March 24, 2011

Conversation and Community – by Anne Gentle

Posted in Content Strategy, Knowledge Management, Social Media tagged , , , , , , at 2:32 pm by degyes

A book review by David Egyes.

This book, Conversation and Community, represents a snapshot in time. The author, Anne Gentle, does her job well, which is to inform today’s technical communicator (TC) what to do in order to better ensure continued relevance in an already disrupted work culture, especially with regard to the role of the communicator.

Yesterday’s top-down approach to documentation needs to be abandoned, or at least seriously reconsidered. In his forward to the book, Andy Oram of O’Reilly Media calls this the “oracular view” of information, and says it’s already becoming passé. This means that if you’re still thinking exclusively in terms of preparing manuals or Helps for consumers (inside or outside your firm) then your days are numbered. Documentation today is the result of a conversation taking place among users, consumers, and adopters of technology. Often, that conversation involves those developing, selling, and supporting the tool. Other times, it does not. The big question is how do we as TCs not only tap into that conversation in ways that benefit our organizations, but actually facilitate those discussions so as to best harness, cultivate, and reuse the knowledge stemming from that interaction?

How can experts and non-experts alike learn to collaborate so as to produce not only the documentation that the system providers think the masses need, but what they actually want? To take it a step further, can those who develop, integrate, document, and market products learn from this dialog in ways that will make those products—and their documentation—better?

Make no mistake. As Andy Oram intimates, our future as TC professionals lies in our becoming part of this conversation, as key participants and as facilitators. In that spirit, recently, Jonny Gold (@JonnyGold) and I co-presented at MEGAComm, a conference of Israel-based TWs, marcoms writers, documentation managers, and allied professionals (e.g. folks specializing in localization, usability, human factors, etc). Our topic, Making Teams Smarter, focused on implementing Wiki as a Knowledge Sharing (KS) methodology. We offered a strategy whereby organizations can harvest the knowledge that’s too-often concealed amongst the individuals constituting its professional teams, and put that information to practical and profitable use. At the same time, through the very act of serving as catalyst in facilitating this conversation, the TC plays a central and vital role in putting knowledge to work in ways that make the organization function better. This is reflected in the improved communication that leads to processes becoming repeatable and predictable, implementation becoming less haphazard, resources (tools, code, documents, etc) being more available and relevant, time scales shorter, and interruptions fewer.

Getting back to Anne’s book, note that it’s aptly sub-titled The Social Web for Documentation. That’s because its focus and emphasis are on how you can embrace collaborative forums to prompt and to guide technical conversations in ways that lead to enhanced communication and better documentation. As I see it, there is a variety of roles the TC can play, requiring development and application of several key competencies, interpersonal, technical, and otherwise. These include, for instance, the ability to innovatively devise new tools and forums, adapt to the various work practices of different groups while encouraging and guiding its KS contributors, proactively undertaking KS initiatives, persuasively “evangelizing” KS strategies, and so on. Essentially, performing the activities that maximize your success as what Scott Abel so appropriately calls a “content wrangler.”

My view is that you do not have to master—or even use—most of the tools mentioned in Anne’s book, which covers a rather wide range of social media apps, including several that just didn’t take off (like Google Wave, for instance). I believe what’s important is that you internalize the overall mindset conveyed by the book, that is, to position yourself—in the context of your organization’s culture and norms—to serve as a KS catalyst. If those norms don’t exist, then work to cultivate them through collegial persuasion and a demonstrated willingness to tackle projects on a “volunteer” basis, showing the decision-makers and resource allocators the benefits of KS and how supporting those efforts is a profitable proposition.