Archive for February, 2009

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Intelligent Content 2009: Day Two

February 3, 2009

My notes for the conference are sitting in Hertz’s lost and found (along with the very nice conference bag, which, unlike the bags given out at many conferences, was chosen by the organizers to be re-usable). So, rather than wait for Hertz to send them to me, I will wing it describing Day two.

In the life cycle of a technology, there is a moment when the discussion turns from technical nuts and bolts to useful applications. I think this conference was an early sign that for XML technology, as used for technical communication, that moment has come. You might say, “haven’t we been talking about applications for a long time?” and you would be right. However, too often the conversation has been dominated by technology and the cool stuff it can do, rather than opportunities to satisfy customer needs and contribute to an organization’s bottom line.

Day two’s talks focused on serving customer needs through information and moving technical communication from a “cost center” to a “profit center.” Bob Boiko got things started with a keynote that called on technical communicators to look at their content from a customer perspective, rather than an internal perspective. His point was most strongly made in his response to a question from the audience about how to deal with mandates from management to reduce costs. He turned the question around, pointing out that as long as technical communicators see themselves as a cost center, they put themselves in the position of having to continually shrink their budget. Instead, we should take the perspective of a profit center and look for ways to contribute to the bottom line. He conceded that this is hard to do, but that we need to move in that direction to remain viable.

Joe Gollner gave the featured presentation, which took a more historical perspective, starting from the earliest written information (on tablets). He carried that through to a view of the world with documents as the central “connector” that remains constant as the “device for communicating and retaining content as part of business transactions.” In his view, Intelligent Content is discoverable, processable, and informative, which makes it possible to create personalized documents and tailor content to customer needs.

Among the session tracks, I found the most interesting to be a session from James Michelson, who I also had the opportunity to speak with a couple of times during the day. His point, simple, but often ignored, is that everything a technical communicator does should be measured by how it contributes to a company’s bottom line.

His business is marketing, and his talk focused on how you can use even small amounts of information about customers or potential customers to create marketing that is much more likely to generate a response. At first, it seemed strange to have a marketer as a speaker at a conference for technical communicators, but in the end it made sense. Like it or not, technical information is part of your company’s marketing message, and therefore, it makes sense to tailor content for your customers, based on their interests and needs.

In his view, most companies focus way too much attention internally (85% in his view, which feels roughly accurate, though he did not back that number with hard data). He would reverse that number, paying 85% of your attention externally.

Overall, I took away several points from the conference:

  • Intelligent Content is more than just well-marked up content; it is really the combination of content, information about the potential consumers of that content, and processing that gives that user the greatest possible value from that content.
  • Technical communication as a discipline is too often relegated to being a cost center. To continue to be successful, the discipline needs to take charge of the value in its content and deliver that value in a way that contributes to the organization’s bottom line (that bottom line could be profit for a commercial entity, or some other value for a non-profit).
  • The prevailing current technology is XML, but the technology is less important than its application.
  • The application of technology needs to serve external needs; if it can’t be tied to an external need, then why should the organization spend money on it?

I found the conference to be valuable, and I hope The Rockley Group continues to sponsor it in coming years. I got a lot of interesting ideas, including the topic for my next book (more on that in future posts), from the conference, and I look forward to attending again in the future.

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