While we navigate the impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown, many of us are contemplating what the future will look like afterwards – for the wider economy and our own work prospects. Here, Ray Gallon, author, keynote speaker and co-founder of The Transformation Society, outlines how content and information professions are likely to evolve in the next 10 years – and why he thinks the best years are still ahead for those working in technical communication.
For techcommers who want to still have good jobs a decade from now, there is good news and bad news, and they are combined in the same sentence:
If you imagine technical communication as sitting in a corner, writing manuals, that job will be gone – in fact, it already is, but not everyone has been informed!
This is good news because it means that the work we do has evolved, and will continue to develop new facets, new activities, and new horizons that make the job ever more interesting and challenging. It’s only bad news for – well, I think you know whom.
The best time to be a technical communicator is still ahead
For most of the last 20 years, many of us have been saying that this is best time ever to be a technical communicator, and I’m throwing my hat in the ring to say that the next decade will be an even better time to be working in any profession related to content, information, knowledge management, design or architecture.
I have no magic vision into the future, and can’t guarantee my speculation will be correct but I’m convinced this is true.
People will still need to have complex products, ideas and processes explained in a clear, concise, coherent manner. How that happens, though, will often be quite different from today’s processes.
Not only that, technical information is going to include exploration into domains it has never before addressed, for example, ethics. “How’s that” you say? “What’s ethics got to do with technical communication?”
Techcomm’s role in the ethics of machine-led activity
Well, of course, ethics has to do with every aspect of our lives, but apart from that, let’s say that in the year 2040 you own a driverless car, or you’re a patient in a hospital where a robot is about to perform delicate surgery on you while the doctors only watch.
What kind of information do you think you would need about how your car behaves in difficult, possibly life-threatening situations? As a technical communicator, might you not have to explain the ethical principles governing the algorithm that controls this? What if the manufacturer provides options to an owner about how the car will behave? What guidance would you need to provide to be sure the owner is properly informed and can make an intelligent choice?
As a patient, what do you need to know about surgical robots, or about the protocol for intervention by the human doctors monitoring the procedure? Who is going to prepare this information and present it to you? With human doctors, we understand that sometimes a patient does not make it through an operation, or even that the doctor makes a mistake. Are we prepared to accept that some patients will die at the hands of a medical robot? Are technical communicators prepared to deal with these sorts of issues?
Eight predictions for technical communication 2020-2030
Here’s my personal take on how I think the content and information professions are going to evolve in the next 10 years:
- Personalisation will be a big issue – personalisation of content delivered and personalisation of how the content is delivered to users. Opportunities will come at the technology end: designing the architecture of system that will do this and in designing the architecture of the content to be delivered.
- Ontologies are going to become increasingly important. Personalised content implies that we give users an offer of content to choose from – one that must be much more limited than the millions of pages we get from a search engine result yet allows the user to go off in unexpected directions. Well-designed ontologies can provide just such a filter. There will be lots of opportunities for ontologists, working together with artificial intelligence (AI) to produce information offers on the fly.
- Taxonomies of all sorts will also be needed, and people who specialise in creating and maintaining taxonomies will also have lots of new opportunities.
- Specialists in certain core technologies will be in demand – people who can communicate with users about APIs, blockchain or similar technologies, wide area networking (WAN) systems for Internet of things connectivity, artificial intelligence and more.
- New roles as technology develops – as machines become ever more autonomous, making decisions without human intervention, a whole new class of information specialist will develop, related to the traceability of those decisions, their conversion into human language and their archiving. Along with that, insurance companies and legal practices will need people capable of clearly explaining these processes and relating them to existing and new legal frameworks for responsibility, liability and accountability.
- Content curation will become a specialty in itself. Curation doesn’t mean only selecting existing content, it also means arranging and assembling mashups that make sense and have significance for different use cases. This implies also creating metadata systems that enable the processes of combining and recombining content.
- Content operations – the entire area of content design and architecture, and the enabling engineering – what content consultant Rahel Bailie refers to as ‘content operations’ – is going to flower. Many of the items already listed above fall into it and many more will become apparent going forward.
- Content creation – almost all of the above points will also require the traditional writing skills we have always brought to the table, including the ability to render complex concepts simply, and get users operational quickly. Content creation will not go away – it just won’t be the only thing we do.
How techcommers need to change
For many years, I have claimed that technical communicators don’t do technology – rather, technology is our subject matter. I’m going to have to change that tune. All of us in the content professions are going to need to master at least the basics of the technologies that support our work and deliver it to users.
In fact, content and the technology that delivers it are going to become inseparable and indivisible.
This is a positive development, as it means that vendors are not going to be able to develop products in a vacuum. The technology of content production and delivery needs to evolve organically, as a function of expressed needs, together with the content itself and its changing nature.
If we all become better versed in that aspect of our work, the products we use will only be improved, and our lives will be made easier. Not only that, we’ll have lots more opportunities to continue doing what we love, and making a good living at it.
What’s not to like?
Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society, which promotes digital transformation and organisational learning, and the Information 4.0 Consortium. He teaches at the Universities of Barcelona and Strasbourg, and is co-chair of the Transformation and Information 4.0 Research and Development Group of the World Federation of Associations for Teacher Education.
Ray is an associate fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, and a former STC international board member. He is the author of books and articles about technical communication, instructional design, content strategy, and emerging technologies. He is based between Barcelona, Spain, and the Occitanie region in France.