Past, Present and Future of Tech Communicators

I was fascinated by the history of technical communications and the progress of technical communicators from Rachel Spilka’s (2010) Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. Working as a technical writer with a large oil and gas corporation, I identified with several of the changes in the technical communication field from having knowledge of writing to understanding digital literacy. I was surprised that technical communicators will likely experience “reengineering” or periods of work and non-work during their careers. The future of technical communication jobs is uncertain; however, technical communicators need to assert certain digital skills and prove their value to the company/industry to maintain employment.


Courtesy of

I have experienced many changes of roles and responsibilities with technology and writing throughout the past several years. As JoAnn Hackos explains, “the roles and responsibilities of technical communicators are changing rapidly – in some cases for the worse” (Spilka, 2010, p. ix). As technology evolves and changes, people have to learn, adapt and apply new technology to advance their expertise. Spilka (2010) states that in Part III of Digital Literacy technical communicators need to explore the answers to past theories or develop new ones to better understand how technology has transformed our work (p.14). I have not considered past technology and methods for communicating has an effect on future ones.

I haven’t been in my current position just over three years and I have experienced a dramatic change in our standard writing procedure and content management system (CMS). We started with MS Word generated documents, received hand written signature approvals, and used a file transfer protocol (FTP) to upload them to an archaic CMS system. This process (writing and receiving approvals) often took months or even years to complete and was not efficient or effective for those who needed to follow the standards every day. Two years ago we underwent a complete overhaul of our process and CMS system. Most parts of the process are auto-generated with email reminders and a CMS that uses HTML and XML files for creating standards that are compatible with multiple platforms. No more written signatures or filing papers in file folders since most of the workflow process is completed within 60 days or less. Although the system has several drawbacks and oftentimes has “bugs” that hinder our process, we’re still better than before. Management is researching the next system since technology becomes outdated as soon as it becomes popular.

We’re in the Web 2.0 era, but will digital literacy, advancing globalization, and technical communication survive the “seismic shift” that will likely lead to Web 3.0 in the near future? R. Stanley Dicks (Spilka, 2010) examines the drastic changes technical communication has been experiencing the last couple decades and it doesn’t appear to moving backward either. These dramatic changes will test our skills and value in the workplace. Dicks says to remain a valuable contributor, we’ll have to add a “strategic value” to increase company profits which comprises of having leadership skills, training and education as well as being more than a writer and editor. Technical communicators will have to be “symbolic-analytical” workers.(Check out this SlideShare about Johnson-Eilola’s research.) I’m still trying to visualize this concept, but I understand that we’ll have to know and do more than just write words. We’ll have to be the researcher, theorist, rhetorician, translator, and collaborator to prove our valuable skill sets to remain employed.




Posted on September 23, 2016, in Literacy, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I agree with both authors and your assessment that the technical communication field is undergoing a “seismic shift.” In some ways, I feel that’s a more apt description than a “revolution” because I see the change happening more slowly and never really reaching a state of completion. Instead, to stay relevant, technical communications will need to continually reinvent itself to continue adding value and responding to the latest trends and needs.

    Is there a particular change or technology that you would pinpoint as the crossroads of technical communication? I’m not sure I could identify a specific trigger for a “revolution”, but it’s more the convergence of trends in technology, readership, and the marketplace that’s causing the shift. How disruptive do you think this shift will be within your own workplace?

    • To answer your first question, when Google was introduced and became a powerhouse of not only a search engine but also a communication hub. This is when I think technical communication came to a crossroads with my experience. For my workplace, we’re looking at mobile applications that are compatible with our CMS and interactive PDFs that will still work with our firewall. Thanks for the comments.

      • Interesting note about the search for “mobile applications that are compatible with our CMS and interactive PDFs that will still work with our firewall.” I worked with a grad student on her final project that detailed the, perhaps more basic, switch from WORD to HTML documentation in her workplace, and it was quite eye opening to learn about the resistance to the change. See for more information.

        • I’m not sure about the resistance at this company, but it’s surely needed.

          • I think she expected all her coworkers to embrace the change since it made the documents easier to work with and was surprised when the majority preferred the older system. If you haven’t sensed resistance yet it is likely your company is more open but you never know! 🙂

  2. I enjoyed your application of the reading to your current technical communication position. As someone who has not yet entered the field of technical communication, it was nice to see a perspective from someone who has lived some of these changes.

    Do you agree with Dicks’ somewhat bleak stance that technical communicators have to consistently “defend” their jobs and worth to the company? That was something that left me a bit uneasy about the readings – the idea that in order to keep your job you need to be constantly “proving” your worth and defending your benefit to the company.

    • I do think employees in many fields are being asked to do more, often with fewer resources, than their predecessors. So perhaps it is more bleak at the hiring stage, particularly for those who don’t have a lot of professional experience just yet?

    • I really think it depends on the company and how much they understand and value your knowledge. It’s almost always, “how can you help us (the company) achieve our goals” attitude. My department is fairly new, but people saw a need to create just a technical writing department so standards are more user-friendly and readable. First, anyone who had adequate writing skills was hired, but we have shifted to hiring people with writing degrees, especially tech writing backgrounds.

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