How the “we-meeting” kills good tech comm

Alan Pringle / Opinion4 Comments

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.

 

 

 

About the Author

Alan Pringle

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Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

4 Comments on “How the “we-meeting” kills good tech comm”

  1. Amen to all of these, Alan. It’s worth noting that some reviewing software lets you customize the reviews so that each piece of content is given to the small number of people who are best suited to review it. When only one or two people are assigned to review the content, they’re less likely to assume that someone else will take care of it.

    I love the idea of specifying what’s in and out of bounds for technical reviews. But in practice I can’t seem to avoid getting that useless formatting feedback. One reason: formatting problems are so easy for reviewers to spot. Another reason: I’m afraid we’ve done such a good job of emphasizing that customers really do read this stuff — and so reviewers have become sensitive to how it looks. In the end, I just shrug — figuring that it’s better to get too much feedback than not enough.

  2. Hallo Alan

    Great post! It’s my experience that a meeting isn’t a productive way to conduct a review, if there are more than two people present. Sometimes a face-to-face walk through of the document with the subject matter expert is the best way of getting the review done. Even then, it’s best if the SME can take another look after we’ve applied the changes resulting from the review. As you’ve pointed out, a software review tool works very well. The reviewers can share and comment on each others’ reviews, and the discussion can happen asynchronously at the time that suits each person.

    Thanks for a nice discussion.
    Cheers
    Sarah

  3. When deadlines are tight or worse, when SMEs are overloaded, it can be difficult to get good reviews (if any). A meeting to collect/discuss review comments might help if a manager is invited.
    I have added intentional and sometimes humorous bloopers (content ‘Easter eggs’) and invited reviewers to treasure hunt.
    I’ve also offered gift cards to the reviewer with the most comments (although management frowns on this because ‘it’s their job’).

  4. Larry: If useless feedback is a chronic problem, I think management needs to intervene. Add up all the time it takes to come up with those useless comments, and you have a huge time sink.

    Sarah: A client quit having review meetings because they were not working. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because the group setting was not conducive to good reviews. Excellent point.

    Roger: it’s a shame you’ve been reduced to bribery. Management may be frowning upon your offerings, but what are they doing to get SMEs to review content? Seems a tad hypocritical to complain about the bribery.

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