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October 24, 2011

Tekom thoughts

You know you’ve had a bad travel week when you cannot wait to compose the complaint letter to the airline. But sandwiched between flight problems, I had a great time in Wiesbaden at tekom/tcworld 2011.

Some impressions…


When “good enough” isn’t good enough…

DITA adoption rates are much higher in North America than in Europe. In Europe and especially Germany, DITA is considered a reasonable foundation, but only usable after extensive customization (not specialization!) to ensure that it is an exact fit for a company’s requirements. In North America, organizations carefully weigh the cost of specialization (not customization) against the value of a more precise content model and, often, decide that the basic content model is “good enough.”

The result is that North American companies tend to adopt the standard more or less as is. The German companies are doing a lot of customization work or building their own custom content models from scratch.

In Germany, there is no “good enough.”

As a result of the emphasis on custom content models, the market-leading tools and technologies, especially CMSes, are different in Germany than in North America.

Culture and presentation style

There’s been a good bit of discussion about German-style presentations versus English-style presentations (Kai Weber and in German, Axel Regnet). It’s important to note that the dozen (or so) Canadians and Americans presenting at tcworld are all highly experienced presenters who attend 5–7 conferences a year. It’s a little unfair to compare us to someone who presents once a year and doesn’t do this for fun (!).

There’s also a major difference in the audience behavior. 70–80 percent of attendees at tcworld are non-native English speakers. Within that group, the language proficiency varies from excellent to “hanging on by their fingernails.” This audience profile tends to greatly reduce the number of questions that are asked—people are not confident in their ability to formulate a grammatically reasonable question on the fly, in public.

I understand the problem (my French is awful), but it does make it more difficult to do a sort of interactive presentation. Audiences are more reserved at tekom than at events in North America.

The typical questions are also different. In North America, many questions are along the lines of, “How can I apply this information to my specific situation?” In Europe, a more common question is, “You said X, but what about Y?” In other words, Americans try to apply the information to their specific situation and Europeans explore the logical underpinnings.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this, but it’s a clear pattern.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt

I talked to a lot of people while at tekom, including lots of consultants and freelancers. Generally, the independents and the people who work for smaller companies are happier but also more stressed about their work. Many of the big-company employees are quite unhappy with their situation, but unwilling to give up the stability and the big paycheck.

I got a lot of questions privately about how to effect strategic change for technical communication. I threw out a couple of suggestions, but the response was always the same, “They don’t listen. They don’t care. I can’t get them to pay attention to this.” (Perhaps this ties into the unhappiness??)

This is a difficult situation. By the time an organization hires a consulting organization such as mine, they have recognized that there is a problem and are willing to spend money to make it go away. The individuals I spoke to understand that their organization faces a problem, and they want to fix it, but they have not been able to get the needed support.

Gordon Freeman with BrickForge Crowbar

The trick is to find the right lever. What sorts of issues do motivate upper management? Once you know where your particular company’s focus lies, you can tailor your arguments for change to emphasize how they support the current management focus.

If you think this sounds a bit sneaky, consider the alternative, which is to maintain the status quo because you can’t get anyone’s attention.

The right solution is affected by corporate cultures, locales, languages, industry, and more. One of the reasons I enjoy tekom is because of the opportunity to experience the diversity of technical communication around the world. This helps me understand better how my customer’s European parent organization is going to react to what those crazy Americans are proposing.

What was your favorite part of the conference?