A Technical Communication Strategy Conversation — Mark Baker

This is part of the series of conversations that I originally published in ContentHug, in 2015.

Thank you Mark Baker.


[CH]: You often advocate that technical communication and content strategy cannot be separated. Although we see some integration points towards the common goal, the process and the deliverables still suggest that we need something new to address what they both are trying to. For example if we talk about titles, what can be the next title of a senior content strategist, or a senior documentation manager. If not for title, what next in terms of content ownership or value to a business?

[MB]: I’m not sure I would say that technical communication and content strategy cannot be separated, because they are on two different levels, and clearly you can do technical communication without thinking strategically about it, and clearly you can do strategic thinking about content and ignore tech comm. People do both these things all the time.

New terminology takes time to find its niche. No matter what those who coin a term intend, sometimes the term itself has more stickiness than the concept behind it. “Agile” is a good example of this. It is often more pleasing to associate what you do now with a cool term like “agile” or “strategy” than it is to fundamentally change what you do, which is what both agile and content strategy challenge us to do.

Content strategy seems to be becoming more and more a synonym for content marketing. If so, that’s a pity, because it ignores a couple of important things:

  • Technical communication, if it is visible to the public, can be a huge marketing asset. The whole notion of content marketing was supposed to be that because people won’t read ads anymore, it is necessary to give them content they care about, which means dealing with subjects they care about. (Good communication is 99% saying the right thing.)
  • Technical communication needs to understand itself as a strategic corporate asset. If we think of tech comm as a grim necessity — paperwork required to ship — then tech comm is going nowhere. Tech comm has to reimagine itself as a revenue generator. And that means that it has to focus on saying the right thing — on being content that readers actually want. Because if it does not do that, it becomes a huge marketing liability.

And that means that technical communication should be part of an overall strategic approach to content that drives revenue for the company — that is should be fundamental to content strategy.

I don’t know what that means in terms of titles. Fancy titles are often just lipstick on a pig. The traditional content organizations within a company — marketing, support, tech pubs, training — are based on 20th century production and distribution channels, which were based on paper, and still tend to treat the Web as Paper 2.0.

Until they really get their heads around the idea that the Web is a dynamic hypertext media in which the page — not the book, not the magazine, not the site, but the individual page — is the dominant entity, changing job titles is not going to make a real difference. We need to stop rebranding and start reimagining.

[CH]: Assume that you get your dream job or contract, lead or otherwise. Let me call the position as Senior Content Engineer. What is the most important thing that you have learnt so far that you will put into practice there?

[MB]: I think the biggest content engineering issue we have today is the disconnect between the way we use content and the way we create content. We have centuries of tradition that tell us how content should be structured and organized, based on the physical properties and limits of paper. We lived with those limits so long that the ways we adapted to them came to seem not like adaptations at all but simply “how it is done”.

As consumers of content, we have abandoned the paper way of doing things completely. But as producers of content we still largely do things “how it is done” — that is, the paper way. We organize content top down, using hierarchies, and we publish periodically in large blocks.

As consumers, search and social curation let us treat all content as hypertext. But as producers, we don’t know how to do hypertext, which means we produce content that it organized very differently from how people are attempting to use it.

The fundamental problem here is that as content producers, as information architects, as content strategists, we have a genuine need to bring structure and order to our work. In many cases, content strategists are hired specifically to bring order to a previously chaotic website. But the only type of order that we are culturally prepared to create, that we were educated in (at least those of us educated in the arts) is the old, hierarchical order of the paper world.

We need to learn how to create order and structured in a digital space, and that essentially means order and structure realized and expressed through metadata. But while everyone in content strategy recognizes the importance of metadata, we still tend to treat metadata like library catalog entries — as an external record attached to a resource, like a label on a can of beans.

This is still paper-world organization. It assumes that a content resource is a brick that can only be organized by putting it in a pile with similar bricks, under a sign saying “large red bricks”. But a digital asset is not a brick. A digital asset can be self-structured and self describing. It does not need to be piled with like objects or placed under a sign. It can be an intelligent object capable of identifying itself and its essential properties to any person or process that asks.

And once you have intelligent objects, how they are filtered, listed, organized, linked, and presented can be determined by running an algorithm against the structure and metadata that they themselves expose.

That is how you create order and structure for content in a dynamic hypertext environment. The content engineering challenge is to learn how to do that, and to create the tools that support working that way.

[CH]: There are times when we need to push things around, such as to get a buy in. Can you share some experience when you had to take a really tough call, such as for style guide, for user education, for a new authoring environment, or for governance structure?

[MB]: Pushing things around is not usually my role these days. That is really up to my clients to do within their own organizations and with their own content.

But I do think that if you are having a tough time selling something, if you are feeling the need to push something through against opposition, then the first place you should look is at the tools or the processes you are trying to push on people. The sad truth is that we tend to create tools and processes that solve our own business problems and then try to impose them on other people.

Those tools and processes usually demand more of them than their current tools and processes, and ask them to master concepts that are new to them or that are foreign to their work. No wonder we get pushback.

I am not saying that you won’t encounter people who are just not interested in changing at all, and who steadfastly refuse to accept that the world has changed or that the rules they learned in school simply don’t apply anymore. Those people certainly exist. But their refusal to change is not a content strategy problem, it is a management problem.

But most of the pushback you see on content strategy and tech comm initiatives occurs because we are trying to impose tools and processes that transfer work and complexity from one group of people to another. I’m really not interested in methods for making the victims of this process knuckle under. I am interested in content design and content engineering processes that actually reduce complexity and improve structure, rather than simply moving complexity around.

[CH]: How do organizations address the content ownership concerns when we have content strategists, content marketers, technical communicators, and even data scientists? What is your role in defining the content ownership process?

[MB]: My role is usually purely advisory. I think most content ownership problem really originate in the attempt to impose an inappropriate top-down design on a large body of content.

In the paper world, the librarian and the bookseller were in charge or organizing a collection of books, but they had no control over what was in a book or how it was organized. They could only decide to add it to the collection or not. They did not own the content of the book. The author, on the other hand, owned the content of the book, but had no role in determining where it was shelved in the library or the bookstore. They had no ownership of the collection or its organization.

Today, we try to control both the content of the piece and its place in the collection. This is the result of a top-down approach to content strategy, but it leads to basic conflict between authors and site managers, as each tries to exert control over the other. This manifests itself in the near-universal hatred people have for whatever content management system they are using, since these systems become the battlefield on which the battle for content ownership is fought.

The thing is, content is too complex, too specific, too ad hoc to be managed from the top down at a large scale. This is not a organizational problem, nor a tool problem, nor even a cultural problem. It is the nature of the beast itself. Authors have to own their content because only the author understands the unique context in which each piece of content exists and serves its purpose.

This does not mean that we don’t have an organizational need to make sure content meets organizational needs. But the only effective way to achieve this it to educate authors on those needs and make sure they buy in to them. Educate and trust, in other words, is the only policy that will bring peace to the content ownership battlefield.

What educate and trust implies, though, is a more bottom-up approach to content governance — what we might call subsidiarity in content strategy. (Subsidiarity is the principle that a decision should be made by the lowest ranking official who is competent to make it.) But this requires tools that support a bottom-up approach. So in some sense the content management industry is to blame for the fact that everyone hates their CMS, because they have not created CMSs that support subsidiarity in content strategy.

Then again, so far we haven’t asked them too. That is what needs to change in order to get to a rational content ownership policy.

[CH]: What role content professionals (strategists or communicators) can have in disruption–technology or otherwise?

[MB]: I think one of the biggest problems in content strategy is that content professionals are not even attempting to drive disruption; they are attempting to resist it.

The biggest disruption in content technology and organization since the invention of paper is the Web. But what the Web has done for content is to create a massive transfer of power from the writer to the reader. The writer — or, more specifically, the publishing and bookselling complex — has traditionally had enormous power to determine what is available to be read. The publishers, librarians, and booksellers owned the filters that controlled what content was available and what parts of the available content readers could actually find.

That made the content industries very powerful. Newspaper magnates could topple governments, dictate taste, and start wars. Today, anonymous groups of citizens can do the same thing using Twitter.

The content industries no longer own the filters. The Web is a filter, and the power to filter belongs to the reader. The represents an enormous transfer of power from the content industry to readers, and naturally the content industry is fighting back. It is not trying to disrupt, but to resist disruption. And because this loss of power to control the reader’s experience is pervasive — affecting individual writers as much as the presidents of media conglomerates — the resistance to disruption is pervasive as well.

It would not be far off the mark to characterize the whole content strategy movement as an attempt to counter the disruption of content power created by the Web. David Weinberger characterized the nature of the change as “Everything is Miscellaneous”. Content strategy is an attempt to make things less miscellaneous — to restore the old order and control that content producers used to enjoy.

Of course, this environment does create the opportunity for true disruption in the content space — the opportunity for content creators to acknowledge and accept their loss of power and to look for a new ways to create value. That is what we desperately need to see in technical communication.

[CH]: Can you name any companies or brands whom you admire for their content?

[MB]: Wikipedia. Is that a company or a brand?

Stack Overflow. Is that?

I think the open source world, in all its manifestations, does content better than the corporate world. Perhaps because this is the place where the resistance to disruption is weakest.

I think some of my clients do a pretty good job too, but it would be self-serving to name them.

But unless I have a specific reason to look at a company’s content as a body of work, I don’t actually pay much attention to which brand or company has the best content. As a consumer, what I am interested in in which *product* has the best set of information available on the Web. (For instance, does this gadget I’m pondering have good coverage on iFixIt, if I need to repair it myself.) The existence of great information about a product is a material benefit to anyone who owns that product. Who owns that content is not something I care about.

This reflects a profound change in how people seek information. In the paper world, you would first seek out an authority and then ask your question. Today, you first ask your question (via Google or some social media platform) and only when you have found a promising answer do you worry about its authority. And authority today is not vested in brands but in individuals. Take a look at how Stack Overflow uses reputation to project authority for individual contributors.

From a content strategy point of view, this means that I should care much less about whether my brand owns great content and much more about whether there is great content out that that supports my products.

[CH]: If you could weave a magic wand only once, what you wish for your current role at work?

[MB]: Just for more clients to write and ask me to help them build a bottom-up information architecture and an Every Page is Page One information design.


Vinish Garg | Products. Experience. Stories. I am a EEES (External Eye Experience Specialist) for startups and their goals, for content, UX, and customer experience.