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Collaboration 101: How Old School Processes Prohibit Us From Working as a Team 

Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.

Scott Abel

No matter where you look these days, some vendors are touting how their new software products can help technical documentation departments magically “collaborate” their way to tremendous savings. You may be considering a purchase of one of these collaborative authoring tools. If you are, be forewarned that your return on investment may not be as spectacular as anticipated.

It’s not that there aren’t tremendous savings to gain by working in a collaborative manner. There are software products that can help your documentation group work more efficiently, making it possible for you to save significant time and resources. The real problem is closer to home. And it actually has nothing at all to do with software.

The real problem is that most technical documentation groups do not work as a team. Just because you co-locate a group of people in one big room, or somehow join them together under a common departmental umbrella, does not make them a team. Not even close.

A Look At Teams

Professional American football teams exist for one purpose: To make money. They do so by working together as a team to accomplish a single, primary goal: To win games by delivering the ball across the goal line more times than the opposing team within the time allotted and within the rules of the game. Each team member does his best job to ensure his contribution helps — not hinders — the team reach their goal.

If technical documentation teams have a primary goal, it might be something simple like: Deliver complete and accurate assistance content to the user in a variety of formats for use on a variety of devices as quickly as possible.

When a documentation department works as a team, the primary goal of each team member should be to do his / her best job to ensure his / her contributions help — not hinder — the team to reach the desired goal. While this may seem to be what all technical documentation departments do, a quick look at your own documentation life cycle will reveal a variety of teamwork-derailing tasks.

A Typical Challenge: Moving To Collaborative Authoring

I have helped various technical documentation teams move to collaborative authoring environments. These assignments helped me understand the underlying problem with collaboration. We’re not good at it. Not because we aren’t capable of being good collaborators, but because we have not — until now — been seriously tasked to operate as a team.

Consider one of my clients, a software-as-a-service (saas) provider to the pest-control industry. Recently, the firm hired a new documentation manager who hoped adopting a collaborative authoring tool would help writers at the company headquarters work more effectively with another group of off-shore writers and several contractors who worked from home. The tool was launched without much ado — a standard WYSIWYG authoring tool with a familiar interface and features that worked much like the desktop software the writers had used for years. They quickly adapted to the new authoring environment and started producing content. And yet, things didn’t seem to be moving much faster than before. The promised return-on-investment savings from faster-time-to-market and enhanced productivity were nowhere to be found. Not because the selected software tool failed in any way, but because the documentation department was not working as a team.

Upon closer examination, it became clear what the problem was: The lack of a team mentality.

Collaboration Means Working Together To Accomplish Common Goals

Teams are groups of individuals who work together to accomplish common goals. When things don’t work as well as they could — or should — team coaches help direct the team toward improvement. In the technical documentation arena, teamwork is often impeded by outdated processes that fail to support the team approach to content creation and delivery.

Take the traditional process used to create, manage and deliver technical content. Under scrutiny, what you usually find is a poorly orchestrated mess, riddled with inefficiencies, many of which can be drastically reduced — or totally eliminated — when workers work toward a common goal and collaborate together as a team using the right tools for the job.

Let’s take a look at the traditional process of creating technical documentation for a software product.

Writers are assigned to create a set of product documentation. They work with subject matter experts (SMEs) such as software developers, business analysts, and others to gather the information they need. They work, often in isolation, and sometimes, in parallel with the development of the product. If they’re lucky, they have a working version of the product to explore, but more than likely, all they have are a set of business requirements documents and some product specifications from which to start.

They create the documentation using desktop authoring tools like Microsoft Word. Because they are documenting a product which is being developed concurrently, and because the quality of the source materials on which they rely is seldom sufficient, their first draft is often missing lots of information. To figure out if they are on the right path, what’s missing, and if what they’ve created thus far is accurate, authors route drafts via email to SMEs for a technical review.

The SMEs provide feedback and route the document back to the writer via email. Some feedback provided is useful and helps the author improve the documentation. Other feedback is confusing, contradictory, or downright unintelligible. So, the author must track down the SMEs and schedule time to review and decipher the feedback, and in the case of contradictory feedback provided from multiple experts, determine whose feedback to incorporate, and whose to ignore.

After this process is complete, the author makes the needed changes and routes a new, updated version via email. The SMEs review the content and return feedback to the author. This process is repeated multiple times until the content is approved as accurate.

After the technical approval is complete, an internal review begins. It works very much the same way, but this time involves copy editors, proofreaders, and others who examine the content for grammar, spelling, style, terminology, and branding, and who ensure the content complies with internal writing guidelines. It’s also put through a quality review, where testers validate that the product actually works as documented. And, in some industries, it may also undergo additional reviews. Like the technical-review process, copies of the documents are routed back-and-forth for review via email until the content is deemed ready to be published.

This process is not only time-consuming and inefficient, but it also introduces errors. For instance, it is not uncommon for reviewers to review the wrong version of a file, or for an author to misplace or lose feedback files, further slowing down the product-development process and wasting limited resources.

When we introduce collaboration and teamwork to the equation, inefficiency and errors are drastically reduced and products can get to market faster By authoring content in an online collaborative-authoring environment like GoogleDocs or MindTouch, organizations can bypass the time-sucking email-review process altogether. Meetings can be scheduled in which all parties involved can hold a conversation via telephone while reviewing the documents online. Decisions about the content can be made immediately and changes incorporated into the document while the meeting is in progress. Reviewers and SMEs can make changes to the content online, where they can see the suggestions made by others. Issues of consistency and contradictory information can be easily spotted and dealt with.

In the ultra-competitive global marketplace, organizations can no longer afford to waste time on old-school content creation, review, and approval processes. It’s time for some smart thinking and common sense. Collaborative authoring and teamwork are no longer options, they are a necessity.

About the Author

Scott Abel
Scott Abel

Scott Abel is a content strategist and social networking choreographer whose strengths lie in helping organizations improve the way they author, maintain, publish, and archive their information assets.

Scott’s blog, TheContentWrangler.com, is a popular online resource for technical writers with an interest in content management. Scott maintains several social networks — The Content Wrangler Community on Facebook and The Content Wrangler Community on Linkedin — that attract a global community of content professionals from a wide variety of disciplines and vertical markets.

A founding member of Content Management Professionals (CM Pros), Scott formerly served as Executive Director of the organization. He has also held leadership positions in the Society for Technical Communication.

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One Comment

  1. By Tweets that mention Collaboration 101: How Old School Processes Prohibit Us From Working as a Team – Writing Assistance, Inc Newsroom Blog -- Topsy.comon 8th, December 2010 at 9:23 am

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