TechComm Standards: Why They Matter, and Where They Don’t

By Andy McDonald | Guest Columnist

Editor’s Note: This month’s guest columnist, Andy McDonald, makes us think ahead to new technologies that affect our work. He raises the issue of differences between standards and formats (is DITA one or the other?), and reminds us that STC and other representative bodies need to be involved in the creation of evolving standards or someone else will do it for us.

gallonrayStandard Deviation is a column all about standards—a subject that affects most of our lives, but that we seldom think about. As the title implies, I want to keep the conversation lively and engaging. I’m always looking for guest columnists, and we welcome feedback with comments or requests for standards-related topics to cover. Email the column editor, Ray Gallon, at

Let’s try to start with acceptable definitions. And while doing so, let’s adopt a business angle. According to, in business:

  • A standard is seen as a “written definition, limit, or rule, approved and monitored for compliance by an authoritative agency or professional or recognized body as a minimum acceptable benchmark.”
  • A format is seen as a “Communication design: Size, shape, layout, typography, and arrangement of information given or sought in an ad, document, or form, whether prepared for display, printing, or storage.”
  • A file format is seen as a “specific structure or arrangement of data code stored as a computer file. A file format tells the computer how to display, print, and process, and save the data.”
  • Information is seen as “Data that is (1) accurate and timely, (2) specific and organized for a purpose, (3) presented within a context that gives it meaning and relevance, and (4) can lead to an increase in understanding and decrease in uncertainty.”

Additionally, TechWhirl ( defines technical communication as “a field within business communications [that] encompasses a range of disciplines that work together to communicate complex information to those who need it to accomplish a defined task or goal.”

Give these definitions, I believe we can agree that, in the tech comm industry, what we do is to manage information and make it available through standards and formats.

What’s our purpose?

Purpose is determined by the industry sector in which we work. The aeronautics, chemical, and medical industries are affected by regulations that require practitioners to adhere more to certain standards than to formats. In software, the emphasis is shifting to voluntary standards for improving user experience (UX) quality. Our purpose will change at different paces, depending on whom we work for.

What have we done?

Formats and file formats are often confused with standards. Information is trapped inside these formats. By doing this, we:

  • modify how we work, spending more time and effort on the format rather than on the information itself;
  • invest a fortune on formats, and by doing so, lose sight of where industry is taking us;
  • let the format define the context; and
  • spend less time on pertinence, relevance, and decreasing uncertainty, which is probably our major purpose.
What’s happening next?

Industry 4.0 will have a major impact on how we deal with information and how it is made available. For example, the Internet of Things has specific requirements for lean contextualized information. And artificial intelligence will have an even greater impact on access and use of information.

Real-time information

More and more, we need to consider real-time information availability, not delivery. What role do standards and formats play in this?

  • The standards should concern pertinence and context.
  • The formats will be decided by how information is accessed, not how it’s delivered. Intelligent UI (user interfaces) will tend to impose UX improvements.

Our roles and methods will change in this situation. Standards for information design and curation need to be defined for our future industry.

Delivery, as we know it, is disappearing, and this is what our previous effort on formats was chiefly about. We spent so much time on the latter, that we forgot to look over the hill.

Information has to be readily available (as opposed to made available) as a candidate for collation into contexts that will not be decided by us, but by requirements mapped onto a taxonomy-driven content collection, or even by robots and intelligent agents. Candidates will be collated based on standards that need to be written.

Unless we do this, regulatory agencies will make requirements that may not encompass the changes they do not understand very well (typically, requiring a complete paper manual, even when it is not read).

Emphasis on curation

Making information candidates available is about redesigning some of our methods. This means measuring pertinence and validating it, distinguishing knowledge, know-how, and accepted practices.


We must separate information from its format and start thinking about how to render it accurately, specificly, contextualized, and timely. The standards for information curation in Industry 4.0 need to be defined, and the time to do that is now.

ANDY MCDONALD is trained as a social psychologist. He has been working in the oil industry since 1988, and is involved in major software documentation projects (CGG & Total). He is now a product manager for innovative information solutions at TechAdvantage.

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