In the first 2 weeks of June, a small but devoted team travelled from Helsinki to Paris to spread the word about modern methods in technical communication. The tcworld roadshow took us from countries on the Arctic sea to a country that has beaches on the Mediterranean, from “vodka in the rocks” in a bar built entirely out of ice to a “cafe au lait” in a Brasserie.
Interestingly, the weather up North in these two weeks was much better than down South, with a record of 31 degrees Centigrade in the Northern part of Finland while Rome was shivering with just 11 degrees at the same time. Plenty of sunshine in Finland, Sweden and Copenhagen, while the rest of Europe was facing winds and torrential rains, with floods driving people in German cities out of their homes and onto higher land. And to make things even better, we found a brand new ice cream parlor, opened for the very first day, where the only ice cream you can buy is a fully customized Magnum. You get to choose your own toppings, chocolate covering and finishing, making this into an exquisite replacement for lunch. It seems like these shops are being rolled out across Europe this month, and Helsinki was one of the first. Lucky us!
Several other presentations were repeated at half of the events. One of them being the discussion of Big Data in a Big World by Louise Harrison of SDL. We learned quite a number of new terms in her talk, such as “quintillion” and the difference between a German “billion” (one million million) and a US “billion” (one thousand million). I know in which country I would rather be a billionaire. An interesting approach to augmented reality was presented by Stephane Arnaud of Euroscript: he showcased a tablet with direct audiovisual link to an engineer somewhere in France, with the option to stream photos and documents in either direction, allowing the engineer to visually point out to the user what needs to be done to fix the problem.
A nice, low-profile high-tech solution that does not require fancy augmented reality gadgets like Google glasses or a virtual reality helmet. One more notable presentation was the one by Berry Braster of Etteplan Tedopres, about using modular techniques for drawings (among other aspects of modular documentation). Using SVG as a basis, layers in the image can be switched on and off, thereby requiring only one layered image for an entire procedure, with each step showing a different configuration of available layers and elements.
The discussions in the breakout groups were an interesting change from the regular meeting paradigm. They could have lasted a little longer, but on the other hand the short duration made for more focused work and useful conclusions that were drafted on a large sheet of paper and presented to the entire audience. A wide variety of views with a couple of aspects that reappeared at most meetings. The position of technical documentation within the company and within development processes seems to be a key ingredient for quality of the information that can be provided. There were also lots of best practice points for the “translat-ability” of technical content.
The state of technical communication
After all 6 events, the impression I have about technical communication in this part of Europe is quite diverse. Some events were biased toward translation technology and related issues, others were more involved in the management of information and TC teams. Notably, the panel in Eindhoven boasted high-ranking managers from Philips, HP and DAF Trucks, the latter managing a team of 100 technical authors for fully interactive service documentation delivered on tablets. At some events, discussions were about basic elements of technical authoring, whereas other events showed high-tech developments. This diversity between the 6 countries may seem appealing and does have its charm, but also shows a fundamental weakness of the state of the technical communication domain in those countries. With only 30 people showing up in some events (including speakers and organizers), the audience that is reached by the roadshow is very limited. The contrast with Germany, the homeland of tekom, is enormous: the majority of its 8,500 members is based here and the annual 3-day tekom/tcworld conference had an attendance of 3,800 delegates last year.
As for the technology that is being used to produce technical information products, there is a wide variety here, too. Some companies still try to make things work using MS Word, others have a proprietary content management system. Relatively few companies are using FrameMaker to edit their materials, although some might have gotten new inspiration from my presentation (as they are struggling with the transition from legacy documentation to the new XML-based paradigm). For those companies who have seen the presentation and want to know a little more, there is an upcoming event that may suit their needs: the Adobe-sponsored pre-conference workshop at Congility, on June 25th, will be an extended version of the talk, with live demos showing each step in the gradual migration from unstructured to structured FrameMaker and then from structured monolithic documents to a repository-based modular system.
All in all, the roadshow was a small but focused success. None of the participants left without taking some valuable and novel information with them and most looked like they had picked up some new energy and insights, which they were eager to apply on their next working day. Business as usual has, at least for a moment, received some input that might make it less usual and more effective.
The list below shows the individual blogs I wrote about each of the events in this roadshow: