Earlier this week, I had a chance to interview Symantec’s Tristan Bishop (@KnowledgeBishop) about the future of the Technical Communication profession. For the past 15 years, Bishop (linkedin.com/in/tristanbishop) has been driving teams toward “efficient delivery of effective content”. His current role, unifying content strategy at the world’s leading security company, provides him with a unique vantage point on the rapidly evolving documentation landscape.
Note: Bishop agreed to this interview as a personal discussion, and emphasized that his opinions are his own, and not those of his employer.
Fidelman: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. From reviewing your blog, I understand that you predict that technical communications will become profoundly more strategic and social in the next few years. I want to start by asking, which of your career experiences have contributed to your predictions about the profession’s future?
Bishop: I’ve been involved in Knowledge Management since the mid-1990s. Over the past decade, I’ve been privileged to help a number of brands migrate legacy enterprise documentation into topic-based XML, in order to facilitate nimble delivery. These past few years, I’ve been working on integrating Information Developer topics with Technical Support delivery channels, to increase customer Self-Service.
Fidelman: Recently my computer was experiencing some strange behavior and I did a Google search to determine why. It turned out to be a virus, but none of the top search results were from major information security vendors. It seemed like a lost business opportunity for security firms. What do you think about search relevance, as it relates to Technical Communication?
Bishop: I can’t speak to your specific experience, but I will say this: A desire to increase search relevance for technical documentation has been a major motivation for me to free content locked in large PDFs and chunk it into topics, for granular HTML delivery. When technical communications content is exclusively delivered in large PDF files, search indexing can be less than ideal. In years past, I would do a browser search for a given product and find that URLs from unofficial sources (OEMs, VARs, forums) ranked much higher than official brand content.
Fidelman: With the move to topic-based publishing well underway, do you think we’ve reached the end of the hard-copy product manuals?
Bishop: Not quite, but it won’t be long until we do. Static documentation is on the way out. Hard-copy manuals capture the state of a product at a moment in time. But dynamic delivery is already the standard for navigation (from maps to GPS) and for contact information (Yellow Pages vs. online directories). In fact, dynamic news delivery (web, mobile, iPad) is on a path to completely replace static news (morning and evening newspapers) within the next decade. Why should product documentation be any different? The Technical Communications industry must prepare itself for the day in which static product documentation is no longer acceptable to the customer base.
Fidelman: Obviously, social media is changing the way brands interact with their customers. What role do you think Technical Communicators will play in this space? For example, do you think most companies will build a community around their content and documentation?
Bishop: I have discussed this with thought-leaders across the industry and found several who are making great gains. In particular, my friend Jamie Pappas at EMC has led tremendous efforts to connect her customers with her content and her team members. I’m not sure Technical Communications will own customer communities, but we will certainly have a crucial role to play. Information Developers have uniquely honed written communication skills, making us the ideal resource for community engagement. Assuming powerful and usable tools become available, this type of engagement can begin sooner than later. We are only at the beginning stages of realizing the full power Information Development can add to the social conversation. I’m excited about what the future holds.
Fidelman: What actions would you recommend that Technical Writers take, to prepare for a future as social conduits of dynamic documentation?
Bishop: Major changes are heading our way, and we’d be wise to prepare. Technical Communicators simply MUST get out listen to the social web and study the wealth of user-generated content that exists for each of their products. The customers have a great deal to say, and we can begin listening for free, right now, with tools like Social Mention or http://twitrratr.com. Obviously, there are vendors, including your own organization MindTouch, that take social listening to another level and connect it directly to the documentation workflow.
Fidelman: If you had to make a prediction, what do you think is going to happen in the Technical Publication space in the next few years.
Bishop: I believe Technical Communicators will work in direct partnership with the Technical Support and Customer Service departments. They will spend 70% of their time authoring content for unreleased products and the other 30% augmenting documentation that is living and breathing in the field. Specifically, I foresee that Technical Writers will partner with other teams across their organizations to gather content that can proactively solve customer issues.
Fidelman: So what keeps you up at night?
Bishop: I am concerned that pockets within our profession are so comfortable with current tools and processes, or too busy with delivery, that they won’t adequately prepare for the age of collaboration. I sometimes worry that technical writers will respond too slowly to remain relevant. I care about so many in our profession and I couldn’t bear to see talented people get lost in the shuffle.
Fidelman: Thanks for your time, Tristan, I’m sure our readers will appreciate your thoughts on this subject, especially as it continues to drive value in organizations like yours.
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