Our Obsession with Scale Is Failing Us

The Harvard Business Review posted an article yesterday titled Our Obsession with Scale Is Failing Us. The article doesn’t reference technical communication specifically, but when I read the article, the faces of a number of technical writers and techcomm organizations flashed in my mind. I’ve met a lot of people in our field whom obsess about controlling, centralizing, or CMSing, but not communicating.

According to the article, “people can easily self-organize” now. These ”self-organized groups dramatically decrease the cost of communication.” In other words, when there is a need for information, a knowledge gap, or a desire for more knowledge, people can cheaply, easily, and quickly find that information in self-organized groups.

It’s interesting (and very frightening) to me as a technical writer that the last time I received user documentation, it came with a sewing machine. The high-tech gadgets I’ve purchased for my child (phones, e-readers, tablets, game systems) arrive void of documentation. If my child has a question about a product, his first reaction is to locate an online forum or search YouTube. It’s not in his realm of reality that the vendor would provide documentation or have a support website. Just today, I tried accessing the user documentation for a web app I was using. I pressed F1, and I was directed to an FAQ page that did not answer the question I had. I then went to the support website for assistance. I was asked to enter my question in a text field that generated a public post in a knowledge management forum. A moderator answered my post about 45 minutes later with a link to some internal product documentation, but the documentation only described the UI features. It provided no value as a tool for learning how to use the app or for troubleshooting my problem. I ended up finding the answer to my question in a self-organized forum that had no association with the product. I’m sadly being conditioned, like my children and their generation, to seek useful information from sources not associated with the product.

How do I see the role of technical communicators changing in the future? I’m not sure, but I definitely see a need for change.