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Strategy Versus Tactics and the Ongoing Debate about Roles

by Tom Johnson on Oct 26, 2010
categories: technical-writing

In the ongoing discussions about content strategy, one recurring idea keeps emerging: strategy versus tactics. The key differentiator between content strategy and technical writing is strategy. The content strategist develops a strategy; the technical writer carries out tactics to fulfill the strategy. The general develops the battle strategy, the troops carry out the necessary maneuvers to realize that strategy.

Which is more valuable: strategy or tactics?

Although strategy is generally held as a higher-level task (MindTouch says content strategists are the next corporate rock stars), others scoff at the value of "strategy." For example, Dick Carlson, responding to Olivier Blanchard's snarky post on the proliferation of self-appointed strategists, says,

This kind of talk is what used to get me in trouble at Microsoft. I used to tell people that "strategy" could be done in a few minutes, and that "tactics" took skill and experience and would go on for years and years.

Strategy: Sell low-cost goods in huge stores

Tactics: Build the world's most efficient distribution chain in Bentonville, AK and beat the hell out of your suppliers for 20 years.

Strategy: Sell ok coffee in really nice stores with comfy chairs from people wearing green aprons.

Tactics: Spend years convincing emerging nations to sell you beans cheap, and spend years convincing yuppies to give you $5 a cup for flavored water.

I have always been proud to be a “tactician”, a “practitioner”, and a guy who knows how to actually take a messy battle plan and make things happen. And the Generals really like me, because they end up winning.

In other words, strategists aren't the geniuses that get results. Instead, the genius is the innovative tactician who finds a way to overcome all difficulties and achieve the near-impossible "vision" of the strategist. Carlson suggests strategists simply state the end goal (for example, "to win the war against on terror"), whereas tacticians develop the ingenious plans to bring about that goal.

One could argue the matter differently. The strategist could easily develop the strategy with a lot more detail before handing it off to the tactician. For example, following the same theme, the strategy might be to "win the war on terror by launching a massive education campaign that targets the youth in Afghanistan to understand the benevolent motives of the West." The tactician would then figure out the details of the education campaign, such as creating literature, providing scholarships to Western universities, or implementing humanitarian aid camps.

Exactly how basic or detailed the strategy is might vary, but we should be careful of assigning the tactician to a lower-order thought process.

In the context of help authoring, the strategies might also be basic or simple. A simple help strategy might be to help users learn a software application. Such a strategy is no more ingenious than a leader's strategy to win the war on terror. We all probably support the strategy of helping users learn an application, but how on earth are we going to achieve it?

At this point, the tactician arrives and begins to analyze the audience's most troublesome pain points, designs a series of short guides targeted at each pain point, and provides this information as attractive job aids that the users can pin up around their cubes. In this case, the tactician is the genius; the strategist is the simple thinker.

One could equally argue that the strategist develops a more detailed plan. For example, our strategy might be to help users learn this application by targeting their pain points and developing short one-page guides that users can easily pin up in their cubes when they run into problem situations. The tactician, then, would begin to determine what these user pain points are, create attractive layouts for the guides, and maybe even laminate the guides and include a box of pushpins when distributing the guides. In this case, the strategist is the genius; the tactician is merely the worker bee.

Does thinking strategically make you a content strategist?

Olivier Blanchard on the Brand Building Blog keeps maintaining a constant idea. He says,

Content is tactical, not strategic.

In his view, you can have a communications strategy, but the content you produce supports that communications strategy, so content is tactical, and not strategic. He rejects the semantics of the term "content strategist" and instead prefers someone to be a "communications strategist" who develops content to support a communications strategy.

As a technical communicator, I don't object to either way the argument is positioned. Whether you're a communications strategist who develops content to support your strategy for communicating to users, or a content strategist who develops content in support of a strategy to communicate to users, does it really matter?

In a comment on the ongoing thread on Sarah O'keefe's Scriptorium post on Content strategy for technical communication, Larry Kunz, who played a part in earlier distinctions between the term technical writer and technical communicator (see You May Already Be a Technical Communicator!), points out that despite the shift to content strategy, the semantics may not have any impact on tech comm professionals in the workplace. Larry writes:

... On Monday morning [despite my new title as a content strategist] when I walk into the client meeting to talk about the new project, they're going to say “We need you to create some PDFs.” It's very hard to move managers away from that mindset.

It's hard, but we have to try. Do you think it will make any difference if we start referring to ourselves as content strategists rather than as technical writers or technical communicators? Put another way, if I refer to myself as a content strategist, will that Monday meeting go any differently? Instead of saying "We need some PDFs," might they say "Tell us how we can make our content work more effectively"?

In other words, does changing our job title change how others in the workplace perceive and interact with us? About two years ago, as we were redefining my group's name in my organization, I complained about the way the term technical writer pigeonholed me into a stereotype about providing writing tasks and nothing more. As a result, we changed our group's name from User Education to Information Strategies and Design. At the time, Information Strategies and Design sounded sexy and high profile. It sounded a bit mysterious too, so no one could simply dismiss us as writers only.

But as I introduced myself on project teams, noting that I'm on the Information Strategies and Design team, no one had a clue what that meant. Over time, to deal with the confused looks, I gradually moved back to saying User Education. It's a term people understood. My role, for the most part, was to provide education.

I'm not dismissing the power of names. My official title is "Senior Technical Writer." And project managers almost always consider me just for writing tasks, giving audiovisual deliverables, design work, or usability research to other people and departments. I've written about this frustration before in "Tech Writer: 'Someone who writes as opposed to someone who rides something', The Name of Your Department Does Matter," and my series From Overlooked to Center Stage.

But I have learned another truth: actions are more powerful than nomenclature. When you start acting strategically, when you listen to a project manager's request for a certain type of help and you say, Yeah, well, let's think about that a bit more, doors open up. People start treating you differently; you start exchanging ideas about strategies rather than tactics. The job titles fall by the wayside and you start functioning as a key team player without regard to a specific role.

Future Discussions of Content Strategy

I have been somewhat obsessed about the topic of content strategy lately, but I predict that this buzzword will soon blow over as the heated topic among tech comm professionals. Here's why. Besides the fact that almost no one's job title is "content strategist" in the field of tech comm, the discussions about content strategy spin around endlessly on semantics and definitions, with no real substance behind the conversations. The discussions about content strategy mostly revolve around what a content strategist does, and then devolves into abstract debates about roles and nomenclature and who should do what.

For example, in my previous post, I delved into strategies for achieving relevance, findability, and clarity in tech comm projects, but those topics weren't that exciting or controversial. My final note about content strategy nomenclature, however, incited comment wars.

Yesterday Gary Franceschini summed it up well, explaining that the last section overshadowed the former content. Gary writes,

An excellent post, Tom.

However, my main takeaway from this article isn't in your content -- it's in the posts that followed it.

Why? Because the discussion quickly dropped into a battle of semantics, theories, and philosophy. This concern with how-we-work over end-product has an immediate deleterious impact on what gets put in front of users.

Therefore it's really no wonder so many users detest "help" and other forms of technical communication.

Amen to that. We get far too caught up in what to call ourselves. Many tech comm professionals have spent years battling between the terms "technical writer" and "technical communicator." These semantics have achieved little in the workplace, and only serve to reinforce our futile goal of landing on the right term that will earn us sudden respect and recognition on project teams. It's a kind of navel-gazing form of self-pity and attempted aggrandizement.

Semantic wars
Everyone seems overly occupied with titles and roles rather than the problems and solutions users face.

As I said, I think the discussions will lose velocity and return to the core that Gary suggested: the end product rather than the how-we-work. Here's an olive-branch like sign that gives me hope. Yesterday I saw an description from the STC for an online 101 certificate course from Leah Guren. The description begins,

Technical communication is an exciting and challenging career that offers unlimited opportunity for professional development. But to succeed, it's not enough to learn a desktop publishing or Help authoring tool—you need to master the analysis process. This is a thinking person's dream career!

A thinking person's dream career. Wow. I could not help but contextualize this remark within all the discussions about content strategy and tech comm and tech writing. All the lines people have been carefully drawing and delineating about who develops strategy and who doesn't -- it's quite ridiculous. Regardless of any job title, you do what's necessary to solve a problem. You think and analyze and strategize and dream and then work, work, work. When you forget your title and self this way, whether you're a content strategist or technical writer or information developer, positive things start to happen. You achieve real solutions that influence the user experience.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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