On a recent night, I was part of a panel on the future of technical communication with the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, and there were several facets of the conversation that I found really interesting. Our host had pulled together an XML architecture consultant who’s deep into content models (e.g. DITA) and tools, Yas Etassam, and another individual who started a very successful technical writing firm, Meryl Natchez. And, of course, me.
My inclusion shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. The convener had heard me speak on the performance ecosystem (via Enterprise 2.0, with a nod to my ITA colleagues), and I’d included mention of content models, learning experience design, etc. My background in interface design (e.g. studying under Don Norman, as a consequence teaching interface design at UNSW), and work with publishers and adaptive systems using content models, means I’ve been touching a lot of their work and gave a different perspective.
It was a lively session, with us disagreeing and then finding the resolution, both to our edification as well as the audiences. We covered new devices, tools, and movements in corporate approaches to supporting performance, as well as shifts in skill sets.
The first topic that I think is of interest was the perspective they took on their role. They talk about ‘content’ and include learning content as well. I queried that, asking whether they saw their area of responsibility covering formal learning as well, and was surprised to hear them answer in the affirmative. After all, it’s all content. I countered with the expected: “it’s about the experience” stance, to which Meryl replied to the effect of “if I’m working, I just want the information, not an experience”. We reconciled that formal learning, when learners need support for motivation and context, needed the sort of experience I was talking about, but even her situation required the information coming in a way that wasn’t disruptive: we needed to think about the performer experience.
The other facet to this was the organizational structure in this regard. Given the view that it’s all content, I asked whether they thought they covered formal learning, and they agreed that they didn’t deliver training, but often technical writers create training materials: manuals, even online courses. Yet they also agreed, when pushed, that most organizations weren’t so structured, and documentation was separate from training. And we all agreed that, going forward, this was a problem. I pushed the point that knowledge was changing faster than their processes could cope, and they agreed. We also agreed that breaking down those silos and integrating performance support, documentation, learning, eCommunity, and more was increasingly necessary.
This raised the question of what to do about user generated content: I was curious what they saw as their role in this regard. They took on a content management stance, for one, suggesting that it’s content and needed to be stored and made searchable. Yas talked about the powerful systems that folks are using to develop and manage content. We also discussed the analogy to learning in that the move is from content production to content production facilitation.
One of the most interesting revelations for me actually came before the panel in the networking and dinner section, where I learned about Topic-Based Authoring. I’ve been a fan of content models for over a decade now, from back when I was talking about granularity of learning objects. The concept I was promoting was to write tightly around definitions for introduction components, concept presentations, examples, practice items, etc. It takes more discipline, but the upside is much more powerful opportunities to start doing the type of smart delivery that we’re now capable of and even seeing. Topic-based is currently applied for technical needs (e.g. performance support) which is enough reason, but there can and should be educational applications as wellThe technical publications area is a bit ahead on this front. Topic-based authoring is a discipline around this approach that provides the rigor needed to make it work.
Meryl pointed out how the skill set shift needn’t be unitary: there were a lot of areas that are related in their world: executive communications, content management, information architecture, even instructional design is a potential path. The basics of writing were still necessary, but like in our field, facilitation skills for user-generated content may still play a role. The rate of change means that the technical writers, just like instructional designers, won’t be able to produce all the needed information, and that a way for individuals to develop materials would be needed. As mentioned above, Yas just cared that they did the necessary tagging! Which gets into interest system areas about how can we make that process as automatic as possible and minimize the onerous part of the work.
The integration we need is for all those who are performer-focused to not be working in ignorance of (let alone opposition to) each other. Formal learning should be developed in awareness of the job aids that will be used, and vice-versa. The flow from marketing to engineering has to stop forking as the same content gets re-purposed for documentation, customer training, sales training, and customer service, but instead have a coherent path that populates each systematically.