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Wikis for Documentation and Internal Collaboration 1Presenter

Amanda Cross Documentation ManagerProfessional Writing, Purdue UniversityMBA, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University11 years in software documentationBlogger, speaker, and proponent of humanity in business


We all grew up in an era where it was OK to be self-serving in business. Not necessarily evil so much, but a company maximizing its margins or passing off shoddy products didnt exactly thrill consumers, but they pretty much took it for granted because there wasnt much they could do about it anyway

Social media is changing that theres nothing you can do about it anyway part of the equation. Before, some companies focused on customer service, and they did benefit from work-of-mouth, and often they did very well not just because their customers were happy but also because their employees were satisfied and fulfilled and all the good reasons there have always been for businesses not to be just contributors to the economy but also active participants in the community.

But now, every company needs to focus on customer service, because consumers have something now they didnt have before: Twitter followers. And Facebook friends. And LinkedIn connections. And all their contacts have contacts and theyre all willing to spread a juicy story about how bad a company can be. Thanks to social media, consumers now have a megaphone to talk about brands.3

Some companies try to control it, by forbidding their employees to access social media channels at work, putting in place policies around blogging, setting up restrictive confidentiality agreements and stuff like that, but you simply cannot force people to stop being social. Youd be unreasonable to try. In fact, youd be wrong to try.

Things are changing. Some people say things are changing faster now than ever before, and we all know that you have to adapt to survive. So now is not the time to try to squeeze tighter and keep everything the same as it ever was, but instead to figure out ways to use the changes to your advantage. 4It Used to be all about tools

So, Ive been talking about adaptation at the macro level and what companies need to do to serve their customers. But this applies to the microcosm of documentation as well. When I started in this field just 11 years ago, when the economy was great and documentation writers could still sit in their cubicles and concern themselves vigorous conversations about commas, the biggest issue was tools. Job descriptions were all 2 years experience with FrameMaker or Expert in RoboHelp and in fact in my professional writing program we put on a special series of educational seminars in addition to our regular classes so that wed be able to list more tools on our resume.

And then the economy tanked 5

And suddenly documentation departments are needing to justify their existence, prove ROI, and figure out how to defend themselves against being outsourced. This is a rough spot for a group of introverted word lovers who had always been seen as a cost center.

The first instinct is to bear down, focus in, tighten up: do exactly what you were doing before, only more. And thats kind of the paradigm of your traditional content creation tools. Frame and RoboHelp and InDesign have big learning curves and proprietary file formats and encourage writers to hold on to their information tightly and be a gatekeeper for making changes. At first glance, that seems like a good idea, because youre needed, right?

But the downside of being so focused and specialized is that you pigeonhole yourself and your coworkers dont think of you as being a helpful partner in strategic decisions. Id argue, actually, that you make yourself EASIER to replace because youre tied to a system. If the company replaces the whole system, you go with it.6

But if the system youre a master of is not *just* a documentation system, but an essential business system. And if you are not a gatekeeper, but an enabler of this system, suddenly, people start thinking of your differently. Not only is your contribution much harder to outsource, but people start coming to you for help and ideas on all sorts of things, which allows you to expand your influence.

In my department, were doing that with a wiki, but any tools that encourage collaboration and cooperation again, make your work experience more useful and satisfying, while also making you invaluable to the business processes.7For Example: Documentation

The first thing is the obvious one. By having the documentation available for everyone to edit and leave comments on, we send the message that this information is for everyone. Were not trying to be gatekeepers and tie ourselves to the content. Were just trying to enable people to find what they need and add what they dont already see. Its easier for your coworkers to dismiss your value when you do all the work yourself and they never see what goes into it, but when a person contributes to the wiki, it gives them a chance to walk in our shoes and appreciate the challenges that we face.

And, actually, any risks that you might worry are there really arent. Because the wiki has version history, we can roll back anything that anyone messes up, and we have alerts in place to let us know when someone outside the department makes a change. That not only lets us check up on stuff before it goes out the door, but also provides us an opportunity to reach out to the people who are contributing and make a connection with them.

8For Example: RFPs

Ill talk about a couple examples where weve enjoyed some of this expanded influence. The first one is with the RFP team. In some companies the documentation team might actually write the responses to RFPs, but at our company, we have a team dedicated to it, probably because we do a couple hundred a year. We approached this team and suggested that we could help them manage their content in the internal wiki, so that they could have a centralized place for their SMEs to contribute content, could have workflow on the chunks of content, basically all the stuff that Charles is talking about that weve implemented for documentation.

As a result of that, we expanded our internal network and were seen as helpful and experts to all the people involved with that project.9For Example: Security

I happened to be in a meeting with one of our security guys, and I heard him mention how they managed the information from the audits, and it was just so obvious to me how some of his workflow could be automated using the wiki. So, again, we collaborated to get a good understanding of the workflow and put in place a tool to make him more efficient.10For Example: Known Issues

Its not only limited to documents, either. Charles and I made an effort to schedule a recurring meeting with an interested manager in customer support, and we learned of their need to somehow track these temporal issues that would come in so that not everyone on the team would be entering separate cases for them. Again, analyze their business need, help set up a system, expand the network, and increase value.11ConclusionSocial connectionsSpecifically internal networkingare key to being effective.

CollaborationMakes you more valuable to a company than does concentration.

ToolsEnable you to collaborate and make social connections. They arent the goal in and of themselves.OK, so this was barely about the wiki at all, though Im happy to take questions about that if youve got any. The point of this presentation was really about:

* Building social connections through internal networking is really important to allow you to provide genuinely excellent customer service, and also to make you more valuable to your employer.

* Collaboration across your social connections provides additional tools to allow you to be innovative and efficient in serving internal and external customers.

* Tools, which used to be the end-all and be-all of what a technical communicator had to offer, are now just the mechanisms that make the first two points possible.