Lightweight Methodologies

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Question: Is anyone using structured tools such as FrameMaker anymore? What is this “lightweight” stuff I keep hearing about?

Answer:
The eternal conflict between permanence and expediency is another effect of the speeded-up world we live in, where things that used to take hours or days can now be done on your smart phone in 5 seconds or less. Lightweight is great as long as you have a way to tell when it’s no longer enough, and a plan for what to do when that critical mass is reached.

The plan doesn’t have to be the “right” one. Just knowing that you’ll need one is often enough to get you thinking about it in the background, and to start making room for it in other people’s heads.

If you don’t even think you need a plan, you could be caught flat-footed at a bad time. The reason is that you’ll already be up to your neck in work: multiple meetings, changes in direction, putting out fires (hopefully not literally but you never know), juggling multiple priorities and “wearing many hats” as they say. That’s not the time to respond to a new CIO’s sharp questions with a deer-in-the-headlights look on your face.

Lightweight is also great as long as you’re working by yourself, and nobody else needs to see your scratch files or Secret Notes About Stuff. I tend to have little sandboxes that nobody ever sees.

It’s not so great when tools are imposed upon you, especially if you already have your own favorites and methods.

I keep trying to come up with some suggestion for a better work process, and maybe the answer isn’t more tools, or that cool new chat app. Maybe it’s working directly with other people, as in talking to them, finding out what they need, and watching what they do with your stuff.

One benefit of finding out what other people need is that they might actually start liking you when you create something that is genuinely helpful. Another is having allies in other departments in case you get scapegoated during budget cuts.You might end up being the only person in the company who really understands how certain things work. While you should never openly boast about this or resort to obvious blackmail, you can secretly gloat on your way out while calling it “taking the high road”.

There are companies, lots of them, that go the other direction, very rigid and structure-heavy. They want XML structured authoring or DITA. DITA is apparently so difficult to learn that they will only hire people who already know how to do it. From what I was able to pick up, it’s not rocket science but it is best learned in an environment where it’s already in place and you have people to coach you through the first couple of weeks.

I keep thinking of monuments from the past, such as the Inca cities which have stood for so many centuries. (Of course they took decades and tens of thousands of conscripted laborers, and their empire toppled, as empires tend to do.) Wouldn’t you want your manuals to be so mighty that people are still reading them thousands of years into the future?

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