There are times when we should stop for a minute and think about where the road we are on will ultimately lead. October has been such a time for me. The road analogy recommends itself in part because I spent much of the month on the road travelling from one industry conference to the next. Now my reflections are mostly directed towards the road on which my particular industry finds itself – that being the industry that focuses on content as an object of strategy, management and technology.
Now I have written about industry tradeshows in the past. My post on The Death of the Tradeshow (as we know it) offered a decidedly jaundiced view of the standard industry tradeshow. Observing my own editorial policy to balance any negative comments (where those are unavoidable) with constructive contributions, I did point out that I had encountered new practices at various events that I felt offered hope that tradeshows could be concretely improved so as to offer better value for attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and organizers.
The good news is that I found my conference experiences in October 2012 to be quite constructive and that several of the positive elements I had been musing about were in evidence. I thought I would make specific mention of some of the things I saw that I believe are worthy of note and indeed of some praise.
The first item on my list is the pre-conference thought leadership event at Lavacon 2012 (Adobe Thought Leadership Day) that was hosted by Adobe Systems, and specifically by the team responsible for the Technical Communication Suite. This gathering was organized as a very congenial way for conference attendees to get warmed up and it was facilitated by Adobe’s Maxwell Hoffmann (@maxwellhoffmann) who also shared lots of little known facts about Portland, his home town. The day assembled a formidable line-up of speakers that included the irrepressible Scott Abel (http://thecontentwrangler.com/), Sarah O’Keefe (http://www.scriptorium.com/), Joe Welinske (http://writersua.com/), Val Swisher (http://www.contentrules.com/) and Mark Lewis (http://quark.com/ and http://ditametrics101.com/). The event wrapped up with a panel that included Joe Welinske, Beth Gerber, Bernard Aschwanden, Val Swisher, Joe Ganci, Sharon Burton and yours truly and that managed to hit a huge number of topics in the incredibly short window of 30 minutes (and this was possible because the panelists were able to succinctly speak to different sides of each topic raised by our energetic ringleader, Scott Abel).
What stands out for me about the Adobe pre-conference event is the fact that the program that had been put together was outstanding and it was done in a way that completely lived up to its billing as a thought leadership event that would be completely independent and non-commercial despite its having been sponsored by Adobe. Now it should be underscored that putting on such an event requires a lot of hard work in addition to the not insignificant financial costs. The benefits for the people who participated in the event were quite obvious from their active participation in the sessions and the discussions that continued into the afternoon. I wanted to throw a spotlight on this investment by Adobe because I think it is an example of steps being taken that intentionally seek to deepen the experience of participants in an industry event. And this redresses what I had railed against in my earlier post on the Death of the Tradeshow – which was the tendency towards superficiality that is seen in many events. I think that those of us who participated in the pre-conference session then entered into the Lavacon conference with lots on our minds and I think that this proved the investment to have been worthwhile.
So we move onto the Lavacon 2012 conference, held this year (October 6-9) in Portland Oregon (check out this neatly packaged video summarizing the Lavacon event). This event has been evolving over the last couple of years and this is reflected in both the program and in the mix of participants. The rapid rise of content strategy as a topic of management interest is one change that was plainly visible. Collocated with Lavacon was the Content Strategy Workshop, which had been organized by Rahel Anne Bailie (http://intentionaldesign.ca/) and Scott Abel (@scottabel) and which followed the main activities of Lavacon. Arrangements had been made so that attendees at either one of the events were encouraged to participate in both events and this had the beneficial effect of mixing communities that are only now starting to come into closer contact with each other. By this I specifically mean the confluence of marketing and technical communications. Other trends could also be noted including the rather inescapable rise of the mobile device as the content venue of choice and another was the equally inescapable fact that products, and the associated content, are being delivered to a global marketplace.
Reflecting back on Lavacon 2012, I did note a number of recurrent themes in the presentations and panel discussions. And this speaks to an alignment of energies that I think bodes well for the industry. Perhaps the most important one is the recognition that, as communication professionals, we need to engage the management teams within our various organizations with a new and more forceful message – essentially that effective communications that reach customers wherever they are and that they find useful in helping them do their jobs is fundamentally good business. Rather than being sidelined as an after-thought and a cost-center that is constantly being shortchanged, the way an organization communicates with its customers throughout the “customer lifecycle” is of strategic importance. Good communications drive business in a global marketplace. Many things flow from this recognition but it is good that it is being declared more and more loudly and with more and more confidence.
Although there were in fact other events that I participated in during October, I will fast forward to TCWorld 2012 in Wiesbaden Germany. In many ways, this is the great grand-daddy of conferences that are focused on technical communications. One of the things that lifts TCWorld to this stature is the fact that it is an event that bring participants together from all over the world. And this is no accident as the conference organizers go out of their way to showcase the participation of companies from India, China and Japan. This would be enough to recommend the TCWorld event but there is another feature that merits attention.
The TCWorld program is noteworthy in that it incorporates a significant number of workshops that typically run just under two hours in length. These are noteworthy because it permits speakers and participants to dig into a topic in more depth than would otherwise be possible. And this again helps to redress the problem of superficiality that afflicts so many industry events. I know that in my own experience at TCWorld, discussions that started during my workshop continued for sometime after the scheduled end of the session and resurfaced repeatedly in the days that followed (even during an end-of-conference disco).
So now that I have arrived at the end of a month of conferences, and have recovered from the physical toll taken by too many airport lounges and too many schnitzels, I can look back at the experience as quite positive. I know that my work on a strategic planning model was forced through several stages of development thanks to the penetrating comments and questions of colleagues. More broadly, it is also heartening to see how different vendors are refining their offerings and making an increasingly clear case for how improvements can be made in way content is handled and leveraged.
All this means that when I pause to consider where the road is leading, at least for those of us engaged in the content technology industry, I am pleased with the direction in which things seem to be going and therefore resolve to quicken my pace. In particular, I see that the many gains that we have been making as an industry must still be classified as tactical improvements. What seems to be still missing is a strategic positioning that will genuinely connect what we have been collectively working on and what so many organizations desperately need. I believe this means that I have my work cut out for me.