Re: Real value (was implementing single-source) (Long)

Subject: Re: Real value (was implementing single-source) (Long)
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 10 Nov 2000 10:54:14 -0800 (PST)

--- Dan Emory <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com> wrote:
> Andrew's version of the "new economy" is apparently one that,
> Luddite-like, ignores modern ways of improving productivity.
> As the Scientific American aritcle I cited in my earlier
> post pointed out:

No. I support "profit-centric" approach to business issues - including
documentation. Productivity is not the same as profit or success. There are
plenty of unproductive firms that are astoundingly profitable and successful.

Productivity MUST produce REAL, TANGIBLE value. Many technologies these days
simply do not. They promise productivity and they deliver new problems and new
ways to eat up valuable time.

Furthermore, quick and efficient are rarely synonymous with quality. Quality
documentation flows from the well-informed mind of a talented writer, not some
huge documentation system. No XML based system can or will make documentation
better if the people feeding information into it are morons. Morons at the helm
of a powerful documentation system will just produce crap faster.

Most XML-based implementations are outlandishly excessive. Writers who cannot
handle complex information with their minds are not going to fair one iota
better with some huge XML implementation. All it does is give overpriced
consultants more business and writers a new toy to fiddle with when they should
be interviewing SMEs and drawing diagrams.

Many firms would be better off to train their writers to understand
technologies better and enhance their writing skills.

When I want to re-purpose information, I use the most powerful document
management system in the universe - my brain. It works without an international
standards body.

> Andrew's Luddite tirade below against "infrastructure" and
> the XML approach is the old economy way of looking at
> things. The old way will survive only in small old-economy
> companies who cannot (or won't) pay the cost of admission.

So, now you're for the New Economy? Come on, Dan. Don't pull a Florida on me.
Tally up your opinions today and announce a winner.

I've heard this exact same argument from consultants advising dot.coms. Telling
them they need to buckle down and burn off the majority of their funding to
implement some gargantuan system that may or may not work.

The cost of admission into XML isn't just paying expensive consultants. It's
strapping your writers down to being data processors. Its strapping your
organization into the latest fad. Its strapping your firm down to a massive
infrastructure system that may take more energy to maintain than it saves. Its
strapping yourself into a rigid system that simply does not respect the
individual writer and dynamic, changing environments.

I am not against infrastructure. I am not against XML. I am against waste,
excess, and diversion. I am against writers shirking their real job so they can
play with expensive toys. I have rescued more than a few technical publications
departments who got knee deep in an XML or similar implementation when upper
management said, "This is BS, we aren't paying you to play with XML. Pump out
some docs." I've watched more than a few writers get canned because they
couldn't do the basics of their job and masked that with obsession over big,
expensive systems, like XML.

It is very tempting to build complex, powerful systems because they are new and
cool and people like yourself are passionate about them. But that is not what
business is about. The job must get done, and done in a manner that respects
the bottom line and the people manning the tools.

> Andrew argues that technical writers are hired to write documents.
> No they're not. They're hired to produce information, and
> structured, tagged, information in a non-proprietary format
> containing descriptive metadata is the modern way
> (or, as Andrew would have it, the New Economy way)
> to produce information in the most efficient,
> manageable, useful, and economic way.

*Produce* information, yes.

XML and document management systems do not produce information. They *process*
information. Only a human being who understands concepts can *produce*
information. Garbage in, garbage out.

These large documentation management systems are touted as flexible, but they
really are not. They hinge on a rigid database structure where all information
must be tagged, blocked, and categorized. Not condusive to rapid, fundamental
change. Not condusive to creativity. Not condusive to flowing, concept-based
documents. Not condusive to profit-centric businesses. Many of them consume
more time in the management and maintenance than they save in document

One place I worked at last year, had spent over $250,000 on consultants to
build a documentation management system. It was a black-hole that ate
information and spat it back in useless formats. The company abandoned it,
fired the passionate consultant, and went back to good old Word. They paid me
$35,000 to produce a doc set in three months that three consultants, and
$250,000 worth of billing couldn't produce in a year. A case where good old
hard work was much cheaper than a "New Economy" solution.

Of the firms I have helped with documentation, the ones that have huge
documentation management systems almost always wind up scrapping them or using
them at 1/100th of their capacity because they cannot afford to commit 2 or 3
"writers" to maintaining and managing them.

XML may be useful at large companies. It may very well have value. But I
caution anybody considering it - do your job well FIRST, then find ways to make
it better. If you can't handle the basics of technical writing, it will not get
any better with an advanced documentation system.

Andrew Plato

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