Renewable Documentation in a Disposable World

Recently, the Lead Change Group invited me to share my thoughts on Renewable Leadership in a Disposable World. In the post, I explain how several 20th-Century organizations fixated on quarterly profits at the expense of their own long-term viability.

There are many differences between the disposable and renewable organization and I won’t repeat them all here. But I wanted to share how a brand’s Technical Communication practices often reveal the sustainability level of the underlying business.

Disposable documentation

The disposable organization is optimized for quarterly profits, not long-term growth. For this reason, in the disposable enterprise:

  1. Documentation is viewed as a cost-center that adds little value.
  2. Documentation expenses are to be minimized by every possible means.
  3. Documentation resources are considered expendable commodities.

Because the over-arching goal is a quick sales transaction, documentation authored for the disposable organization:

  • Captures a snapshot of a product’s state at the moment of release.
  • Is NEVER updated to reflect real-world customer discoveries.
  • Exists to fulfill a requirement on a release-readiness checklist.

Renewable documentation

The renewable organization is optimized for long-term growth and the health of all entities involved, including shareholders, employees and customers. For this reason, in the renewable enterprise:

  1. Documentation is a proactive customer care channel.
  2. Documentation meets the growing demand for self-service support.
  3. Documentation authors are respected communications experts.

Because the over-arching goal is to build customer loyalty, documentation authored for the renewable organization:

  • Reflects the state of the product as it exists on the day it is READ.
  • Includes knowledge gained through actual customer usage.
  • Builds marketplace credibility for the product and the brand.

Appropriate Action

So what now? What if you read this and cry, “Alas! I work for a disposable enterprise!” Take heart: There is MUCH you can do! Any organization can transform from disposable to renewable if a sufficient number decide to “Make it So.” The change needn’t come from the top down or from the bottom up. Any entity can begin the cycle, simply by making a commitment to genuine service. If you are stuck authoring disposable documentation, here are a just few actions you can consider:

  1. Work with your web team to obtain a hierarchical list of your topics, based on traffic.
  2. Assess which topics your customers truly value and use THAT to guide future work.
  3. Use free social listening tools to gain insight into how your customers view your product.
  4. Seek permission to participate in your corporate customer forums as a trusted advisor.
  5. Study available user-generated content and look for ways to improve your branded content.

These are just a few ways you can take part in a solution. You need to find out EVERYTHING you can about what your readers need. Then, you need to change what you do to get them what they seek. They need you to advocate for them. If they want PDFs, give them PDFs. If they want mobile smartphone topics, give them that. Build your strategy on YOUR customers’ opinions. They pay EVERYONE’s salary.

12 Responses to “Renewable Documentation in a Disposable World”

  1. We need more tools and ROI calculators that help show the value of documentation. There are some really good case studies that make the point, but we need more. We’re also going to see communities emerge around documentation which will start to transform documentation into rich, communities for learning about products and services. It’s all right around the corner.

    • Agreed: I’ve seen some eye-opening data from Aberdeen Group ( on the ROI of highly focussed technical communications teams. There is a clear relationship between the study of documentation metrics and demonstrable profitability.

      In other words, success follows intentional action.

      (NOTE: For other’s reading this thread, Mark just helped AutoDesk deliver a renewable documentation experience – To see just HOW much is possible, look here –

  2. So….Let’s say (hypothetically, of course) that I’m in a disposable Tech Pubs organization. They pay me to grind out those static, requirements-fulfilling docs. They don’t pay me to analyze how the customers are using my docs, nor do they give me time for it. What then?

    Then I need to go outside my job description, perhaps work some extra hours and do things for which I’ll never receive recompense or recognition.

    Then, if I find that I’m wasting my time and it’s still not making a difference, I need to ask whether I really belong in this organization. That’s a hard question to ask in today’s economy. But what good is job security when the job is terrible?

    Bottom line: You’re absolutely 100% right both in the way you describe the problem and in the actions you recommend. But it won’t necessarily be easy.

    • Thanks Larry,

      Your hearty, practical reasoning always elegantly complements my mobilizing missives.

      Yes: I’m absolutely suggesting a need to exceed the “job description” – as it’s currently written. Considering the astounding rate of change in information delivery today, faithful aherence to conventional job descriptions could be like building sand-castles at low tide. The near-term will take guts and grit. But long-term, I genuinely think we have two choices – either radically grow the scope of profession itself or (eventually) join professions of lore (dictaphone typists, switchboard operators) in a list of things that once commanded a salary.

      We are too talented to watch and wait. The future is “text based” customer service (text-based support grows channel share each year, per TSIA) and we (the technical writers) are the wisest, clearest authors in most organizations. I’m excited to be part of our collective future alongside great thinkers like you, Larry!


  3. There was an Aberdeen report (“Technical Publications as Profit Center”) out last year. Good docs see 41% decrease in customer support calls; 42% decrease in call resolution; and, 41% increase in customer sat.

    Happy customers => more revenue + happy referrals => even more revenue for you.

    The calculators are out there, you just need to know what you’re measuring. The problem is more that most people don’t know what to measure and don’t want to go to the effort to do it anyway. The ones that do? They’re the successful ones. They’re the ones who socialize what they’re trying to do and talk to the executive level.

    It’s the ones trying to do it in the basement (thinking that time+effort=zero cost) that inevitably end up with a mess and absolutely no ROI.

    • Thanks much, Liz!

      I actually just purchased that Aberdeen report for my team at work (after seeing it in your LavaCon slides) and I’m studying it now. It’s well worth the fee for those making this sort of transition.

      You’re absolutely right that we must understand the corporate language and goals to influence those with authority. We have a real opportunity here, and I think we’ll see it done. We are, after all, professional communicators! 🙂


  4. I think perhaps the most important point you made is #3, in which you refer to “social LISTENING tools” – that, for me, is the heart of the problem. Are we really listening to our customers? It’s easy when they speak directly to us via feedback forms and surveys, but much harder when they speak indirectly via shifting brand loyalty.

    Knowing as I do your devotion to customer service, this is an excellent reminder that all efforts (should) connect back to that one overarching goal: delight our customers.

    • Thank you, Patty!

      You’re right: I believe the customers pay everyone’s salaries and that their needs must come first. My admonishment is that we meet them where they are and give them what they need. The businesses that intentionally pursue customer demand will still be around five years from now!

      Great to have your thoughts reflected here: You are a heroic warrior for the profession. Keep fighting the good fight!



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