Monday, June 8, 2009

5 Ways to Make Executives Love the Publications Department

“Publications never gets any respect,” is a refrain I’ve heard over and over again during my time in the Technical Communications industry. In fact I’ve even said it myself a few times. The refrain is often followed by, “no one really understands what we do, or the value we provide.” The unfortunate thing is that in a lot of cases these refrains have some justification, but it needn’t be that way.

As an example over the years I’ve visited literally hundreds of publication teams in a variety of companies and industries, but one of my most striking memories is the sheer contrast between two publication departments at a couple of luxury car manufacturers.

At the first company, the documentation department had a nice modern office, in a new campus setting. They had all the latest computers and access to great technology. In the parking lot outside the publications office was a fleet of not only their own cars, but those of their nearest competitor. Any member of the publications team could use any of the cars, in exchange for filling in a small usability report. The publications team were a high profile part of the customer support organization and were considered by the marketing team as part of the product “life style” branding activities.

At the second company, the publications department was in an old hut (in fact it was an old coal bunker) at the back of the factory, far removed from the production line, engineering, or any other function it needed to interact with. Although cars were parked outside, the team had no access to them. They had only a handful of computers and their technology was at least five years behind their competitors. The sole mandate was to produce a small defined set of hardcopy manuals. And that’s all they did.

So why the difference? In short the team at the first company acted like they were part of the company and projected a positive image of their skills. As such they were recognized and rewarded. The team at the second company stuck to the “we are only tech writers,” approach. They were, in many ways, responsible for their own position.

So if you feel that your publications team is “in the coal bunker” – how do you change things so that you get the keys to the luxury cars?

The following presents a basic five point action plan to help you raise the profile of what you do and make your executives love the Publications Department.

1. Realize exactly what it is the Tech Doc team does. - Before you can raise your profile, you need to know what you have to offer. Chances are that most Publications teams have talents and skills that exist no where else in the organization, and I’m not just talking about the ability to write. Also most often the Publications team is the only place in a company where all the company’s intellectual property comes together. Publications isn’t about “producing user manuals,” it’s about managing your organization’s greatest asset - knowledge.

2. Tell a good story. – People react to stories on an instinctive level. It’s easier to remember stories than it is dry facts and figures. Publications is the natural bridge between the end user and the company design, engineering and production teams. Gather stories and tell them – repeatedly. Come up with your own stories that illustrate the importance, frequency and impact of your own work. Develop fun trivia about what Publications does that people will remember and repeat.

3. Offer your services for fun and profit – Develop an in-house user community, not just an external one. Look around for other functions that you could work with or offer your expertise to. Develop an entrepreneurial mind-set and you’ll find opportunities to transform publications from an overhead cost-center into a profitable contributor.

4. Hook an executive sponsor – Find an executive’s pet project that could need some creative input, e.g. a little wordsmithing, or some graphic design work, and get involved. While the work is progressing make sure to bring the executive into your environment, and show off what the publications team can achieve.

5. Change attitudes. – If you go around say “I’m only a tech writer,” or “publications never gets any respect,” then people will believe you and act accordingly. Be aware of what you do, what you can offer and be proud of it. Treat your team (even if it’s only you) as if it was your own business. Build brand awareness, market and promote what you have to offer, and sell yourself, your team and the profession.

Over the coming weeks I’ll take a expand on each of these and provide some examples and suggested strategies.


Eddie said...

Alan, I really enjoyed this post. I relate to the contrast between the group that's obviously valued and the "coal bunker" group. I've lived in both worlds. I also see similar contrasts when I visit sites and train users.

I believe that pubs teams can elevate their position by moving beyond dull ROI analysis. Through telling stories (as you advocate), they can exemplify ways that they can contribute to a company's bottom line. Strong product and information development can help to create what I call a "user utopia."

I see Agile as an important change agent for this process. Agile is a great way to integrate pubs team members into the mainstream of product development. It brings them closer to the process and gives them a chance to show their diverse skills.

Anonymous said...

Hallo Alan
Great post! In some situations it may be difficult to take the first step in changing your team's image. How do you move out of the coal bunker into the light and warmth, when no-one is listening to you anyway?

One way may be to start blogging on an external blog site. Write about technical writing, communication science and technology, and whatever you're interested in. With any luck, you will get a bit of a following. People from your company will see your posts and see the things you do and your skills. This may be a good non-confrontational way of raising tech pub's profile.

I'm looking forward to your promised further posts :)


Anonymous said...

Good post.

I think point 5 is the key point. If, as a tech writer, you go around spreading negative opinions about tech writing (even if you're only repeating the opinions of others) you're your own worst enemy.

We need to promote our profession. Tell people what we do, what we have to offer and why what we do is important and valuable.