Technical Communicators and Knowledge Management
by Alan Breacher, AB Writing Services & Consulting
According to a recent article by Michael Skapinker in The Financial Times , the kinds of work opportunities that are “most likely to survive the export of jobs to lower-wage countries” are to be found in skilled manual labor. This includes electricians and plumbers (and in Houston, no doubt, air conditioning technicians) because it is difficult to outsource these kinds of jobs and there is a high demand for people with the associated skills.
Skapinker notes that a second category of secure careers consists of professionals who can provide “skilled services to the rich.” Knowledge management (KM) may qualify as one of these types of services and may provide an opportunity for technical communicators to realize an increase in the demand for our services.
A Growing Trend
Technical communicators' increased involvement in KM activities has been identified as one of the growing trends in our field. For example, Elizabeth Frick, writing in the July/August 2000 edition of Intercom , identifies the need for employees within organizations to share information through “plain language” as part of the KM process. Technical communicators have a role to play in KM efforts by helping subject specialists develop content that employees with different expertise will be able to understand and use. I can imagine an example of this being marketers who need product information that is technical enough to demonstrate an understanding of how the product will benefit customers, but without marketers and customers getting confused!
Definitions of KM can be found at numerous websites. For example, the Knowledge Management Resource Center ( www.kmresource.com ) includes many white papers on the subject and links to related sites. A couple of definitions that I liked are:
“KM is the process through which organizations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets. Most often, generating value from such assets involves sharing them among employees, departments and even with other companies in an effort to devise best practices” ( www.cio.com/research/knowledge/edit/kmabcs.html ).
“[KM is] identifying and mapping intellectual assets within the organization, generating new knowledge for competitive advantage within the organization, making vast amounts of corporate information accessible, sharing of best practices, and technology that enables all of the above—including groupware and intranets” ( www.media-access.com/whatis.html ).
The first definition points out that KM is about getting as much value as possible from an organization's knowledge assets. This includes the ability to share information so that, for example, best practices can be developed. The second definition focuses on identifying and cataloging information assets so that they can be used to generate knowledge that can be applied in practical ways. It also emphasizes the role of technology in allowing this to happen.
Saul Carliner has also written, “Knowledge management involves capturing, storing, transforming, and disseminating information within an organization and tapping into organizational expertise to retain a competitive advantage. It involves systems, procedures, policies, collaborations, mentoring, and other activities.”
What seems to be a common thread among discussions of KM is that how an organization defines its KM practice, and what it expects to get out of this practice, will depend on the specific goals of the organization.
To ensure that technical communicators are involved in KM activities, we need to be able to articulate—and perhaps provide hard evidence for—the value that we bring to KM processes.
Intercom has published a number of articles on the value-adding skills that are provided by technical communicators. Mark Edelman's article, published in April 2001, identifies a number of value-adding skills that technical communicators provide for organizations' products and services. For example, technical communicators:
Develop information products that aid the communication of useful information between specialized professionals. Technical communicators do this by using language that the intended audience understands and by designing documents that allow information to be located easily. These factors increase the audience's productivity. Because “information products” can include a wide variety of items, including manuals, notices, specifications, analytical reports, and status reports, technical communicators can have a far-reaching impact on an organization's activities.
Develop documents that conform to standards (or even establish standards) that help communicate the content to the audience.
Develop documentation that makes users more productive by reducing the number of calls to a help desk they need to make. If an organization determines that a new release of a software product requires less support time than was required for previous versions, some of this benefit may be attributable to improvements in product documentation.
Keep design and function specifications and other documentation up to date. This ensures that everyone on a project team is working with the most recent and accurate information. It is important to get this documentation as accurate as possible early on because the largest proportion of product costs come from support, maintenance, changes, and training .
Understanding the value that we bring to the development of information products, and understanding what an organization hopes to gain from KM, allows us to highlight the roles that we can play in KM activities. For example:
Technical communicators can contribute to an organization's KM effort by adding quality to the design and content of documents with a wide audience. Ensuring that documents which allow employees with different knowledge backgrounds and organizational goals to work together will clearly have a significant effect on an organization. Knowledge represents organizations' key asset in today's economy, and technical communicators have an essential role to play in ensuring that this asset is of the highest quality.
Technical communicators can develop good-quality technical information that helps reduce the need for some training and the associated costs. For example, good-quality manuals should at least be able to show the audience how to perform basic functions. This means that training courses can focus on more advanced tasks or tasks that require more specialized knowledge.
Technical communicators can work with subject matter experts to develop information such as technical summaries for an organization's decision makers. Ensuring that such information is accurate and focused will help speed the decision-making process within organizations and make them more responsive to changing conditions.
Technical communicators can be involved in editing mission-critical documents for other professionals and organizations. For example, As Bill Fiora of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals has noted, “one of the most under-appreciated skills in the intelligence profession is the ability to write clear and concise reports” ( www.scip.org/news/cimcomp/v5i1article1.asp ). The SCIP website lists “competitor profiles”—reports that can be researched, written, and edited by technical communicators—as the tool most commonly used by CI professionals.
A recent posting on the STC Houston jobs bulletin board provides clues as to the kind of tasks that a technical communicator may be asked to perform to meet an organization's KM requirements. The posting states that the position “will ensure Knowledge Management content is complete and accurate by creating, revising, testing, conducting quality assurance, and maintaining content….make recommendations regarding the content, layout, templates, and other functionality and [be] responsible for reviewing the design, context, and content for others. Writers will also be responsible for facilitating the audit and update of current content in conjunction with SME groups, and may also be responsible for coaching others.” Do you see many differences here from the activities that you perform as part of your “normal” technical communication activities?
From a technical communicator's perspective, it seems that current KM needs are pretty similar to what we have been doing for years. But to be involved in KM activities we must demonstrate to our customers that we understand their KM goals and we must have a good idea of how we can help them achieve those goals.
Have you been involved in work that is explicitly directed at an organization's KM efforts? Please send me brief descriptions of the kind of work you have been doing, and I will write them up as case studies to be published in an STC publication (company and employee names excluded as necessary). Please e-mail me at email@example.com .
Saul Carliner, “Intellectual Capital: Placing a Value on Technical Communication,” Intercom , September/October 2000
Mark Edelman, “The Value Added by Technical Communicators,” Intercom , April 2001
Elizabeth Frick, “Trends in Technical Communication: An Independent's View,” Intercom , July/August 2000
Bill Fiora, “Best Practices Forum: Writing Intelligence Reports That Get Read” ( www.scip.org/news/cimcomp/v5i1article1.asp )
Michael Skapinker, Uncomfortable truths about the work-life balance,” The Financial Times , October 20 2004
The Knowledge Management Resource Center ( www.kmresource.com )
Neil Perlin, “Technical Communication: The Next Wave,” Intercom , January 2001
Wikipedia ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_management )