CDMM Research: A seminar with Ray Gallon and Andy McDonald

Ray Gallon and Andy McDonald are leading professors and experts, with multiple-decade experience in the fields of technical communication and information. In 2016, they joined forces to create a consortium, aiming to promote “information 4.0”, a reading grid to the accelerating evolution of information.

Students of CDMM Master 2 have been familiarized with Ray and Andy’s presentations at Paris’ 2017 Documation Data Intelligence Forum, and they met again on May 31st, to discuss information 4.0 and elaborate around it, in the context of their technical communication, information architecture and content management program.

CDMM: What is information 4.0?

Ray Gallon and Andy McDonald: Our research revolves around the general theoretical question of the role of information in the context of technological progress.

On a practical level, information 4.0 aims at ensuring we take this evolution into account.

In other words, it provides help to anticipate the evolution of the technical communication industry, and it outlines reasons why this industry needs to evolve.

For example, software developers think around functions or groups of functions, while users are concerned only with the tasks they have to carry out. The role of technical communicators can therefore be broadly described as translating an approach by function into a logic of tasks: it is obviously much wider than designing user manuals.

Information 4.0 also takes into account and capitalizes on the rapid growth of chatbots, augmented reality (AR) devices and applications, the Internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Is AI truly intelligent?

As of today, even the most powerful AI, such as the ones that beat chess or go masters, only simulate intelligence: they do not begin to approach consciousness, which is a prerequisite to “human-style” intelligence.

Current AI can accumulate data and use it in the most relevant way, in relation to a particular task or series of tasks, however complex, but they cannot learn: they are not able to perform a task they have not been designed to perform, nor to take initiative outside of their functional envelopes.

However, AI is already very useful, notably to carry out repetitive actions, better than humans – for a cost that is quickly soaring.

What are the risks of AI?

The main risk of AI is for humans to give up control over tedious and recurring tasks, without a possibility to go back – just because we might soon forget how to perform them. In general terms, AI obviously raises numerous governance, interoperability, and ethical issues. To maintain control over AI, its very concept and the questions it poses must be well understood, and the aim of each AI solution has to be precisely defined. For example, don’t pretend you are trying to build an intelligent city if what you are actually working on is a bandwidth wide enough to accommodate three interoperating networks…

How do you see technical writing evolving?

It is evolving quickly and deeply, around the issues we have already been talking about, which will become ever more present.

The emergence of the agile method of code maintenance is a good example of ongoing changes: pseudo-real time adaptation is an actual goal for many companies. Information is becoming obsolete much faster already, which emphasizes the need for contextualization and interactivity, notably with regards to the development of IoT and machine-to-machine communication.

In the span of five to ten years, from writing instructions, procedures or manuals, the role of the technical writer will continue to evolve towards information retrieval, sorting, filtering and distribution, in relevance to the needs of the target audience. As very important vectors of information, you need to embrace this evolution to prepare for it.

You have been stressing the need for information contextualization. Can you elaborate on this?

Context is key, indeed. Information is only valid in a certain context, and contexts change in an increasingly fast manner. Hence, in some companies, personas are designed, only to be used for a single hour. Other contexts are already tracked and even materialized by RFID beacons, which directly link information to its potential user; the aim is to offer information, rather than deliver it.

Imagine you are in Cairo. Your need for information will change considerably, depending on the fact you are a tourist, a local, or an Egyptologist. Ideally, offered contextualized information addresses your specific needs – which raise the issue of context granularity, a whole other challenge in itself.

In that respect, adopting the molecular information approach we are advocating with our information 4.0 logic can be helpful.

What is molecular information?

We believe breaking down information into molecules facilitates information reuse.

Molecules of information are autonomous, self-sufficient, fundamental blocks of content. In that logic, the sense and nature of a document depends on the way its information molecules are assembled.

However, just like in the field of chemistry, in that of information, mixing molecules can carry surprising outcomes. It can even be dangerous. That is why information molecules need to be precisely organized, defined, and tagged to ensure their sensible use and to avoid meaningless or erroneous documentation.

Bearing this paramount rule in mind, information molecules can prove a powerful tool in tackling the issues of contextualization and context granularity. Molecules can indeed be used in a great variety of contexts, providing they are governed by a clear and precise editorial policy.

As a summary, what is your vision of the current work of a corporate information specialist?

In a context where, as we saw, the value of information becomes increasingly doubtful, an information specialist’s main task is definitely to maintain and increase the value of the company’s information base.

Information is, indeed, one of the most precious intangible assets of any company. It needs to be retrievable, organized and up to date.

Information specialists therefore have to force their way into scrum and marketing meetings, for example: wherever they are located in the organization chart, they literally stand at the center of any firm that values its history, its products and services, and its customers.

Finally, information specialists need to adapt to the idea of a world where, in the foreseeable future, software will be able to read users’ facial expressions, and to respond to them.

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