Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Four Management Challenges in Implementing Information 4.0

Information 4.0 is a new concept but some of the technologies and methodologies that it encompasses are available and implementable today, albeit in early forms. But before that happens, Information 4.0 will face multiple challenges, just as online help and the web did in the 1990s.

In this post, I’ll discuss four implementation challenges on the management side:

  • Defining clear and consistently accepted terminology.
  • Demonstrating support for the company's strategic and business direction.
  • Dealing with problematic senior management biases.
  • Establishing and following standards, metrics, and analytics.

Defining Clear and Consistently Accepted Terminology

New technology often sounds like confusing gibberish.

  • Twenty years ago, and even today, there was confusion over “WebHelp” versus “Web Help”, for example. Because of that confusion, many companies bought the wrong tools, hired the wrong people, or just went off in the wrong direction.
  • Today, there’s confusion over the meaning of “mobile”. Is it an app? Responsive online help on a laptop and a mobile device? Something else? I recently consulted at a large manufacturing firm that brought me in to help assess its readiness to go mobile. One result was the discovery that the different divisions had totally different interpretations of the term.
  • Information 4.0 promises entirely new levels of terminological confusion. Is “molecular content” the same thing as a topic? What’s “dynamic” content? And so on.  

Until everyone agrees on the meanings of the terms being used for an Information 4.0 implementation, it will be difficult to show support for the company’s strategic and business direction. This means it will be almost impossible to do anything else. So any Information 4.0 effort needs an education component.

Demonstrated Support for the Company’s Strategic and Business Direction

Information 4.0 is cool. But that won’t be enough to build management support because management is typically being pressed to support other initiatives too, many also cool. It’s crucial to show, concretely, how Information 4.0 will support the company’s strategic and business direction. That’s going to require careful analysis of the company’s operations beyond technical communication.

Dealing with Problematic Senior Management Biases

Even if senior management supports an Information 4.0 effort, we may encounter biases that affect that support. (In the early days of business computing, managers didn’t want to use computers because that involved typing and the bias was that typing was secretarial work. Renaming “typing” to “keyboarding” got past that bias and made typing – on a computer – cutting edge.)

For example, it will be crucial to present Information 4.0 as dealing with “content” and “user support”, not “documentation”. No one cares about documentation. But despite your efforts, management may still view Information 4.0 as documentation-focused, not realizing that “documentation” today is more a combination of content creation and programming. If so, it will be hard to get management support. By way of illustration…

I was contacted by a company whose online help was created using a long-dead version of RoboHelp. Users complained that the search didn’t work well and there were problems in the code. The company wanted to convert the help to Flare to get better search results and clean up the code to future-proof the content, both supposedly good things.

The company turned down the proposal on the grounds that it was too expensive. The problem was that they saw their help as documentation rather than as a strategic resource and gave it a far lower priority. The upshot? Their staff would do the conversion. Unfortunately, the staff was bright but didn’t know RoboHelp, Flare, or code so the effort was likely to be slow and inefficient at best.

In that tale is an example of how management bias may harm even efforts that management wants. And Information 4.0 is far more complex and unfamiliar than online help, so bias is likely to be still more of a problem.

Standards, Metrics, and Analytics

In the mid-1990s, online help and the web were so new that few companies had standards or metrics by which to measure them. And analytics barely existed.

Today, however, getting management support for an Information 4.0 effort will require showing support for your company’s business and strategic direction. (That may not always be the case. In 2002, I spoke with two people from an aircraft builder whose CTO was so impressed with mobile that he directed that it be implemented on the manufacturing floor without cost-justification. So you may not always have to demonstrate support, but it’s the safe way to bet.)

Demonstrating that support often requires quantitative data, ideally numbers that translate to increased revenue or reduced expenses. Information 4.0 is so new that few standards exist, and thus few metrics or analytics. Yet Information 4.0 has a lot in common with today’s online help and web efforts, and may be able to use some of their standards and metrics. The biggest problem I’ve found with metrics for any purpose, let alone Information 4.0, is resistance from people who don’t want to be measured.


Information 4.0, like any new technology, is fun to speculate about and fulfilling to help emerge. There are many interesting challenges on the development side and the impact on tech comm. I’ll look at these in later posts.

But none of them matter if you don’t sell management on the idea in the first place.


Leah said...

Neil - as always, you spark my interest in what is new and up and coming in the world of technical communication. Your recent articles/posts on Information 4.0 have caused me to start digging once again on the latest trend in our industry.
In just the last few days, I've learned that Information 4.0 spawned from Industry 4.0, which I can find a substantial amount of information on. Where, though, can I really sink my teeth into more about Information 4.0? I'm not finding a whole heck of a lot on the topic. Do you have any recommended reading you could point to?

Thanks and looking forward to asking you (potentially) lots of questions on this one.

Leah Eaton
Sr. Technical Writing Lead
Q2 Software, Inc.
Austin, Texas

Neil Perlin said...

Hi Leah,

Thanks for the kind words. There's a lot of interesting stuff out there; I just get to play with it and talk about it.

There isn't a lot out there about Info 4.0 because it's in the process of being defined. So most of what's out there is largely conceptual. My take on it is that the conceptual side is all well and good but you have to consider the down and dirty aspects of implementation, and that's where I come into the picture. That said, here are a few sources of info:

- An overview that came out of the Documation 2017 conference in Paris earlier this year - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/information-40-response-requirements-industry-andy-mcdonald

- The Info 4.0 Consortium page - http://information4zero.org/

- I may be doing a presentation on it at TCUK in Nottingham, England next week. (It's up in the air because I submitted three proposals, all of which they liked. They said that it's rare for someone to get two slots, which they gave me, but unheard of for someone to get three, so they asked me to bring the presentation along in case of a speaker cancellation. I can send you the presentation if you'd like. I'll also be giving it for MadWorld 2018.)

- I'll be writing an article based on the presentation for Communicator, the journal of the ISTC (British version of STC).

So it's all still very conceptual but there is a lot going on, and I'm sort of leading the nitty-gritty implementation charge. Look for more blog posts on the subject.

Hope this helped.



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