In the past 20 years there has been an upsurge in sport principles, such as focus and leadership, being applied to the work place. Anyone who watches athletics, whether it be an Olympics, World Championships or their local club league match, will be familiar with commentators who make remarks about race strategy also. This is when races are split into phases and an athlete will be advised (usually by a coach) when to take it easy, build up and when to apply more speed.
How do Sport Principles relate to Technical Communication?
Sports principles can be applied to any discipline. My athletics background is as a multi-eventer and before I decided I liked to do a bit of everything, I analysed each of the events open to me at the time, to see what suited me best. Luckily, most careers demand that you are able to multi-task, so much of what I have learnt, I have transferred and I have tried many activities that fall under the umbrella of “Technical Communication”, although I do not confess to being an expert in all of them.
In my series of articles, I will explore the different types of runner and apply the principles I have learnt to the Technical Communicator. I will specifically concentrate on the Sprinter, Distance and Marathon Runner and touch on the importance of the Relay Runner last. I will draw on past conversations with England Cross Country Management (one of whom is Eamonn Martin, past winner of the London (1992) and Chicago (1995) marathons); my own knowledge, plus my trip to London 2012’s Olympic Stadium last year.
But before we start and to set the scene, I thought you might like to see inside the Olympic Stadium, if you have forgotten what it looked like. I chose a day when heats where on and I was keen to watch the stadium fill up. For any athlete (past, present, old or young) the Olympic ethos is quite strong. I am lucky that I have met and had friends that have competed on this world stage.
Just as in running, speed, strength and endurance are linked to an organisation’s culture. To determine whether an organisation’s culture is appropriate for your make-up, you will have to determine what type of Technical Communicator you are. It will not matter how good a Technical Communicator you are, if your face does not fit, you will not succeed.
How has Technical Communication evolved?
Technical Communication is not just about creating content using software tools anymore. More importance is being placed on how you define storing it and using it. More and more companies are looking beyond software skills and are asking us to have content strategy, information maps & models, localisation/translation management and taxonomy knowledge, so they can use these skills to leverage market growth.
As a technical communicator, it is your responsibility to outline the methodologies to your managers and support them with the application of those models and case studies. If you can find something similar within the organisation as an example, it can sometimes help but do not always rely on those examples as solutions; this can be a mistake which would lead to you winning the race but losing the championship.
With that knowledge comes responsibility towards your business and customer. Also, you have to consider what is best for you. So, as an athlete competing in the Technical Communications world, when should you step up or down a distance? I will start with the Sprint Runner.
The Sprint Runner
The sprint runner will very often get a result quickly and apply a high level focus to each phase of his or her work. They will understand the overall business goals and customer requirements straight away and may even have endorsements from customers and/or suppliers for applying logic and well proven solutions. A sprinter’s race is by no means a short one. In today’s athletics, the 100m is analysed using John Smith’s Seven Phase Race Strategy. John Smith is an American Coach, who was responsible for coaching US athlete, Maurice Greene in the late 1990s and early to mid noughties, to multiple Olympic and World titles. The phases are:
This the reaction to the gun going off at the start. In terms of content strategy, you will have immediate buy-in from your managers and they will be on the starting line with you. If they are not, or they are on a staggered starting line, consider the Distance Runner’s approach. Some enthusiasm and knowledge of content strategy to be able to link it to business objectives and customer needs is nice here. You also need to assess how the culture of the company will lend itself to developing a content strategy and what things to take into account. See Ellis Pratt’s blog “Critical Risk factors about organisation cultures“.
This is what is known as the “athlete’s first step out of the blocks” and is crucial when going into the drive phase. In terms of content strategy, this means you need to identify the types of content being developed within the organisation; whether any can be reused; whether there is the need to translate into other languages and also, how the company operates. Is it a large company or small company? Is there an emphasis on collaboration and client-led projects or a chaotic “create and fling” approach to content.
Simultaneously, you need to assess how the customer uses your product and what they REALLY need; not what you think they should have. Is it intuitive? Do they want you to deliver certain types of content in certain formats e.g. User Assistance materials? Do they want classroom learning or can some of it be done online? Can you deliver them in a more cost effective way? Do they want a manual or are they expecting an Augmented Reality solution? You need to develop personas for each type of customer you have. For example: You may have your major accounts and minor accounts; what are the most important deliverables to each type of account holder? It would help at this stage to question managers higher up the organisation (at least at C-level) and ask more about how the organisation works and what their goals are to identify any weaknesses, opportunities and strengths that would help them not achieve or achieve their goals. Then see if there is any commonality with your project and marry them together.
Drive (up to 30m)
Maurice Greene is quoted as saying that in this phase “use the power as much as possible but less energy“. Here a sprinter will control their respiration and body position will be lower to the ground, so as to build speed more efficiently. Likewise, in content strategy, this is really where it starts taking off and notice this the longest phase in the race strategy. You should be able to bring all that information together and form what Rockley & Cooper identified as a “Unified Content Strategy”. So you deliver that to your managers and what next? Well, it’s not a solution but it is a focus on how content is created, managed and delivered. It is only one piece of an overall corporate strategy that needs to be married to business objectives and reviewed on a regular basis. It should help managers focus on what needs to be delivered not just externally, but internally, so that customers receive what they want from your content.
The sprinter here lifts his head and so should you! You’ve got managers to buy-in to a content strategy and you are getting them to focus on the deliverables and how to deliver them.
This is when the athlete goes into their top gear phase. The arms and legs are pumping and the perfect running mechanics is achieved and here is where you see the likes of Usain Bolt run away from the field. In the same way, you need to think the same way. So here, your project should be off the ground and you’ve formed your team of specialists or even got in some consultancy who can help you identify and start to implement the solutions you are going to use e.g standards like DITA/XML and collaboration methods such as wikis/social media.
This is when velocity is controlled for as long as possible in a relaxed body posture. There’s a reason why this is one of the longest phases. Here, to maintain a good content strategy, you have to develop a content lifecycle i.e. your Plan B. You need to hammer out workflows and processes to identify weaknesses in your processes or workflows and how to manage them. You need to identify the contributors and issues; who uses what the most and least; how they use it and deliver it; who signs it off and in their absence who is the person to do it? There is a comprehensive list of questions in any content strategy book.
Your head is a bit down and the finish line is in sight. Basically, you should be at the point that the project is nearly finished and you are handing it over to managers now. If you have prepared well, you should not really have to do much here as your managers will be well averse to what content strategy is and be mindful to keep on top of it.
Next time, I will look more at distance running techniques and tips for assessing whether your approach really compliments the structure of the company you are pitching to.