Trying my best to not spoil the broth!

As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization.  When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”.  But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization.  At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it).  But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs).   And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.

cartoon

I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs.  In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking.  Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say.  But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).

I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world).  In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.

I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.

inforgraphic-learnmax

This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training.  But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.

As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about.  Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need.  It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication.  Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).

  • This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
  • Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
  • We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.

Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above.  It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience.  Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61).  But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.

For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages.  The content, design, and layout was all brutal.  In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff.  Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle.  At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.

So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?

References

Dicks, S. (2010).  Digital Literacy for Technical Communication.   In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81).  New York: Taylor & Francis.

Posted on October 4, 2015, in Digital, Literacy, Marketing, mobile, Teaching, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi Chelsea, the way that you feel about too many people trying to do the same technical communication job at your work place is how I feel about management. 😉 Anyway, how I have gotten people to hand over things is by asking, “How can I help you?” I tell them that they seem to have so much to do, and I have the expertise in whatever area that I would love to use again. I tell them that I have some extra time and it would be great if they could please let me handle whatever, so I do not get fired for looking like I have nothing to do. I learned that if you phrase it in a way that it seems like they are actually doing you a favor, you will get your foot in the door. Then when they see what you can do, then they will offer you more. (And probably more than you wanted).

    This seems to help me, so maybe it can work for you too?

    Additionally, I am not sure if your workplace has a profile for each employee or contractor. If so, put tags of your talents in there, as well as your resume. Get permission to post copies of the awesome stuff that you have done. Some colleagues search those profiles for SMEs or for those who have specific talents like what you have. When your colleagues visit your page and check out everything that you have done, they are seeing a sample of the value that you provide.

    • Chelsea Dowling

      It is actually really interesting that you bring this up. Over the past few years, I have been really working to establish my role in the organization. So much so, that people request my “services” quite often. But there are still those… people… who “used to do it” so of course they are subject matter experts in the field. This is a large part of where I struggle – but it for sure is more of a management issue. That is definitely something I can relate to.

  2. natashajmceachin

    Hi Chelsea,

    There is so much truth in this post it’s unbelievable! I feel the position of a Technical Communications Professional is a forgettable one because people naturally group us in with IT and help-desk.

    It’s like they don’t see our importance because regardless of our existence, there is going to be some sort of help documentation (that may or may not be well written). Many companies value cutting costs over refined documentation, and many users/consumers are used to making the best of poor instructions.

    Although many companies can function without Technical Communications Professionals, well documented instructions can literally change the face of their workforce and customer experience. Well written instructional resources can dramatically boost employees performance and productivity, as well written customer documents can help them get more out of products than they ever imagined.

    Sometimes, I feel Technical Communications Professionals can suggest ideas to management that make everyone’s lives easier. Ideas that get jobs done quicker and raise more profits. We should discover creative solutions to customer issues that leave no room to question our value. We are essential, and there are many ways to show it.

    • Chelsea Dowling

      I almost starting gasping out loud when I read through your post. One of my biggest – gripes I will say – is that our “help desk” creates technical how to documentation that not only looks awful, but is poorly written and laid out. Yet, when I attempt to rewrite and establish a new and more professional design layout, I get an entirely condescending attitude and am told that is not my job. But it’s funny, when those same people start reaching into my world and that is just fine. Ugh!?!?!?

      I think my work frustrations are definitely starting to come out in my school work again.

  3. An excellent post overall, but I’m going to focus only on the bulleted list as it relates to what I learned yesterday from two tech comm folks from Kohler:

    This may be specific to the students who land co-ops at Kohler, but I would think it goes for all new employees in their Tech Comm (Kitchen and Baths) division. They’ve designed their co-ops to be 6-9 months, rather than the stereotypical 3-month summer internship. They want people to move beyond the training mode to be able to be a team member on projects. Also, one of our alums who just moved from a contract to full-time position there not only works on instruction sheets and pamphlets but also the digital animation videos for each product. And those vary depending on where the product is sold, whether that’s on the Home Depot shelves or to commercial sites like hotels.

    • Chelsea Dowling

      That is such an interesting theory around summer interns. I look at the summer interns who come on board at our organization and they spend so much time learning about the company, that by the time they start doing anything they only have a few weeks left. It is interesting though to hear these types of examples and understand how other companies look at and define technical communication – especially because in many cases there are so many of us who are lone technical writers in our companies.

  4. Great post and some really great points! I completely agree that many times there are “too many chefs in the kitchen” when it comes to technical communication in the workplaces.

    When the work is assigned to the wrong person/ group, it can be hard to release their grasp. And as you mentioned, it can be a very uncomfortable situation, trying to avoid stepping on toes, if you renegotiate the work load.

    On the other hand, in some workplaces, the increase in the need for technical communication, and trained facilitators to develop it, can be reassuring to those of entering their field. Although a lot of the technical communication may be too spread out amongst the workforce, I think we will see a movement by the management to begin recognizing the need to reallocate the work to individuals and departments that have a greater ability to turn out effective communications, instead of assigning them to where they have always been.

    • Chelsea Dowling

      I hope and pray for that everyday… I think there are many days though where I have high hopes that recognition will come, but often what I see is the transition of work to the people that have “the connections”. While our organization is fairly large (with almost 900 employees), we are a fairly, what I consider to be an, immature organization. Small town America where everyone knows everyone and it can often be quite the struggle to get things accomplished in a timely and effective manner.

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