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"Powerful as a consumer, lame as an employee"

by Tom Johnson on Feb 15, 2011
categories: technical-writing

"How can it be that I am so powerful as a consumer and so lame as an employee?"
We're powerful as consumers, lame as  employees.

Kai Weber posted an interesting idea from Geoffrey Moore called the Big Disconnect. The gist of the idea is this:

How can it be that
I am so powerful as a consumer
and so lame as an employee?

(See How can you exploit the Big Disconnect.) This idea rings true to me, as I think it often does when you start out as a consumer of a product and then transition to an employee of the company producing the product. In my case, I work for the LDS Church, so if you can think of the Church as a product, the same reasoning follows.

In our organization, there's an application clerks use to record information. This system has a manual that has always been less than inspiring. Before I started working for the Church, this manual was the extent of what I perceived of technical writing from the Church. The online help was all text, without even a screenshot. I couldn't download and print it. About the only thing going for it was context-sensitive help. I saw myself one day creating video tutorials and other materials for this product.

Well, when I become an employee, as Moore points out in this Big Disconnect, I was lame. The employment base in the Church is huge. Maybe 5,000 at headquarters? 800 in IT? I'm not sure. It took me 2 years to even figure out who produced the manual. When we finally identified the individual, he was not in our department, so this entire knowledge domain belonged to another group, not even in IT. My stewardship in the organization resided with apps that were internal only, so I felt even more lame trying to explain to others what I did. You what? What kind of apps are they? For who? Do you ever work on that clerk manual? That's how the conversations sort of go (if they begin at all).

Funny thing, after three years, I am now in a position to rewrite this manual. But I've been so busy with other projects, I've hardly had time. The product manager hasn't been seeking me out. I talked to some of the outside writers responsible for it, and it turns out they lack the necessary tools to do anything more than what they've produced.

The difficulties of implementing a new approach are not insignificant. The help needs translation into 20 languages, three main departments need to author content, including members from the community. There may not be much budget for making updates once it's produced, and so on. Can you guess that I haven't even started on the project?

This is just one example of many where I've wanted to arrive on the scene, size up the needs, and produce head-changing results, but I just can't seem to jump through all the hurdles -- hurdles with project priorities, allocated budgets, department boundaries, knowledge domains,  time limitations, etc. It's so much easier as a consumer to click through an online help and complain about the uselessness of the content.

Another Example: Social Media

The same story repeats itself with social media. I'm a blogger, right? I know how to build cool-looking, functional websites. I know how to integrate other social media channels, interact with community, find new topics, and produce regular content. I can't look at my organization and see the chasm of blogging without feeling a need to jump in. But again, here I am also lame. First, I would need buy-in for the blogging endeavor. And I would need access and billing codes. Surprisingly, after three years, I actually have all three of these ingredients. So why aren't I taking off as a blogger, establishing a fresh new corporate voice with regular new content?

Several reasons. First, unlike my blog here, I have to get approval for everything I write at work. I can't just pick a topic, spin a few thoughts, and post the content. First I need to identify the product managers for the product, and then I would work with the manager to get approval for the content. After this approval, the content also has several other levels of approval, some of which include legal. All images need IP clearance, and after all this, it's a miracle if the content has any individual voice left at all. Also, it turns out writing these kinds of marcomm articles aren't so fun. I'd much rather write posts like these, with a more transparent voice that expresses my personal viewpoint. So there's a lack of motivation as well.

I don't suspect that my situation is any different from others in large organizations. And in the organization I work for, I care about the product quite a bit. I feel personal ownership because I'm also a consumer/customer. When a product manager makes a decision I disagree with, it somewhat unnerves me because I'm immersed in the product world even when I'm not at work. I feel like a stakeholder in the decisions, not just an employee taking orders. Despite all this personal investment, I continue to be lame.


Coming back to Moore's point, and Kai's analysis, how can we break out of employee lameness and assert the power that we have as consumers? I'm not entirely sure, but I do know one thing. When I persist at something, the path eventually unfolds.

For example, I've always wanted a recording room for screencasting (rather than hauling my equipment to a conference room). Eventually I found the ideal room. I had security add a lock to it, and they gave me the key. I talked a secretary into giving me two big flat screen monitors for the room. I convinced another approver to get me some additional docking stations. Another managing secretary now recognizes my group as the room's stewards. If I was really scrappy, I could probably scrounge up some acoustic foam panels from the audiovisual department. As I record more screencasts in this room, I'll start to build an awareness about this capability. Eventually, the screencasts will make their way into the help materials I'm creating for this clerk documentation I mentioned earlier.

Someone once explained to me that working for big companies is like riding on board a cruise ship. It's very difficult to make turns or change course. The change is slow and requires a huge radius to make the turn. You might spend many hours just trying to find the captain's bridge where the ship is even steered. When you do find it, you may not even meet the captain, but rather one of his subordinates that has no authority to change course anyway. Once you get buy-in to change course, you'll need to coordinate the change of course with the ship's port domain authorities. When you finally have full authorization, there might be a sudden glitch in the overly sophisticated bridge controls.

In contrast, on a small sailboat (a small company), you can stop or turn or change course quickly and nimbly. There's no question about who is sailing the ship, or what needs to be done to change course.

However, despite the seeming advantages of smaller ships, cruise ships do things that small ships can't. When you move forward on a cruise ship, you're making waves that the small sailboard does not. You're carrying hundreds of people toward your destination. You're carrying an entire environment of people, not just one or two seabirds. Although cruise ships can seem slow to change and bureaucratic, they can also have a lot more impact.

Internal Social Media

We have implemented a new tool in my organization that is reducing lameness. As a consumer, one source of power comes from the free expression of your voice on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. That open and free communication has a strong influence on other users and the company.

Why can't social media tools be used inside organizations to render the same shifts? In the latest podcast from Six Pixels of Separation, the authors of the book The Now Revolution assert that the tools can. We've been using something called Yammer. It works just like Facebook except that it's restricted to employees only. You need an email address with the right domain to gain access.

Twitter is cool, and Facebook is popular. But Yammer is fascinating. Conversations are taking place across silos in interesting ways. Some employees are critical of the products of other departments. Others have information requests and suggestions that reach others as well. Yammer is breaking down department barriers like nothing before. I believe it's a social tool that will help transform the organization in the same way social media has transformed consumerism. The question is whether we'll let our powerful consumerist behavior loose in the workplace as well. Whereas there is little risk for letting loose as a consumer, doing the same inside your workplace requires more temerity.

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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