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[A] Podcast: The Evolution Within Techcomms

Interview With Scott Abel

Explore the changing dynamics within enterprise content groups and some of the emerging solutions.

Bio

Scott Abel is the founder and CEO of The Content Wrangler, a content strategy consultancy that helps organizations improve how they author, maintain, publish and archive information.

Resources

The Content Wrangler hosts Information Development World and produces The Content Wrangler Series of Content Strategy Books-the first of which is “The Language of Content Strategy.”

Transcript

Cruce
Welcome to Towards a Smarter World, this is Cruce Saunders here today with Scott Abel, the founder and CEO of the Content Wrangler, a content strategy consultancy that helps organizations improve how they author, maintain, publish and archive information. The Content Wrangler hosts Information Development World, a series of podcasts, and produced The Content Wrangler series of content strategy books, the first of which is The Language of Content Strategy. We're really glad to have you here on the show today, Scott, thanks for joining us.

Scott
Thanks, Cruce, for having me, I appreciate it.

Cruce
Absolutely. We've known each other for a while as we've looked together across the changing enterprise environment for content publishing, I'd love to just start out by getting your perspective on the state of content in the enterprise today.

Scott
I'd say it's still a mess as it has always been. However, I did notice something specific this last year or so that I think is interesting, and that is that many people who wanted to solve content challenges recognized the importance of solving them across the board. In other words, not piecemeal, putting a Band-Aid over here and a Band-Aid over there, but instead trying to really fix the whole system. And we called that "enterprise content management," and I think for a while, there was a possibility in some human beings' brains that we could tackle the content challenge across the enterprise perhaps easier than it actually is. And so I've seen less efforts to solve the enterprise problem and more to solve a smaller enterprise, so a department inside of a company and then if that's successful, you could maybe spread it across the enterprise. But I've seen some challenges in actually trying to get to that Holy Grail of enterprise level content management in some kind of unified way. But, I've seen a lot of efforts of individual departments trying to figure out how to better manage their own piece of that content hairball.

Cruce
And how would you characterize some of the problems that enterprises are trying to solve now? What is the overall set of themes of problem solving that organizations are wrangling with right now?

Scott
I think they're the same ones they've always been, right? You look at two sides of the ROI coin; you have the savings from increased productivity and from working smarter, and then you have potential ability to make revenue. And I think the kinds of projects that are being approved and the kinds of projects that are affording some kind of progress and so they're making good steps in the right direction are usually triggered by some kind of an emergency. It's not always the need to do better-it's the fact that the company was sued or they were found noncompliant in some way or they got hacked (or whatever it was that spurred a closer look at what they're doing). And, it's also probably really hard for people to try to wrap their heads around how they can help inside the enterprise because they feel like they're one little cog inside of a big enterprise wheel. Trying to isolate what they should fix and how they should communicate that and get buy-in from the rest of the organization isn't usually the skillset of the average person that works inside these companies. So I think it's a struggle for them.

Although, I think that big companies definitely are being motivated to do things better. For example, there's not as much markup in some types of products as the people who make them would like there to be; and so, they end up making money on service. So, I've seen a trend toward optimizing the efficiency of the service personnel who are actually doing the work, who are billable, and so content is actually affording them the ability to get more jobs done in the same amount of time, basically. So that they can keep their costs the same and make more revenue for every hour of work that's being performed. And I think that's the magic of content, right, is associating some kind of value to it and then making it work for the company in a productive way. So everyone's always afraid of the automation, which I also think is probably one of the key goals that companies have when they start to tackle these projects, they're trying to eliminate some problem and maybe get closer to some solution. But they're all over the board. You can find people working on problems that are quality service-oriented just as well as revenue-generating.

Cruce
Yeah, you know, the internal environment inside of enterprises cross functionally becomes a challenge when so many content stakeholders are dealing inside of small petri dishes of content that are isolated away from other content sets that might actually be topically related but that are not physically connected or orchestrated and working together. And some of what I was hearing you say talks about that challenge of living inside of a silo, maybe a post-sales support content silo, and needing to find ways to tie that in with pre-sales conversations and so that it really spurs this need for collaboration within the enterprise. Can you talk a little bit about scenarios for collaboration that you've run across and how organizations are beginning to tackle the need to talk amongst themselves within different authoring groups and make sure that we're kind of coordinating customer experiences intelligently?

Scott
Yeah, in fact, this week I heard some really good ideas from people just brainstorming on the phone with potential clients and they were talking about how they would use chatbots to do things that you and I would probably consider the typical things people would want to do with chatbots, provide some sort of contact for consumers who are working to get some information, they're struggling to do so, it's not during normal business hours, so at least somebody could say, "I'm paying attention, I've forwarded it to a human being, they'll get back to you tomorrow." So, assistive kind of technologies. But it's aimed at the end user; yesterday, I heard brilliant ideas about how to use the chatbots internally, which I thought was really useful because I've always thought about it as I write some questions, I have some answers, you might come and you might ask some questions and if I put a chatbot between the two of you, maybe the chatbot can answer your questions for me, so it's providing me a service but it's also providing you one.

But what if differentiation comes into play when there's competition? And so what if there's a chatbot that just answers questions and then another chatbot comes around and does more than that? Right, that actually does something useful for you. And so they were looking at how can we use the chatbots to do things for the person who's programming the chatbot, too; in other words, the person who's saying, "I'm putting a chatbot out there but I want it to do things for me, as well." So, some companies use these chatbots to collect the data and pass it to a human being, that's the big trend, but Alexa, the Amazon voice-activated chatbot, now allows consumers to make their own set of questions and answers, and then Alexa will answer those questions the way that the person, in this case me, wants them to. So I can take a predefined list of questions and a predefined list of answers and I can save them into what they call an Alexa Skill and then I can activate them on any devices that I choose.

Now, this is really beneficial for me because now, and for Amazon, because now I've invested time in making this solution customized for me. And people said, "Well, why would you want to do that?" And I'm like, well, I travel a lot and I have a housekeeper or house sitter who comes to stay at my house, I have a pet sitter who's sometimes here, and they need to know answers about the house." What is the password to the wifi, how do I turn the alarm off if it goes on, the burglar alarm, standard things. And I usually leave a piece of paper, right, but instead, now I can just put it inside of my Alexa device and then people who are in my house have a list of questions they can ask her and then they'll give them the answer. Well, the more that I add to that, the more that tool's helping me help other people, and so it's less attractive for me to switch to another competing device that doesn't allow that.

So just think about if you had a chatbot and you could put it on your website and I come to your website and it starts to interact with me and then I have it do work for me, not just for you. So, I can ask the chatbot to remember the articles that it forwarded to me and put them in a collection that I can return to later because I have a feeling I might need this information again. But why am I the one that needs to keep track of it? Because if it's randomly emailing me stuff, now I have the same problem again, a bunch of leads toward information but no organized way of keeping it. So, what if chatbots could work for the person creating the content too and help keep them organized and remember things for them and push information to other people? And they can. The technology totally will allow for all of these things.

And what if you took it one step further? What if your information, your content, and these devices that are helping you deliver the content also could be connected to other services, like "if this, then that"? So then you could say whenever the device in my house is asked this question, give it this information and perform this task. Like what if you said how do you turn the lights on in the house? What if you could just say turn the lights on in the house, or whatever it was. And what if the device wasn't the one providing the service? So I would say I see lots of growth in this area where these content technologies should help us collaborate amongst one another and help us remember things that we need, not just the end user customer. It would be interesting to see how companies deploy these technologies to help their own internal workers.

And if you knew other people were working on content, and let's say that you knew the scores of their content, you knew how many people visited other pieces of content in your company and how many people downloaded or used or did whatever you wanted them to do on your website, if you could see all those metrics in a control panel, you could make smarter decisions about the content that you're going to create. You could mimic the kinds of content that are working really well. And I think today somebody knows that information but it's not distributed, it's kind of a secret you have to ask for and you go and you ask and if you get to the right person, that person loves data most normally and they say, "Oh, of course I have all this information. Let me share it with you." So, I'm expecting for us to be able to add more transparency, more windows into the company's data that maybe are isolated so you're only able to look in at the piece you need to see and maybe it contextually is formatted in a way that's meaningful to you that's not useful to other people. I could totally see all of this happening. I don't think there's a big trend or anything, I just think smart people inside some companies are starting to have these aha moments.

Cruce
Yeah. Oh, I love that, there are so many really good thoughts in there. So, we also have seen this real need to create common conversations for around content that are other than accidental discovery of content and so there needs to be sort of patterns for ... It's this kind of dashboard of visibility, so there's a visibility dynamic and there's also this discoverability dynamic, which is if I am going to start a new campaign or start doing some other content project, I'd like to be able to understand what assets are available inside my own company. And a lot of enterprises, it's just not possible to find out what anybody else is doing, unless you happen to know somebody or be on the right email list.

Scott
Yeah. And there's a lot of reasons, I should point out, we're not blaming any one particular person or department or company or anything, there's lots of reasons. The US healthcare system is a great example, right, because it's of the complexities and the variables between the different systems and competing intents and needs and budgets and standards, it makes it really challenging to bring it all together, even though we know it could be better. So I do think that some of these technologies will be harnessed to do things that are more meaningful internally, but it's going to take "aha!" moments from both the people who create the products who often are focused on selling to the end user, they're not usually focused on the internal unless that's their market. But I think that the tools could serve both audiences, and that the content that we produce today needs to be informed by other things, too, probably do you want people to remember it? Are you trying to establish a new habit? Do you want people to come back to your website all the time? That build it and they will come stuff we know is not true alone. The building alone is not enough. We need to figure out how to draw people in and it can't just be advertising, right. You are going to have to figure out how to engage people and make your website valuable.

So to me, if these devices were really valuable, think about this, I'm the publisher of a series of books that define vocabulary words in a discipline. So I have the questions and the answers for 52 vocabulary words and 52 definitions that I could easily put inside of a talking voice chatbot delivery system; however, I told you earlier that I can use them only on the devices that I have licensed to me. And that would be useful internally, so you could see how companies could use that if they wanted amongst their employees, they could totally set up a bunch of talking interface stations and distribute information that way just as easily as any other way. But what if I could share them? So of course Amazon was smart and it recognized that people would want to show off their good work when they invest in their product. So what if I were to create all this library stuff and then I could let you actually activate it on your device, so now you can ask all the questions about the 52 terms and the 52 experts and get answers to them. In a rudimentary way, obviously, the question has to match what the person says and the answer will be delivered, so there's no artificial intelligence yet. It's not surmising what we mean, it's not comparing or contrasting or anything human, it's really just repeating back what we ask it to say.

Cruce
Mm-hmm. Oh, that's interesting.

Scott
I know it's that, if you can motivate the end user internally or externally to invest time in what you're doing, then you can develop a way to have them rewarded by their investment and give them some joy or happiness or whatever it is that they're looking for, satisfaction. You can get them to come back and then you can really start to learn from their journey and develop solutions that matter to them. Otherwise, we're just guessing until we hit on something that seems to work.

Cruce
Mm-hmm. Okay, so in addition to presentation and discovery of content in order to facilitate collaboration, one of the other dynamics that we're noticing a lot is the collaboration committee between different authoring groups. So there may be consumer publishing, B2B, there may be a partner publishing group support, that come together in a discussion on some regular basis about assets being created and how they map to a customer journey and how to align authoring initiatives at least topically. And of course, when we're working with those organizations, we find that is the best place to start to have common discussions about structure because everybody's, you know, techcomms people are in data and there's ad hoc structures in marketing often but sometimes it's Schema.org. But getting that committee together to talk about topical alignment and structural alignment potentially are we going to start using similar semantic terms or taxonomy terms. Like that starts to become a basis for coordination and orchestration at an enterprise level and that's pretty exciting. Have you seen other structures like that? Like committees or best practices, communities of practice, or that kind of thing that helps that conversation?

Scott
Yeah, and then ironically they come from IT, which we've been trying to push away from a little over the years to give us an autonomy to develop things on our own that suit our customers and then call for IT's help to implement them, right? As opposed to, "Why don't you guys conjure up everything and then we just use it?" Which doesn't always work, obviously. I've seen APIs kind of drive these conversations because someone will understand in a company that, "Oh, I just clicked a button and it connected these two things and now they work together." Then they say, "We need that functionality," then they go back and the guys and the gals in that department say, "That's not a problem, we can totally get that to you. However, you will need to go back and structure your content." Which, they thought they got away from where they were like, "Okay, stay away from Scott and Cruce, they want you to structure all the time. And then go to the IT team and they'll magically connect this API thing and it'll work great because, after all, that's what it does."

Then the conversation becomes, "Well, why won't it just work with what we have today?" And then I think what happens is they want so badly the ability to offload service to somebody, a partner or a customer or even internally between departments, to share information for some great reason. But, they come to the conclusion that structure is part of a solution by necessity because when you push back, then you say, "Well, can you just do it without that?" The answer is usually, of course, no. Because you want me to deliver precise information, the point of the API is not like grab whatever content you can and just throw it over there, throw it anywhere, it's very specific. It's an intent driven action. I present this information, I make it available here, and I deliver it this way, and if you would like it, you must sync up with me. I think that's where that discussion started to happen.

Before, I wanted people to just have the "aha!" moment I had, which was the structure that allowed me to add semantic value, and the semantic value allowed me to continue doing the habit I've already grown accustomed to, which is searching for information. The only difference was in the findability. Findability can improve. And so for me, the purpose of search was to find, not to search, so I wasn't trying to ... Right, I wasn't trying to enjoy, let's see if I can stretch this searching thing out because there's so much great dopamine enhancing activities there because it's not. It's the finding that gives you the good feeling, and that's when you say, "I like this, it gave me what I expected or needed. And I'll come back and use it again." So I feel like the trend has been accidental discovery of the importance of structure even if you'd never heard those words before or if you heard them 100 times from us and thought, "Oh, I hope I never have to do that."

Cruce
Yeah.

Scott
In a way, it does constrain what you can do. It doesn't constrain your creativity, I think that's nonsense when people say that, you just have to learn to think within the confines of the system you're using. Just like the chatbots, I didn't think about using them to remember my own stuff or things but that's what it's built to do, why wouldn't I tell it to do that stuff for me, too, behind the scenes and make it useful that I could share it not just with my customers but with the person sitting in the cubicle next to me.

Cruce
Right. And so we know that structure is freedom, right, structure is freedom for content, but a lot of creative people are very, very opposed to that general idea because, look, we create beautiful customer experiences and we craft them for given surfaces and those experiences are not to be put into a box. And if we're creating structural standards, we are impinging upon the ability of our creative teams to be creative in relationship with the customer out in whatever, Asian Pacific, within this particular region, create content close to the customer and empower authors with freedom. So, that balance is hard. It's just hard. And what's your take, what do you tell people when they say, "Don't give me structure, it's going to get in the way of real, creative, customer focused communication"?

Scott
To be honest, I stopped arguing about it, I figure if you don't want structure, you don't need to be convinced by me because that's not my goal. I want you to see the value and if you see the value and you decide you want to do it, I think you should. But I do think that people like us who want to explain why people might want these things, we want them to want them, too. We want them to find the benefit. If it's beneficial, we don't want them to do stuff just for no apparent reason, right, we want them to do it because it's helpful, it's meaningful to them, it provides some resource of something they couldn't have before, an ability they didn't have prior. We want to give them new abilities. But I also think that we have to think about the way human beings react, so it's not that the marketing people don't want to do it, it's that marketing people are human and they don't want to do anything different because humans just don't like that.

There's this guy named Nir Eyal, I'm not sure if I pronounced his name right, it's E-Y-A-L, he wrote a book called Hook: How to Build Habit Forming Products and he basically talks about neuroscience and about how humans follow a path. If you open my door in the morning, I will go by habit to the same place because I go there every morning, it's what I do, I don't need to be convinced to do it again, I don't have to make myself want to do it again, it's become a habit. I think it's become habitual the way we work and the way we learn and over time we get used to it and then technology changes and then we're asking all these people who view their contribution to be whatever their brain conjures up at that moment. And I still think there's room for that, I just think that you have to deliver your ideas through some standardized mechanisms. Your ideas can still be as wild and crazy as you want them to be, as creative.

I guess the other part was I wonder if the value proposition would've been flipped around differently if we would be in the same situation. So what if 20 years ago, instead of solving the problem of technical communicators having to publish multiple pieces of the same content at different outputs, so single source publishing, getting rid of multiple people doing the same job over and over again in different ways, what if instead of the content, what if we focused on the design? So for example, I once saw a tool that separated content from formatting and they were not concerned with the content. They were like, "Look what happens when the branding department decides that this PMS color is no loner our brand's color." And then you could just change the color number in one place and every design, the stationery, their business cards, their whatever, every entity that had that color assigned to it changes the color, in every layout. Marketing people would swoon over that, that would be great. Or their brand logo in different places.

I wonder if we went after marketing and made tools that solved their problems and made them able to publish different varieties and shapes and sizes and layouts and colors, if they would've been more fine tuned toward adopting reuse and structure because it'd help them so much that then they made the necessary next jump to go, "Oh, of course, the product description, it's on all those things, too, it should be the same. I should be able to repurpose it and change it in one place and make a change everywhere." But I don't think that's what happened. I think the techcomm people made all the lessons and then we tried to apply them to marketing, then marketing's like, "Hey, we're not you and why are you showing us these examples of these product descriptions? We don't care about that, we just want an open-end design and make it look pretty."

Cruce
Yeah, well, and I feel like we need to coin a new word because reuse is very, it's almost anathema inside of certain cultures and in many cultures, like literally the concept of reuse is negative. But at the same time, I mean, we're finding that there's just absolutely no way for organizations to scale multichannel, omnichannel interactions, especially when we're dealing across assets with a lot of variance and different languages and personalization scenarios and we're trying to do that at scale, so single content types. It starts to become this impossibility where it's just maintaining a single content type could suck up the resources of a publishing group if there's enough variation on that one content type.

Scott
It's probably company culture that's involved in all of this, too, because I'll just throw it out in a different way, what if every mistake killed someone? There would be no this mediocre talk, "It's good enough content, right?" It's like, "No." Every time something goes wrong, a person dies, or you owe a million dollars, or whatever it is, but the stakes aren't that high in these folks who we want to influence and so if you think about it, they've created the best content they know how to in the way that they learned and they've done good enough work and they might be the number one company in their space. So, a part of them says, "We're number one, we make all this money, why should we go and change all these other things? After all, we got here on this ship and now you want us to go over and ride this new boat into the next phase." So I think we have to bring them along and that's part of the culture that has to accept that things changed on the outside and while they want to maintain their status, in order to do so, they have to make some adjustments. And I think riding that ship is difficult in big companies and we're going to see more of it.

But to your point about the differences, there was a webinar on the Content Wrangler BrightTALK channel by a woman from Google who did a presentation that was really surprising about how they created repurposable content and they made vast improvements in the way that the consistency of their content was represented. So that you could go to different resources about the same subject as the developer, which was their target audience, it wasn't the Google consumer at the end searching, it was actually developers they were targeting, and the developers would read the content and then be assured that it was the same instructions anywhere else they encountered it. That was great for people who were developing things who were like the people who wrote the content. But unfortunately, the people who read the content were not like the people who wrote the content and they were developers but they were developers in Russia where culturally, they were seeing an American company present the same information over and over again and when they noticed the pattern, "Oh, that looks just the same paragraph that they said before," they made an assumption that the creators of the content must think they were stupid because they felt the need to repeat it over and over again.

You and I might just say, "Yes, but it was the product description, why should we write it a different way for creativity when you only need to know that piece of information? And we want it to be consistent so it's always the same product that we're describing." And I think that the culture and other things get in the way, the roles that people play, because they have anticipated expectation of how you should communicate to them. And I don't think all the time we recognize that there's so much English, Anglo, Americanisms shoved in our content because that's where we live and breathe most of our lives and so I think we just don't see those other things until we run into a situation like Google did where they asked and then they found out. "hH, that's why they don't like our stuff, because they think we're insulting them. And we're not trying to."

So the simple act of creating that reuse structure also created a negative feeling. Now, they didn't measure whether the accuracy of the information helped them accomplish their tasks more, so there was no determination is it worth it to potentially insult somebody a little bit even though you don't mean to in order to get the benefit. But they measured the satisfaction, the satisfaction was so bad, they realized that it was impacting, when they would make changes to the content, it did actually impact the success rate at the other end. So, it's about math and science and I think that's part of the problem. When you're thinking about creativity, I'm thinking about art and music and kind of more free things but anybody who's a musician knows that music is structured.

Cruce
I think that's a perfect analogy, I feel like we have to transform the mindset to being a renaissance one, so it's not creative versus technical, it's creative and technical together, which to your point is exactly like music or exactly like many other art forms.

Scott
Look at Michelangelo, for goodness sakes. He was both technical and artistic and when he realized the technologies were there, he used his creativity to imagine how he might use those things.

Cruce
And he used sacred geometry and other scientific forms to help to provide guidance or structure for his art.

Scott
Yeah. And the music one is probably the best because you can be the kind of person who comes naturally to music, I have met human beings who can play by ear, who can hear it on the radio and not have the music or the rules, they don't have the rules to follow, they only have the rules in their head, so they didn't need an extra tool to explain it to them, they were able to do it. But if they wanted to teach other people, they would have to teach them the rules and then they would have to structure everything so that those people could consume it, understand it, remember it, and do it. And I don't think we always think about that when we're making content. We think it's obvious, we have a goal, we have some problems, here's a solution, this seems to make common sense.

And yet I think that's what I meant, the creative person is probably saying, "I've been successful at my version of creativity all this time, why do I now need structure?" So we are going to have to use these kind of examples that the musicians do actually have rules and structure and if they did things in a different order because on of them wanted to, it wouldn't be the song that you expected to be played that you're singing along to because one person decided my creativity is enhanced when I just do what I want. And when you bring it all together, I guess, it's the orchestration of those pieces. They need to be choreographed to work together. And the rules and structure help us do that.

Cruce
Yeah, it's like structure creates both sustainability and scalability. Sustainability because of the transference, to your point, of the improvisational master maestro and the many folks who are really good working musicians but who don't have the same ear and the same knack and the same decades of experience. So there's a sustainability that structure enables that is just unmatched. And then the scalability, which is if we want to be able to create music outside of an improvisational jazz trio and deliver it on the order of an orchestra or many orchestras across big geography, we have to agree on the essential rules of how music works and the transferability and the structure of the music and the instrumentation associated with that. Then we can train folks to perform. And they can bring their creativity but it's a combination of the art and the science.

Scott
Yeah, and I agree with you, reuse may not be the only word that we could use, I mean, the ‘re’ is just part of it because of our etymology, even the remix, right, is basically the same song repurposed with some variation in beat or some other musical component. But the bare bones of it is still the same thing that the original product was made off of. And I think that's what we're trying to say, we're trying to say you can make renditions of your information products that are more tuned to the person that you're trying to talk to, if you can divide them into pieces and provide a structure so it could be reassembled and delivered to that person the way that they need it. And maybe we need a repurposing, reuse, different word as you pointed out. But and maybe it has to not describe the action but it has to describe the benefit.

Cruce
And that's another thing you just bumped into that is just pervasive, it's this idea that really we need to create an assembly mindset and culture around authoring as opposed to a page based design mindset where we're designing page interfaces or customer experiences in this very static way versus we're assembling customer experiences out of a bunch of topics and pieces and assets and parts that come together to orchestrate a customer interaction. And that mindset shift is a big one and I think it's hard for a lot of organizations that have been designing pages and building entire workflows around pages for a long time.

Scott
And it's really not their fault, really, they're given personal computers with a document folder called My Documents with a software called PageMaker that they would make pages and then we took those jobs, which helped us get done faster when we didn't need a typesetter, when we didn't need those other jobs, they disappeared, we became the holders of those tasks. I almost wonder whether we need to modularize the tasks. It's like just because you can design a page doesn't mean when I ask you to create content for my company that you need to start thinking about the page. When I go to have healthcare services, I have a diagnostician, I have somebody who reads and interprets, I have somebody who proposes the next thing, and they don't do it, they then send you to the next person who's a specialist in that.

Maybe the whole fact that we can conjure up the content, create, write, edit, format, and delivery it ourselves has made it seem like that's what we're supposed to do all the time. Why would you want to do it differently? After all, this is how we do it. And so it's like we've never done it that way here, we've always done it this way here. It's the same problem, you're not opening up to the idea that the way we would want you to do it is a change, yes, but that change allows you to do things you're not going to able to do without it. And if we recognize that the pain is probably mostly fear.

Cruce
I love it. This conversation, I feel like we could easily talk for an hour or more or days, but because we're running out of time, let me wrap with a couple of broad questions.

Scott
Sure.

Cruce
One is just what are you seeing in terms of the overall trends in the market space within technical communication? I know that techcomms is near and dear to your heart and is really the birthplace of the structural conversation in the marketplace. I mean, it's ... What do you see as currently the big shaping, defining movements?

Scott
I'd say, first, it's a case of the have and the have nots. So there are people who work in content teams where content is valued enough to afford them the ability to try to do some of the things we've asked and suggested that they try. So structure, reuse, automation, dynamic delivery, there's certainly companies that do it. Some better than others, it's not a trend, although it's really useful and you know all the benefits so I don't have to wax poetic on them. The benefits are not enough to be the draw for everyone and I think it's just competing resources and all of that, and lack of awareness. The trend seems to be when companies recognize that they can't do something they want to do and then structure becomes part of the way toward their solution or doing advanced information management practices that techcomm people do in some companies, I think that's great.

I think the other techcomm companies, the have nots, they haven't had the opportunity in these departments, they haven't had the resources or the money or anything that they needed to make these better decisions about their content. So they're kind of trapped, they have to figure out ways to accomplish what they want to accomplish without actually investing in the things that they might invest in a bigger or more differently organized company. The trends seem to be find me an easy way to do whatever it is quickly, of course everybody wants it for free, that's not practical. And I think there's also a kind of acceptance that consumers don't always require as to write everything down the way we were taught in fifth and sixth grade. Sometimes people are asked to help one another and that's successful for some companies and it's okay for their support teams to do that so they're opting not to create a lot of content sometimes. Maybe that works, maybe it doesn't sometimes.

Second, video documentation, huge, huge, huge. I saw for the very first demonstration this week where did a XML document which was, for the audience members who don't know what that is, it was a step-by-step of procedures to accomplish a particular task, each task was small and discrete, you did eight or nine of them in a row. But I watched the technology that took the step-by-steps out of a document and made a slide out of every single one of them with a graphic and then animated it, recorded it as a move. I think those kinds of things are going to start happening more and more and more. They're low hanging fruit, they're easy to get to, they're not expensive. They don't solve all the problems, clearly, but maybe they put Band-aids on some of the problems so that some of these other techcomm departments can benefit from some of the capabilities that they would get if they had a big system.

Cruce
I love the change in these assets. It used to be all photographs and illustrations and now we're dealing with a lot more video and the other thing that recently we saw was augmented reality where you've got vector files that you're able to have somebody in context looking at the rendering of a document and dealing with the different parts of it, or rendering of an asset-

Scott
Yeah, and that's where you get back to that two sides of the ROI coin again, so you could use augmented reality to help save you time and money but you can also use augmented reality along with technical documentation advanced practices to make money on service. So like an MRI service technician might go out and use the power of augmented reality in a goggle or device of some kind that they could look through and they could actually see the components of the, let's say, the MRI machine they're working on and they could actually tap the screen and isolate the documentation and pull it right up on screen and get the answer to the question they need right there, allowing them to avoid running back to the truck, calling the office, doing a bunch of other tasks to try to get the information they needed so it can just come right to them. And it was all triggered from the viewer, where they looked at the thing that they were trying to fix. I would imagine that's going to be a trend, too. I don't think it's going to be ... Until they release low priced, high quality augmented reality equipment, which will, as you know, will probably come soon.

There's also these considerations, which I've heard technical communication teams talk about. Human beings have not been accustomed to wearing something around their face for eight hours at a time. So for example, wearing the goggles might actually accomplish the task but human beings may not want or feel up to doing it. They may not be able to do it. It may cause other problems, like what happens if the bands are too tight and then you start noticing that everybody who wears them has some kind of mental condition or brain thing caused by the pressure. So i say it's a high growth area with lots of opportunity for mistakes but probably you're going to see a couple good uses out of it.

Cruce
Well, and I can imagine the combination of these things because I've seen augmented reality applications already and I've seen voice applications already and I can imagine looking at a piece of equipment with an augmented reality and it has an overlay that's giving me a step-by-step on open this panel and I'm looking at the equipment but then it's showing me which panel to open and then it's giving me the ability to interact with the documentation or via voice, ask questions about that particular component. And so, we start to create more and more intelligent interactions for our service people or our customers with our equipment or with our supported software and that's pretty interesting. Those dynamic interactions only become enabled through structure and semantics and through content intelligence, intelligence content principles that we espouse. So, it's pretty cool to see that new world starting to unfold and we're at the very beginning of it. I love hearing your stories about the Internet of Things and the way you're already interacting with it in your personal life and so many of us already have incorporated these technologies, so of course we need to get our enterprises ready to start working with these pieces of tech.

Scott
Yes. And I think it's really also about the power of additive or I don't know if that's the right way to explain it but adding things, connecting them together. I think you're going to see a lot of that. I saw a great demo where the goggles, the augmented reality goggles, acted as both safety goggles, they also acted as the viewer to see things that are not there that they might need to see and access, but it also did a third job. It reported on what it saw to management and so this might be an interesting one, it was a chicken processing factory and they're looking for salmonella and they also need to know where to cut the chickens. So apparently the chickens come by on some kind of conveyor belt or something and the person who is going to dress them can look at the chicken and the augmented reality will draw where they cut the chicken meat to make the parts and put it into the package. But there's a sensor on the glasses, too, that can detect bacteria. And in the event a significant amount, whatever that amount is, I'm not really sure, whatever is too much, it automatically stops the line and reports to management. Because in the past, they would have to use a different approach and it was up to the person and the person would be like, "Yeah, that's not salmonella enough. To be stopping the line," whatever.

And so because that's how it slipped through. They had processes in place to stop salmonella and yet people still got it from the food, which meant that somehow it was still slipping through. And they realized that some of the decisions were human decisions, and since humans will not always do the same or the right things, they decided that they need a quality control to help them so they have lower paid workers who don't have a lot of training and they need to be able to have them do the same job in exactly the same way. So the goggle overlay shows them where to do their cutting as the job but the sensor that's also added to it was looking for things humans can't see with their eyes and reporting it to management. I thought that was spectacular.

Cruce
That's super cool. You know, there's some really good conversations happening in the information 4.0 world around mapping docs as a digital twin to the manufacturing 4.0 and industrial 4.0 revolution, so that's happening in Europe and I feel like a lot of the scenarios you're describing now really do have a following around the world already and there are people actively working on this kind of integration between process and content and overlay systems so that we can work intelligently with our physical world and the information world that inhabits and surrounds our physical objects.

Scott
I agree. I think in the next couple years we'll have shows like this where we talk about those things because they're coming and they will be useful. Some of them, of course, will be flippant attempts at entertainment or whatever but who knows, maybe we'll get some accidental benefit from those, as well.

Cruce
Yep. Well, this has really been great. I do have one more question for our folks early in career because you really understand the business of technical communications and you've worked with so many people who are technical communicators over the years, so for our listeners who are considering a career in technical communications or in the next generation of information management, what kind of advice would you give to somebody early or starting or considering a career in this space?

Scott
I would say there's no easy one piece of advice to give but there's some general rules. So the reason that there's no one, easy piece of advice to give is that the people who hire technical communicators do not come from a homogenous group with a specific set of standards and criteria, you could just as easily be asked to prove that you could write three paragraphs well and get a job or be interviewed about your mastery of information management knowledge management, for example. You could just be quizzed in an interview and that might qualify you for the job. So there is a technical writer manager somewhere who's going to make you write some stuff or they're going to say, "I can't hire you until you show me the work that you did at the other company," and then you explain, "I worked at a pharmaceutical company, that information is proprietary, I cannot give it to you." And then they say, "Okay, well then why don't you pretend this is a product and write some documentation." So, you could, to get a job in techcomm, you can stumble into it, you could earn your way there, you might just interview your way there, there's no real easy way.

Tool knowledge used to be the key and I think the reason for that was LinkedIn and keyword searching of resumes because then recruiting became, first, the process and it always was but it became more focused on this, searching through the universe of candidates on the internet and finding the shortlist and then deciding what to do with that. But the short list was obtained by typing in a few keywords, usually technical writing and then a couple of software tools that technical writers use that the job would require. I think over time, though, many managers have realized that if you can use one tool and you've learned to adapt to a different tool, you could probably learn to adapt to even a third or a fourth tool that you've never had. So the tool knowledge is important but no critical but it is critical that you understand why those tools exist and why they're different than just a blank canvas.

You and I can write documentation, I can do it with some mascara on the wall and it would still be documentation, but it won't be scalable, assessable, translatable, findable, all those things. I think technical communicators who are starting in the industry should try to learn everything they can about the modes of delivery of content, how it gets to people, what's involved in it, and also find a niche, something that they really like and study that. Because it turns out that everything needs documentation, so if you're really interested in space and you study the stars and planets and spacecraft or whatever, who knows? You might end up with a job that fuels your need for that kind of information because it's interesting to you and a technical writing job. So it does help to have niche knowledge of diabetes or a language or a culture or a product line, as well. So learn everything you can about whatever it is that you're interested in. And try to be the kind of renaissance guy or gal who's open to new ideas. Don't let your comfort with how you do things today rule how you'll behave in the future because that'll help you get a job if you're open to those new things.

Cruce
Excellent advice from The Content Wrangler, Scott Abel.

Scott
Thank you.

Cruce
Thank you so much for your time today, we really have benefited from it. And I hope that many people get a chance to hear this because there's some really important concepts and fun future looking that we've done today. Thank you so much.

Scott
Thank you very much for having me.

Cruce
Bye.


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