Many people are sick and tired of all the non-stop chatter about digitalisation, of Industry 4.0 and smart information. Isn’t it all just more hot air that’s being spewed out to get everyone talking? Is it really so important? After all, everything’s been working fine up to now, hasn’t it? And if it is so wonderful, won’t digitalisation make us all superfluous in the end? A subject, in other words, that requires closer examination.

Digitalisation is the present

When the digitalisation evangelists start to preach about its demands and opportunities, then it often sounds as if digitalisation might perhaps turn up one day, almost as if it were something for the future. However, that’s only half the story: there may well still be a lot we have to do to prepare for the years ahead, yet at the same time a huge number of steps have already been taken – even if they’re frequently not blessed with the term “digitalisation”. It goes without saying that technical writers already utilise a sophisticated infrastructure of specialist tools and technologies, such as content management systems, machine translation, terminology management and controlled language checkers. Even the way we think about how to write manuals has changed. When you talk with engineers about digitalisation, you will notice that they look upon machines in their digitalisation strategy in an extremely fine-grained way as “digital twins”. However, as soon as the conversation turns to “digital information twins”, the talk is suddenly all about documents and manuals, rather than content units, variables and metadata.

In other words, digitalisation is something else that technical writers have been mulling over for some time. It is important to stress that we technical writers have already gone a long way down the path towards digitalisation. This reduces resistance levels and mollifies stubborn mindsets. The question is therefore not whether we (have to) digitalise, but how to proceed with it in the most promising way. At the same time, it’s important to gen up on the existing digitalisation success stories so that we can bring ourselves up to speed with what a digitalisation project really involves. Relying solely on the judgements of the digitalisation fans within a company means dispensing with 30 years of experience in the digitalisation of content and smart information.

Digitalisation starts right now

If you want to press on with the digitalisation of your authoring environment, the first question that needs asking is, “Where are we at present?”. An actual state analysis provides a foundation upon which you can quickly and efficiently proceed with the digitalisation of your authoring environment. Which digital tools are available? How do you evaluate them? Which functions are working to your satisfaction, where are improvements required?

Equally important are questions such as: what demands will we face in the years ahead? How will your customers use technical documentation? Have media habits and usage patterns perhaps changed? Do all customers receive the information they need when they need it? Are there any cost pressures and how can digitalisation help alleviate them? What digitalisation activities are taking place in the rest of the company and how can the technical writers get involved?

Once you have answers to these questions, then you will usually have some initial ideas that will move you further along the digitalisation path. Ideally, you will be looking at measures that provide a good cost-benefit ratio. Costly measures that only deliver any discernible benefits in the medium term are less helpful. For many companies, digitalisation measures fall into the “need to justify” category. Successful projects that quickly deliver results pave the way for more comprehensive projects with a medium-term horizon, but which may then result in significant change.

If there are no projects that promise quick results, it may be useful to link into an already existing project. If this cannot be done either, then it will help if you can find some supporters within the company. Are there any measures that will enable you to press ahead with digitalisation in your authoring environment, yet at the same time might prove beneficial to marketing, support, sales or service? By working together, you will achieve the necessary persuasive impact that an individual department struggling on its own would be hard pushed to generate.

What the digitalisation of tomorrow will bring

What are the areas to focus on when looking into digitalisation? Where digitalisation is specifically heading varies over time – some topics that are the subject of heated debate today will tomorrow be just so much water under the bridge. There are three main areas that stand out when considering where digitalisation is heading as far as technical writing is concerned. One is the subject of customer information and big data. Applications of interest here, for example, are machine translation and intelligent support chatbots. Large quantities of user data can contain hidden gems relating to documentation and product usage.

Another area of interest can be summarised using the term “content delivery”. This is all about providing users with the information they need at the right time using the most suitable means.  The foundations for this are provided by content delivery servers and a metadata architecture that allow the respective content units to be controlled in a targeted and customised manner. Many technical writers have already done the spadework for the above by introducing component content management and modularised content. For technical writers, it is precisely this that can act as a starting point for a much closer integration with business processes and as a way of generating additional added value.