World Class, Summary (Long)

Subject: World Class, Summary (Long)
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Sat, 28 Oct 1995 08:51:00 EST

Some time back, I posted a question from a client about what constitutes a
"world class" company and, by extension, "world class" documentation. Here's
a summary of what came back to me. Some of these comments were on the group,
while others were private. Thanks to everyone who responded.

Most respondents felt that the term "world class" was merely a buzzword.
Mike Huber said that is was a label that strongly implied that marketing had
written the documentation, rather than the tech doc team. John Gear, while
acknowledging that "world class" was an annoying clich=E9, wrote that "=
class' is a benchmarking term used in a scale of descriptors for the quality
of services and manufactured goods (industry best/best of class/world
class)," in essence, you're positioning yourself against the best there is,
worldwide, in a kind of willingness to step up to the "big leagues." He did
not, however, go into greater detail about how the benchmarks were
established, monitored or maintained. Or, indeed, who is to do these things,
whether foreign or local.

Some respondents were more specific. Wayne Hausmann laid out a
tongue-in-cheek set of two measurements for "world class" documentation:
it's mentioned favorably in magazine reviews of the product, and it wins STC
contest award. He goes on to explain that using those measurements has, at
the very least, benefited his tech doc department enormously.

Stuart Burnfield, while also cynical about the term "world class," opined
that documentation meeting that standard would probably meet the simple
standards we're all familiar with: helping the customer/reader do their
jobs, knowing all the customers/readers, being clear and concise, using the
right medium for the task, producing materials efficiently, and adding value
to the product/service.=20

Some respondents, of course, mentioned translations. Geoff Bradbury, for
example, extracted his definition of "world class" from the dictionary:
"...sufficiently good to be acceptable anywhere in the world." and mentioned
that "world class" documentation must therefore be readily

My analysis of the responses is this: To be "world class," you have to do
what you've always done to make a quality product, but you'll have to do
more of it. To be specific:

1) We've always striven to know our audiences. But "knowing our audience" in
a global marketplace isn't as easy as having worked in the industry in the
U.S. To produce "world class" documentation, we have to take into account
the cultures, languages and expectations of people very different from us.
It means much more usability testing and a lot more language and cultural
2) We must compare our work now with that produced by every competitor
worldwide, even with those who have little or no presence in the U.S. And we
must evaluate the competition's work, not with our own provincial standards
of usability, clarity and appearance, but with an eye to what is accepted
beyond our territorial waters. "Quality" will now have different meanings in
different circumstances. We cannot just fall back on our U.S.-bred gut
feelings of what constitutes quality work. It must be more formalized and
tested. We can no longer trust our instincts, because they are largely
culturally-based. The nodding heads around the tables at review meetings are
not enough quality check anymore. It must be more analytical and based on
cultural norms other than our own.
3) Availability of resources varies worldwide. A computer-based online
training manual may not be appropriate in Thailand, where computers are=
4) We must be prepared to redefine what we mean by "adding value to the
product or service" that we are documenting. Other cultures often use the
products or services differently than we do in the U.S. We must not only be
sensitive to such differences, we must anticipate them. And we must resist
the temptation to resent other cultures' rejections of our approaches.

In short, it's what we've always done, but more so. The challenge is in an
arena where the United States has traditionally done poorly, that of
inter-cultural relationships. It's comparatively easy to amass
specifications of foreign products and then boost them slightly to turn out
a "better" product in U.S. factories. But it's much harder to understand the
foreign market's mindset and peculiar needs. Perhaps that is why
technology-driven American companies have made a joke out of the term "world
class," placing the responsibility for making their products "world class"
on their marketing departments rather than on their designers and factories.

Again, thanks to all who participated. Further thoughts are welcome and
encouraged, both public and in private.

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
Technical Documentation and Training
Voice 317.899.5882
Fax 317.899.5987

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