Symbolic-Analytic Work

About four or five years ago I remember having a cup of coffee with a lady I used to work with.  She had a PhD in English and was working in our group as a Writer/Editor.  We were discussing the current state of Technical Communication and where we thought things were headed.  She had spent her entire career in academia and had recently joined our company.  We had already started to go through a lot of layoffs and she wanted my thoughts on which jobs were the safest.

I told her that I thought she would be safer if she moved away from editing and took on more writing.  I told her that I thought management would start to cut anything that was not directly related to pushing manuals out the door.  She burst into tears.  She loved the English language and I think it kind of broke her heart that editors would be seen as non-essential.

She left our group and within a year we had no editors–we still don’t.  And now even the writing is going away to places like India or Poland.  I think that the group I’m a part of has shrunk by about 75% since 2000.  Two weeks ago the guy that hired me 15 years ago and the writer that mentored me both left the company.  Whatever TC was when I started, it is no more.  As Stanley Dicks explains:

Writing or editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators.  However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored.  (p. 54)

According to Dicks we need to find ways to do more “symbolic-analytic work” that has more strategic value to the companies we work for (p. 53).  This could be the old standby of doing more with less, but I think that most companies have gone about as far as they can with that.  If it can be outsourced, it pretty much has been

So what’s left then?  Where I work, there are still some people that write manuals, but they probably also lead a team of people in India that write most of the content.  These writers may also develop e-learning and flash-based tutorials.  I think that just about everyone else is dedicated to figuring out how we can use new tools and technologies to communicate to customers more effectively (and, of course, more cheaply).

That means figuring out how to make single-sourcing and content reuse work using DITA and a CMS.   For more than a year now I have been leading a team within our organization to move from a book/course based model to a topic-based model.  This includes things like:

  • Change management – How do you get people to buy-in to making such a huge change?
  • Development process – What happens to the process when we stop assigning book/course and start assigning topics or lessons?
  • Graphics – If people are reusing graphic content, how do we make sure it has a consistent visual language?
  • Metadata – How do we tag the content that goes into the CMS so people can find it, manage it, and reuse it?
  • Templates and Usage – What kinds of authoring templates and guidelines need to be created to ensure that content authoring is consistent?
  • Curriculum – What training needs to be created to bring people up-to-speed on this new way of working and all the new tools?
  • Content Structure – How do we organize all this information within a CMS so that it makes sense?
  • Pilot Project – What projects do we want to put choose for the initial testing of these new tools and processes and how do we use the findings to adjust our approach?

All of this is stuff that is strategic and that can’t be outsourced.  Doing this right could mean huge improvements for the customer as well as huge efficiency gains for the company.  Before this, I used to write books and my life was predictable, but I was so bored.  This is really scary and stressful, but it is exciting and meaningful in a way that my old job wasn’t.

I think that is what Dicks was getting at with his article.  Even though technical communication has gotten a lot smaller as a profession, for those that remain the work is going to be more challenging and more meaningful.  The club is a lot more exclusive than it used to be, but the upside is that TC will get more respect as we add more value.

Posted on October 6, 2012, in mobile, Social Media, Society, Trust, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Bob, the job responsibilities you describe encompass so much more than what I first pictured technical communication including. Do you think most students beginning their studies have a very narrow view of what technical communicators do, or, because younger people are so much more tech savvy to begin with, are they already imagining technical communication really stretching the traditional way we’ve shared information not long ago?

    • That’s a good question. It’s been a while since I worked with any new people. However, if the curriculum that I’ve seen in the MSTPC program is any indication of what they are being taught, then I think they are being prepared for the way things are (or at least how they are going to be.)

      I think that maybe the hardest part is that we are really a profession in transition. It used to be that you would see a job for a tech writer and it would pretty much mean the same thing everywhere (Frame, online help, research, publishing). Now, it is all over the place. There are still straight-up writing jobs, but there are also things that you might not think of as tech comms. Things like: social media, customer relations, video production, and animation.

      I think just being younger might help the next generation of TC people relate to the next wave of technicians and engineers that will need information from them. The medium is the message and they understand the medium.

      Topic-based writing is incredibly frustrating to some old-school writers that are used to writing a book from beginning to end. But, younger people that are more accustomed to consuming small chunks of information might also be better equipped to write small chunks. That said, you still need to be able to write. Just being able to thumb-type 100 texts an hour doesn’t qualify you for anything.

  2. This is a wonderful post enriched by your own workplace experience. When I was an editor of surveillance reports, a gig I kept for only 6 months, I would have to communicate with private investigators to document what they observed workman’s comp claimants doing on a daily basis. Two weeks after I resigned, all the editors were laid off, so now the PI’s and their managers need to write the reports themselves, so who knows what they’re coming up with. There are templates they can rely on, but I do wonder if the insurance companies notice a difference in the quality.

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