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March 28, 2007

WritersUA: Pundit panel

The opening session with the ever-popular pundit panel was interesting. Bernard Ashwanden of Bright Path stole the show with a strip routine. Perhaps I should explain.

Bernard pointed out that life was about content, and the tools were just layers on top of the content. To illustrate the point, he took off his vendor shirt, revealing another vendor’s shirt. Then, he took off the second shirt to reveal yet another vendor’s shirt. After five shirts, he ended up with a MadCap T-shirt. I’m going to assume that this was related to shirt size and not some sort of message about who is closest to his heart. I should stress that Bernard did keep his last shirt on.

Although predictions were created independently by the various pundits, they were in substantive agreement in many cases. Everyone felt that the cliched web 2.0 will have a significant effect on technical writers. In a world where end users contribute to product information on wikis, user forums, podcasts, or videos, what is the role of the “corporate” technical writer?

Several people predicted a demise for traditional help authoring tools. They said that tools must evolve to support new media and community publishing models. I agree in part, but I don’t think this will happen in the next three years, as at least one panelist predicted.

As consultants, it’s our job to understand new technology and to be ready to implement it for our customers. But our customers are at different points on the technology adoption curve. We have:

  • Early adopters, who want the latest and greatest technology.
  • Cautious middle adopters, who want to implement proven technology.
  • Late adopters, who are the last ones to move into a new workflow.

As a result, at any given point, our active customers are:

  • Implementing the latest thing
  • Implementing the low-risk thing (which was likely the Next Big Thing five years ago)
  • Implementing the industry standard (which is robust, but not very cutting edge)

The web 2.0 technologies are still on the extreme bleeding edge. A few companies are implementing them (the Quadralay wiki comes to mind), but corporate adoption is going to take years. Furthermore, user-generated content presents enormous logistical, legal, and corporate positioning challenges, which will slow adoption for risk-averse companies (which is most of them).