Raising Your Documentation Team’s Visibility
by Whitney Potsus
Whether the documentation department has a staff of one or a team of 12, visibility within the company is a frequent concern. The reasons for this concern range from personal to professional. You want to be remembered when promotions and bonuses are handed out. You want new challenges to add diversity to your workload, and new projects to add skills to your resume. You want to defend your turf against budget cuts and layoffs during lean economic times. And you want to be more than an afterthought that lives in the back 40 of the cubicle farm.
You’ve probably come to this article looking for specific ideas of what you can do in your organization to raise the technical communications group’s profile. And there will be some of those. But trying to provide specific recommendations for raising your group’s profile in your company is a little like giving someone else marriage advice. Unless you’re sitting in the thick of things every day, participating in the maintenance of the relationship, it’s difficult to offer ideas that are compatible with and cognizant of all the variables in personalities, skills, strengths, and weaknesses, communication styles, schedules, aspirations, and so on.
In here, you will find suggestions to mull over as you try to determine the best ways to expand your influence throughout the company. Because when you talk to other technical communicators and documentation managers, what you often hear is “ Be careful what you wish for…you just might get it .”
Following, we’ll address:
- Taking Time to Focus
- What Solutions Do Customers Need?
- What Twirls Your Beanie?
- Mapping Your Goals
- Cited Readings & Resources
Taking Time To Focus
When you think about it, raising your group’s visibility is a lot like marketing a product. Whatever your underlying motivation, the face of what you’re doing with management and other departments is selling . And you can be just as susceptible to the typical first-time marketing mistakes as someone who is trying to sell, say, consulting services. You try to be all things to all people, instead of being what you really are.
In the book Crossing The Chasm, we learned how high-tech companies frequently made the mistake of trying to sell to everyone possible instead of identifying niches, selling really well to them, and establishing a base with those customers before venturing out to sell to other verticals. In other words, they took their sales pitch, threw it against the barn wall to see what stuck, and went after that. In product management, the lack of focus in who they were as a company and as a brand led to confusion and sometimes contradictory.
Often, documentation departments make the same mistake when they sell their services. They know a little Photoshop , a little Visio , and a little Illustrator , so they volunteer to do all the graphics for sales presentations. They know how to write procedures, so they go after the training function. They know the product inside and out, so they go after the marketing communications. They know a little HTML and a little Dreamweaver, so they go after the Web site. Their skill sets allow them to make legitimate claims to these responsibilities, but they overlook crucial considerations — which can lead to a host of problems ranging from poor project management to low staff morale.
To avoid these problems, you should employ many of the same strategies that individuals use when they’re redefining their personal and professional goals — to find their “life’s purpose,” if you’ll indulge the touchy-feely term. Once they know what they have to offer and, more importantly, what they want to offer, they can then determine how to market themselves in a way that fulfills their needs, helps fulfill their employer’s business objectives, and creates the desired brand experience for customers. The same approach can be used for documentation teams.
What Solutions Do Customers Need?
This is Marketing 101, identifying the problems that your potential customers need to solve. As a technical communicator, you’ve been doing this throughout your career — every time you sit down to write a piece of documentation.
Work with your staff to identify what problems your “customers” — your managers, colleagues, and clients — need to solve that are within your group’s realm of expertise. Some of these problems might include:
- Lack of centralized responsibility for corporate communications materials sent to clients, partners, and resellers
- Company newsletter is not produced and mailed on a consistent schedule, or not enough contributors to fill its pages
- Not enough subject matter experts (SMEs) to write or collaborate on white papers and case studies
- Web site filled with out-of-date content
- Increased number of “how-to” calls to the Technical Support group
- Insufficient materials available to support the sales process
- Employees having a difficult time keeping up with product enhancements
- Training department short on substitute instructors
- Lack of specifications and requirements documents impedes the product development and testing processes
After you do this, you and your staff can start brainstorming solutions. Try using the “ 5 to 1 habit ,” where you look for five solutions to every problem/obstacle encountered. (1) At this stage, there’s no such thing as an idea that’s too easy, too hard, too expensive, too radical. It’s about getting ideas on paper. And it’s not (yet) about committing your group to new responsibilities.
What Twirls Your Beanie?
At the Society for Technical Communications (STC) conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the late 1990s, the technical writers discussed the skills and tool proficiencies they were trying to add to their resumes to compete in the job market. The lists were so long they made your head swim.
Two years later, at the STC conference in Chicago, many of those writers had redefined their specialties and career paths, because they realized they could do moderately well at a whole array of job functions or they could become “masters” in what interested them most. Some had moved completely into Web and interactive design, and some into training, because they realized that to be truly competitive in those fields and get the jobs they wanted, they were going to have to focus and play to their strengths, interests, and passions. Some had found technical writing jobs that let them do a little bit of everything because a ) they wanted enough variety to keep their jobs from getting stale, and b ) their employers needed someone who could do a little bit of everything until something grew large enough to require a full-time position. Even though those employees like the variety and manage it well, they, too, have favorite things in that mix…and things they’re willing to “trade” for something else.
Tech writers are perpetually on the lookout for growth opportunities. And it’s not unusual for them to have paid or unpaid side projects that let them develop the skills they want to have (especially if they don’t see a chance to do so at work). You likely have people interested in:
- Corporate communications
- Public relations
- Marketing communications
- Web design
- Training (classroom, distance)
- Intranet development
- Product management
- Multimedia (demos, video, animations)
- Things you never associated with writers
The more knowledge you already have, the faster you can offer a service to other areas of the business. Playing to these existing interests, to the extent that you are able to, will result in an efficient, productive, and enthusiastic operation as you expand what you can do for the business. (2)
Ask team members to list what areas/skills they’re interested in, and what specifically appeals to them.
- Someone interested in “getting involved with the newsletter” may be more interested in editing or page design than writing articles.
- The employee interested in training may want to focus on employee training rather than user training, or distance-based learning over classroom-based courses.
- The employee interested in marketing might want to do multimedia sales demos more than writing brochures.
Sorting out specific interests will help you find out just how you can market your group and raise its visibility. It might be as simple as creating a library of stock images for Sales and Marketing, or it might be something unexpected. In one company, a writer had a strong interest in digital photography and video production. Because he’d been asked so many questions by co-workers about equipment, he held brown-bag lunch sessions to teach what to look for in digital cameras and camcorders and how to use them. He was frequently recruited to take digital photos at company events. Eventually, he attended his company’s user conference, filming presentations so that video files could be posted on the Web for users to watch — a creative means of customer support that became one of the most highly rated offerings by users.
Mapping Your Goals
As you look at both lists, some possibilities — like corporate communications (3) and marketing communications/sales support (4) — are easy to pitch as things that your team can do because the underlying skills are so similar. Other pitches may require more creativity or effort.
But you first need to decide what it is you want to be to the rest of your organization. Being clear on what you have to offer and, more importantly, what you want to offer, helps you increase your visibility in a way that’s manageable (in terms of workload) and sustainable. It can’t be all things to all people, but your team can be the best version of itself that it can be.
- Do you want to become a graphic and Web design team for your company?
- Do you want to be the publishing group, responsible for documentation, product marketing materials, white papers, and whatever else?
- Do you want to be an integral part of the product design process?
- Do you want to help keep customer support costs down by building a larger self-service support center for your users?
- Do you want to improve the knowledge transfer between your subject matter experts and your products’ users?
In doing this, you need to be realistic about what can be incorporated with your team’s existing responsibilities, what can be leveraged against projects you’ve already done. And you might need to start with smaller internal projects before you make a pitch for larger external ones, just to see what can be fit into your project schedule for the work that your group is primarily responsible for. This might mean starting with the intranet before taking on the external marketing Web site, or conducting short employee training sessions on the newest release/model of your products before doing client training. If it turns out your staff can’t immediately take on the writing of all the marketing communications materials, maybe you can initially offer its editing services to help improve the quality of the content.
To map out your progress, use visual aids that will force you and your team to get ideas out of your heads, out of abstract conversations, and onto paper. This might mean using Visio or one of the mind mapping programs available on the shrink-wrap and shareware software markets, or aids used by life and career coaches. One such example is Brian Mayne’s Goal Mapping Templates (5) ; albeit a little touchy-feely (and the introduction is written to the individual), the visual diagram templates for left- and right-brained thinking are just as useful for charting the course for an entire department.
By carefully plotting your course, instead of grabbing at random opportunities, you can set objectives that are creative, exciting, and manageable, while also helping you to retain employees and have a tangible (if not measurable) impact on your company’s bottom line.
Cited Readings & Resources
(1) Rosengren, Curt. “Develop A 5 To 1 Habit.” Worthwhile Magazine blog, http://www.worthwhilemag.com/entry/2006/09/28/develop_a_5_to_1_habit.php.
(2) Rosengren, Curt. “Passionate Work Takes Less Brain Juice.” Worthwhile Magazine blog, http://www.worthwhilemag.com/entry/2006/10/20/passionate_work_takes_less_brain_juice.php.
(3) McGovern, Gerry. “ Why is Corporate Communications Viewed as Fluffy?” MarketingProfs.com, October 11, 2006, http://www.marketingprofs.com/5/mcgovern44.asp.
(4) Scott, David Meerman. “ How Web Content Can Shorten a Complex Sale.” MarketingProfs.com, October 18, 2006, http://www.marketingprofs.com/5/scottDM1.asp.
(5) Mayne, Brian. Goal Mapping Templates. Downloadable from http://www.liftinternational.com/Goal_Map_templates.pdf.
Whitney Potsus works for a software company in Southern Connecticut, managing both technical and marketing content. When she’s not working on her attempt at the Great American Novel or a new technical writing book she’s co-authoring with an Australian counterpart, she spends her off hours on technical writing contract assignments and freelance writing for a variety of publications. She launched, and managed for several years, the Solitary Scrivener newsletter for the STC’s Lone Writer special-interest group and has contributed to several STC and IEEE publications.