Companies have long under-appreciated the role of techcomm in their organizations. That’s because management frequently regards technical documentation as a necessary cost, rather than as an opportunity to have a positive impact on customer relationships. Unfortunately, technical communicators often buy into this perception by seeing their value as limited to helping users answer their product and troubleshooting questions. However, despite the fact that these perceptions have been slow to change, the role of technical communication is rapidly evolving, and its evolution means major implications for technical communicators everywhere.

In fact, as the content era accelerates, it’s driving six important changes that every technical communicator needs to be aware of, each of which will play a part in redefining their role going forward:

  1. Technical content creation is moving upstream, divided among engineers and their product development colleagues, technical support teams, and the help desk. Yet the separation of technical content creation makes it harder to ensure consistency, both across all technical output and compared with a company’s other branded content. It also impedes quality control in other ways, by opening the door to incomplete and inaccurate information, since content often travels directly to the consumer with little oversight along the way. These impediments to quality may help explain why customer support costs are often high while customer satisfaction is low.
  2. As budgets get squeezed, technical content creation often gets offshored or outsourced. A lack of respect for and understanding of techcomm and its role can make it a target for budget cuts. This in turn can lead to offshoring and outsourcing, creating a disconnect from a company’s other key technical resources, such as its product development team, and from its overall content strategy.
  3. Content creation is increasingly in the hands of non-native speakers, particularly when it is offshored or outsourced. This developmentcompounds the problem of error-prone and inconsistent content, confusing and costlier translations, and lack of editorial oversight. The absence of effective quality control also means that it’s hard to fix errors when they occur. In fact, it’s far likelier that no one fixes them.
  4. Non-native speakers are also increasingly consuming content. Given a globally dispersed and linguistically diverse readership, technical information needs to be easy to understand and reflect local needs. Although computer-assisted translation can be effective for localizing technical content, it presents its own challenges that require additional quality control.
  5. Schedules are tighter, requiring faster turnarounds. This is due in part to the adoption of lean/agile development processes. While these processes yield good results when properly implemented, technical communicators are frequently an afterthought, add-ons rather than well-integrated team members. Emphasis on cost and speed is also leading to technical content written on demand in response to customer queries, as well as to documentation produced on the fly to support updated product versions. This makes it hard for technical content to stay ahead.
  6. Technical communicators are lending their product expertise through social media. Rather than creating content before a product ships, they participate in real-time exchanges with customers who look to social media as a complement to, or even a substitute for, documentation that comes with the product. Although social media participation offers a potentially valuable medium for technical communicators, companies may see it as a further justification for continuing their drive to minimize technical content.

If you are a technical communicator, these trends promise much more than a changing world. Collectively, they should be a call to arms to reposition yourselves and the content you create. Do so successfully and not only do you stand to win, but so does your company.

So how do you do that? To start off, you need to begin thinking differently about your role. For example, it’s time to challenge the perception that technical communication represents a cost center. This attitude only encourages thinking about how to improve efficiency and cut costs, further marginalizing the function.

Instead, the reality is that techcomm has the potential to help drive revenue. However, as technical communicators, you must first come to recognize how you can support your company’s strategic priorities, and then demonstrate your ability to do so. To make the case that there is actually a growing demand for your content, you need to ask questions that connect with your companies’ marketing strategies and with what customers want. Organizations like IBM and Microsoft are already blazing the trail.

Technical communicators have an important role to play in their companies’ value proposition. To play that role effectively, however, they must persuasively define exactly what their value is. This post is the first in a series that looks at how the role of technical communicators is shifting in the content era. In my next blog post, I’ll focus on appreciating the real value that technical communicators add to their companies and, in a follow-up post, on how they can reposition themselves to fulfill that value.