Communicating Knowledge in Technical Documentation

What is Knowledge?

From a content user’s perspective, knowledge can be the most tangible form of content value. However, not all content requires knowledge to be valuable. So, when should we include knowledge to elevate the value of content?

Before answering this question, we need to define what knowledge is. Let me start with a simple, real-world example. If you tell a friend to meet you for lunch at a specific day, time, and location, you convey information. However, if you also tell your friend that there is no direct access to the restaurant’s parking lot from the main road and offer directions, you share knowledge.

The example illustrates that knowledge includes another layer of context by augmenting data and information with experience and insights. More importantly, adding detail does not equate to detail quantity, but rather to detail quality and relevance.

In general, we can distinguish three levels of content value:

  • Data
  • Information
  • Knowledge

Also, our individual abilities such as intuition, instincts, reasoning, and analytical skills enable us to derive and apply knowledge. These abilities can compensate for a lack of context. In educational theory, Lori W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl provide the following breakdown of knowledge into dimensions:

  • Factual knowledge (justified affirmation of something/background knowledge)
  • Conceptual knowledge (ideas, mental models)
  • Procedural knowledge (how we do things)
  • Metacognitive knowledge (how we think)

Their work revises the original taxonomy introduced by Benjamin S. Bloom to offer a more time-appropriate framework. Although educational theory focuses on learning, understanding what knowledge is and how we apply it is relevant for all content creators.

The Role of Knowledge in Technical Documentation

In the earlier example, meeting a friend for lunch showed the practical side of knowledge in everyday interactions. Similarly, we can find the same opportunity for technical documentation. More precisely, technical documentation enables content users by informing, instructing, and educating.

And when we offer knowledge, we can improve the user experience, make users more effective, and ensure the correct use of a product. To achieve these objectives, content creators must master both the art of information design and the art of knowledge creation.

The latter concept involves experience and analytical abilities to transform data and information into actual knowledge. Since technical documentation can target diverse users, content creators develop a range of technical documentation.

Examples include:

  • Quick reference guides
  • User manuals
  • Online help
  • How-to guides
  • FAQs
  • Tips and tricks
  • Tutorials
  • Knowledge bases
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • API/SDK manuals

Typically, each documentation type targets a predominant user and role. A user can be a professional user or a consumer. And their role indicates why and how a user interacts with a product. Common roles can include end users (customers), technical staff that troubleshoots and maintains a product, and customer support staff.

Furthermore, professional users tend to have pre-existing knowledge (background knowledge) and received training in their respective field. Their need for knowledge is usually different and more specialized compared to consumers.

Framing the Knowledge Gap

One frequent challenge for content creators is their reliance on subject matter experts (SMEs) for input. Consequently, content creators must be skilled in identifying and extracting implicit knowledge from SMEs. While gathering input is generally straightforward, transforming data and information into specific knowledge is more complex.

One main reason is that content creators must understand their content users to be successful. In content marketing, for example, developing user personas is a way to define ideal customers. Likewise, creating user scenarios or use cases establishes context and reveals role-based behaviors as well as challenges. These same concepts can assist content creators of technical documentation to define content users.

However, a content user and an ideal customer involve different personas and motivation. Some of the questions that might help frame the knowledge gap of a content user are:

  • Who is the content user?
  • What is the role of the content user?
  • What pre-existing knowledge or experience does the content user have?
  • How does the content user interact with the product?

Content-focused questions:

  • How does a content user retrieve and apply content?
  • What content enables the role of a content user?
  • What content improves the user experience?
  • What content ensures proper use of a product?

In addition, content creators must decide how they want or should deliver content. Sometimes this decision depends on the unique conditions and environment under which a user type accesses and applies content.

The following taxonomy can help categorize content and its communication:

  • Content intent (e.g., inform, instruct, educate)
  • Content format (e.g., digital/print, audio/video, verbal/non-verbal, visual/written)
  • Delivery format (e.g., in person, over the phone, online)
  • Communication channel (e.g., email, documentation, blog, webinar, newsletter, presentation, tutorial)

Embracing Knowledge Management

Raising Awareness

Knowledge Management (KM) has been around as a scientific discipline for a few decades now. Still, companies rarely leverage its main ideas beyond the organization’s internal needs for knowledge sharing. There is no reason why KM cannot do the same for technical documentation.

Traditionally, companies associate KM with organizational knowledge that enables best practices and operational excellence. Its primary goal is to capture and retain otherwise tacit and implicit intellectual capital within the organization.

As a profession, Technical Communication focuses on the creation of various technical content. For instance, the Society of Technical Communicators (STC) describes its professionals as follows:

“Technical communicators research and create information about technical processes or products directed to a targeted audience through various forms of media.”

It does not specifically emphasize knowledge creation. However, we could infer from this description that information creation includes knowledge creation. Furthermore, knowledge creation requires actual engagement with content users. Without it, content creators would struggle to accurately verify a content user’s need for knowledge.

Unfortunately, technical communication teams rarely have direct access to their content users, mainly because many organizations do not see technical communication as a user-interacting function. As a result, establishing a formal KM program that targets content users of technical documentation is the exception. Because such programs rely on organizational champions and the support of management, raising awareness is the first step.

Potential Sources for Knowledge Creation

If content users are internal to an organization, you might find it easier to engage with them. However, if you create content for external users, collaboration can be tricky.

In this case, you could solicit alternative sources to gain insights into the needs and behavioral patterns of content users. These sources can also supplement information that you might collect from your direct interactions with content users.

  • Email messages/conversations
  • FAQs
  • Forums
  • Helpdesk
  • Online knowledge base
  • Phone messages/conversations
  • Product reviews
  • Questionnaires
  • Social media
  • Support chat records
  • Word of mouth

In general, feedback and comments require analysis to identify opportunities for knowledge creation. Furthermore, users might experience different conditions and circumstances when accessing and applying content. Therefore, knowledge creation must be a well-thought-out strategic activity.

Advancing Knowledge Creation

Overall, content creation has always been a cross-functional effort. More recently though, the traditional separation between content marketing and technical documentation is no longer desirable. While both areas have seen great advancements in process automation, content marketing has an edge over technical documentation. This lead is due to the strategic use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Business Intelligence (BI) to manage the user experience.

Although advanced technical documentation promotes the idea of intelligent content, knowledge does not create itself. Essentially, the term “intelligent” refers to the use of tags and meta data to dynamically organize and distribute content. While it applies fundamental practices such as reuse, adaptability, configurability, and discoverability, the use of AI and BI is limited. That is, AI and BI help identify existing content and match it with the needs of the content user.

However, to leverage AI and BI for knowledge creation, it would require new metrics and different data. Therefore, organizations that want to expand the idea of intelligent content must implement an appropriate data strategy that aligns with its KM program.

Conclusion

In an informal setting, communicating knowledge is often an unconscious by-product of our interactions with each other. Regardless of the setting—personal or business—we communicate knowledge with a purpose. This purpose depends on who we are interacting with and what we are trying to convey.

Businesses that offer knowledge can improve the user experience, make users more effective, and ensure proper product use. Ideally, we can directly interact with content users to determine their content needs and usage. This would enable us to formulate any knowledge gaps and develop an appropriate knowledge management strategy.

Moreover, defining personas and scenarios for different content users establishes a baseline for content needs. This also allows content creators to transform new and existing data and information into actual knowledge.

Furthermore, knowledge is only valuable if it is relevant to the content user. To determine relevance, content creators can either directly engage with content users or access alternative information sources. The specific sources depend on the organization’s abilities to collect and manage appropriate data across business functions. Likewise, organizations usually do not think about content as a product design feature. As a result, they do not deploy formal programs that collect metrics and data to improve product documentation.

To advance the idea of intelligent content, organizations should expand their use of AI and BI beyond optimizing and automating publishing processes. More importantly, content creators will remain the originators of sophisticated content—especially knowledge—for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is only logical to further enable content creators by giving them access to content users.