Re: Resolved: Technical communicators can create information

Subject: Re: Resolved: Technical communicators can create information
From: Steven Jong <stevefjong -at- comcast -dot- net>
To: TECHWR-L Digest <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 19 Jun 2010 15:29:59 -0400

OK, I admit, I started this 8^)

I love the definition of information Chris Despopoulos found at BusinessDictionary.com (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/information.html):

"In general, raw data that (1) has been verified to be accurate and timely, (2) is specific and organized for a purpose, (3) is presented within a context that gives it meaning and relevance, and which (4) leads to increase in understanding and decrease in uncertainty. The value of information lies solely in its ability to affect a behavior, decision, or outcome. A piece of information is considered valueless if, after receiving it, things remain unchanged." Richard Saul Wurman, who coined the phrase "information design" and spoke at the STC Summit a few years ago, similarly distinguishes information from data. Information is the useful stuff you extract from data.

I think the original objection to what I wrote in the Carolina Communiqué came from a journalistic perspective. Journalists aren't supposed to inject their own knowledge or opinions into a news piece; if they do they're overstepping their bounds. Similarly, technical writers aren't supposed to, or perhaps have no standing to, provide their own knowledge or opinions. Only the SMEs can say anything about their creations.

By giving an example of creating information where none existed before, John Posada has short-circuited this discussion. (What a buzzkill... 8^) The popularity of the Dummies books, the Missing Manuals, and so on is due in part to authors who aren't bound to hew to a company line. While the technical writer for a popular product dutifully informs us of what the program can do (oh, say the Microsoft Word master-document feature), the third-party author is free to tell us what works well--or, in this case, what doesn't.

I think the discussion goes to the heart of our value proposition. I've recently read about three levels of information activity, all conveniently beginning with C so I can remember them: collect, curate, and create.

Collecting information is like recording radio signals from space, or for us, just getting and assembling information from SMEs. It's obviously a low skill job; technicians can collect the astronomical data, and technical writers can document procedures, but it opens practitioners to calumnies such as "I provide the information, you decorate it." (Ouch!)

Curation is what happens in museums, or libraries, or when a graduate student combs through the radio data looking for interesting signals. There is value added in the selection of information. In our domain, our readers don't want to wade through hundreds of pages of procedures on how to manipulate objects in an interface; they want to know how to do things that make their jobs faster and easier. When we helpfully point them out, we add value.

Obviously, the most valuable of the three is creating information, though here my astronomy analogy breaks down: I don't mean faking signals from space 8^) SMEs can create information. Can we? Chris's definition makes it clear we can, and John recounts how he did. I think organizing and clearly presenting data, even data from SMEs, constitutes creating information.

-- Steve (seeking the big bucks)


Steven Jong ("Typo? What tpyo?")
SteveFJong -at- comcast -dot- net
978-413-2553 [C]
Home sweet home page: StevenJong.net

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Follow-Ups:

References:
Resolved: Technical communicators can create information: From: Steven Jong
Re: Resolved: Technical communicators can create information: From: Milan Davidović
Re: Resolved: Technical communicators can create information: From: John Posada

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