February 2019
Text by Mathias Maul

Image: © sarah5/istockphoto.com

Mathias Maul is an author, ex-therapist and process consultant. In his presentation at the tekom conference 2018 he talked about self-optimization and focusing on the essential. 



This article was originally published in our German member magazine "technische kommunikation"

Fertilizing wallflowers

Technical communicators would like to be visible within their company. However, like other departments, TC is stuck in compartmentalization. Overcoming it is no easy task – at least not until now.

In Douglas Adams' "So long and thanks for all the fish", Wonko the Sane creates a lunatic asylum for the entire world, by turning his house inside out. According to him the world had finally gone mad when a package of toothpicks needed to include a set of detailed instructions.

 Technical editors, as I am often told, really don’t have it easy. They are mere typing machines, sitting in their basement offices all day and meeting up with colleagues at night to continue working. "Wallflowers? We’re not wallflowers, but mosses and lichens! We have to know everything but get to say nothing! Lucky we don’t have a backbone, otherwise we’d show them up there what we are really capable of!"

This is an exaggeration, of course. However, marketing, especially self-marketing does not work without a little exaggeration and polarization. This is further enhanced by a personality problem: many technical editors – so I am told by the same people – lack fundamental features in their personality to show any interest in self-marketing. This has the wallflowers going around in circles and the problem remaining unsolved.

From a rational point of view, it is easy to see: as soon as the technical communication team of a company gains visibility, the company will also gain. It’s a sad fact that flagship companies, in which things are running smoothly, seem to be the exception – merely isolated solutions or coincidences.

This article aims at showing first steps towards a system in which these alleged coincidences become more likely. To help me get this information to where it is most effective, three professionals are helping me boost my argument: Frank Haibach, director of the German tekom regional group “Mitte”, as well as psychologists Fabrizio Ferri-Benedetti (director of technical communication at games designer King) and Andreas Benkowitz (managing director and change consultant at alstracon).

Behind closed doors, my dear readers, all your bosses sense the enormous potential that is sitting in these basement offices, but due to a lack of system, they have not been able to reach the surface. Please send this article one or two levels up. Because, to quote Mr. Haibach: "Added appreciation leads to added value. Someone who is only called to clean up, sort out the mess or make corrections will not be satisfied with his or her work and will end up costing the company a lot of money."

Invisible means insignificant

Let’s start with a short terminological clarification: "Visibility in a company" does not have the same meaning for the regularly decorated sales person as it does for the technical editor, who may have written a great chapter 21. Visibility as such is not as important, it is merely a means to an end: "Companies often associate being invisible with being insignificant. This does not promote appreciation and motivation, inspiration and advancement – neither for the employee nor for the company," says Frank Haibach. "Being invisible means not being asked or heard. This lets companies miss out on immense economic potential."

The potential of a visible – and recognized as important – sales department can easily be measured. The measurable success of the technical editorial department is usually only recognized by its own staff; colleagues of different departments get a glassy-eyed look when editors tell them about the deeply networked, yet invisible influence of their teams.

At the same time, the human factor needs to be considered: if technical editors are seen as mere linchpins inside service departments run like cost centers, they will only work-to-rule. This will neither enhance the company’s drive for innovation nor its motivation of employees. Eventually, this will bring about the proverbial horsemen of the apocalypse: internal terminations, burn-out, fluctuation of knowledge, innovation backlog, etc.

So, this is the hypothesis: More visibility leads to more relevance inside the company leads to more potential to contribute leads to a better outcome for all. If it were that simple, things would be going great everywhere. Now let’s have a look at one of the reasons the nut is so hard to crack.

Changing compartmentalization

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book "How Emotions are Made" caused some disturbance within the change-management field: "What makes her research groundbreaking is that categories are rooted within the brains physiology. They are not simply mental constructs," explains Andreas Benkowitz, former personnel manager at Microsoft Germany in an interview. "Categories are colloquially referred to as compartments, suggesting they are a construct that is easily changed. Just stop compartmentalizing, so they say. In reality, categories are rooted deep within the collective subconscious of organizations and entire branches and are brain-physiologically measurable and therefore verifiable in every individual."

A brief experiment: Picture a typical sales person. Now, a typical employee in a marketing team. And now, a technical writer. So? What do you see? – Just the fact that you were able to create a "typical" sales person, marketing employee and editor in your mind, makes a compelling case for the existence of established categories. "Category means: the editing department does, what the editing department does," explains Andreas Benkowitz. "When an employee enters the meeting room and introduces himself, everybody knows immediately and subconsciously what he is doing all day." Or, and that is the problem, everybody thinks they know. The category "technical editor" is seen in many companies as an "internal service provider who writes instructions," even though that is only a small fraction of what technical editors do for the company and an even smaller fraction of what they could do. Only very few companies describe this category in a way that appreciates its integral function.

This "stickiness" of mental categories is part of the reason why the actionist calls for changing them does not bear any fruit: while it is possible to shake up a category, hanging on ropes with colleagues during an outdoor event, everything will be back to normal shortly after. "The brain is constantly predicting the future. As long as this prediction is not severely disturbed, everything I perceive will reinforce this prediction. Even if someone changes his doing by 90 percent, I still won’t recognize any difference," Andreas Benkowitz explains.

Categories as such are very useful as they save our brains a lot of time for calculations. However, once a category is not (or no longer) useful, it cannot simply be changed by a few impulses. It can only be dismissed by actively creating awareness through positive irritation that will disturb the predictions of the brain to such an extent, it won’t have any other chance but to build new categories: Only through this process will the wallflower be transformed.

But… into what? If every member of the editing team has the chance to change categories, whenever, wherever and to be seen differently, become more visible and to contribute more, then which category should they aim for?

From now on crystal

The answer is, go figure, a clear "it depends." Each organization is different and needs different categories. Fabrizio Ferri-Benedetti said in our interview: "To become a good writer, it helps to read a lot. To make a good job in technical documentation, you have to be a good reader of everything that’s going on. This support function to project management brings lots of value. I’m not just a writer – I am a very involved reader of what is happening in projects."

Technical editors of all sectors have one thing in common: In order to perform well, they need information from all corners of the company. Like in a chemical solution, saturated with information, they form the crystal nucleus, turning into something that is an integral part of the life-cycle of products.

Pretty metaphoric, right? – It is one of many possible examples for your situation. Use it as a basis to find your own, ideal categorization. Because, as Ferri-Benedetti further explains, "once you really research the impact of your contribution, it’s quite easy to break out of the cost center mind-set. You need to realize and measure that techdoc is part of the experience we’re delivering." Whether his insight will lead you to my suggestion of a crystal nucleus or a different concept, is up to you – in any case, a metaphor is usually a good basis.

Speaking of crystal nucleus: the initiative to change something usually starts with one individual. Either someone who is fed up with the status quo ("away-from motivation") or someone looking to create something new and positive ("towards motivation") – or ideally both. If you oversee a team of technical editors, simply choosing a designated change-agent or holding a painful meeting to vote for one won’t help. Like I mentioned before, one of the problems with technical editors is: "that they typically wait for a task to arrive. They seldom anticipate and are not proactive." However, simply realizing that it is possible to change something might lead to some movement within the deadlocked category – because naturally it also exists within the self-perception of the editors. Fabrizio’s description of his  job is a prime example for a useful self-perception: "I’m proud of the job I am doing, mostly because I know that I’m actively helping others to do a better job."

So now you know which category to aim for – what’s next? As a first step I recommend (as always), to reflect on the fact that often, the right hand in a company does not only not know what the left hand is doing, it actually does not even know the left hand exists. A little "show me yours, I’ll show you mine" might do the trick and establish an initial communication basis between departments.

Remember: change is effective if initiated at the bottom and carried up. There are no cheat-codes to skip levels. Short-cuts lead to instable results. Especially in big companies, initiatives are already sent packing at the C-levels antechambers, because categories like "service provider" or "cost center" are still engraved there.

The mysterious "empowerment" for positive irritation is created when an employee – possibly in the form of a crystal nucleus – realizes that by doing what he does, he can make a vital positive contribution to a different part of the company. Being proactive might lead him to sit down with an equally motivated employee from department X and to discuss ways in which both can profit from an enhanced integration. Have measurement categories already been established in the support department? What does the Web-team have to say about the analytic results of the FAQs? Is it possible to get the sales department involved and ask them about the everyday pains of their customers? Don’t wrap all of this into an ordinary presentation. Rather try and wrap it into positive irritations, leaving the recipients no choice but to see you in a different light.

"Only after the colleagues from different teams can present the usefulness to the company in a canny way, the step into the next level of hierarchy may be accomplished", says Andreas Benkowitz. They will manage to dissolve old categories, step by step, using a growing amount of positive irritation. And then they move on, together with these colleagues, to the next team, possibly even to the next floor.

When, after a few years – allow me to fantasize a bit – the technical editing department has turned into a value adding unit, recruiting and onboarding can also be adjusted to the new reality. Ferri-Bendetti: "From the company’s perspective, it should be clear which mindset they want in their techcomm people: 'Here is the product, write the doc' or 'You’re part of the whole.'" User experience once also started out as a wallflower, but is now a vital part of a product’s life cycle. Similar developments can be seen in localization and terminology, which are already closely intertwined with technical editing.

And what about the lichens? At second glance lichens are anything but vegetable underdogs. They are a group of plants characterized "by a highly developed symbiosis between fungus and algae. The symbionts live in close contact to one another and form a permanent physiological entity. Their dual nature is not apparent from the outside."

Symbiosis. Pretty clever, isn’t it?