Author Archives: Chelsea Dowling
When I first began my journey to finding a master’s program that had to do with something around technical communication, I kept telling myself it was to gain more validity with my career and give me the necessary expertise that I needed. Within my role, it has always been a struggle to claim my position as a real “job” and not just something that needs to be done, for example, drafting e-mails to the rest of the organization about a particular issue that occurred in relation to technology.
But this idea of a dichotomy came up for me in a recent article I had written for another assignment. When does technical communication change from just being a skill to it being considered an expertise or career? This is often something I have contemplated, but it seems to be coming up and more and more, even in Pigg’s article on distributed work. As Pigg discussed the skills needed for technical communication, one of the problems she conjured was that “technical communicators’ expertise is threatened to be reduced to functional technological skill (p. 72).
I often ask myself what does technical communication really mean to me? Of course, this is in the context of my own work environment and experiences that I have had, but I am beginning to wonder if that question is ever attainable? As we think about the growth in technology, it wasn’t until about the last 40-50 years that modern day technology really began to shape our human culture. With this sharp increase it will only began to increase at the same rapid pace. So what is our role as technical communicators within these changes? Can we even bare to handle all aspects? As organizations continue to grow, consumers begin adapting new technologies, and distribution begins to happen in our everyday lives, the role of technical communication will become even more distributed.
In looking at my current organization there are many areas where the skillset of a technical communicator is needed but often times it is covered by a technical, or even non-technical, subject matter expert. For instance, our business analysts are often reaching out to members of our organization to gather requirements for technical projects. The work they do surely involves some type of technical communication skill but it is not something they are necessarily trained in.
I saw this Bruce Lee quote and it really seemed to tie in nicely with my article this week. As I thought about this idea of skillset versus expertise, I actually disagreed with Lee’s quote. It has to take expertise to know 10,000 different kicks versus, being able to do one really well (which is a skill in and of itself). Practice makes perfect, right?
In correlation with Pigg’s problem statement referenced earlier, I believe it is important that we distinguish between what skill and expertise mean for the field of technical communication. Otherwise, I too fear, in alignment with the work Slattery conducted (Pigg, 2014), that all technical communication roles will be subjected to a skill rather than an expertise.
After watching the Debate about technology and jobs between Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, there were a number of topics that peeked my curiosity in this 60 minute video. One, in particular, was this idea around how technology is taking over a number of different jobs within our society. One thing Zittrain came across in his own research was the idea of: if a robot could do something a human could do, than ultimately it was beneath a human’s capacity to do that work.
But is it? One of the things Zittrain noted was that if technology does impact a person’s role, it is also important that there is meaningful work for people. But what if this is meaningful work for some?
I have an uncle who has down syndrome (DS), which is a type of physical and mental impairment. Although the developmental delays vary significantly between individuals with DS, it can hinder their capacity of “contributing” to society. My uncle, for example, has the development that an 8-year-old would have. Nonetheless he is able to work. I would say, however, that type of work while meaningful to him could potentially at any point be performed by technology.
So what happen to the dissemination of unskilled labor then? If we take that away and replace unskilled labor with technology, do we take jobs away from individuals who are elderly or have mental disabilities? In their article on Technology, Society and Mental Illness, Harvey and Keefe found that technology does in fact have an impact on populations that include the elderly, those with mental illnesses and disabilities.
But, can individuals with mental illness (or even the elderly) strive in this “human+machine” culture that Longo refers to (in Digital Literacy) – against the claims made by Harvey and Keefe? One of the most fascinating things about my uncle is his own ability to use and adapt to technology. He can play Wii games and find his way through levels upon levels. Does he struggle with some things? Sure – but if he were living in this digital culture would his online counter parts know he was mentally disabled?
In fact, in her article titled, What effect has the internet had on disability, Aleks Krotoski argues that physical impairments become non-existent in the virtual world. Without having the stigma assigned to them, those with disabilities have the opportunity to flourish online.
This idea aligns well with the information the Longo provided in her chapter on Human+Machine and the importance of investigating and understanding how this human and machine culture works and how it is not equal to the “human+human culture”. In a human to human culture, as Krotoski found, those with mental or physical impairments are chastised, but in an online virtual environment – when it comes down to humans plus machines – those individuals have the opportunity to participate in society without human barriers.
How do you feel the Human+Machine culture might impact the elderly or mentally disabled populations? As technical communicators, how do we account for communication to these audiences if they were in fact online participants?
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.
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”.
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?
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.
Growing up I was accustomed to a quiet world. Being the youngest of four children, I often think my parents sheltered my existence to some extent based on the potentially not-so-great decisions of my older siblings. Nonetheless, my stature growing up provided me the opportunity to fall in love with books. There was nothing I loved (and still love) to do more than a read a good book. I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning immersing myself into another world of fiction. And then I grew up. Technology was an ever-growing force in my own generation. The need and want of that technology was overbearing and overwhelming at times, but I also had my books.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and my now ex-husband asked me if I would rather have a grill or a Nook for a Christmas. Well I chose the grill. I could not understand why someone would want a Nook. You lose out on the feel of the book as you clutch it through some of the most climatic points of a story. And the smell of pages from old library books that were well beyond used, and in many cases offering so many readers a chance at a break from reality. So again, why would someone want to miss out on the experience by succumbing to a piece of technology? What if something spilled on it or it died right in the middle of a good part in the story? A Nook just sounded silly. Years later, I finally succeeded to allowing someone to present me with a Nook. Now, I will say from the perspective of travel it has lightened my load significantly. Travelling with books, no doubt can be a true nuisance.
So why do I share in this personal story? In reading through Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I kept memorizing back to this moment in my life. In what seemed to be such a pivotal switch. What was it that finally prompted me to move towards something I thought I would forever loathe? Was it pressure? Was it an internal switch that told me I want something new and shiny? Was it just my time? While a large portion might have leaned towards a convenience factor, I think it was this very experience that really aligned with what Rachel Spilka, author of Digital Literacy, was driving that we [as technical communicators] begin thinking more critical about.
I’m sure many, if not all of you have heard of the following quote:
This quote in correlation with my personal experience was what was driving through my mind as I read the beginnings of Digital Literacy. There were two questions that Spilka called out that really got me to think about my role as a technical communicator:
- How can we make a difference, not by isolating ourselves or distinguishing ourselves from others, but rather through collaborative efforts?
- How can we contribute to the social good with our unique perspectives, knowledge, and strategies?
As technical communicators we do bring unique perspectives and experiences to our own work and it is through those experiences that I believe we have the opportunity to use that to make a difference. Just like advocating for “being the change we want to see in the world”, sharing our experiences / knowledge can advocate for this in our world of technical communication.
What I do somewhat disagree with in regards to the first question I called out from Spilka’s book, is that there are times and opportunities that we can take to build differences in order to show them through a more collaborative effort.
I am a “sole technical writer” of sorts in my organization right now (at least in my own department). Through the course of my work, I have developed policies, procedures, guidelines, and am in the process of implementing an internal blog for our department. Through this work (that I have done alone), I am able to showcase to others in the organization how we can be successful with communication by showing and referencing this work that I would not have others have had if I tried to complete it “collaboratively”. Let’s face it – in many organizations we often struggle with “who owns that particular [thing]”. By always working collaboratively, I think we often run the risk of over words-smithing or over-critiquing something. I also think that in some ways, it is not bad to distinguish yourself from others – especially if you can elicit good technical communication in order to help others become better at it themselves. Overall, I do believe that there does have to be some middle ground, however, it is at that point where we can actually begin contributing to that overall social goodness.
What are your thoughts around these two particular questions and how did you ultimately interpret them? Have you ever had experiences where it was beneficial isolate yourself versus working through it collaboratively (or vice versa)?