Performance of information as value added

by Terence MacNamee

Information, as we know, is not the same thing as communication. If people are to apply and make use of information, it needs to be communicated, otherwise it just sits on the shelf. In fact, it needs to be communicated over and over, it needs to be “performed”, rather like the way in which a musical composition is performed over and over by different musicians for different audiences.

Technical writers in industry are familiar with the idea of “neutral content“ – text that is accumulated and stored in some kind of tagged form so as to be available for later use as a user manual, on-line help, marketing brochures, and so on. When it is used for publication, the neutral content has to be appropriately adapted to its purpose and audience. It has to be “performed”.

Now, every time information is “performed”, there should be value added. Otherwise it’s not worth the effort. Examples of information being “performed” that I have in mind are: editing, transcription, adaptation for another medium, or translation into another language. By “value added” I mean a new perspective, a new understanding, further applications contributed to the original information.

This value added needs not only to benefit the audiences “downstream”, it also needs to be able to feed back to the original information with a view to improving it and clarifying it. Yet this potential for feedback is not easily acceptable to managers, who think in terms of project management with boxes corresponding to isolated tasks delegated to individuals or groups for completion. The basic model managers tend to assume is that the information exists in some kind of immutable form, and that it may be edited for consumption by different groups with different needs, but this editing cannot feed back to the original.

Translation, for example, is usually not thought of as potentially feeding back to the source text. In accordance with the project management model, it is only when the information and the source text are finalized and fixed that translation is farmed out to an outside contractor as an extra task. The idea of the translator suggesting improvements to the original is enough to make managers‘ hair stand on end. “No, no, this has already been approved by the executive!“

Yet translation is an operation that can contribute to the quality of information all around. For example, when laws are translated in countries with bilingual justice systems, the translation often produces suggestions for improving the wording of the original so as to make it clearer.

Anytime information is cast in a new form, for a new audience – whether it is marketing, technical writing, investor reports, or what have you – it should add value in terms of fresh understanding.