April 2, 2014

Turning the Tables: Putting Technical Communicators in the Driver's Seat

The role of technical communicators may be about to change. Corporations are increasingly making use of the knowledge production capabilities built up within their technical documentation teams to drive business processes, and create value beyond the documentation itself.

Traditionally, documentation comes last in the production chain. Technical writers are sometimes expected to work magic since they often don’t get adequate information about a product release until the last minute--yet still have to produce the documentation in time. The fact that technical communicators are often not considered an equal part of the production process seems to be reflected in a common managerial perspective on documentation:  it’s nothing more than a necessary evil,  a cumbersome requirement – something which must be produced, but  is considered to have little business value.

Yet, current trends may be turning this imbalance upside down. Manufacturing companies with short production cycles, customized product variants, and often embedded software, are looking for ways to optimize their business processes. The importance of being on time to market is becoming even greater. The technical documentation team can be at the center of this movement if they are equipped with the proper tools.

In the sales phase, proposals, requirement specifications, technical data sheets, and other documents need to be produced. Improving the speed and quality of this work is critical. Specialized systems are often used for product configuration and price calculation in the sales phase. Still, there is a need for accurate product information to be included in the sales documentation. This information must be continually updated to reflect product changes. Technical communicators are experts at maintaining technical information, so who could be better suited for such a task than them?

At the heart of this informational maintenance process is the technical documentation CMS, (Content Management System). The CMS may have originally been developed for the purpose of producing product manuals efficiently, but the same features function just as well for sales documentation. Particularly useful is the possibility to separate content from configuration, and the opportunity for reuse of the same content in different configurations. A sales documentation process could look like this: the technical writers that own the CMS maintain the content and make sure that it is always sales ready; the sales people supply a market or customer specific configuration and, in return, receive sales documentation which is automatically produced by the CMS.

Far from being last in the chain, technical communicators are in the loop from the very beginning, helping to drive sales. They may also play a similar role in the test phase, as test documentation also benefits from being managed in a documentation CMS. How about automatically generating test documents for a given project based on the same configuration used to define the project’s requirements? Test cases can reliably reflect the unique product delivered in the project.

This way, producing product manuals may become only one part of the technical documentation team’s work. An even greater value lies in the team’s ability to produce and maintain corporate knowledge, and use that knowledge to optimize the company’s business processes.


 

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About the author

Joakim Ström

With over 15 years dedicated to software development, Joakim expertly drives internal improvements and often hands-on innovation here at Excosoft.

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