Knowledge Integration Requires New Skills for Technical Communicators

In a recent webinar sponsored by Scriptorium Publishing Services, Tristan David Bishop, Senior Principal Business Analyst at Symantec, describes an emerging new role for technical communicators, as knowledge integrators.

According to Bishop, the knowledge integrator “partners with other teams across the organization to gather content that can proactively solve customer issues, reducing the need for incoming support calls.”

For technical communicators, knowledge integration involves these four steps:

Gathering content. Seek key topics missing in the doc, Bishop advises, by reviewing customer comments on published topics, studying web search results, and monitoring Tech Support Forums.

Ensuring accuracy. Through close relationships with Dev, QA, Support, and other SMEs, coordinate rapid cross-checks of the documentation.

Ensuring compliance. Through close relationships with Marketing/Branding, ensure repurposed content is compliant with corporate branding requirements.

Delivering repurposed content. As examples, Bishop suggests posting the repurposed content to the knowledge base for browsing, pushing updates into local installations, and optimizing for mobile viewing.

Bishop goes on to describe the key skills, required for successful knowledge integration: topic-based writing skills, XML publishing skills, and social media skills.

For background on the forces driving knowledge integration as an essential new responsibility for technical communicators, see the informative Scriptorium presentation, about the future of technical communication. There, Bishop provides specific examples of how Symantec is incorporating knowledge integration into its business processes, with some noteworthy results.

Additional webinars are available from Scriptorium Publishing.

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What Is It Like to Be A Student Today? ~ Generation Y, Social Learning, & User Assistance

In the video “A Vision of Students Today,” Dr. Michael Wesch and the students of “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (Spring 2007)” at Kansas State University offer a powerful commentary on today’s millenial learners, highlighting how traditional classroom settings are failing them in a Web 2.0 world.

As part of the video’s production, 200 students worked together, surveying each other and making 367 edits on Google Docs, answering the question, “What is it like to be a student today?” According to respondents, they are collaborative multi-taskers, who are online as much as 3 1/2th hours a day, and who spend most of their class lectures on Facebook. Only 49% of students complete assigned classroom readings, reporting that only 26% of those readings are relevant to their lives.

Other self-reported statistics: Expected to read only eight books this year, most of these students will view 2300 web pages and 1281 Facebook profiles. The 42 pages they write for classes per semester pale against the 500 pages of e-mail they’re likely to also produce, in the same time frame.

As of this posting, the most noteworthy statistic of all is the 3,379,231 views “A Vision of Students Today” has received on YouTube. To me, that sounds highly relevant to a lot of people, and a valuable lesson to anyone who needs to better understand Generation Y, especially for information delivery purposes.

Characteristics of Today’s Social-Media-Saavy Learner

In her post on social learning, Jane Hart, Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, identifies the features of today’s new social-media-savvy learner, who the Kansas State University students represent so well, and the type of learning that best suits them:

  • “They prefer hyperlinked information coming from many sources.”
  • “They are skilled multi-taskers, and they parallel process. They are used to simultaneously working with different content, and interacting with others.”
  • “They are highly visual learners, preferring to process pictures, sounds, and video rather than text.”
  • “They are experiential learners who learn by discovery rather than being “told.” They like to interact with content to explore and draw their own conclusions. Simulations, games, and role playing allow them to learn by “being there,” and also to enjoy themselves and have fun.”
  • “They have short attention spans, so prefer bite-sited chunks of content (either on a PC or iPod).”
  • “They are very social, and love to share with others.”
  • “They enjoy working in teams. Interaction with others is key to their learning, and they want to be part of a community, collaborating, sharing, and exchanging ideas.”
  • “They are happy to take on different roles in their learning, either as a student, or even as an instructor, facilitator, or supporter of others, and switch between them.”
  • “They prefer to learn ‘just in time,’ that is, have access to relevant information they can apply immediately.
  • “They need immediate feedback, responsiveness, and ideas from others, as they are used to instant gratification.
  • They are very independent learners, and are able to teach themselves with guidance; they don’t  need sets of instructions like their predecessors — just like they found out how to use their iPods or Google.”
  • “They prefer to construct their own learning – assembling information and tools from different sources.”

Implications for Technical Communicators

For analysis on the implications “A Vision of Students Today” has for technical communicators, make sure to check out these rich discussions, where I first saw Dr. Wesch’s powerful video:  Ellis Pratt’s Is the future of education also the future of technical communication?  and Tom Johnson’s How to Avoid Extinction as a Technical Communicator.

Pratt’s post highlights that the challenges of educators are the same challenges facing user assistance professionals, with likely similar solutions. He links to Dr. Wesch’s presentation, on the Future of Education, in which Wesch discusses the “crisis of significance,” facing millennial learners. This crisis requires today’s educators to integrate semantic and personal meaning into the educational experience, placing learning in context of a big picture that is relevant to students’ lives. According to Wesch, educators must also harness students’ intelligence, rather than just “talking at” them. The goal of education should not be to merely acquire information, but rather to “discuss, challenge, critique, create, share, and add” to the body of information that is increasingly available online. Finally, Wesch recommends that educators leverage the existing media environment, getting students to use new media “less to entertain themselves,” and more for critical thought and knowledge creation.

In a related post about Dr. Wesch’s video, Tom Johnson explains how the changing characteristics of his intended audience is impacting the nature of his user assistance deliverables. Johnson notes that he has been trending towards quick reference guides (anywhere from 1 to 8 pages) and short video tutorials (2 to 4 minutes) as his core deliverables. He also creates online help, “as a searchable repository of answers,” but he “create[s] it with the idea that it will be searched, not necessarily navigated for information.”

“Single sourcing the full online help to a printed manual is just another step,” which Johnson doesn’t omit, while not promoting much either. According to Johnson, “the key to solving the problem of information fragmentation is to get the content into a format that is versatile enough to be pushed to any format.” Johnson further observes…

…”If you can keep the original source in one location and just export to different formats for your audience, letting users choose based on their learning style and preferences, then you could perhaps solve some of the problems Wesch raises in his video. (The exception of course is video and multimedia, which you can’t simply output to.)”

For all of these reasons, Johnson is excited about the new DITA publishing capabilities of Flare 5, because “it means you can push the content out to additional formats more easily.” “You can convert DITA to the Confluence Wiki format, DITA’s XHTML target to WordPress, DITA to InDesign, DITA to web pages, and other formats,” Johnson concludes.

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