Disruption is the New Trend

The webcast on Scriptorium, Trends in Technical Communication, 2011 by Sarah O’Keefe of Scriptorium and Nicky Bleiel of ComponentOne is a great discussion starter. They were all over the place with ideas about what’s happening in the workplace. Here is my response to each of the trends that Sarah and Nicky talked about.

Trend 1: Word is the new black.
I am not sure where Nicky is coming from with this one. Is this a trend at all? To me it is more of a last gasp. Microsoft Word is the last resort. People are retreating to it because it looks like an online tool when really it’s still a document-centric tool. It’s life is limited not because Microsoft is evil but because documents are too bulky and too expensive to make and maintain. Going to Google Docs won’t save the idea of a document. What used to be a holder of content that could be shared for consensus, the document, is loosing out every day to many other holders of content. Wikis, blogs, microblogs, instant messaging and chat are all places where content is finding a home. Agile teams use wiki and instant messaging; not documents and email. And they use them not because software developers are not writers; they use them because agile team members can’t waste time in a Sprint maintaining documents when what is important is the content. If she sees more people using Word it may be because Word is ubiquitous in large organizations, but I would not say its use is a trend. If anything, the trend is away from documents and I have seen this trend. If Word is gaining in usages anywhere, I would suggest other forms on content delivery are gaining even faster.

Trend 2: The Age of Accountability
Is this like the Age of Aquarius? I nice idea, a hopeful idea, but not realistic in business? Using metrics to prove ROI is a good idea. But I’m not sure, apologies to Saul Carliner, that we need to prove our value. Either what we do is of value or it is not. I have worked for organizations where it is obvious. If it is not of value it gets chopped, people lose their jobs, and no more resources are wasted. And also, if it’s separate from other things, then it’s easy to chop off. Instead of trying to justify a doc department or a tech writing team or tech comm as a separate activity, another survival skill would be to become invisible in the organization.

During the discussion of this trend, Nicky seemed to be missing the value of crowd sourcing. Crowd sourcing open source projects is not just a tangent — it might be the direction we are all heading. Don’t minimize the value of crowd sourcing.

Trend 3: SharePoint as a CMS
I would say the trend is to move to collaborative environments. SharePoint is popular because it’s a Microsoft product so it may be in many organizations already, but it is not easy or friendly. There are several aspects of it that are backward or unintuitive. It does scale very well for a repository of documents but it does not have a a lot of social media aspects that are needed in a large collaborative organization. There are other instances of a content management system (CMS) that may be more useful. But definitely the trend is toward more sharing and more collaboration.

Trend 4: Schism in Tech Comm?
There may be a growing gap between authors of traditional documents (or books) and on-liners who are not willing to be limited to documents for the flow of online information. I agree with the one comment that was offered, that it’s not so much a schism (a simple two sides) but a fracturing to a whole bunch of types of technical communicators. The “just writing” group has already declined, the trend has already come and gone. We are already moving to business analysis, knowledge development, information architecture, content strategy. And it is not just that we are turning in one hat for another. We are being asked to wear many hats now. Even though we only have one title on our business card, we typically do several jobs. It is a trend worth talking about. The decline in STC membership isn’t just because STC was becoming ineffective as a professional association, but because industry was laying off lots of technical writers and the profession was changing drastically in ways that have not yet been articulated. I wouldn’t say a schism; I’d say an explosion.

Trend 5: Tri-Pane Help is Here to Stay
Well, here’s another one, like the Microsoft Word trend, where I just have to scratch my head and wonder what Nicky is thinking about. Has she read Tom Johnson’s recent blog about Arguments for and Against Tripane Help? I’m not sure self-contained online help is here to stay at all. The point is not that three-pane is wrong; it’s that it’s self-contained. It DOES come up short because it’s not open to new information coming from multiple sources in multiple media. It’s not even clear that the Web can handle all the new types of information, much less online help. If all she is saying is that three panes are a good architectural way to display online help, then I’ll agree. But if she thinks the future is online help, then I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree.

Trend 6: Cloud-based Tech Comm
Finally, another trend that warrants serious consideration. I would say that the phrase “cloud-based” is as awkward as the word “trend” in this context. It’s not based at all; it’s in the cloud with no base, in a sense. It is out there on the Internet for many to access at any time from anywhere. We are only touching the surface of this one. This is another example of a truly disruptive technology that we have not yet adjusted to.

Totally Missed
“Findability as a trend” – Nicky touched on something worthy of the word “trend” and treated it simply as a footnote! She missed a great opportunity to talk about this. Where the Web is mostly about text content, then searching the text is important. But as the Web moves to Skype and video and applications, there will be less text to search. Whether we assign tags and metadata to other media or whether we give up the metadata and simply realize the real-time communication and decision making of the Web, there may be less importance of searching text in the future. So is findability going to be essential? Of course! But what does findability mean? Let’s keep talking about that one.

Listeners shared these trends that I think are worth mentioning, which the speakers only mentioned in passing:

  • Multimedia (Comics, videos, podcasting and screencasting) — I would even say gaming. This touches on another important aspect of our work — visualization — and there are so many more opportunities when it comes to visualizing (and information architecture).
  • Content for mobile devices; I was shocked by no mention of mobile. But it’s not just mobile devices that you can carry – it’s about mobile meaning immediate!! Modular content is related to this trend because it will be necessary to chop content into smaller pieces to access more quickly and present more quickly. It is a necessary but not sufficient aspect of mobile.
  • Software craftsmanship – I would say this is an important trend that is affecting us and may be in the category of certification of tech comm’ers. We try to treat our work like a guild or a craft or something an individual does – and it’s a collaborative adventure, so while it’s good to think of integrity of one’s work, there is not a single set of tools. We are always learning.
  • Natural user interfaces (NUIs) – get ready for it. Our interfaces are being revolutionized.

There is such a mix of insights in this webcast. Some are genuine future-facing trends that are worth articulating; some are backward-facing trends that will die out.

Finally, let me suggest that we watch out what we call a “trend”; in the 1990s we talked about “emerging trends in technical communication”. It was as if the trend was coming about slowly and almost imperceptibly. We didn’t know how disruptive the Web, social media, and a grinding economy would be to our profession or what’s left of it. Now it seems that there are so many more disruptive technologies affecting us than there are trends, per se. If anything, disruption is the new trend.

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2 Responses to Disruption is the New Trend

  1. Kai says:

    Bill, I had essentially similar reactions to Nicky’s (non-)trends and answered at length to Scriptorium’s original post. And I also had my doubts whether some of the arguments presented were actually trends.

    I’ll give Sarah the last word. In her answer, she constructively pointed out: “The important question here is what percentage of the industry shares your view, or mine, or Nicky’s.”

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Disruptions (NOT Trends) | Ideas in the Making

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