A People’s History of Business Trends
I took American History as an Advanced Placement course in high school, so I’m not sure why signed up for it again my second semester at New College, but it was worth it.
The class met in a small, bookshelf-lined room in a waterfront mansion built in the 1920′s by John and Mabel Ringling. As in Ringling Brothers. We sat around a shiny oak table and discussed our readings with a professor who entertained the Dalai Lama whenever His Holiness was in town.
Photo by livingonimpulse.
When we started reading about Andrew Jackson, and the Trail of Tears, the professor started off the discussion referring to Native Americans as American Indians and then shortened it thereafter to AmerIndians, which was handy. I wonder if any of the other students wanted to cop the term as badly as I wanted to. None of us did; not in class. In fact, I don’t remember many of us talking much at all. But I was pretty dumbstruck by most of the New College experience, so maybe it was just me who was mute.
For the first time, I saw what happened to American Indians as a series of political plays. By themselves, many of the moves were cold-blooded and villainous, some were regular old greed and bureaucracy. The process of genocide became even more shocking when conversationally disrobed of its mystery. It was a great class.
I’m also part Cherokee (who isn’t?), and I’ve done some reading about their culture. So, when I began slowly making my way through A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, this summer, I had already read a bit about social and governance traditions for various tribes when I came across this passage quoting historian Dale Van Every:
The freedom of the individual was regarded by practically all Indians north of Mexico as a canon infinitely more precious than the individual’s duty to his community or nation.
Zinn goes on to describe tribal government as, “an occasional assembling of a council, with a very loose and changing membership, whose decisions were not enforced except by the influence of public opinion.”
During my New College years, that would have pleased me, though I doubt I could have actually envisioned the daily functioning of that kind of system. Now, it makes me uneasy. I mean, isn’t that just a vague meeting with action items like, “Okay, consider doing what we discussed today,” and, “Make sure everyone knows how advisable this is”? Shudder.
Zinn quotes a minister who lived among Indians, “. . . [A] government in which there are no positive laws, but only long established habits and customs, no code of jurisprudence . . . in which age confers rank, wisdom gives power, and moral goodness secures title to universal respect.” It sounded dismally conservative and unchanging to me. Where was the continuous improvement?
As I read the chapter and experienced my own reaction, I realized I would probably horrify New-College-Age me.
In Which I Overwhelm and Alienate
In the past year, I have been reading about content strategy, so I’ve been learning how to base content, including product documentation, on business needs. To some extent, my company does this naturally. They know that we need docs to satisfy the labeling requirement imposed by the FDA, so they hired all us tech writers. Of course, docs can do more than that, but justifying the means to other business ends requires some sales work on our part. So I’ve become obsessed with various metrics that can help with that.
I’ve also been working on audience analysis, with the goals of making our writing process more efficient and our information more findable. I’ve wanted to measure the users so that we can only write what we need to, with the assumption that we are currently writing way to much about some things and not enough about other things. The assumption is that we are not instinctually writing what the users need, nor are we hitting the mark based on the few anecdotes that have been shared with us.
I have wanted to be systematic, and there has been friction. I had my review last week, and I had all high marks, but with one piece of criticism regarding my collaboration skills, “. . .[S]ometimes Kristi can overwhelm and alienate her team mates with her initiatives and the depth to which she wants to be systematic in her approach.” Ouch.
It was not the first time my boss has mentioned this, and I’ve been working on it. It’s been hard for me to empathize with the aversion to metrics. My boss has expressed such a faith in the autonomy of the team, though, and in honoring their interests and preferences, that I’ve been exploring this blind spot of mine.
My reaction to the AmerIndian anarchy provided a clue. Maybe I should be doing metrics in moderation. Maybe I am overindulging. Commerce has not always been in this form, as Clue Train points out, and continuous improvement might arrive by other paths. If too many numbers spell a fear-based workplace for some people, what is the proper role for metrics?
In Which I Count Calories for Less Than a Week
I have had an extra 30 pounds on me since not long after I started working as a technical writer. I’m 5’10”, so it’s not as extreme as it might be for a smaller woman, but it’s still uncomfortable.
I’ve had a few anorexic friends. I have a pretty good idea of what an unhealthy food conversation sounds like. I feel half-anorexic after one conversation about food with just about any woman, and so I have resisted counting calories, but I’m doing it for a limited time to recalibrate my ability to judge how much food is too much for one day. I’m doing it because I was running four and five miles and still not dropping pounds.
And after about two weeks of not even being diligent about the calorie counting, I’m seeing a difference.
It was the same way with budgeting. I set up the budget, and was diligent about counting every dollar for three or four months, and then I just internalized it. I more or less memorized the amounts and got used to the idea that there was a finite number of dollars available.
So how does that relate to performance metrics? How does it relate to the business goals of product documentation, and measuring the needs of customers?
Maybe it’s just that people don’t want their entire working days tied to someone else’s interpretation of the numbers. Maybe people want some control over which numbers are helpful. Maybe we want people we trust to lead that discussion, or else we’re going to keep doing what has gotten us raises and reasonable working hours, thanks very much.