Information Development in a Flat World
By JoAnn T. Hackos
President of Comtech Services Inc. and CIDM Director
In 2006, Thomas Friedman argued in The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century that rapid, low-cost communication has lowered the barriers for competition worldwide. People and companies can do business anywhere in the world. Companies can employ workers in low-cost economies. The technology that made it possible for workers in the United States to telecommute has also made it possible for workers worldwide to contribute to the global economy.
The flattening global economy has had a massive impact on jobs in the technology sector. Jobs have moved from high-cost economies to lower-cost economies, and today, information developers in those countries find themselves in increased competition with lower cost countries. The flat world has had a clear impact on information development and will continue to increase competitive pressure on the profession in the foreseeable future. To remain competitive, we must learn to
- Adapt to the realities of global organizations and global audiences
- Analyze and improve our organizational structures
- Ensure that we have the basic professional hygiene—that is, the basic requirements for the job—in place
- Develop competitive skills and strategies that encourage innovation and efficiency
- Institute a disciplined work environment that thrives on standards and best practices
- Demonstrate, through measurement and business acumen, the value of the work produced and the customers served
In the following discussion, I build a portrait of the present and future information developer. That competitive individual has myriad characteristics that promote a competitive advantage. He or she is
- Innovative in design
- Disciplined in content development
- An expert in technology
- Skilled as a collaborative team member
- Blessed with an in-depth understanding of the global customer
- Highly resourceful and assertive
- Possessing superior communication abilities
- Politically savvy with strong business know-how
Without such abilities in the global workplace, more often than not the traditional information developer will be replaced with lower-cost alternatives. Today, those alternatives are simply people who earn less. In the future, they will be anyone who produces valued information assets to support products and services, including the users themselves. Our profession can—I have always assumed—thrive in this competitive environment and come out ahead. But success can be achieved only if we change the way we regard our roles in the global environment.
Adapting to a Global Organization
Information-development professionals have already felt the impact of the flat world on their work as they face an increasingly challenging work environment. They have experienced a rapid increase in the following factors:
- Multiple team members located both in-country and around the globe
- Writers who are not native speakers of the information developer’s language
- Individuals isolated from colleagues because they are attached to remote engineering teams
- Managers who are remote from the people they supervise
- Mergers and acquisitions that have resulted in new team members everywhere
- Increased pressure to outsource and contract as full-time positions decline
At the same time, information-development professionals find themselves designing and developing communications for an increasingly global market with a diverse information readership. These communications require
- More languages added to the localization portfolio
- More customers with diverse information requirements, increasing the need for customized and personalized content
- Shorter time-to-market windows for content in multiple languages
- Cobranding of information products by partners and through mergers and acquisitions
Not only are information developers challenged by the diversity of customers and colleagues within their own organizations, they are increasingly challenged by colleagues in other parts of the corporation. Representatives from customer support, training, usability, engineering, and others have long communicated with customers informally and through established print channels. With increased reliance on Internet knowledge networks, these communications are widely available and searchable by content consumers. Web 2.0 capabilities for communication between corporation and customer have added to the mix of people who rank among significant content creators. Information developers employed to work as writers and editors are questioning the future importance of their roles.
Analyzing Organizational Structure
In the past two years, members of The Center for Information-Development Management have studied the impact of globalism on the structure of information-development organizations. We asked senior departmental managers to create diagrams of their global structures, showing where managers, writers, editors, and others are located and how they interact.
Figure 1 reveals an information-development organization with professional staff in three countries. Note that writers often report to managers in distant locations, even when a manager is co-located with them. Note also the number of small writer groups and the lone writer in Europe. Managing such a complex infrastructure is challenging, and fostering collaboration among team members creating content is daunting.
Figure 1. Three-country global organization of information developers.
Figure 2 reveals a centralized organization in the United States with a satellite team in the United Kingdom. Once again, the reporting structures are intertwined.
Figure 2. Centralized organization with a satellite set of departments.
In Figure 3, we see an organization with many lone writers working with development teams. Their professional colleagues are distant—making collaboration and integrated content management difficult. Most managers are located apart from the people they manage.
Figure 3. Two core organizations with several lone writers.
Many information developers have argued for close proximity to the engineers and programmers they work with. They find that they better understand new product development when the communication connections are in person and frequent. Information-development managers have long argued the benefits of centralized leadership, saying that it promotes standards and cooperation and avoids duplication of effort. Each organization depicted in the figures has a centralized reporting structure, which helps to promote a collaborative content-creation environment. But many information developers report that they have no professional leadership in their corporations. Every writer works alone or in small groups, managed by technical professionals who are often ignorant of the writers’ work practices or deliverables.
Quite clearly, the figures illustrate Friedman’s contention that we are challenged to work effectively in a flat world, even if we have superior communications technology. Working on the same networks, sending e-mails, and handling global conference calls makes it possible to work together globally, but the best communications technology cannot eliminate barriers imposed by distance and culture.
Effective organizational structures today must be based on centralized authority for standards and best practices. Centralized management must be extended to everyone, including the single outliers. The goal, therefore, is an environment that fosters collaboration; ensures a consistent and professional approach to information development; enables measurements that demonstrate value; and includes careful, comprehensive, and customer-driven innovation.
Maintaining a Critical Competitive Base
Information developers around the globe can respond to the opportunities and challenges of the flat world by establishing two seemingly contradictory positions. All team members need to demonstrate the basic hygiene required for basic quality standards and also accommodate the advances and standards being introduced to the field.
Under unrelenting corporate pressure to reduce cost and increase efficiency, it is tempting to produce more content of lower quality. Too often, information developers forego key elements of the information-development life cycle to meet deadlines. We learn of organizations that have eliminated editing, no longer produce indexes for print (PDF) manuals, have no time to understand the users, and rarely test the documentation against the product. The most common reason? “We have no time for niceties; we just have to document everything by the deadline.” Yet, without the basics of quality in place, the content delivered on deadline may be of such low quality that it is rejected by the customers.
The core quality requirements are referred to as “hygiene,” meaning the basic requirements of the job. The hygiene characteristics expected of everyone working in the field today include the following:
- Basic writing and editing skills (style, grammar, punctuation, spelling)
- Working knowledge of the information-development life cycle
- Web and computer basics (HTML, XML)
- Sound oral communication skills
- Attention to detail
- A strong sense of professional behavior
Without these basic characteristics, a staff member cannot be a productive and contributing team member.
The second basic requirement in a flat world is a knowledge of the best practices, standards, and innovations in the field. These include the following:
- Information architecture
- Information design for print and Web publications
- Content management
- New methods of content delivery
- Localization and translation standards and actions
- Customer and field studies
But perhaps more important than knowledge of the latest developments, a global environment requires a new personality type. The ideal information developer must be business oriented, innovative, resourceful, enterprising, and career oriented.
For the past thirty years—at least in my experience—technical communication has been dominated by introverts who prefer to work alone and are reluctant to challenge the views of the technical professionals with whom they work. Many managers report having to train staff members in assertive professional behavior in their interactions with colleagues. Managers also find some staff members reluctant to leave the security of their cubicles to interact with customers. The same managers point out that new behaviors are necessary to win corporate friends and influence people.
To gain and keep a competitive edge, technical professionals need the self-confidence to take a stand.
At the same time, managers find information developers to be ignorant of business realities. Instead of working toward developing critical content that satisfies the real needs of customers, they remain immersed in desktop publishing and page layout.
Instituting Disciplined Work Practices
The new realities of a flat world require that we take a hard look at the way we do business today and consider drastic changes. In a highly competitive global environment, we must look for ways to reduce costs, gain efficiencies, and prove that the work we do adds value for our employers.
The traditional work environment places a greater emphasis on individual creativity than business acumen and drive. We learn in many organizations that writers work alone and are entirely responsible for their own creations. When they are asked to collaborate (especially to use topics written by others), they balk. Common complaints include “The work has become too standardized” or “I am losing my creativity.”
Remaining competitive requires a new kind of creativity—one that rests on standards and best practices while including fundamental innovations in design. Creativity comes not from crafting sentences and page layouts but from better understanding the users’ information requirements.
Today, disciplined information development includes the following:
- Working with agile development methods through increased collaboration among team members in multiple disciplines
- Emphasizing structured writing
- Introducing topic-based authoring
- Normalizing content to facilitate reuse
- Embracing minimalism
- Using controlled language
- Conforming to information-architecture specifications
- Conforming to time and budget requirements
- Ensuring that content is not only accurate but also relevant and useful to the user
Moving into a Manufacturing-focused World
Traditionally, industries have become more competitive by introducing efficiencies through technology and better work processes. The same must occur in information development—it should be moved out of the cottage and into a manufacturing-focused world. Manufacturing disciplines encourage innovation but in the context of measurements and accountability. By instituting work practices that can be measured for efficiency and effectiveness, we ensure that the work we produce has value commensurate with its costs.
Dr. JoAnn T. Hackos (email@example.com) is a fellow and past president of The Society for Technical Communication. She is the executive director of The Center for Information-Development Management and the president of Comtech Services, Inc.