By Beth Agnew | STC Associate Fellow
In our role as technical communicators, we create, edit, and manage content for a variety of information products. We often work as part of a team, and may be on multiple teams at once if we’re working on concurrent projects. At the Foundation level, Content Management focuses on teamwork and using websites to develop and manage information products. Competency in Content Management ensures projects are delivered to specification, on time, and that supporting tools such as websites and social media contain appropriate content.
Whether you’re part of a documentation team, or the technical writer assigned to a product development team, it is important to understand the characteristics of teams and how they function. Grouping people together on a team to collaborate, create, produce, and deliver to deadline isn’t merely a matter of making sure they attend the same meeting. It requires communication and some strategies for overcoming the inevitable roadblocks.
In 1965, Bruce Tuckman’s research into group dynamics yielded a four-stage model of how most teams learn to collaborate: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. He added a fifth stage, Adjourning, in 1970, believing that teams need closure before reforming into a new project team.
At the Forming stage, team members may be meeting each other for the first time. They start learning about each other’s strengths and abilities. The team’s mood is cautious optimism, and a good first activity is to engage in strategic planning for the project. This preparation phase, in which the project’s objectives and outcomes are determined, lays a solid foundation for future work together. The team identifies each member’s role and responsibilities so that tasks can be assigned.
Team roles usually allow members to contribute their particular expertise to the group’s work. On a team of technical writers, roles could include the co-ordinator who keeps things on track, researchers who gather information, the editor who organizes the document and ensures it adheres to style guidelines, and the designer who handles layout and visuals, including images and charts.
Once roles are identified, the team considers the project calendar and maps anticipated tasks and milestones to the project’s timeline to ensure the deliverable is completed on time. Some attention may also be paid to the project’s budget if necessary. The project calendar helps everyone on the team know what is due, when, and who is responsible for completing each task.
The project calendar and individual assignments contribute to the work plan, which is the collective vision of the project. A written work plan lets every team member see the same thing: a specific plan for what is to be created, when the tasks will be finished, and who is responsible for each part. Without a concrete work plan, team members may develop very different ideas about what needs to be accomplished.
The final step in the project planning activity is to agree on how conflicts will be resolved. Tuckman pointed out two aspects of conflict on teams—it is normal, and it is inevitable. Determining in advance how divergent opinions will be handled allows the team to keep moving forward, instead of becoming mired in dysfunctional working relationships. Conflict resolution strategies are important for morale and team progress.
Agreement on how to resolve conflicts occurs just in time for the next stage of team development: Storming. Friction between team members must be overcome through negotiation, compromise, and adapting to each other’s work style. People don’t always work the same way, and may have different expectations of their teammates. Inevitably, someone always feels they are doing more than their share of the work; people may be competing for resources or recognition, or they have concerns about the work plan or their ideas not being heard.
Using the agreed-upon conflict resolution techniques, the team can foster open discussion, allowing each member to voice their concerns and feel they have been heard. They may vote, come to consensus, or appeal to the supervisor to resolve the issue. When informal conflict resolution fails, mediation can help the team get to common ground. Mediation can be successful when the focus remains on the principles or facts of the problem at hand, and not on the personalities involved.
A selected mediator has each party state their position, and the points of disagreement are identified. Disputes arising from poor communication or minor areas of contention may be resolved quickly just by allowing each side to clarify their ideas for their teammate. When the conflict runs deeper, issues are prioritized, and negotiated one by one, until there is agreement that both sides can accept.
When an individual on a team is not doing their share of the work, and attempts to change this behavior are unsuccessful, removing them from the team may be the only way to keep the team on track.
The Storming stage is difficult for many teams, even when members have worked together before. New projects impose new requirements, but once through the conflict, the team enters the Norming stage.
Getting past disagreement allows team members to trust each other and settle into their roles. Instead of paying attention to their teammates, they focus on the project’s tasks and objectives. Issues that arose during the Storming stage may indicate needed changes to the project plan, and those adjustments can be made along with any reallocation of tasks or revisions to the timeline.
Virtual teams may have had a particularly rough time during the Storming stage, as it is more difficult to resolve conflict with people who are at a physical distance as well as an ideological distance. Geographic and cultural differences also contribute to tension among team members. More attention needs to be paid to communication when working on a virtual team. In addition to the work plan, the virtual team should have a plan for keeping in touch with each other, via email, teleconference, and video conference.
Good communication among members of a virtual team eliminates uncertainty. It builds trust and respect. Set regular times for connecting to talk and bring each other up to date with the project. It is also important to complete tasks on time and deliver what is required. Teammates align quickly with each other and with the project when they are confident that everyone is united and working diligently to achieve the project outcomes. A confident, capable team enters the performing stage when they are comfortable with each other and with their roles on the team.
A performing team has overcome obstacles and settled into a smoothly-operating rhythm of work, such that they can now focus on quality improvement. They regularly provide constructive feedback to each other, and may have developed metrics to gauge both performance and progression. Team performance reviews also help to improve the quality of the team’s work output.
While unexpected events in the project life cycle may force the team back into the Norming or Storming stages, they soon get back to performing effectively together. They have become a productive group. They deliver the project according to plan, and learn from the experience.
Collaboration and teamwork is integral to all assignments carried out by a technical communicator at the Foundation level.
Managing Content on the Web
Beyond knowledge of team dynamics and collaborative processes, Foundation competency in Content Management includes Web content development and the uses of Web-based tools in work settings.
Increasingly, people are turning to the Web for their communication and information needs. Teams, whether virtual or co-located, collaborate using web-based groupware, wikis, and audio/visual communication sites. Web-based publishing is a huge market, ranging from product descriptions on retail sites to how-to blogs and company profile sites. Everyone feels the need to have a Web “presence.”
In the early days of the World Wide Web, developers created Web pages and often contributed the content as well. As the importance of Web-based information grew, companies soon realized that pretty pages that loaded quickly weren’t enough to satisfy web visitors. Site usability, navigation, and the correct expression of messages on websites needed the contribution of technical communicators to write and manage that content.
Foundation-level knowledge of websites includes recall of the basic features of a website. The homepage, or main page of the website, identifies the site’s subject and purpose. It also forecasts the overall site structure, usually with navigation pages that help readers search for specific keywords, access menus, and find information using a site map.
The site’s node pages for different topics or categories of information are accessed by top-level menu links and lead to individual pages containing facts and details. A splash page, which users may encounter before the homepage when they first land on the site, is, well, splashy, with animations or images that entice readers to register to use the site, or access the site in a different language.
Existing in hyperspace as it does, a website can be a vast landscape for a reader to explore. Good website navigation includes consideration of breadth as well as depth of content. As a guideline, a maximum of three links should take readers to the most important information, with it taking no more than five clicks to get to 80% of the site’s content. Seven links should be sufficient to provide access to anything the reader wants to find on the site.
Technical communicators are often tasked with setting up and providing content for various workplace websites including social networks, wikis, and blogs. Your responsibilities may also include creating video and podcasts for customer support or as part of a company’s marketing efforts. Wikis let multiple users add and modify content, so they are effective tools for keeping documentation up to date. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter facilitate getting feedback from users but must be carefully managed to maintain the company’s reputation. Blogs convey information on a platform that is easy and quick to update.
Search engine optimization rewards fresh content with higher rankings on Google and other search engines. Consequently, the demand for Web content that changes frequently imposes a requirement to continually generate ideas. Logical mapping or “mind-mapping,” brainstorming, or outlining are good techniques to capture ideas. Freewriting, also known as a “brain dump,” lets you get a free flow of ideas down without editing, and is later refined and shaped to suit the message’s purpose. Asking the “journalist’s questions” of who, what, when, where, why and how can also yield sufficient information or at least topics for further research.
Mastery at the Foundation Level
Competency in all of these tasks and techniques are expected of a Foundation-level technical communicator in the workplace. Many of us do so much more, and those skills and work experiences then contribute toward qualifying for the Practitioner level of CPTC certification.
The Foundation exam will require you to recall key terms and facts about content management. With that knowledge, you are well prepared to assist your client or company with creating and managing websites and other work in a collaborative work atmosphere.
Without formal training in technical communication or substantial work experience on your résumé, achieving the CPTC designation demonstrates to an employer that you’ve met certain professional standards. If you aspire to salaries comparable with other certified professions (such as a Project Management Professional, Professional Engineer, or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer), the independent endorsement of your skills via CPTC gets you that much closer to being recognized as a vital part of a company’s mission and practice.
For someone with a significant history of successful technical communication work, CPTC certification provides personal satisfaction as well as formal recognition of the professional development you have undergone.
BETH AGNEW is an accredited trainer and one of the first to achieve CPTC certification, which she continues to hold at the Expert level. She is a professor, and co-ordinates the post-graduate Technical Communication program at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. Beth is an STC Associate Fellow. Seneca College is a CPTC accredited training organization, providing Foundation training to graduates and working professionals. For information on upcoming courses, see http://senecatechcomm.com/certification.