Preserving Golden Opportunities

Well, cherry picking season passed long ago, but it was followed hard by apricot season.

It’s really been a remarkable year for apricots. The variety of apricots in our region is essentially biennial. Oh, they produce some fruit in the “off” year, but it’s not much. Last year I think we got five altogether. Most people in the region have two trees, producing in alternate years. We’ve also got two, but they produce in the same year. Why the previous owner did this I am not sure, and probably it was unintentional.

In any case, when they come ripe, the apricots come falling off the tree faster than you can pick them up off the ground. You sit under the canopy of branches, on a warm summer day, clearing the ground in front of you. While you’re picking the fruit up, you hear more drop into the space you thought you’d just cleared. The insects buzz, the birds are in intense song mode, and all seems right with the world. You’ve got so many new apricots.

Oh yes, did I mention that you’ve got so many new apricots? You see, it’s a problem. These are not just low hanging fruit, they are golden opportunities, waiting to be picked up.

Golden Opportunities

Like fresh ideas, new initiatives, or “urgent” matters, if you leave them lying about too long, they go bad. Apricots get stale, fresh ideas get pigeon-holed for “later” (I.e. never), new initiatives lose their energy, and urgent matters not only cease to be urgent, they cease to be, period.

Since we can’t eat all those apricots in such a short time, we get cracking:

  • We make jam
  • We use them in chutneys
  • We freeze some
  • We make pies and cakes

In our profession, of course, we can often have the luxurious gift of abundance of ideas and initiatives, without the time, resources or support to realise them all, and of course, we end up frustrated, often cursing our bosses or our cruel fate.

The trick lies in knowing how to seize these golden opportunities, which are often unexpected. We don’t have to realise all these great things at once, but we do need to keep them from going bad. This often means slowing down the decay process. So we can consume (realise) some opportunities right away, and use the others to make jam, chutney, pies and cakes, and so on.

Making jam, pies, etc. for us means transforming our brilliant but currently unrealisable ideas into realisable alternatives or derived products. Obviously, the biggest obstacles are time and resources, and they are usually interconnected. to give a simple example, maybe you’ve got a great way to put all your XML topics into a jazzy CMS. But you don’t have the budget to buy the CMS nor the tools people to configure and maintain it according to your great plan. Well, why not model your structure in your existing software configuration management system? You can leverage existing resources, and probably get your software team interested in helping you set it up, especially if it helps them pull your information into their builds.

You can also freeze some of your projects; freezing is a preservation method. Preserve your projects and ideas by taking the time to detail them, so you can come back to them with the same excitement and enthusiasm you had when you dreamt them up.

Only one thing: unless you can get this project or idea into action immediately, please DO NOT put it into the system to linger and die while everyone tells you what a good idea it is. Pick your moments strategically. Even if you have an abundance of good ideas, it’s best to use just one or two at a time, and pull the frozen ones out of the freezer when you need a little sweetness in your professional life, and golden opportunities are out of season.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that we give a lot of our fruit away. Pies, cakes, jams, chutneys, too. That’s something else you can do with your good ideas – give some away to others in your organisation who might be able to use them, probably sooner than you can. Some people won’t credit you, and that hurts, but you’ll have contributed to your organisation, and what goes around, comes around, not always in the ways we expect.

Another thing I forgot to mention about our local variety of apricots: they get black gnarly spots all over the skin, that look like nasty canker sores. But when you peel them, they are lovely inside: fleshy and tart if you take them a bit early, or juicy and sweet if you take them at their prime of ripeness. I was talking about this with our deputy mayor, recently, and he said, flat out, “black spots are quality.” Remember, that the real source of quality is almost always hidden, and many a truly golden opportunity can be stained with black spots.

Otherwise put, “perfection is the enemy of the good.”

The EuroIA Summit – a Wow Experience

I did plan to write this a bit earlier, but while I was in Prague at this year’s EuroIA summit, I got a bout of bronchitis that’s been slowing me down. That said, I can still easily say “Wow.” It was a great conference.

What made it great, first and foremost, was the spirit. Just about everyone there was infused with a certain joie de vivre that was infectious. People were there to share and celebrate their profession. The “celebrate” part was really important. There was a sense that information architecture, as a profession, had gone through some hard times, and that it was now possible to hold one’s head up high and jubilantly proclaim to the heavens, “Ich bin ein IA!” – OK, wrong language for Prague, but I don’t know any Czech ūüėČ

Another reason for the success of this conference is that it is deliberately kept small – sold out at 200. This is done to guaranty that most people get to speak to most people, and that you get to meet new folks, not just hang out with old friends. The small group fosters camaraderie as well. There were only two concurrent sessions at a time, so, although choices were sometimes difficult, they weren’t as daunting as for some larger conferences.

Then there was the quality of the presentations themselves. While I can’t say that they were uniformly outstanding, every presentation I attended was able to grab and hold my attention, even the one that I found disappointing. No one was so boring that I wanted to leave. That might seem to be a backhanded compliment, but anyone who has had to organize a conference knows that it is very difficult to achieve such a thing in a three-day event.

I specially appreciated that this conference was really for people in Europe. There were some attendees from North America, but the focus of the conference was on European practice and European issues, and that was a refreshing change from many so-called “international” conferences where people from all over the world can congregate and talk about the state of their professions in the United States.

One innovation of this conference that I really loved – and will probably steal next time I have to organize a conference myself – was what they called “The IA Shuffle.” Conference chair Eric Reiss explained that in the past, organizers had been disappointed by the poor quality of panels and debates that had been proposed and prepared in advance. They decided, a few years back, that an improvised panel couldn’t possibly be any worse, and thus was born the IA Shuffle.

Here’s how it works. At the beginning of the day, a tall hat is placed in front of one of the meeting rooms, and attendees are invited to drop their proposals for a panel discussion topic into the hat. At the end of the day, in plenary session, a single topic is drawn from the hat, and that is the topic of the discussion. Volunteer panelists are then solicited, and the process is repeated as they put their names into the hat. Five or six names are drawn, and Bob’s your uncle! A panel is born.

I personally agree with Eric Reiss’ assessment that the panel we witnessed was every bit as good, and perhaps better for its spontaneity, as any prepared panel could be.

I came back from Prague knowing that next year I’ll be submitting a paper proposal, and going to Rome for EuroIA 2012 whether my paper is accepted or not.

Where do You Come From?

How many of you tech comms reading this have a technical or engineering education?

When I ask this question of students in the master’s programme where I teach, or at speaking engagements, it’s invariably a minority of hands that go up. Personally, I’m not surprised. Most of the technical communicators I know have a background in arts or humanities. And the ones that have science or engineering backgrounds often have strong secondary interest in humanities subjects.

My own background is in music, theatre, and journalism. Of those, journalism makes some sense – a journalist, like a technical communicator, explains things to people – often translating from one mode of expression to another (as in: economist to average citizen, politician to skeptical reader, scientist to TV viewer or web visitor, engineer to end user, etc.). The rest?

Well, if you go deeper into it, my musical interests have always gravitated to the avant-garde, especially if technology was involved (computer music, synthesizers, fusion forms, free jazz, etc.), and in the theatre, I always worked with lighting and sound, two elements that are both intangible and related to technology. In short, I’ve always loved technology along with the other things I love doing, and combining this love of many things made tech comm a no-brainer for me.

I used to read manuals all the time – REALLY – I READ THEM!!!!

I found two things: I could become the “expert” about something just by doing this (most people didn’t bother) and I could write it better, most of the time. So, eventually, I started doing it.

Humanists gravitate to tech comm because people in the humanities generally have a wide variety of interests, intellectual curiosity, desire to understand and then to communicate that understanding.

It might be tempting to add that humanists don’t talk nerd – but if you want to be a good tech comm, you’d better know how, even if it isn’t your native language – and I think I can qualify myself as a genuine nerd in my fascination with some of the details of technology – hence the name of this blog. ¬†At the same time, I share with many other technical communicators, a passion to explain it.

We are teachers, Chatauqua leaders, maybe even evangelists for the products and services we write about. At the other end of the spectrum, behind the scenes, we also seem to get passionate about how these things are done, improving processes and facilitating internal communications. There, too, we explain, we teach, we innovate, and we share.

A Rant About Communication Style

OK, in theory, I should not be writing politics here, this blog is about technical communication.

BUT………………

Recent events in the U.S. bring up a question that is related to communication, albeit not technical.

The recent (yesterday) shooting in Arizona, it seems to me, is a logical conclusion of the hate mongering that began back in the 90’s in U.S. political rhetoric. ¬†While it is not exclusively the domain of the Republican party, it seems to predominate on that side of the political fence.

It started with the hate campaigns launched against then President Clinton.  It started with pure lies (yes, I KNOW they were lies) told by a senior senator and former presidential candidate regarding the Canadian health care system when Hilary Clinton was attempting to cobble together some sort of universal health care plan for the U.S.

I know they were lies because I am a citizen of several countries, including Canada, and have lived under the Canadian health care system – something the U.S. senators have not.

Since that time, the entire tone of political rhetoric has hardened, and become still more aggressive and violent. This includes radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who function by innuendo and suggestion, without backing up their assertions with facts (who needs them?).

I would remind everyone, that this tactic, known as “The Big Lie,” was admirably practiced by one Joseph Goebbels during a small military skirmish known as the Second World War.

The Reagan and Baby Bush administrations (essentially the same folks) honed these techniques to perfection – see George Lakoff’s admirable analysis, Whose Freedom? for details.

The now notorious cross-hair post on Sarah Palin’s web site that included¬†Gabrielle Giffords as a “target” is a perfect example of the kind of hard rhetoric I’m talking about.

Let’s be clear here – I am not taking a stand for or against any political position in this blog, it’s not the place to do it. ¬†I am making a very loud, protesting cry against the tone and style of political communication in this day and age.

Ms. Palin is entitled to her opinions about universal health care, but she is not entitled to publish inflammatory texts that suggest attacking (however metaphorically) other human beings. When she tweets out “don’t retweet, reload” to the world, this is, in my view, the kind of limitation to free speech that justice Frankfurter referred to when he said the first¬†amendment¬†does not include the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre.

I hope Ms. Palin will think twice, three times, and more, before publishing or spouting more “shoot from the hip” aggressive attacks. She should be ashamed. ¬†I fear she won’t be, and that, also, is alarming.

To the Palins, Limbaughs, Becks, Bachmans and other demagogues of media or politics, I say with fervor and sincerity, the fact that someone disagrees with your political position does not render them  a traitor to their country or a bad person.  The fact that you paint them as such, does render you one.

There – I’ve started slipping down the same slope. ¬†Let’s not go there.

More About Communities of Interest

In my last post about WikiLeaks, I used the term, “community of interest.” ¬†What’s this all about?

Let’s start with a very simple analogy: ¬†Primitive humans, in prehistoric times. ¬†These folks quickly formed communities of interest, based on the paleontological record. ¬†Why?

  • Not because they look alike
  • Not because they have a family relationship
  • Not because a psychologist told them they ought to do it
  • Not based on advice from the most recent self-help book…

They formed communities because they were hungry, and catching a mammoth requires a group effort!

What this means, in reality, is that our notion of “community” as a cooperative group working in some sort of altruistic harmony towards a common goal or common welfare, is not a complete definition.

Communities can form for very short-term reasons, and for very selfish ones. ¬†Communities of interest on the internet form and dissolve all the time, and can often have shifting composition and purposes. This mobility of community is an interesting phenomenon. As the youngest generations, those who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and the like, mature into adulthood, it will be interesting to see how the “moral” idea of community gets changed.

Are we headed towards a world where “community” is defined purely by self-interest? ¬†Will the variety of human motivation survive the era of instant gratification?

The community of interest organized around WikiLeaks is infuriated at what seems to be a conspiracy to close the site.  This could be purely altruistic in nature, or could be motivated by a generalised anti-authoritarianism fueled by anger and frustration in the wake of events such as the recent financial crisis.

Whatever the motivation, the tools of contemporary communication technologies are playing a role not only in accompanying social change, but in driving it.