By Jake Sorofman, JustSystems

From Cost Center to Value Generator

There was a time when technical writing was seen as a cost center—a necessary function, but hardly a key lever for competitive advantage. This is quickly changing as globalization and hyper-competition put customers in control and organizations scramble for new and different ways to strengthen relationships.

Today’s customers are the beneficiaries of virtually unlimited choice, with growing expectations for cost, quality and service. In an age of globalization and hyper-competition, the only remaining sustainable advantage comes from the customer relationship itself—specifically, the two-way conversation occurring with customers around the world and around the clock.

This conversation is how relationships are formed and how they’re strengthened over time. Each and every day, customers and other stakeholders count on product documentation, marketing materials, policies and procedures, aftermarket service and maintenance manuals, and other content to do their jobs and solve their problems. This information must be accurate, consistent and accessible. When it’s not, the promise that binds the customer relationship is broken, putting loyalty at risk.

Structured Authoring as Competitive Advantage

Many organizations already know that customer relationships are their most valuable asset. What they may not know is that relationships aren’t built on product or cost advantages—they’re built on this two-way conversation. Relationships are strengthened and weakened slowly over time through a series of subtle and often mundane interactions. Taken in isolation, these interactions are seemingly low-value. But in aggregate, they represent the customer relationship itself.

Smart companies recognize the value and importance of the technical communications process—not as a cost center, but as a value generator and as the gateway to the customer relationship. Increasingly, tech writers are central to this two-way exchange with customers, moving this function from the basement to the corner office.

This realization is casting a new light on the role authoring and publishing plays in competitive advantage.

The challenge, of course, is learning to become an organization that values authoring and publishing, not as a cost-center, but as a value generator with game-changing potential. This requires a hard look at the process itself and a commitment to what it takes to transform authoring and publishing from an afterthought to a key lever for competitive advantage.

Challenge #1: Authoring is Collaborative

Technical writers and their less specialized counterparts have always been two worlds divided, but forever interdependent. Many technical writers are experts in the science of writing, but not necessarily the subject matter itself.  This creates an inherent interdependency between tech writers and the broader community of business people, subject matter experts, and other contributors. As a result, content authoring is a fundamentally collaborative process, involving stakeholders with varying skills, perspectives, tool preferences and tolerances for complexity. Organizations must make collaboration fundamental to their authoring processes, seamlessly bridging the disparate needs of all contributors to the process.

Challenge #2: Publishing is a One-Way Street

Conversations require two-way interaction, a give and take that leads to insight and alignment between exchanging parties. The reality is that the rise of social media technologies such as blogs and wikis have given customers a voice and created an appetite—indeed, an expectation—for a two-way exchange.

The problem is that today’s publishing process is not a conversation—it’s a one-way street. As a result, important customer insight—out on the edges where information is consumed and applied—is lost. How, then, does experience make its way back into the publishing process? Organizations must incorporate a feedback loop into their publishing process to bring the voice and sentiment of customers and other stakeholders back into the authoring process.

Challenge #3: Everyone is an Author

The reality is that occasional and “accidental” authors represent more than 95% of the organization. How do you capture this knowledge as structured information without imposing new tools and process on end-users or dramatically modifying the tools they already use? The key is to conduct a top-down assessment of existing content-generating processes and transparently weave structured authoring into applications where the most critical content is being produced. Make it seamless, transparent and in-line with an existing process and end-users will get on board without resistance.

From the Basement to the Corner Office

As product innovations and cost advantages slip away to rising global competition, the strength of the customer relationship takes on unequaled importance. With the speed, accuracy and quality of communication so fundamental to the conversation that forms this relationship, structured authoring and publishing has risen considerably on the business-side agenda—moving out of the basement and into the corner office, and securing its place as one of the essential levers for competitive advantage. It’s time for organizations to think outside of the box—structured authoring is central to competitive advantage.

About the author

Jake Sorofman is senior vice president of marketing and business development for JustSystems, the largest ISV in Japan and a worldwide leader in XML and information management technologies.