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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!