The Right Wrench To Hammer in the Screw

Posted by admin on August 25th, 2011 filed in Technical Writing, Wiki

“Nobody’s got time for that!” Not only we as technical writers, we all need to distinguish whether what we are about to say online is relevant to others. Will they care in the short, medium, or long term? Different communication channels are vastly more suitable for one or the other situation. Here some example messages and their best channels:

Short-term Communication

Urgency: High
Importance: Low
Target group: Anyone who has time right now to actively seek out news.
Examples: “Unexpected server outage”, “Happy hour in the pub”, “can someone lend me a bike pump?”
Don’t: Don’t disrupt people who are occupied. They don’t want to have to have to delete (by then outdated) messages from their inboxes or shared drives tomorrow.
Do: Use a channel where outdated items silently scroll off the sceen. Tag the news or allow people to tune into specific channels of interest (outages, fun, official, team-based…)
Best channel: RSS Feeds, Twitter, Flowdock, Slack, Chatter, Yammer, Facebook…

Medium-Term Communication

Urgency: High
Importance: High
Target group: One specific person (or group)
Examples: “Finish the report!”, “Reset your password!”, “A user reported a crash!”, “planned network outage”
Don’t: Don’t communicate urgent and important messages in a medium that just scrolls off the screen. Keep records in a tracking system that is easy to search and filter, and accessible by all involved.
Do: Make a phone call or walk over to their desk. If the person isn’t there, send a short(!) message that will sit in an inbox and beep for their attention within the hour. Communicate the task and consequences clearly from the start. If you come to a decision during the conversation, write it down where everyone involved can see it (e.g. in a task tracker that has a reminder function or “this week’s tasks” dashboard).
Best channel: phone, screen sharing, talk in person, email, shared task tracker (too many too list).

Long-Term Communication

Urgency: Low
Importance: High
Target group: “Everyone” but not every day. You don’t know who will need it and when.
Examples: “regular scheduled maintenance”, “procedure how to fill in your expense report”, “product release checklist”, source code change history, documentation change history
Don’t: Don’t email Word documents, nor attach Word documents to wiki pages. They will be hard to find and take several clicks to open, also people will accidentally create an unmaintainable amount of copies.
Do: Shared repositories are good for archiving static reference material. Version-controlled team tools are good for stuff that changes often and is edited by several people. Assign a “Wiki gardener” to prevent that reference material becomes hard to find (e.g. gets buried among unfinished drafts by current colleagues and among outdated files left behind by former colleagues — this always happens!).
Best channels: Shared drives, Wikis, Github

My point is, if you conflate those channels, you actually prevent your conversational partners from finding stuff when they need it.

PS: Fun fact — Not everything that is urgent is also important. Urgent-but-not-important situations are for instance the times when someone phones or texts or walks by your desk and asks for a favour that is important to them, but it might be a diversion to you. Learn to tell the difference, sometimes you have to say no.

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