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May 6, 2021

By now, you’ve probably scoured the annual thoughtful articles predicting breakout trends and market opportunities for emerging technologies. The usual suspects are there: AI, ML, AR, VR, RPA, IoT, 5G, and a few other acronyms displayed across your virtual reading devices, predicting the future of technology.

Despite the hype, it’s fair to say we’re not all walking around wearing HUDs and few products have yet achieved the ubiquity of the Apple iPhone, yet there’s no denying the mass adoption of smart home speakers, voice, and chatbots for enterprise, and the IoT devices we’ve welcomed to our homes, cars, and businesses.

The future is clearly here, and the way people interact with content has changed and continues to evolve.

For technical writers, it’s not about AR and bots, or some futuristic technology we’ve not yet imagined. It’s about information and how we develop audience-focused content, regardless of the medium.

In this post, we share our approach to innovation leadership and an innovation framework that we are using in TWi to upskill technical writing teams and develop a culture of innovation. We share lessons learned (and those we’re still learning) as we adopt and adapt to emerging technologies, focused on the evolving content requirements of users and the industries we serve.

Understand the Innovation Landscape

The value of content is undisputed, but our processes for developing technical content are changing.

Today, users have access to multiple devices and often synchronise digital information across devices. Users less frequently require long-form, linear content, but rather expect information at their fingertips, contextual to the device they’re using, and profiled. User profiles allow information consumption to be more personalised based on preferences, location, and behavioural characteristics.

Advances in voice interfaces have also changed the way users interact with content. The definition of content has certainly become very wide.

These expectations demand an evolution of technical writing processes and represent a significant leap in how content is designed. Traditional content models do not account for highly contextual, multi-dimensional information development and delivery. Furthermore, technical writers are increasingly required to understand rapidly developing new technologies in order to produce content for an ever-changing landscape of devices, formats, and consumption patterns.

Content is still king, but technical writing processes must adapt.

Innovation Leadership and Strategy Are Key

In 2017, when research firm Gartner was making grand predictions about AI adoption, and Forrester explained how businesses would delegate customer service to AI-powered chatbots, TWi started exploring the impact such changes may have on a technical writing services company. The reality in 2017 was that most companies in serviced verticals still required traditional content, but TWi wanted to be prepared.

With no external funding or client demands for “futuristic” content, TWi initially decided on an internal approach that focused on research, exploration, and experimentation. The leadership “funded” internal teams with time.

Preparing technical writing teams for the content challenges of emerging technologies requires new skills, innovative leadership, and a significant financial investment in tools and team resources that may not offer an immediate return on investment. It requires a culture of innovation at all levels of the company.

Establish an Innovation Framework

Innovation leadership means giving teams a framework in which to explore innovation. At TWi, we adopted a structured approach to encourage innovation while recognising the boundaries of limited resources and creating alignment with the company’s strategy and objectives.

The TWi innovation framework facilitates exploration, experimentation, and development of content strategies for emerging technologies. The innovation framework includes alignment around the vision, an inclusive approach that encourages everyone to get involved, and some structure around how to carry out activities.

Communication, collaboration, and effective processes to manage change and innovation are important elements of the innovation framework. Most importantly, future-proofing a technical writing team requires a clear vision.

Focus Teams Around a Vision

A lack of vision and clear problem statement presents one of the greatest risks for any new project. A well-defined strategy with clear objectives will ensure all activities are aligned to the company vision. It will help keep your team focused on the end goal and ensure everyone is on the same page. Innovation leadership means giving teams a clear vision.

Without a clear vision, teams will tend to focus on the question “what are we going to do?”. The real question should be “why are we doing this?”.

Strategic goals may be very high-level. But specific objectives define how the company will reach those higher-level goals, and these objectives must be research-based and identify pain points in the market.

Let’s look at a practical example of how idea generation and validation may work in the innovation framework.

A company has set strategic goals to achieve 10% growth over five years. One key objective may be to develop services to achieve growth. Clients use their services because they have large amounts of legacy content to manage. After conducting client surveys and analysing data from previous client requests, the technical writing team understands that a high percentage of clients report they have content silos with legacy content that is not machine-readable. To manage the content requires many resources for manual, repetitive processes.

There are several opportunities for content innovation in the previous example. The technical writing team may develop more efficient processes or explore automation or AI applications to manage content. Those are ideas, but the “why” is clear. Solving any one of those problems creates impact for the client and places the company in a better place to offer a new service and meet strategic goals.

The company vision does not outline the innovative process or the specific innovation goal, but the vision clearly defines the strategic outcome and is critical to the innovation framework.

It’s important to note that specific outcomes may not be clear initially. While that may sound intrepid to some, there must be enough space to permit free thinking, research, and changes in direction to occur as findings dictate dead ends or new areas of exploration.

Innovation leadership means setting a clear vision for the company and communicating that vision to all members of the team. Innovative technical writing teams can be successful with the “how” and “what” once they understand the “why”.

Adopt an Inclusive Approach

Moving from a traditional service-based company to a focus on information models that fit the new landscape of emerging technology demands a mind-shift and complete transformation of internal processes. Innovation leadership involves change management.

Change management has become a frightening term in companies seeking to transform and is often approached with a top-down implementation. A more effective approach, and the one TWi adopted, is inclusive.

To transform from within requires that every member of the team become committed to innovation. It requires communication, trust, and a good measure of excitement.

Communicate clearly

Communication must start with the leadership team. As stated previously, the company vision must be communicated clearly. Transparent conversations about goals, objectives, and expectations should happen regularly. Communication should go both ways. Leadership and technical writing teams should have ample opportunity to ask questions and question everything. The goal of open communication is to align the thinking of every team member, to allow the sharing of ideas, and to coordinate all activities toward the common goal.

Trust your team

Innovation leadership requires a great deal of trust in your teams. The innovation framework at TWi recognises that all ideas are worth considering; but not all ideas will be aligned with company strategy, not all ideas are feasible, and not all ideas will result in a desired outcome. Unless we take a close look at those ideas, evaluate them, and even test them, we will never know if those ideas are relevant. Some ideas will lead to a dead end. Others may take the company in a new direction. Some ideas may be nuggets of gold.

Following ideas requires trust. Trust is established through open communication, and risk is minimized when structures are put in place to guide teams and align ideas and activities with the company vision.

Nurture passion

It’s important to address the element of excitement. Ideas and innovation are born from passion. Without passionate people, innovation won’t happen. Early on, TWi recognised that providing internal time to work on interesting and exciting projects would nurture passion.

Use Structure to Guide Teams

A clear structure supports team members through the innovation journey. While innovation requires freedom to generate and explore ideas, experiment with tools and processes, and even face dead ends, structure will guide innovative teams toward a common goal and make the most effective use of resources.

In this section, we provide some examples of structure in the TWi innovation framework to permit innovative thinking.

Training

To take a deep dive into content development for emerging technologies requires some level of training and upskilling team members. Depending on the skills of your team, a rigorous training program may be required initially. You may bring in a consultant, as TWi did, to train teams to adapt their content practices to emerging technologies. An initial intensive training may focus on high-level concepts that immerse the team in new ways of looking at information and the technologies impacting it.

Continuous training can be provided as needs arise and new technologies emerge. For example, if your team has identified a need to develop content for AR experiences, you can provide access to online or offline courses and buy an AR headset for the team to play with.

Teams

Internal teams form the backbone of the innovation framework at TWi. A team-based structure permits a small group to focus on an area of knowledge, research, or projects. Team formation may be based on expertise or areas of interest. For example, a visual graphics team may research the requirements for 3D CAD drawings used in an AR experience.

Milestones

Innovation tends to happen in the context of smaller activities, starts and stops; but there should be some over-arching milestones.

Initial milestones should be high-level. There’s a careful balance to consider. Milestones that are too specific can stifle innovation. If they’re too broad, you end up with chaos and may never reach a goal.

Projects and activities

Innovative activities can range from research to experimenting with tools, or even coming up with a more innovative process. Activities may be organised into projects with phases, project plans, and shorter-term milestones. Project teams can be interest-focused, skill-based, or multi-disciplinary.

Balance Growth and Sustainability

Innovation leadership seeks a balance between growth and sustainability. It’s not easy to manage growth, and the resources required, while maintaining profitability.

Innovative teams need time, and that’s time not spent on client work. They may need software licenses not required in daily client work and may need them only for brief periods to experiment. If you’re looking at emerging technologies, your teams may need some hardware for testing.

Companies need to achieve net gross and profit margins while scaling up as growth occurs. Innovation leadership means making sure all resources are available, but also balancing those resources with existing client needs.

In Summary

To future-proof your technical writing team, provide specific training around emerging technologies, establish a supportive culture of innovation, and create an innovation framework for ideation and activities that maintains a balance between growth and sustainability. Create a communication plan based on trust that ensures everyone is moving in the same direction.

Finally, ensure that all team members clearly understand the company vision and are moving toward a common goal. Provide just enough oversight to maintain all innovative activities within the confines of that goal, while making space for new ideas and the resources to research, test, validate, and develop those ideas. This approach will build resilience into the entire company and future-proof your technical writing team.

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