Three Roles for Technical Communicators on the Social Web

In her recent presentation, “Strategies for the Social Web for Documentation,” sponsored by the STC Education Department, Anne Gentle described three possible roles for technical communicators, on the social web.

  • Reporter/Observer
  • Enabler/Sharer
  • Collaborator/Instigator

Reporter/Observer Role

In the Reporter/Observer role, technical communicators use tools like Google Alerts, blog-only searches (via Technorati and Google Blogs), and Delicious to listen to conversations on the social web. They then aggregate information and curate content from users.

Enabler/Sharer Role

In the Enabler role, technical communicators enable comments and conversation through their user assistance deliverables. In the Sharer role, technical communicators share content through linking and syndication.

Enabling commentsJS Kit ECHO embeds the comment form on web pages and stores comments locally.
Enabling conversationsDISQUS – Hosted comments provide threaded conversations and moderation features.
Sharing Role: Linking.
AddThis – Register on the site, embed the code, and configure the sites, on which your users can share content.
TweetMeme– Add a retweet button to any web page.
Sharing Role: Syndicating Content. Offer users notifications of content updates. Embed content from RSS feeds.

Collaborator/Instigator Role

For the Collaborator/Instigator role, Gentle advises applying best practices from Social CRM to identify your organization’s influencers. She also advises thinking of your alignment in the organization. What corporate objectives does the technical documentation support?

  • Marketing & Sales – purchasing decisions
  • Service & Support – notifications, sharing, reciprocity, reputation
  • Invention & Development – users sharing ideas
  • Collaboration – shared goals, shared tasks
  • Customer Experience – convert prospects to customers
  • Learning & Education – study groups

Are You An Instigator or Enabler of Conversation?

In her book Conversation and Community:  The Social Web for Documentation, Gentle explores these themes in greater detail, in the chapter, “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web.” In that chapter, Gentle refers to a post from the Web Worker Daily site, in which Anne Zelenka discusses the information age, versus the connectivity age.

Gentle expands on Zelenka’s post, with the following question for technical communicators: “Are you an information worker or a connection worker, and does your corporate culture support you more in one model or another?” (p. 72).

Gentle defines the instigator of conversation versus the enabler of conversation, in these ways:

An instigator provides a starting point for a conversation, perhaps by communicating a controversial decision or a highly debated strategic choice. A writer in an instigator role should know customers’ business needs and be well-connected with those he or she plans to talk to online.

An enabler of conversation understands the underlying concepts of a product or service well enough to help others understand those concepts as well. An enabler gives a community the authority to make decisions or provides patterns that help a community develop and grow. (p. 73)

“Whether you’re an instigator or enabler, you can repeatedly gather knowledge from communities and conversation, then bring it back and incorporate what you’ve learned into the documentation,” Gentle concludes.

What’s Your Business Goal?

In summary, what business objectives does the technical documentation serve in your culture?  Where is your natural alignment in the organization? Are you more of an instigator or enabler of conversation? What role on the social web—reporter/observer, enabler/sharer, or collaborator/instigator—best supports your company’s business goals for the technical documentation?

For me, these questions are among the most important take-aways from Gentle’s STC presentation and book.  The answer to these questions are probably at least as important as the answers to the traditional audience analysis questions, which technical writers are trained to always ask.  And the answers about business objectives for technical documentation are as diverse, as each of our organizations. The cross-disciplinary and often inconsistent objectives for technical documentation (across various corporate cultures) remains the greatest ongoing challenge for positioning the technical communication discipline for the future, on the social web, or otherwise. The diversity of business goals that technical documentation deliverables support is simultaneously technical communicators’ greatest business opportunity.

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