The Historical Documentation of Change in Technical Communication

Elissa Matulis Myers said in the March 2009 issue of Intercom that technical communicators “need to define their own opportunities and then move boldly forward” (2009) by adapting to the changes in their work environment or risk becoming irrelevant. This is true not only for technical communicators, but for everyone working in an environment where technology plays a significant role in their professional tasks.


Cover graphic of Intercom, March 2009, Society for Technical Communication.

In that same issue of Intercom were two helpful articles about adapting to keep up with the changing business environment. One offered practical advice to recession-proof your career by taking actions to decrease the chance of being laid off such as “add[ing] value to your company, ensur[ing] management recognizes that you add value, and repeat as needed” (Molisani, 2009, p.14).

The second article compared and contrasted social media and technical communication “…to demonstrate how social media is changing the way we communicate, to engage our audience in a dialogue, to create a sense of community, and to better meet expectations” (Maggiani, 2009, p.19).

These articles reinforce the idea that we need to adapt to both the shift in technology and management.

When Myers published her article in 2009, I was a year away from graduating with my bachelors of science in Technical Communication and entering into a workforce that was in turmoil due to the economy. Yet, somehow and according to Meyers, I found my way to become visible and indispensable to my employers. In essence in order for me and many of my colleagues to become successful and stay on top of the business, we needed to “…adapt to the changes and become a valuable asset to a work environment…” (2009).

Documenting Our Past to Find Our Future

If we want to look to the future of technical communication, we must look back into history. When reading Saul Carliner and R. Stanley Dicks’ respective histories of technical communication, I was excited to see how the field of technical communication transformed in the last forty years. Many of the tools and processes that were used by technical communicators since the end of World War II are still around and others have completely disappeared. Carliner said that technology in the last thirty years has affected our profession and shows us the five phases in the development of technical communication. Besides technology making these transformations in our field, Dicks points out the changes in management and business economics profoundly affected technical communicators. Both authors show us the larger picture in which our field has been affected, once again, by technology and management.

I want to emphasize that our work is constantly shifting toward becoming the experts in content. We no longer are bound to being experts in a specific tool, instead we are experts in content, information, concepts, and ideas. Dicks shows how technical communicators have moved on from the fundamentals of technical communication and into the field of symbolic-analytic work, which “their primary products are ideas (e.g. assertions, recommendations, value judgements) delivered in reports, plans, proposals, and other genres.” (Dicks, 2010, p.55). Symbolic-analytic work sounds more like content strategy which is to manage content, analyze methods, and use effective processes for publishing it.

For me, at work, I’m more interested in finding ways a business can reduce cost, increase revenue, and use technology when creating and managing technical content. This is a mantra I share with many content strategists, of which Jack Molisani promotes these ideas every year with his LavaCon Content Strategy Conferences (2013). I think he and others like him have adapted to the current trends in the changes with technology and management.

I feel have made the move from being a traditional technical communicator when I first started in my college years. I imagined I would do more than just edit copy or document processes. I did a lot of fun things such as publish a newspaper and create websites. My focus was on using technology tools and how I can use them to publish faster, easier, and smarter. If I can make recommendations on using the tools, I can prove my value towards the company and remain gainfully employed.

Just Keep Going

In conclusion, in order to maintain relevancy, Myers points out that “[s]uccessful technical communicators need to be able to sell their skills and value independent of their industry or content, and they should not base their marketability on the expertise they have acquired in a specific field” (2009). More easily said: market your knowledge of concepts instead of expertise in the tools.


Dicks R.S. (2010). The effects of digital literacy. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 51-81). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.

Maggiani, R. (2009, March). Technical communication in a social media world. Intercom, 18-20.

Molisani, J. (2013). Building a business case for content initiatives. [Presentation Slides]. Retrieved from

Molisani, J. (2009, March). Recession-proof your career. Intercom, 14-17.

Myers, E. M. (2009, March). Adapt or die: Technical communicators of the twenty-first century. Intercom, 7-13.

About Roger Renteria

Professional Life: I am a technical communicator, writer, and presenter. Hobby Life: I'm a blues dancer, hiker, and foodie.

Posted on September 25, 2016, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Reducing cost is definitely a concern that every business has. What do you say to companies when they fire employees, technical communicators and others in departments vital to business success, in order to protect the bottom line?

    You say that we are becoming content experts instead of editors and managers, how does that affect the way programs like this one are designed? I know personally that there were many programs and CMS that I am unfamiliar with; attending the 2016 STC Summit exposed me to specific tools and techniques that are widely used by others in the field. It’s simply not possible to become an expert on everything.

    Does a course like this one prepare us to hone concepts instead of tools? If not, how do we make sure it does?

  2. If companies choose to lay off technical communicators, those managers are not recognizing the value of a technical communicator. Instead, we want “to be an innovative solution
    provider and profit center, not a commodity-like tech pubs cost center” (Molisani, 2009, p.15).

    How we can help affect the design of programs like this one is to have a closer relationship between academia and industry. There are a lot of technologies out there, however the dominant trending ones have similar themes. For example, DITA was taught to me in 2007 because my bachelor’s program was advised by the industry’s TC Board to suggest this writing technique to learn in class.

    It doesn’t matter about the tool more the concept behind the tools. I have been told this during Content Strategy conferences. You can learn tools, but it’s the methods, planning, analysis, theories, and thinking ahead when creating content that a technical communicator can do to add value to their work.

  3. Wonderful inclusion of the Intercom cover! Our advisory board consults with both our undergraduate and graduate program, although the emphasis tends to be on the undergrads since there are nearly 5x as many students. Julie is great about professors pitching new courses and rotating out special topics seminars, so I hope you find the curriculum to meet your interests. And yes, as an academic program it’s less about the tools and more about the methods and theories.

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