This week I want to give a quick demo of how collaborating with colleagues on a project actually works in Confluence, and describe some of the ways business benefits from this.

This won't take long and will cause no pain: in fact you may even find your 'Happiness' button being pushed.

Collaboration: Last but not Least
Over the last couple of years our business has aquired several other companies who had their own documentation and documentation systems. These are spread around Europe and Scandanavia. To complicate matters further, we have several other offices around the world. Fortunately the wiki is used a central point of reference, a meeting point if you will, by us all.

Several people, myself included, wanted to do something to bring all the documentation from the various departments and offices together. We wanted to coordinate not only the docs themselves, but their styles and formats, processes and deliverables. We also wanted to see where our strengths and weaknesses were, and see how we can use this info to improve our client-facing and internal documentation.

To do this we formed a new group and started a new space within the wiki called Global Documentation. We then invited as many people to join the group as we could think of. Naturally not everyone invited has the time or inclination to do the work, and those who wanted to were able opt out, did but many are still part of the group.

There are three main movers in this group (naturally I'm one), with other members adding their feedback and thoughts on a variety of subjects whenever the need arises. For example: versioning the user info. 

One person started this converstion with me, and I added it as a topic to the Global Docs space. Using the @mentions functionality to target those I knew were responsible for user documentation, I asked the group for feedback on how they version their info.

How-To On Using @mentions
To use @mentions, all you do is add the '@' symbol and then start entering the persons name. A list will appear that auto-populates as you type. When you save the page or comment, the persons you targeted is automatically sent a notification. It's that simple.

Back To The Future OF Documentation
They were notified as soon as I saved the page and within a matter of minutes a few had added their own updates. So with very little effort, a a globally-based conversation had started. Now every time someone updates these pages, everyone involved gets notified.

Because the notifications include the updates, they can see how the conversation is going without having to go to the wiki. Even better, they can reply to updates really easily using the built in Reply option. 

This means:
  • people are getting involved in a way they wouldn't have before.
  • because people are talking to each other, we're discovering more about how the company works, and where we can improve this.
  • conversations are happening in one place.
  • the conversation is not getting lost, spread out and dissipated in multiple emails.
  • no one is being accidentally left out.
  • the whole conversation can be found and searched by anyone with access to the space. (And this space is open to the entire company as we believe everyone should have the opportunity to take part, even though their involvement may be limited to being a watcher.)

On top of this there are some more subtle benefits, such as using the Like button to show that you've read something even if you can't reply to it immediately. I do this because, and this is really helpful if you're targetting a specific person, it lets the other person know that you've at least read what they said.

This probably isn't what Atlassian were thinking of when they built this functionality into Confluence, but it suits our needs to use it this way.

From all of this you can see how, on a global level, geography and time are not an issue. People all around the planet are connecting, conversing and collaborating without little effort.

The business benefits are many pretty obvious: in my opinion if you're not using this sort of technology, then you are actually missing the opportunity to get people involved and working together without a song and dance. 

Is this something you can afford not to do? 

Yeehaw, what a week it's been! Confluence 4.3 launched - can't wait to get hold of that for the updated tables functionality alone - and more Jira training than you can stuff into a Mary Poppins bag.

Now that we've got Jira rolled out through the entire company, I'm looking forward to seeing how I can use it with both Confluence and my technical writing. I'm wondering just how much benefit there'll be from using the Jira macros in the wiki, and how these allow the two system to collaborate.

More on this as and when.

More Work, More Benefits 
As a technical writer I'm used to researching, writing and publishing user guides. In the pre-wiki days this was a relatively straightforward process involving MS Word, graphics, tables, reviews and PDFs.

In a wiki it's more complicated: there's more to do. Despite this, I still believe wikis are the way forward for a lot of user documentation.

Although my writing processes still encompasses the steps listed above (minus using Word - now I either write directly into the wiki or I write in Notepad), it also includes a number of other things such as:
  • adding labels/tags (for searching and grouping)
  • adding links (to and from related topics)
  • using a wide variety of macros (to re-use content, create TOCs, searchable fields etc etc).

And there's more. For example, I now have to monitor work from other depts that they've added to the user info. I have to research the tools (macros and plugins for example) available because I want to see if we can use these to improve what we're delivering and how we deliver it. Although we don't mess around with the content and formatting just because we can, we also have to test new ideas out to see what benefits these bring. 

All of this adds work and yes, it does make the whole process of creating and delivering user content longer and more complicated. 

But the benefits to myself as a techcial writer, and the company and clients in terms of better and more usable content far out way the negatives. 

It's an investment in time and effort that rewards everyone - and you can't say fairer than that can you?
Fastrack Problem Solving
One of the great advantages of using Confluence for your technical documentation is that colleagues can collaborate on a project, which basically means adding and editing content in one central place.

This is somewhere all the content for that project is created and kept, and a place that automatically informs all the team members about updates as and when these are made.

Confluence does this all day long, standing on its head. After a few clicks to set it up, you're done and can forget about everything but adding content.

But there's another form of collaboration too, one that we all know about but it's usually tucked away out of sight and only used when needed.

I'm talking about the user forum, or as it is called in this case, Atlassian Answers. 

There are several reasons why this is a great user resource, for example:
  1. I don't know about other forums, but the Atlassian one is excellent because you post a question and, almost without fail, you'll get a response in less than an hour, and often within a matter of minutes. These responses come from both other users and Atlassian staff. 
  2. I find there is feeling of community because everyone is here to be helpful. And the fact that you know that Atlassian staff, who are already busy with their day jobs, are keeping an eye on things, makes it even better.
  3. You ask questions, you get rewards. Like badges and karma points. Ok, these might seem like a bit of froth, but in fact it's good to know that by asking a question or supplying an answer that other people also benefit from it. Many's the time that I've hung my head and asked what seems to be a dumb question, only to find that other people also want to know the answer. Suddenly it's not a dumb question at all: you've done everyone a favour in fact.
  4. The questions you ask and answer all add to the general knowledge base of user info. And your input and experience will be different to other people's. This broadens everyone's understanding of how people are using Atlassian's products. 
  5. You also get to know (and trust) other people whose knowledge of the products is greater than yours. This may lead to other forms of collaboration. For example, you may end up doing business with them because they can supply the skills you need but don't have in-house.

I'm sure there are plenty of other good reasons and benefits of using the forum, and while I'd be the first to admit it is often my last port of call (because I either try to figure it out myself or I use Atlassian's extensive user information), it's normally the quickest way to get answers and resolve problems.