Monthly Archives: September, 2013

What is Technical Communication?

The problem

I’ve never been able to make what I do sound macho. I’ve never been able to make it sound cool.

If I tell you that “I capture and arrange technical content in ways that help businesses make good decisions,” does that make your head spin? If I say “I work on processes and procedures,” does that make me sound about as interesting as a rock?

People ask me what I do. What do I tell them?

 

The key

What first attracted me to technical communication was the challenge. When someone uses your document, do they get the information they need? Do they know how to complete the procedure? Do they understand how you do business? Do they get what your business can do for them?

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to good technical communication than just writing good documents. What good is your document if no one winds up reading it? A document can be well-written, but if it’s buried someplace where no one will see it, then you’ve wasted money. If you don’t begin with the end in mind, you will write junk.

Here’s the real question you have to answer: When clients, employees, or regulators need some specific information about your business, can they find it? If so, that’s good technical communication, whether that information is in a procedure, a brochure, or any other medium.

 

What it’s not

One of the most important things to realize is that technical communication isn’t a tech writer sitting off in a corner, writing stuff. And it’s not just fixing typos and formatting the words in a certain way. People who do that are important. But doing those things doesn’t make them a technical communicator.

A true technical communicator must be able to:

  • Understand the problem that the business is facing
  • Come up with the best ways to measure whether the documentation works
  • Extract the information they need
  • Communicate the right information to solve that problem
  • Be able to see the big picture, and decide whether or not the way they are handling the content will be effective down the line

 

Why I love it

Even if it’s hard to explain, and even if no one ever hands me a medal or retires my jersey, what I do is still amazing.

 

When I do what I do, a company’s’ clients understand what the company does for them. When I do what I do, the other CPAs suddenly get what the first CPA was talking about. When I do what I do, businesses that were spending too much time training and hunting down information can focus on growing their business.

 

That’s why we’ll keep doing this, helping more and more businesses be understood.

 

Help!

If you have any advice on making my profession sound cool, or if you need help solving a technical communication problem, let me know!

Documentation Is Insurance

The cause

Brain drain has become a bigger and bigger problem at insurance agencies in recent years. The Baby Boomer generation is retiring, and new faces, without the same level of experience, are stepping in to take their place.

The new hires are different. Often, they will not stay with a company for as long as their predecessors did. So we are left with a double whammy of retiring, senior employees, along with incoming, new employees who may not stay as long.

 

The problem

Knowledge is the life blood of any agency. Without it, there is no business. So this departure of knowledge, which is getting faster and faster, can kill an agency. The fact that more Baby Boomers are retiring, creating a need for more hiring, just makes the problem worse.

Think about the employees that work at your company. If your administrative assistant was suddenly gone, or whoever handles your commercial lines contracted a serious disease, would someone know how to do cover every key aspect of that employee’s role at your company?

 

Common remedies

There are ways to address these issues, especially at larger agencies. If you have two employees working on the same segment of commercial insurance, you will probably be okay if one of them leaves. The remaining employee can teach a replacement what to do.

If an agency is part of a well-connected network, that also makes the problem smaller. If your expert in such-and-such aspect of insurance is out, but you know just whom to call, you should be in decent shape. And if you have an office manager who has a good grasp of what everyone is doing, then all the better.

Certainly, many insurance providers offer online training to new hires, or employees who are moving into a new role in the agency. The documents and other learning items that are provided can help offset the loss of an employee.

Also, doing a good job when interviewing candidates is critical. If you ask the right questions, you can have a better idea of whether a person wants to stay with your company for a long time, or if they plan to use your company as a temporary stop.

 

When those remedies don’t work

These responses to employee turnover can be very helpful. However, there are two circumstances in which these methods aren’t enough:

  • When the agency is small, without much overlap in job duties
  • When key employees have work processes that are not covered in generic training

 

It’s great to have multiple people covering the same exact area of your business. But what if you just have one person doing commercial insurance? If someone has to fill in for them, will the replacement know the steps to take to get their work done? Will they know exactly whom to call for help?

 

And what about your key, high-ranking employees? They are responsible for tasks that are not covered in any generic insurance training. If another employee steps in after they leave, will the new employee know about those unique tasks, and how to complete them?

 

How to make sure you have the right information

There are ways to fill in these gaps, and to prevent so much information from leaving your business. Think of it as taking out an insurance policy on your company. If there is a problem (and there always is), you will be better prepared if you follow these steps:

  1. Identify your critical business information. Spend some time brainstorming your most critical processes.
    During a given week, or year, what has to happen to make your business go? What information is in the head of just one employee?
  2. Plan to capture the information. Once you know the information you need to capture, you should prepare your resources. Make sure that your key employees know that they need to devote time to developing this new “insurance policy.”
    You should also make sure that your employees aren’t afraid of being replaced. Really, you think they are extremely important. So important that you’re trying to reduce the risk that would come if they walked away.
  3. Get it written up. If someone in your company has a good sense of your needs, and how to get everything written down and distributed, have that person get the information together. Otherwise, look for outside help from someone trained to capture the information that is critical to your business.
  4. Update the documents periodically. Businesses are always changing, and you will need to update the documents on a regular basis. The intervals for reviews may vary, depending on how much your key business tasks change in a given year.

 

If you follow these steps, you will be much better prepared should you lose a key employee, or if you need to train an employee on a particular aspect of your business.