Building a writing culture in application development

One of the key skills needed in today’s IT shop is communication, and one of the best ways to improve ability to communicate is to write blog posts and articles.

In spite of “IT guy” stereotypes, communication and analytical thinking about business are among the most important skills in application development. Developers, analysts, and managers require ability to interact effectively with business people, to conceptualize solutions that match business needs, critically evaluate those solutions, and effectively make the case for one of them. Of course this is true of the overall project business case, but more importantly it applies to the daily “IT guy” to business person conversations that happen throughout analysis, design, development, and testing.

Cultivating writing skills is one way to cultivate effective communication. Often, writers start a piece with “it all worked out in their head”. When pen is put to paper the writer discovers that there’s a lot of work left to do: writing is an essential step in organizing and expressing thoughts.  Exercising that muscle makes writers better communicators both by helping them organize their thoughts and by making them aware of how far along their thoughts are: the writer knows when his or her idea is half-baked.

And of course, writers have to read for research and to avoid re-writing someone else’s article, so writing promotes learning by keeping up with the writer’s field.

The writing culture isn’t just about writers though.  Not everyone is a natural writer, and even some of those who are may not care to make the effort.  Managers wanting to cultivate writing must model the desired writing behavior with visible examples, provide natural writers with attractive opportunities to publish, provide those less inclined other ways to participate, and provide incentives for all types of participation.

Here are my recommendations:

  • Develop Writing Examples: The internet provides innumerable outlets for publication.  Prominent IT sites like Dr.Dobbs and Information-Management are constantly seeking experience-based content from IT professionals. Encourage a few of your natural writers to submit articles. These examples will seed the process by showing that those prominent outlets are accessible to the “regular folks” in your organization.
  • Provide Publication Opportunities: Set up an internal blog or similar outlet for your writers to publish, and establish guidelines for the amount of time you’d like staff members to devote to writing, perhaps one or two hours a week.  If it makes sense for your business set up a publicly available internet blog. I’ve seen studies showing that blogging is a key driver of increased traffic to a corporate website.
  • Alternatives for non-Writers: Not everyone is a great writer, and writing isn’t the only skill you need to cultivate. It is equally important to build team reading and editing skills, both to promote research and learning, to set a reasonably quality standard for posts, and to provide a way for those who may not want to write a way to participate. Emphasize the importance of the editing process on writing quality by establishing a team of volunteer reviewers.
  • Incentives: If it is important to you to build a writing culture, make it important to your team with real incentives.  For example, give the most prolific or most read writer an iPad or an extra day’s vacation, the editor who contributes to the most articles a $200 gift certificate, and the five most frequent commenters $50 gift certificates. You get the idea.

Over time these measures should first draw out a core group of pioneers, and then the group should steadily expand until your team experiences the improvements in learning, communicating, and critical thinking that result from the writing culture.

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