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Lessons Learned From the Trenches: The Business Case for an Integrated Communication Toolset 

17th April 2012 Posted in Blog, Industry Articles, Software Tools 0 Comments

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.

by Scott Abel

Scott Abel

As a profession, technical communication has a lot to be proud of. Thought leaders in our discipline have developed innovative ways of creating, managing, and delivering information that are in use today at some of the world’s biggest companies, government agencies, and educational institutions. Because of our best practices and lessons learned, it’s not only possible for these organizations to deliver the right information to the right people in the right format and in the right languages (increasingly on myriad mobile computing devices), but it’s also possible for them to do so efficiently and effectively.

And yet, many organizations that employ technical communicators have yet to adopt these new methods (XML, Component Content Management, and Dynamic, Personalized Publishing) despite the many case studies and success stories touting the efficiency gains and sales increases possible when thinking strategically about the way we create, manage, and deliver information to those who need it. Even with the promise of return on investment in relatively short order, many of our ilk are still creating content in the most inefficient and ineffective ways possible.

I believe the primary reason for our inefficiency is that we have never taken a hard look at what we create (deliverables) and how we create it (people, processes, tools) with an eye for eliminating the stumbling blocks and improving our ability to react to new content demands. Add to the mix the fact that many technical communicators (perhaps most) work for small- to medium-sized organizations—firms that often lack the budget, staff, money, and expertise to seriously scrutinize and totally revamp the way they work.

Of course, there are other trouble makers that contribute to our challenges. And one of the most problematic is good intentions. That’s right. When you really screw things up, it’s usually due to someone with good intentions who lacks insight into the ramifications of the choices they make. And, I speak from experience, hindsight providing me with some lessons learned to share with you from my digital bully pulpit.

We do it to ourselves. We set ourselves up for future failure. In the past, I have contributed to this problem by trying to find an innovative way to solve some isolated problems without considering the great impact my decisions have on productivity and the ability for my clients to react quickly to future changes in the market (eBooks, video, mobile computing, social networking). In fact, one of the biggest, dumbest mistakes I have made is encouraging organizations to adopt XML authoring tools to produce the majority of their deliverables. As it turns out, an XML editor is not the best tool to create an instructional video, to build an embeddable slide show, create infographics, push media-rich visual content to the web, or socially enable web content. But, alas, I know better today. And, so do you!

Small- and medium-sized organizations may not have the resources to launch game-changing technical communication projects like the ones you’re likely to see featured at our vendor-sponsored industry conferences. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do a good job at meeting the needs of our customers today and into the future. To do so, we’ll need to think about the approaches we adopt, the standards we support, and the tools we use to get the job done.

Whether selecting a new method (writing structured, minimalist content for reuse), a new standard (topic-based XML spec DITA) or looking for new software to help you reach your goals (XML-enabled authoring tools), it’s critically important to ensure that the tools you select support your needs today—and can do so well into the future.

For example, if I would have steered one of my clients toward an integrated suite of technical communication tools like the Adobe Technical Communication Suite (or a suitable competitor), I would have done them a big favor. As it turns out, three and a half years ago, when they made the move away from Adobe FrameMaker to a straightforward XML authoring tool and a simple component content management system, Facebook wasn’t the dominant platform on Earth; there was no iPad, Galaxy tablet, or Kindle Fire; eBooks were but a whisper; apps existed only on the desktop; and YouTube wasn’t the dominant “how to” search engine. Unfortunately, our choices then don’t support the world we live in today.

As such, my clients were left to weave together a patchwork quilt of technology solutions—a mishmash of software for each new type of media they need to support. It’s a stupid approach that leads to all sorts of inefficiencies. And, it’s not the right approach. It’s only going to make matters worse.

Each technical communicator involved in the content-creation process now has to learn different tools, different commands, and different interfaces. When they need support for the new products, they have to call different vendors, set up different support contracts, and follow different procedures set by each vendor. They have to deal with different pricing and licensing structures, different training materials, and the list goes on and on and on. Oh, and to make them all work together, they’re going have to hire someone to build transforms and other connectors. And, when they’re done, it will kind-of-sorta work better. Kinda. Sorta. Maybe.

Alas, lessons learned are everywhere. You don’t have to pay $2500 to attend a conference to learn that this approach is a stupid one that will cost you big headaches (and lots of extra money) in the end, because I’m giving you this gift for free. When you don’t have the money to totally revamp the way you create, manage and deliver content—and do it right—don’t just flail around looking for individual solutions to each problem that crops up. Do yourself a favor and look at the bigger picture. When you do, you might be surprised that an integrated toolset is an attractive option that will serve you well into the future.

About the Author

Scott Abel is a content-management strategist, structured XML content evangelist, and social networking choreographer whose strengths lie in helping organizations improve the way they author, maintain, and deliver their information assets.

Scott’s blog, The Content Wrangler, is a popular online resource for content professionals with an interest in content management, content standards and content technologies. Scott writes regularly for trade and industry publications, blogs, and newsletters. He also helps produce several industry events, including the Web Content conference series and Intelligent Content Conference with Ann Rockley and The Rockley Group.

He’s also a popular dance music mashup artist, DJ, and music producer who has been spinning since 1982.

More from Scott Abel:
Tapping Into Your Content Goldmine Means Thinking Differently
XML Authoring: Coming to a Desktop Near You
Understanding the Need for Content Quality Management

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