It does introduce a few new problems, though:

  • You have to maintain two systems instead of one.
  • You have to find a way to glue the two systems together.

Adding complexity with DITA

When you add structured technical content and DITA into the mix, things get sticky (!!). How do you manage DITA content if you already have a web CMS (which may in fact be more than one platform)? If you decouple everything, you are faced with a fairly sketchy-looking architecture:

Separate repositories for web content and DITA content. Each has a arrow labeled glue pointing to the web CMS for rendering.

So much glue, so little time

NOTE: I’ve labeled the contents of each repository as CSS (for formatting), DITA (for DITA XML), and HTML (for web authoring). This is of course a gross oversimplification. Not all formatting is CSS. The content repositories can and should include other types of content.

It’s rare to see the decoupled architecture with DITA involved.

Instead, the web CMS owns one set of content (usually marketing content). Inside the web CMS, you manage that content and also control the presentation layer for the web site. A separate component content management system (CCMS) manages DITA content. So DITA content is created, edited, reviewed, and approved in the CCMS. Then we send it over to the web CMS. The process of gluing together the CCMS and the web CMS is generally painful and expensive. The advantage to this approach is that the web CMS people (marketing) and the CCMS people (tech comm) can basically ignore each other. Oh, and the people who know how to create glue code? They are very, very overworked.

CCMS icon contains DITA, glue arrow points to web CMS icon that contains HTML, CSS, and more content

Web CMS and CCMS

In a few systems, the glue is built into the CCMS. For example, you can deploy SDL’s LiveContent Architect (the CCMS) along with LiveContent Reach (web CMS). easyDITA offers connectors to Mindtouch and WordPress. So in this case, the glue technology is attached to the CCMS:

Similar to previous image, but now the glue arrow is connected to the CCMS.

Glue gets easier…

With the just-announced XML/DITA connector for AEM (Adobe Experience Manager), Adobe is gluing together the repository and the display management. Nearly every other solution—for example, a DITA CCMS plus Drupal—requires you to create that glue.

Inside the web CMS icon, we have HTML,  CSS, and DITA

DITA inside the web CMS. No glue!

If you take the AEM approach, you get free glue. (That is, when you license the XML/DITA connector along with AEM, you do not have to build out a connector yourself.) You can manage your DITA content in the same repository as your non-DITA content. And you can be sure that your web site delivery will be consistent across all of your content. If you work in a company that has already invested in AEM for web delivery, this could be a reasonable answer.

So what is your glue strategy? Will you choose individual components for maximum flexibility and pay for glue? Or does it make more sense to choose a single integrated solution?


This post provides only a general overview of possible glue strategies. If you need a recommendation for your specific situation, contact us to discuss a content strategy assessment.

PS I really wanted to entitle this post “The Glue Factory,” but my coworkers are mean.

Tech comm, content strategy, and coaching

August 29, 2016 by

Earlier in the year, I was chatting with Sharon Burton. As an aside to our knitting-focused discussion, I asked her what new services we should offer.

The answer came back immediately:


So with many thanks to Sharon, we are offering coaching to managers, directors, and executives with responsibility for technical content, localization, and/or content strategy.

Leading a content or localization team can be lonely. Your peer managers don’t understand your job function, and your staff doesn’t understand the management challenges. Our goal, as coaches, is to provide a confidential setting in which to discuss management problems, strategic decisions, and new ideas.

Over the last 20 years, we have worked with many managers who were confident in their leadership abilities but needed support in understanding content teams. When your background is in HR, QA, or engineering, it often seems that the content creators are speaking another language. (And some staff members aren’t shy about pointing out your lack of front-line experience in technical communication as a reason that they should get to do things Their Way.)


Tilikum Crossing, Portland, Oregon // flickr: Twelvizm

Coaching can help you bridge the gap by filling in the technical expertise so that you can understand what your content team should be doing.

We are still finalizing the coaching offering, which will launch officially in January 2017, but there are a few things you can do today:

  • If you’d like to sign up immediately, we have an early-bird program, which will offer a discounted rate for coaching through the end of 2016. Contact us to get more information.
  • For more details, read the coaching services page.
  • If you’d like to provide some feedback and help shape the program, we have a very short survey. Or you can just leave a comment on this post.

Thank you!

Content strategy after mergers and acquisitions

August 15, 2016 by

Mergers and acquisitions often result in a new content strategy. In a typical scenario, the merged company needs to align disparate content organizations. Before the merger, the companies had different tools, technologies, workflows, deliverables, and content culture. A goal of the merger is to unify company products, and therefore, the merged organization must also unify content development.

The two (or more) combined content organizations see value in having a single content strategy instead of maintaining multiple tools, technologies, and publishing systems. But aligning content strategy is hard work: the organizations probably have different workflows, different corporate cultures, different locations, different localization strategies, and so on.

The ugliness starts when you have to decide whose publishing system is the best approach. Depending on the relationship between the organizations, this can go smoothly or turn into a shouting match. During one infamous project years ago, we discovered that group A so despised group B that A would block any initiatives from B simply because they came from B. B, of course, returned the favor.

Most groups are more professional than this. Nonetheless, a merger is a big change. A new content strategy is also a big change, and piling change upon change wears people out.

A few years back, we had a classroom training session that was much more difficult than usual. The participants and the trainer were experienced professionals, but the class just didn’t go as smoothly as expected. At the end of the first day, the trainer found out that most of the participants were new to the organization. There had been a recent merger, and our training was the third consecutive week of training and travel for the participants. No wonder they were a little cranky! Had we known about the merger-related training, we would have recommended deferring our training to a better time. At a minimum, we could have addressed their travel fatigue at the beginning of the class.

Consider these points when working on content strategy in a merger and acquisition scenario:

  • Understand that mergers are stressful for employees. Changing tools and workflows adds to the stress, especially because employees are often concerned about job security after a merger. They have hard-won expertise on how to publish in their current tool, and that expertise is of no value if you change tools.
  • Consider the timing of your initiatives in the overall merger scheme. Will employees need to change their benefits enrollment at the same time as your new CMS roll-out? Is there going to be a layoff in the midst of your content strategy work? Make sure you know the overall merger plan before you start scheduling your project.
  • It is not sufficient to evaluate the toolsets already in use against each other and choose from those options. The merged organization may need an entirely different class of tool than the individual organizations did.
  • Sometimes, it’s best to create only losers. Instead of having a winner and a loser, consider imposing the pain of change on all groups. This gives the content professionals a common enemy (the outside consultant!).
  • Because merged organizations do not have a common history, you need to be careful about assumptions. Communicate. And then communicate more. Listen more than you talk.
  • Pay attention to the official and unofficial reasons for the corporate merger, and be sure that your content strategy aligns with both. If, for example, two organizations merge to improve their global footprint, localization strategy should be a priority for you. If you have just been acquired by an organization that focuses on great user experience, look for ways to align with that priority in your content strategy efforts.

Struggling with content strategy in a merged organization? Talk to us. We offer coaching and consulting.

Another gratuitous Pokémon Go tie-in (Scriptorium year-end conference line-up)

July 18, 2016 by

Will Pokémon Go still be hot at the end of the year? If so, here are some opportunities to see Scriptorium and expand your Pokémon-collecting options.

TC Summer Camp, July 30, Fairfax, Virginia

Join Gretyl Kinsey for a content strategy workshop or stop by our booth to visit with her at the first-ever East Coast TC Camp.

Webcast: Balancing standardization against the need for creativity, August 3

OK, this one is virtual, so you’ll have to watch the webcast on one phone while wandering around with a second phone to play.

Join Alan Pringle for a collection of case studies in which we had to figure out how to balance creativity and standardization in different ways.


GIANT conference, October 17–19, Charlotte, NC

Sarah O’Keefe is presenting on Content Strategy Triage at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, October 19 at the GIANT conference in Charlotte. We are very excited to have an event within driving distance.

LavaCon Las Vegas, October 25–28, Las Vegas

Pokémon and Vegas. The mind boggles. Even though it’s Vegas, Bill Swallow will be presenting with the harmless-sounding title, The Value Proposition of Translation Strategies.

Viva LavaCon Las Vegas!

tcworld, November 8–11, Stuttgart, Germany

Finally (we hope), you’ll find Alan Pringle and Sarah O’Keefe at the tcworld conference in Stuttgart, Germany. Alan will be delivering a DITA case study centered around Sarah is participating in at least one panel about DITA implementation.

We hope to see you at these and other Pokéstops.

Content strategy patterns in the enterprise

June 13, 2016 by

What factors affect content strategy decisions? Every client has a different combination of requirements, and of course there are always outliers. But based on our consulting experience, here are some factors that affect content strategy decisions.

Is the content the product?

detail from Book of Kells

Book of Kells // flickr: Patrick Lordan

If yes, the content design will be relatively more important. The organization will want content development and publishing workflows that provide for maximum flexibility in order to deliver the highest possible quality in the final product.

Are the writers professional writers?

Full-time content creators may have a preferred way of doing things, but they usually have experience with a variety of tools, and understand that different tools are appropriate for different organizations.

Are the writers volunteers or paid professionals? Does writing the content demand specialized knowledge?

Domain knowledge is always important. If your writers have extremely specialized knowledge, are volunteering their time, or both, then they effectively have veto power over the authoring environment. Tread with care.

Are there regulatory or compliance requirements?

If so, you can expect a company that is relatively more willing to invest in content (since a failure could mean Serious Consequences), but these companies also tend to move slowly and be risk-averse. Review workflows will be relatively more important for regulated companies.

How many languages are supported or need to be supported?

More languages means more interest in governance because mistakes and inefficiencies are multiplied across each language.

Can misuse of the product injure or kill people?

If the product is potentially dangerous, the organization will look for ways to minimize the risk. At the most basic level, this results in documents with pages and pages of hazard warnings. More advanced organizations work on product design to minimize operational hazards and design their content to support correct product usage. Compliance and regulatory requirements may also come into play.

How many people contribute content? Are they full-time or part-time contributors?

A huge pool of part-time content contributors usually means looking for a lightweight, easy-to-use authoring tool that does not require per-seat licensing. A large group of full-time writers usually means investing in automation because even small productivity gains are valuable.

tcworld China recap

April 25, 2016 by

The tcworld China event took place in Shanghai April 18 and 19. I was there to present on content strategy and advanced DITA (yes, I hear your gasp of surprise), but for me, the most interesting part of the trip was getting a chance to connect with the technical communication community in China.

Technical Communication in Chinese

“technical communication” in Chinese

There were more than 100 attendees at the event. Most of the people I met were from Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen. There were also participants from other cities, like Nanjing, and from Japan and Singapore.

For those of us completely ignorant of Chinese geography (which I’m embarrassed to say included me until I found out about this trip), here is a basic map:

I don’t recommend making a strategic decision based on my single week in China, but nonetheless, here are some observations.

Blending authoring and localization

In several conversations, I heard about a blended authoring/localization workflow. Technical writers create information in Chinese and work with the engineers to have this information reviewed and approved. Once the Chinese document is finalized, the same technical writers rewrite the information in English. The English document becomes the starting point for localization into all other languages.

English as a pivot language is common in many places, but the difference here is that a single technical writer is expected to create both the Chinese and the English versions of a document. This means that the technical writers must be able to write in both languages.

Academic background

Chinese universities are just beginning to offer technical writing courses. These courses are often intended for engineers. Technical writing is not currently available as an academic major. Like North American technical writers, Chinese technical writers have varied educational backgrounds. The most common is a university degree in English or a related subject like English translation. Engineering or computer science majors also may end up in technical writing.

In English, we usually refer to people “falling into” technical writing, and German has the word “Quereinsteiger”; that is, “a person who climbs in sideways.” In Germany, however, a large percentage of technical communicators have university-level education in technical communication, and there is also a robust certification process.

It remains to be seen which approach the technical communication industry in China will choose, or whether China will choose a third way.

Business relevance

I delivered a presentation on content strategy in technical communication at the event. My key message, as always, was that you need to have business reasons as the driving force behind your content strategy decisions.
tcworld China slide: Chocolate factory with a sign on the wall reading 400kg chocolate every three minutes. Caption for the slide is Justify your approach.

I also spent some time discussing why cheap content is really expensive—product returns, legal exposure, and inefficient content processes all increase the cost of producing information.

tcworld China slide: Two chocolate bunnies with their ears bitten off. Caption is The myth of cheap content

Both of these messages seemed to resonate with the audience, but there was concern about how to get management support for any new content initiatives.

Several people told me that, in China, organizations are often not ready to invest in content or content strategy. Their corporate culture is to keep operational costs as low as possible. This makes the argument for content strategy investment, even with compelling ROI, a difficult one. That said, it is clear that some companies are shifting their strategy toward innovation—they are delivering cutting-edge products rather than commodities.

A view of the Bund and the river at night

Shanghai at night

There is an informal Association of Shanghai Technical Communicators, which communicates mainly via WeChat. If you can read Chinese, that would definitely be something to explore.

Platform differences

At home, I rely heavily on Slack (internal business), Twitter (mostly business), and Facebook (business and personal) for social media, along with email, Skype, web meeting tools, and more. Inside China, people use different platforms, such as WeChat (similar to Twitter). In part, this is because of the Great Firewall. Facebook, for example, is not officially allowed in China, and I expected to be blocked from using it.

What I found, however, was in some locations I could use the Facebook mobile app via a cellular connection (but not Wifi). In other locations, it appeared to be wide open. I had very little luck getting Twitter to work anywhere.

This presents a business problem for us. We want to continue to connect with the Chinese technical communication industry, but the social media tools we use are not appropriate for making those connections. Information posted on Twitter will not reach people in China, but the social media applications used in China are not widely used outside of China. We have a platform divide.

Communication challenges

Finally, I want to talk about some of the communication challenges I ran into. A colleague told me that the biggest challenge in China is that you are functionally illiterate. Although many signs are provided in both Chinese and English, this is quite true. Upon arrival, I hopped in a taxi and told that driver my hotel. But because the hotel name is different in Chinese, it wasn’t until I showed him the written address, in Chinese, that he understood where I needed to go. (Based on advice from colleagues, I was prepared with the necessary version of the address.)

Shanghai was actually easier in this regard than Shenzhen, where I also spent a couple of days. (This is probably a good spot to mention that Yuting Tang of tekom did a fantastic job organizing various outings, providing translation, and acting as a general fixer for me and other speakers. And I had a great time just hanging out with her! Without her, Shenzhen would have been a big challenge.)

In Shanghai, I had a twelve-hour time difference with my office in North Carolina. Given a conference during the Shanghai day, I generally had only a few hours in the evening for synchronous communication. That is, after I got back from one of our epic dining adventures until I fell into bed, I could check in with the office as needed. For a week-long stay, this wasn’t particularly critical. For an ongoing business relationship, though, this introduces obvious challenges. One (China-based) colleague had to leave an evening get-together to attend an 8 p.m. meeting. Another (visiting) colleague had previously scheduled a webcast, so he found himself at his computer at 11 p.m. local time. There’s not much that can be done about the time zones, but best practices like rotating meeting times (so that everyone shares the pain of the occasional 11 p.m. meeting) are important to show some respect to your team members.


I thoroughly enjoyed my time in China, and I was delighted to meet a few of the people working in technical communication across the country. I also made a significant dent in the country’s dumpling inventory. Many thanks to Michael Fritz at tekom for the invitation!


Totally worth the trip.


The last mile: getting approval for your content strategy

April 18, 2016 by

You’ve thought about your content strategy. You have a business case. You have a plan. What you don’t have is a budget and approval to proceed. What can you do?

First, recognize your accomplishment. A solid strategy, business case, and plan already put you in the top 25 percent or so. But how do you get over this new hurdle and actually get a funded project with a green light to proceed?

At this point, it’s important to understand that the game has changed. Until now, all of your plotting planning has been inside your content world. To get funding, you need executive approval, and executives by definition work on a broader scale.

go_boardTo get funding, you have to show the value of your project (with a business case, and yours is beautiful). But that’s not enough. Organizations have limited budgets and lots of different projects are competing for scarce funding. You have to prove that your project is more deserving than the other projects. Otherwise, it’s a shiny nice-to-have that gets cut in the first round of budget negotiations.

Can you prove that your project is in fact mission-critical? Here are some factors to look at.

Return on investment

Can you show that the investment will yield increased revenue or cost savings? How long will it take for the organization to recoup the proposed investment? Are you arguing for efficiency and therefore lower cost, or are you arguing for an investment that will result in more revenue?

Another way to show return on investment is by accelerating time to market. If your proposal can speed up delivery of content in a global market, you have a compelling argument. Can you reduce a localization delay currently measured in months down to weeks?


Why are you asking for funding now? What happens if this project doesn’t happen until the next budget cycle? If the answer is “not much,” you can expect delays.

Perhaps you have a window of opportunity in which to make changes and think strategically before your next major product? Or perhaps your products are being redesigned in a way that makes the current strategy unsustainable? If you are increasing the number of required languages every year, the cost of inefficient content development is increasing quickly.

Keep in mind that implementing any sort of major change in content strategy is going to take at least six months. When your executives tell you that “oh, we don’t need that until January 2017” that means you need to get started absolutely no later than June 2016.

Timing is everything. Successful managers learn how the budget cycle and the project allocations really work, and figure out how to work the system. For example, you may have a CFO who responds well to efficiency and isn’t interested in innovation. Your CTO, on the other hand, may want to engage in a detailed discussion of nifty technology. Understand their priorities and work with them.

Customer journey

Technical writers are allergic to buzzwords. But tying your strategy into the current Next Big Thing is smart. With attention focused on the customer journey and the customer experience, your pitch for content strategy should include a focus on these concepts. How will your strategy support them?

Getting approval for your content strategy project requires you to understand how decisions are made in your organization, and then work within that process to get what you want. Some technical communicators feel that the quality of their work should speak for itself, and that these types of games are beneath them. We call them People Who Don’t Get Budget for their Projects.