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April 9, 2012

Hug it out with your IT department: collaboration beyond content

The stereotypical technical writer working in isolation is an endangered species—if not already extinct.

At Scriptorium, our content strategy reports often include recommendations for incorporating contributions from subject matters experts and for fostering two-way communication between end users and technical communicators.

When a tech comm department revamps its processes to integrate sharing with SMEs and end users, new tools and technologies are often required. In the heat of evaluating those new tools (and that process can get heated, believe me), it’s easy to overlook that someone will have to manage and maintain the infrastructure for those tools. Don’t forget about your IT department!

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of the us-versus-them mentality when it comes to relationships with IT departments, and I’ll even admit to contributing to such tensions: “Really? Is the IT department going to lock that down, too?” It’s time to put that kind of thinking aside, especially if you’re changing your content development processes and need to implement new tools. The moment you start your project, you should actively engage the IT department in your decision making.

Early IT involvement is particularly critical if you are installing a content management system. To implement a new CMS, you will need information that goes way beyond tech comm requirements:

Image of hugging orangutans (flickr: DavyLandman)

Photo by DavyLandman (flickr)

  • How much time will it take to maintain the system (database maintenance, backups, and so on)? As more users and content are added to the system, how does maintenance time increase?
  • Should the CMS reside on a physical or virtual server? How well will that server scale as users and content are added?
  • Can the current Internet connection and network handle the CMS (particularly when multiple sites are involved)? Does the company need a bigger pipe to accommodate CMS activity?
  • How will user accounts be added and removed from the system? Does the CMS integrate with the single sign-on solution your company already has in place?
  • Will there be in-depth training provided to the IT personnel on the CMS? What about follow-on support?
  • What is the process for installing new releases, and what kind of time do they generally require?
  • Is there a hosted solution that eliminates maintenance tasks when the IT staff doesn’t have the resources to manage another system?

Technical communicators and IT must work together to get the answers to these critical questions—like it or not! Technical communicators need to understand how their new tools affect IT, and the IT group must learn about how its efforts support specific tech comm requirements.

In the short term, developing those understandings makes implementing new tools more efficient (not to mention more pleasant for everyone involved). In the long term, strong relationships between tech comm and IT deepen both groups’ knowledge of the company’s business as a whole—which in turns makes those employees more valuable.