Category Archives: Literacy
Technical and Professional Communication vs. English Degree
Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer and Paul Curran’s (2014) article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reaffirms the breadth and depth of communication and web 2.0 knowledge that is needed in many job positions. However, this article specifically took account of Technical and Scientific Communication as well as Professional, Technical, Business and Scientific Writing degrees, but English degrees could also fall in this category. Since English majors potentially are doing the same types of writing, collaborating, and web 2.0 work, I’m not sure if employers valued a technical communication degree more than another English or related writing degree.
Methodology and Results of Survey
The authors surely provided an extensive methodology to discover the types of communication that TPC graduates used in their lives and the graphics equally supported their results of the study. Surprisingly, TPC graduates are employed (or studying) in “education, technical and scientific communication, and publishing and broadcasting” (p. 271) as well as more women were employed in the software, hardware, and network industries. However, the authors did say these numbers were “skewed” based on the number of male vs. female respondents. Other noteworthy statistics from this article was the most types of writing done and the ones most valued. These numbers were from the respondents; however, I wonder how their supervisors/managers’ opinions would differ? For example, Grants/proposals was eighth on the list of type of writing and sixth as most valued (proposal was not included on most valued list) and Definitions was fifth on type of writing and did not appear on the most valued list (I’m not sure what definitions means anyway). Would supervisors/managers agree with these statistics?
More Technologies Used in Writing Process
Email, not surprisingly, is the most popular type of communication written and most valued. Does this mean that colleges should teach students how to write effective email more and less about blogging? According to Russell Rutter (1991), college graduates discover that what they learned in college do not always correlate to the writing type/purpose/audience in the workplace (p. 143). On the other hand, as Blythe, Lauer and Curran (2014) noted, technical communication graduates use a multitude of technologies during the composing process from pencil and paper to social media (p. 275); likewise, Rutter noted, “technical communicators must know how to do more than write – do more than inscribe, type or keystroke” (p. 145).
I still argue that English and other related writing degree graduates could accomplish similar tasks with a similar amount of success. Writing skills can be taught, but writing seems to be a natural ability. Rutter (1991) asserts, “Education should seek to create sensible, informed, articulate citizens. Some of these citizens will want to become technical communicators…” (p. 148).
Blythe, S., Lauer, C. and Curran. P. G. (2014). “Professional and technical communication in a web 2.0 world.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:4, 265-287. DOI: 10.1080/10572252.2014941766
Rutter, R. (1991). “History, rhetoric, and humanism: Toward a more comprehensive definition of technical communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21:2, 133-153.
- Digital literacy has different interpretations. According to Barry Thatcher (2010), it means “accessing, understanding, and appropriately using digital media in specific situations” (p. 169). While Bernadette Longo (2010) defines culture in the context of digital communities as, “ways in which people relate to each other within a particular social context” (p. 149) and technical communicators can learn about digital cultures by “studying the language and the social relationships embedded in how people use it” within these communities (p.149). Ann Blakeslee (2010) delves further by explaining that digital media audiences can be targeted for a specific situation or reader; however, she explains there hasn’t been enough research to understand the unique needs of readers with digital documentation (p. 204). (Refer to #3 for digital audiences.)
- Digital media literacy is not universal. What is understood in one country is not true for another. Thatcher’s experience working with Mexican and U.S. collaborators clearly identifies that digital literacy has differing rhetorical and cultural traditions that require greater understanding for cross-cultural projects (p. 169). Technical communicators should research and collaborate with other technical communicators and translators in other countries if the another country will be one of the audiences targeted. By due diligence, Thatcher “developed a framework to compare features of human life that all cultures share regardless of their value(s)” (p. 175) rather than follow an ethnocentric methodology – an assumption that another cultures uses digital media the same way that another does (p. 170). Specifically, Mexican culture and their rhetorical traditions regarding digital media.
- Digital media audience needs are specific. The internet is vast and digital media provides many outlets for various audiences to interact with media besides reading. Consider online documentation to operate your mobile phone or troubleshoot your PC. While this documentation is available to everyone, it also has a specific audience – those seeking answers for the equipment. Ann Blakeslee (2010) explains the characteristics of digital documents have implications “how audiences perceive the documents, how they use them and what expectations they bring to them” (p. 220). It is the responsibility of technical communicators to research intended audiences as well as tertiary audiences when they are creating digital documents (media). Audiences who not only read, but use and respond to digital media. Blakeslee states that to understand audience needs in response to digital literacy more research is needed (p. 222-223).
- Digital media needs to be user-centered. The shift from paper to digital documentation requires a “seismic shift” from system to user-centered. Documentation, to be useful and effective, requires consideration of its audience, their needs and digital literacy knowledge. This is difficult to acknowledge and understand since paper documentation was always one sided and did not receive much feedback from the user. However, almost all digital media requires a user-centered approach.
- Digital media literacy has its own rhetorical genre. Longo, Thatcher and Blakeslee (2010) all reference “rhetoric” or “rhetorical genre” in their articles and the importance of understanding and/or researching digital media rhetoric. Digital rhetoric, a definition evolving as much as digital media, is “the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances” (Eymand, 2012, Digital Rhetoric Collaborative). Longo asserts that technical communicators contribute to digital rhetoric with identifying audience inclusion or exclusion as well as understanding the “human+machine culture” (p. 147). While Thatcher says to develop cross-cultural digital literacy, technical communicators must, “adapt their communication strategies to the different rhetorical expectations of the target culture” (p. 169). Finally, Blakeslee identifies that content and context need to be continually revised so that the application meets the needs of the end-user thus changing the role of rhetoric with each type of digital medium.
The list above provides a few key takeaway points from Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (Ed) (2010) Chapters 6 – 8.
At my company, customers access much of our documentation by searching a central repository. Far and away, the most frequent feedback that we receive about our documentation is “I can’t find what I’m looking for.” So I was very interested in “Informational Design: From Authoring Text to Architecting Virtual Space” (Salvo and Rosinski) and their discussion of the necessity of search and retrieval and of designing our documentation for better navigation.
Salvo and Rosinski talk about envisioning documentation spatially to help users’ navigate and find their destination. They give the example of knowing user context when searching for “broccoli” in order to return the best results. There is no question that findability is hugely important in how customers locate and use our documentation, and search engine optimization (SEO) has become a big business. It doesn’t matter what we write if the right audience can’t find it at the right time.
Interestingly, I saw this user-context-based search engine patent filed by Google in 2006 (published in 2013). They discuss the known limitations of search engines and their invention to return search results by categorizing the information based on external context clues. The example that they give is figuring out that a given web site is an encyclopedia based on the surrounding words, and then using information about the user to determine whether they are looking for an encyclopedia.
I think having more context-aware searches would be a boon to technical communication and continue to accelerate our path from content creators to content managers, who look beyond the sentence level to strategic documentation processes.
The second piece of findability is not just locating the right document, but then navigating within it. The Wired article “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business” talks about both halves in the context of marketing your business, but I think the same is true for helping readers through technical documentation. The tips on providing user-relevant content and appropriate links (as well as the astounding statistic that 30% of visitors use site search) are certainly relevant to how we create and envision documentation.
Salvo and Rosinksi make a closely related point about using genre conventions and creating a document environment that orients the audience and primes them for a response. By using signposts and making it clear what kind of document they are reading, we can set expectations so the audience knows what to look for and how to respond.
The diagram below actually comes from a SEO company, but the accompanying article “Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” makes a surprisingly counter-serving claim that the best strategy to getting read online isn’t just tricking search engines but creating high-quality content. Documentation that is designed for the audience and understands their needs is more effective in boosting overall findability of both the website itself and particular information within it.
In “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” Dave Clark also addresses genre theory and how we can create standards and templates that help users know what to find. Although perhaps not as obvious as a wedding invitation, what are other ways that we can be using signposts and ambience tools to define the genre of each document and subconsciously cue the audience on what to look for and where to find it?
Salvo and Rosinski quote Johnson-Eilola as saying “the map has started to replace the story as our fundamental way of knowing.” In light of human history, that seems a shocking thing to say, but I do see it being borne out, at least to some degree, as the amount of information grows exponentially and the challenge of navigating it becomes more important. I still fancy myself as a writer about a cartographer, but managing documentation for findability is an increasingly key part of the role.
“Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” KER Communications. 29 June 2010. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://kercommunications.com/seo/marketing-search-engines-people/
Hendron, Michael. “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business.” Wired. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/02/findability-will-make-break-online-business/
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.
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.
I have really enjoyed this class, and interacting with all of you on this blog. This course has helped me see my current (and future) workplace situation through different lenses, and I feel this has made me stronger professionally. I chose to write my paper on what skills technical communication professionals need to succeed in the modern/future workplace. I have pasted my abstract below, please let me know what you think!
Emerging media has completely changed the face of traditional technical writing. The introduction of Web 2.0 has created user needs that supersede the tangible printed and bound instruction manuals that previously defined the field. As a result, workplaces have established new requirements for the skills ideal technical writing candidates must possess, and universities have strategically designed programs to keep up with these trends. Successful technical writers are now faced with the tasks of interpreting the most effective structure to present information; the best terminology for particular users; the appropriate design strategies to maximize accessibility; and the optimal platforms/technology to deliver products. This paper will define modern technical communication, and highlight the essential skills and abilities required for success in the industry. This paper will be concluded with my personal experience with these dynamics as a technical communications professional in multiple workplace settings.
The skills I then listed are to:
- Understand business operations and corporate financial goals to prove their value to the workplace
- Possess the collaboration skills, and ability to work in a team environment
- Maintain a thorough familiarity with leading industry tools and trends
- Possess solid writing, composition skills, and oral communication skills
- Possess the ability to evaluate their own work performance as well as those of others
- Possess document design knowledge
- Possess the ability to execute tasks and projects with enthusiasm and to meet deadlines with little support from management
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.
While reading Toni Ferro and Marc Zachry’s “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge, Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices”, I noticed some striking similarities to my own job. This article basically analyzed technical communications professionals’ workplace usage of publicly available online systems (PAOS), and I can completely relate to their findings. The table below explains this in greater detail (pg. 16):
I’m an eCommerce Copywriter for multiple retail brands, and sites like Wikipedia, Google Docs, Skype/WebEx, and Amazon.com are literally my backbone. In order to write product descriptions, I either need a sample (which is never available), or a product description from a vendor/competitor’s site. Literally 50% of my workday is spent researching products and putting existing descriptions into my own words.
The table above mentions 60% of participants reported using Wikipedia for “learning about a topic”, and this is true for me personally as well. There are times when I’m given products for sports/hobbies I’ve never even heard of and I depend on Wikipedia to explain what they are. For example, last week I was given 100 SUP accessories to write on our company website, and had no idea what the acronym SUP even stood for. Wikipedia saved the day with a robust explanation that helped me write my product descriptions like an expert.
Google Docs is another program I couldn’t do my job without, as when writing these products, other departments like imaging and merchandising need real time visibility into our progress. Most lists of products that need copy are distributed in a Google spreadsheet, and as we complete copy, we simultaneously check products off the list for the next step that needs to be initiated by other colleagues. Google Docs is our go-to for sharing and editing documents, and its absence would make everyone’s job nearly impossible.
Ferro and Zachry went on to ask, “What is the relation between what we are designing our classes and overall curriculum to achieve, and the things students will be doing after they are with us (pg. 19)?” I had been anticipating this question from the second I read through the survey data. With the amount of rapidly changing technology we’re facing and growing increasingly dependent on, PAOS are no longer a workplace/educational distraction. I personally feel students could benefit from a course geared to helping us identify and maximize these resources. I’d even be interested in taking a course on how to create these resources.
I was also happy to see the statement in the Pedagogical Implications section, “Technical communicators today rightly express concerns about how we should teach students to write in forms that did not exist 3 years ago – and some that do not yet exist (pg. 20)”. The ability to predict, effectively navigate, and communicate in the PAOS environment can make or break an employee’s success in the workplace. Employees who can create and monitor expert Wikis, become masters of developing associations and relationships online, and internalize electronic planning/coordination are greater assets to their companies than employees with identical work knowledge/experience who lack these additional qualities. I’m very interested to see how educators will introduce this material, and how this change will reflect in the technical communication discipline.
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?
While reading the first few chapters of Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the section in chapter one titled “(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)” really related to me. I constantly hear my friends say things like “autocorrect is making us stupid”, and “We’d be nothing without Google”, but I’ve always thought the complete opposite.
On page 52, Rheingold introduced and explained Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He went on to say:
“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole.”
I don’t understand how Carr has skewed this situation, but I feel the exact opposite. People Google information they do not know, or else they wouldn’t need to Google it. The “few words or sentences” that are generated from their searches are specifically what they needed to know. Regardless of whether or not they read the entire document, they have already learned something that they will not forget.
Carr feels, “We are substituting the web for personal memory, and emptying our minds”. However, I do not forget the information I look up on Google, ever. He’s thinking along the lines of easy come easy go, but that’s really not the case in this situation. In terms of neuroplasticity, I feel we’re actually training ourselves to absorb more information than ever before in the history of human existence.
I can go through more information online in a year than my grandmother has in her entire lifetime. I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, at my disposal whenever I feel like conjuring it. Our generation are masters of information, we’re experts at searching and locating exactly what we want to know in a matter of seconds.
Carr says, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it”, and we engage in, “nonlinear, scattered, perpetual scanning at the expense of depth and concentration”. I think my skipping and skimming habits are more like an ability to speed-read and pinpoint information I’m actually looking for than an Internet based attention deficit disorder. Web based authors also format their documents for this purpose, making information easier to find in less time.
In situations where readers need more elaborate explanations of the subject of interest, references to “traditional” texts are always linked to the content. In just a simple click, we jump from the “few words or sentences” to a printable PDF version of a book, or a link to buy a hard copy on Amazon.
It’s law in the United States for every child to attend school, or else their parents are held responsible. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, American illiteracy rates have been around 14% for the past 10 years, I highly doubt Google has been as influential as immigration, poverty, or drug usage. Most Americans are capable of reading, and will read in the traditional sense when the occasion calls for it. It’s simply a matter of optimizing time, effort, and using discretion.
As Rheingold said on page 52, “A search query, like a Wikipedia page, is often a bad place to end your inquiry, but an excellent place to start”. In most cases readers jump through multiple pages of information, and have the option of a robust explanation of what they are looking for through multiple resources. Google and sites like Wikipedia put them on track to find these resources, and long form text is always an option.
Tools like Google, Wikipedia and even autocorrect give us instant answers and correction that we wouldn’t have without it. Is it better to not have access to information outside of a 2000 page book, or to instantly get what you’re looking for with the option of exploring additional resources?
In early 2008, I signed up for Evernote® and became a premium subscriber. It quickly became my digital brain and I used it daily. In 2012, Evernote acquired Penultimate, a note taking app for iPad that allows you take handwritten notes. In 2014, Evernote launched a new version of Penultimate that led to their having to issue an apology to their users.
But, despite their claims of listening to feedback, many Evernote users suggest otherwise in the app’s forums. I believe this “development in a bubble” has led to the company’s CEO, Phil Libin, having to step down and to the company’s having some serious trouble with public relations if not finances, as reported by BusinessInsider.com: The inside story of how $1 billion Evernote went from Silicon Valley darling to deep trouble.
I’m no business analyst so I’ll skip the charts and graphs. But, I can tell you why I left Evernote last year as a premium subscriber and active user in favor of another app. I believe the following are some of the main reasons Evernote is struggling—all of which have to do with Evernote being un-networked to its user base.
We’re Listening But Not Really
Howard Rheingold, Author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, says “The aggregated by-products of digital participation add up to a marketable commodity…” (p. 135). In theory, yes, but only if the company is listening.
In Evernote’s case, I and other users called for certain features or feature tweaks for years in the user forums. What we got were new apps that eventually died (e.g. Hello and Food), features no one seemed to be asking for (e.g. Work Chat), or redesigns that turned long-standing workflows on their heads or made them impossible.
The net effect went something like this over and over again: “We didn’t get to that fix or feature you wanted, but look! We created a food app because Phil, our CEO is a foodie, and, well, food app!”
We Know What’s Best for You
At the front of the online book, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual list the 95 theses found within it. Number 25 is “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.”
Evernote boasts over 50 million users worldwide. It’s my feeling this gave them so much confidence in what they were doing, they became dismissive of what users were saying.
Go to the forums—virtually any forum. I’ll bet you won’t have to scroll long before you find an Evernote team member effectively saying “Let them eat cake!” In other words, they indicate they understand the concerns, but they know what’s best. Whether or not a feature request is in the development pipeline or not is not the business of end-users. At least, that’s how many of us felt.
Drink the Kool-Aid or Else!
Power-user bullying of everyday users is rampant on the forums. Evernote is silent. I’ve read dozens of comments from self-identified power-users in reply to average users’ concerns that leave me speechless.
Effectively, these power-users seemingly become defensive on Evernote’s behalf and will shut-off whiney users: “Evernote is great. I use it 1,000 of times a day and have for 50 years. You just don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve given you two work-arounds, a life raft, and a helicopter! If you don’t like the way Evernote is set up or don’t like my work-around. Leave!” They don’t actually say this, but it does effectively represent their intent and tone.
The fascinating thing is that Evernote lets it go on. And, the next thing you know, that power-user bully has published a post on Evernote’s blog. You start to really feel hopeless as an average user.
A Note from the New CEO
A month ago, Evernote’s new CEO wrote to the user base explaining why the company was laying off talent and closing offices globally. He said some important stuff that may represent the bubble is being popped and Evernote will begin focusing on its user network (and hopefully employee network, if you read the Business Insider article):
“I believe that a smaller, more focused team today will set us up for growth and expansion tomorrow. Here are two things that you can expect from us over the next several months: we will launch major foundational product improvements around the core features that you care about most, and we will pull back on initiatives that fail to support our mission.”
He’s saying the company is going to focus on improving its core product THAT USERS CARE ABOUT MOST. I hope that means the same thing users have been telling Evernote all along: “Great product, but we need it do to A, B, and C, and by the way this needs fixed.”
I’m not going back to Evernote. Not yet. Maybe never. But, I’ll watch from afar to see what happens.
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.
I think that I am getting the hang of this “rhetoric of technology” now since Clark simplified it to “technology and rhetoric are…co-bedded in culture,” and that for technology to be a “real cultural phenomenon,” people have to start bickering over it (Clark, 2010, p. 85). Additionally, it has been drilled into me that all these technology analyzing tools are based on society and culture and its users, which in combination also plays a part in the workplace. I will be discussing my role as a contractor in the workplace with this cultural theory in mind.
According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that
[T]echnological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have an ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue to collaborative approaches… (Clark, 2010, p. 93).
For my last assignment, we did just that. We had our users in mind – new people who had no training, and who were from another country – when we were told to update our content managing system (CMS) to be more user friendly, go through all documentation to either update or delete them, and to create new documentation if the documentation did not exist. The CMS was cleaned up, updated to have visuals such as icons and graphics, and had proper meta tags added each document to make them easier to find in searches.
While this fury of work was being done, we joked about how we are providing so much helpful documentation that we would all be out of a job. And we were. Once everything had been completed and tested over a month in another country, all of us contractors were given notice that all of our jobs were now going overseas, and that those people overseas would be actual, hired employees. But everyone here had a job to do, even though we knew we were putting ourselves out of a job. Thus, when Hart-Davidson wrote, “[T]he combined threat that many technical communicators have confronted firsthand: outsourcing and work fragmentation,” I could only nod in agreement and wonder what I have gotten myself into, again (2010, p. 141).
To make matters worse, when Hart-Davidson goes on to say that “users providing their own help content…actually present dramatic new roles for technical communicators to play,” I wanted to throw this book because he never explains which new roles that these were going to be (2010, p. 141). I do not want generics, I want real answers. Maybe being a consultant or contractor is a dream job for many, but when you have a family to take care of, bills to pay, and you are the nearly the sole wage earner, hearing that you only get so much time at a job is scary. In my opinion, it is sad that companies seem to only care about the bottom line and their customers, but not their employees. Employees used to be the ones valued, and their worth was rewarded with stock options, PTO, health benefits, etc. No more. The companies’ real value is information, which Hart-Davidson writes is the true “valuable commodity” (2010, p. 128).
Now, at another assignment, which I already know the exact date when to start packing up my stuff, I have tried to get them to be more efficient with their workflow, work instructions, and etc. But just as culture and society have certain conventions, rules, and guidelines, so does this workplace too. I have already been told that once a decision on how the templates were made, no further changes will ever be made. I understand that with global companies, they have to think globally, and when there is a change to the standard, then that change needs to be reflected in every document, which costs money. But working with these old templates creates extra work, as some things are duplicated, and there are fields on there that no longer apply, in my opinion. I believe that these templates could be edited for efficiency, remove confusion for the user, and look more professional, but the “power relationship encoded” in this template has limited what I can do with it (Salvo & Rosinski, 2010, p. 103).
Additionally, there is an issue of storing these documents and templates. It has been repeated throughout this course so far that there is a need for companies to store their information for others to find it. I brought this issue up in two meetings at work, with the reply of being that they know it is a problem, but it is not important enough to deal with. I would have to disagree. Even Salvo and Rosinki remark that “information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (2010, p. 103). And if information is a “valuable commodity,” as already referenced above, then there is a problem that needs to be resolved sooner, rather than later (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 128).
In the end, while I learned that technology is based in culture and society, there are limits, rules, and guidelines that I have to play by. Some companies may be open for change; for others, they are more ridged due to political concerns. Many contractors understand that have an ethical and cultural responsibility to their client, even if it is to their detriment. While some scholars are hopeful that there will be plenty of jobs for technical communicators, some are not, and this theme continues to be weaved in and out of texts, which makes me hope that when I am on my deathbed, I can look back and know that I made the correct choice. Otherwise, dang it.
Clark, D. (2010). Shaped and Shaping Tools In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hart-Davidson, W. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Salvo, M.J. & Rosinski, P. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Content management as it applies in Digital Literacy by Rachel Spilka refers to “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery” (p. 130). My first thought was of college and university websites – who creates the online image, who maintains it, and how do you know if it’s effective? When your website looks different, are you being original, savvy, an “outside the box” thinker or someone who looks like they don’t know what they’re doing? A standard design helps you find information, “validates” it, and to a certain degree creates “credibility” – an implied added value that brings users to your site. Visit 39 Factors: Website Credibility Checklist (http://conversionxl.com/website-credibility-checklist-factors/), and web design is the first standard. And it needs to be attractive with bells and whistles. University of Melbourne’s (http://www.unimelb.edu.au/) Dr. Brent Coker states, “As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behavior and inclinations translate to our online existence. As the Internet has become prettier, we are venturing out, and becoming less loyal” (The Melbourne Newsroom: http://newsroom.melbourne.edu/news/n-575).
The annual Webby Awards (http://www.webbyawards.com/winners/2015/) selects the best of the Internet including websites and mobile sites and apps. I took a look at the awards for college and university website design, because I have the chance to redesign my page. Stephenson University was a top winner; take a look – http://www.stevenson.edu. Notice anything different? My eyes went straight to the left navigation – where is it? Stevenson dumped it on their homepage, but click any link on the center block of information and you get one. Whew.
I’m not a technical writer, but I write for work. No one at my college is a technical writer, but everyone with access to the Novus Content Management System (CMS) writes for our website. In Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson asks, “what does a writer do when the whole company writes (Spilka, 210, p. 137)? In the case of my school, you get a fragmented, out-sourced variation of styles and priorities. My college’s website design is awful. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I work, our students love us, and we engage with and support our community– but our web appearance really bothers me. Take a look at Hillsborough Community College: http://www.hccfl.edu/
The left navigation isn’t alphabetical or listed in order of importance; certainly, “Dining Services” isn’t as important “Searching for Classes. In the middle we have “Steps to enroll” and “Apply Now;” “Apply Online is also on the left – everything leading to the same information. Part of the problem is the use of a content management system (CMS) – Novus – that longer meets our needs. And until recently we employed one web manager and no other web staff to maintain the college’s web presence. As Hart-Davidson notes, “content management (cm) systems provide resources for enacting the kind of work reflected in Table 5.1, but they do not do the work themselves. Nor do they help those who lack expertise in writing studies learn best practices” (Spilka, 2010, p. 141).
This is an area that interests me and I have a chance to practice what I learn with our Distance Learning website revision. But in an educational organization with so many layers of administration, and committees who make most of the decisions, how does one promote a new content management strategy? Do any of you in higher education employ technical communicators to assist in website design and maintenance? And how do you measure the success of your website?
I remember an intense discussion a few years ago at the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication where members were debating the efficacy of the titles “technical writer” and “technical communicator”. Were they the same? Were they different? If they were different, in what ways? Did it matter what we thought if employers couldn’t get it? How did employers view persons who worked in technical communication?
It was interesting to me to observe how members, based on their experience in the practice, answered these questions. For the most part, those with say 15 or more years of experience clearly remembered being technical writers per se. They also recognized they were much more than that today—at least most were. The less experienced folks in the discussion mostly sat wide-eyed (not because they were impressed, but because I think they were trying to stay awake). For the most part, they saw themselves as technical communicators, but without a full understanding of that term. But, I recognize the more senior folks, including me, didn’t fully understand either.
What everyone these days seems to recognize is that technical communicators cannot just be technical writers. As Rachel Spilka puts it in the foreword to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, which she edited: It’s not about survival, it’s about evolution. And, I believe she’s right.
Five Steps to You 2.0
Below are five steps we can take to evolve from technical writers or even technical communicators to technical communicators 2.0. A what? R. Stanley Dicks in chapter 2 of Digital Literacy (p. 77) notes that not only has the technology technical communicators use become more complex, so has the their core job of developing text and graphics. So, technical communicators 2.0 are themselves subject matter experts or must become so. Here’s how:
- Keep up on changes in the field. This seems like a no-brainer, but we’re just as busy as CEOs (although our golden parachutes are more like cocktail umbrellas). It’s critical to make time in our schedules to examine what is going on in our field: attend a conference, hop on a webinar, or, uh, get a graduate degree.
- Integrate with other teams. The idea of integrating has a sense of equality about it. I think that is often missed by technical communication professionals. We’re not below the development team or just a cost center as far as the sales team is concerned. Well, let me say it this way, we need to promote ourselves within our organizations as specialists within a practice that requires a high degree of skill and knowledge—not because we want to be but because we are.
- Learn new technologies strategically. Saul Carliner in chapter 1 of Digital Literacy (p. 45) groups technical communication technologies into three categories: authoring, publishing, and management. This is brilliant. While I’ve tried to stay up with technology throughout my career, I think I’ll now look at doing so across these categories. The key will be doing so strategically meaning I can’t keep up with all technology, but following some in each category is 2.0 thinking.
- Develop a subject matter expertise. About eight years ago I moved from high tech to science and engineering. It required me to gain an understanding of science and engineering concepts. In any given week I deal with, from a content perspective, anything from soil mechanics to geochemistry to frozen dams. Now, I’m not a subject matter expert in any of these things, but I am a subject matter expert in communicating about them, i.e., within science and engineering—and my career has never been better.
- Lead. To me, this means technical communicators have to manage not only the conceptualization, production, and distribution of communication, but also relations with departments concerned with management, product development, marketing, costs, revenue, and so forth. We’re not just writers we’re managers—or should be. Think, speak, and act like and executive and you should find yourself invited to the big table.
What else are you doing to become a technical communicator 2.0 in our rapidly changing field?
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)?
While Spilka and her contributors for Digital Literary for Technical Communication drove me crazy by repetition large chucks of text ( see pages 11, 13, 16 regarding who the target audience for her book is) and having a chapter summarizing all the other chapters, there are a couple of things that I learned, besides understanding that if I have to read any more of this book, I will either need a couple of aspirins or a bottle of vodka. These two things that I found most important were evolving and that technical writers must play well with others.
Yes, everyone should already know that technology is constantly evolving, and so its delivery methods and how technical communicators craft their messages need to evolve too. Without evolving, technical writers will fail to gain all the skills necessary for the latest publishing tools, such as FrameMaker and RoboHelp, to help their users and to continue building a positive reputation for whatever company is providing the products and resources. An example of this need for evolving ones skills is in the chapter titled, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” Dicks writes,
The nature of work for many technical communicators is changing so
rapidly that many now perform an entire task set that they did not even
know about five years ago (p. 51).
But evolving to keep up with the changing technology should be common sense, and Saul Carliner provides a chapter on history (just to show how fast technology has changed when companies, seeking higher profits use user input to create the desires of the customer – custom corporate software, better online help, easier desktop publishing, etc. By evolving, companies and people have saved money and time, which is usually one of the main goals of nearly everyone. And as for me, my goals are to learn FrameMaker, RoboHelp, and Illustrator, because I missed out on getting my resume read by hiring managers in the technical communications field because I did not have experience in those tools. I, too, must evolve.
Must play well with others.
Life would be great if everyone played nice and worked well together, and working well with others is an important soft skill that many people lack, especially for those technical communicators who have been working alone for so long. But in today’s technical communicators’ work places, it is necessary to work with others to gather information and for review. As Spilka states,
[W]hat seems most critical and meaningful is how we can contribute to
social, team, or collaborative efforts toward the greater good of large
scale projects…Our work is also more like than before to be
international scope (p. 5).
Thus, to be a desirable technical communicator, one of the main skills is knowing how to work in a team. By helping co-workers in a timely manner, work can be fun, enjoyable, and a success. As a valued part of the team, the technical writer may learn additional skills and be wanted for further projects, which new skills may be needed, so it would be a great opportunity to evolve again. That is why I would suggest to anyone in this field to always take a chance to learn something new. Take on a more challenging project to increase your knowledge and skills.
All in all, so far, I learned from this book that one must not be afraid of the latest technologies, and they should evolve by trying to learn how the latest technologies can benefit themselves and their work places. Besides learning the forever-changing technology tools, methods, theories, and etc., it is also important to know how to work with others, as most projects will involve many people who will be working on the same project, and the technical communicator will need to gather information, and give and receive feedback on the project, so that the project is a success. And if the project turns out not to be successful, have a drink, think about what could have been done to have made it successful, and then try it again next time. With that, you are evolving. Start your evolution now.
Dicks, R. (2010). The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 51). New York, NY: Routledge.
Carliner, S. (2010). Computers and Technical Communication (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.
Spilka, R. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.
Digital literacy, as defined by Spilka, does mean something different today than when I started working 25 years ago. At that time, digital literacy meant that you could use a dot-matrix printer and type on a typewriter, correcting errors as you went with Whiteout or one of those white correcting strips.
Today, in my job, digital literacy means being able to use a PC, software, high-speed printer and digital camcorder and being able to use the content management systems for my company’s Internet and intranet. I’m expected to understand Internet and intranet design, including user experience testing and implementation of those findings. I have to be able to read and analyze the analytics on both the Internet and intranet. And I need to have at least an elementary background in social media–and I’m pretty sure more will be expected of me in this area.
It can be difficult to keep up in the latest and greatest innovations and gadgets and in what is new and cool in Web design. Is it OK to make Web site users click more than once or twice to get to the page they’re looking for? Is it better to employ an endlessly scrolling design or one in which everything sits “above the fold”? What about those sites that have an austere minimalist design with maybe just a few words and you have to click on it to get to any sort of “real” information: are they suitable for our company?
Yes, there has been a “seismic shift” in technical communications. The shift from “blue collar work” to knowledge work means that it is a rare person who is still “just” an editor or writer. It is far more likely that we are editors, writers, Web designers and “new media” experts. Rarely am I now referred to as a “grammar” expert. Not that that role is any less important; in fact, it’s more crucial than ever. But my job goes far beyond knowing when to say “compared with” rather than “compared to” and when to use “which” versus “that.” That knowledge is part of the continuum of my job, which on any given day, could mean communicating with staff, senior leaders, media relations or the board of directors.
Teamwork has always been important, but never more so than today. No one works in isolation completing the same tasks over and over again. Every staff member is part of at least several different teams with different accountabilities. I work with technical staff, other communications professionals, leadership and administrative staff on different projects, because we’re all expected to go beyond the narrow tactical tasks of our resumes to work on strategic directions for projects, teams and beyond.
At the same time, if need be, I can do the work of several people to produce something like a brochure, user manual or e-newsletter. Today’s software packages and easy-to-use programs such as Microsoft Publisher allow me to do the work of a graphic designer, desktop publisher and printer.
Dicks says that the roles of grammar police and wordsmiths are not over for technical communicators but are diminishing in importance. I would argue that these roles are still extremely important–today more than ever. If social media are eroding young people’s use of grammar, spelling and architecture, we need to be there to make sure our writing and communications are of the highest quality. This, of course, goes beyond just grammar and wordsmithing to things like targeting the correct audience, keeping each piece of writing concise and precise, and avoiding “corporate speak” and jargon.
I, for one, welcome any new technology that is going to make my work easier and faster while still preserving high quality. Doing anything else is risking become an impediment or barrier to the work of an organization–or worse, irrelevant. Technology is going to keep evolving, and as communicators, we need to keep evolving right along with it.
Fluidity, evolution of technology, and the technical communicator role is a focus of the first two chapters of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (2010). In it she defines digital literacy as “theory and practice that focus in use of digital technology, including the ability to read, write, and communicate using digital technology, the ability to think critically about digital technology, and consideration of social, cultural, political, and educational values associated with those activities” (p. 8). Saul Carliner on the historical perspective notes “In a few instances, people were hired with formal training in technical writing, but during the 1970’s, this employer typically emphasized technical knowledge over writing skill” (as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 23). Makes sense since technical communication was originally associated with scholarly and scientific writing.
Stanley Dicks states the technical communicator’s work has shifted from primarily writing and editing to a “complex, symbolic-analytic work involving not just developing information but also managing, re-configuring, disseminating and customizing it for a diversity of audiences and in a diversity of media” (as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 75). Yet, he says don’t assume all workers will be doing those tasks. Can small businesses afford to staff such a specialized position? The Small Business Association (SBA) reports that 99.7 percent of businesses are small, with the remaining .30 classified as large – those with 500 or more workers. In reality, many technical communicators won’t see a drastic change in duties because many businesses can’t keep up with the rapidity with which technology changes. Who can invest in business-wide computer and software refreshes only to have it be “old” in two years? Other businesses may have other departments absorb the duties. At my school, it’s done by Marketing.
Due to technology and digital tool use, redefining the technical communication field is inevitable – we already recognize authoring, publishing, and management as main roles, and jobs descriptions run the gamut. Will redefining the “who” be far behind? As Andrew Keen noted in his “Reply All” debate, “authors- formerly-known-as-the-audience” have invaded the Internet (2007, WSJ). Who’s to say they aren’t the next generation of technical communicators? Coincidentally, distance learning/ instructional technology mirrors the technical communicator “seismic shift” of more women than men (Hayhoe as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 51). At my school, only two of nine instructional technologists and designers are men – are women more adaptable to the technological changes? Should we revisit Mary Lay’s “Feminist Theory and the Redefinition of Technical Communication” (1991, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 5.4, 348 – 70, October 1991)?
Today’s employers expect more than a subject matter and writing expert. It may be a challenge for some technical communicators, but it can’t be a surprise. Digital literacy has, as Spilka notes, “transformed just about every work environment and the way that most of us do our work…and almost every aspect of our work has changed” (p. 2). In my field, I’ve seen technology both impact the role of higher education distance learning. Most Florida colleges had student support distance learning departments. Technology allowed us to build a sense of community between the school and online students, a key measure for high retention. But the more technology we embraced the more we let the student go. We disbanded a department and decided distance learning was simply a delivery method. Five years later and students still resist– they want dedicated staff to assist them. At my school, that’s just me. I predict a backlash and full circle; it can’t happen soon enough. Meanwhile, I adapt, acquire skills, take on more responsibility, and redefine my worth in order to stay relevant in a field that also continuously evolves. Technical communicators must do the same.
(Looking for ways to improve my blogging I came across this SlideShare by Marcia Riefer Johnson, author of Word Up & You Can Say That Again. It’s her presentation for selling yourself, company etc. through clear writing. It’s a 316 (???) yep, count 316-slide presentation.)
After reading the first two chapters of Digital Literacy by Carliner and Dicks, I find myself thinking that their entire premise is flawed. Each refers to a Technical Communicator as a job title and not a skill. By doing this, they have contradicted themselves in their message or are at least naïve in their conclusions.
Carliner summarizes the impact of digital technology on technical communicators. He explains how changing technology impacted technical communicators negatively and forced them to take on new job titles or alter how and what tools they used to complete their work. He also alludes to the shrinking market for technical communicators. I disagree. The same technical communicator, by job title, may be someone such as a web designer. Instead of constructing information bulletins for easier interpretation by the end user, they are constructing a website to enhance the end users experience during their visit. He continues his negative outlook by stating “However, those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities.” (p44) Just two pages earlier he contradicts this statement when he quotes Shank 2008 “e.g., the home page of newspapers changing every 15 minutes”. (p42) Wouldn’t a website which changes content every 15 minutes create more opportunities? I believe this would especially be true with a content provider that needs to be clear and concise with their information and would require a professional that was capable of executing this effectively.
Here is a perfect time to insert the argument that technical communicators document or convey scientific, engineering, or other technical information. Surely you can’t document the changes in technology and how it impacts technical communicators over the last thirty years and assume that the definition of what a technical communicator is would remain static to the old industrial mindset. Clearly a technical communicator is anyone who effectively addresses the arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, and tone (Kostelnick and Roberts) when presenting persuasive or instructional information.
Dicks goes on in the second chapter to go through changing business models and their negative effect on the job outlook for technical communicators. Again, in the 1982 definition, he would be correct. However, I reiterate my opinion that “technical communicator” is not just a job title, it is a skill. The general contradiction I find in this chapter can be summarized by Dicks himself “… many communicators are seeing the nature of their work altered considerably.” (p75) I would argue that the communicators are the ones altering their work to fit their new environments. On page 60, Dicks highlights the problem of value added for technical communicators. Except for sales people’s production measured in dollars and a manufacturer’s production in units, how does any employee justify their value added? Marketing, management (except for sales and manufacturing units), lab workers, IT, and engineers are all examples of employees that must adapt and evolve to show their value to a company.
If the two author’s purposes were to inform, they should have allowed the context of the technical communicator to evolve with the world in which they work. If Dicks and Cauliner were trying to persuade, they did a poor job in my opinion and their work is more apt to gain a following in the next Yahoo article of five ways technical communicators jobs are changing.
When reading Digital Literacy for Technical Communicators (Spilka, 2010), what struck me was the concept of assumption mentioned in chapter two, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work.” Author R. Stanley Dicks gives an overview of the technical skill involved in technical communication, and it’s rapid evolution with rise in the digital age. He states that “It is too easy to look at the latest trends and assume that all workers will be doing those new, different tasks in the near future” (Spilka, 2010, p. 51). Technical communicators see the fundamental process of their jobs changing rapidly. When this happens, a shift in work production ensues. Is this due to the time adjustment for learning new technical processes? Perhaps, but Spilka states that it should be remembered that trends “…largely have to do with the tools and technologies associated with the discipline, and not with the core competency skills that the discipline continues to require” (Spilka, 2010, p. 52). Perhaps a core skill for any technical communicator is the ability to adapt quickly to shifting trends.
For educators, the shifting trends can be especially problematic when deciding what aspects of curriculum to change, and which resources to seek. Are the trends universal or isolated to a niche aspect of technology? Are there enough resources to adequately teach fundamental skills? These questions, among others, face educators in technical communication. Spilka acknowledges this and says that educators can “…continue to develop internship and cooperative education opportunities and to encourage their students to take advantage of them” (Spilka, 2010, p. 76). This kind of cooperative relationship between educator and student allows teachers to keep track of changes in the nature of technical communication.
In the concept of emerging media, however, are there sufficient opportunities for students? Will educators follow up in order to know what emerging trends will face their future students? These are all questions I found myself asking when reading this week’s work.
I spent the semester reading, discussing, and connecting those readings and discussions to my current technical communication role. My goal in this program is to become a better technical communicator, and this class has been an excellent start for me. All of our readings and discussions have helped me to think about what communication strategies I am already using and what new methods I can try.
I found the Spilka text especially helpful and relevant, as it framed the evolution of and current trends in the technical communication field within the context of traditional technical communication roles and responsibilities. As I am new to the field, all of this background really helped to orient me and help me understand how my job role became what it is today. In my final paper, I traced three themes through the different authors in the Spilka text and applied them to my own role as a technical communicator.
It was extremely helpful and interesting to read all of your creative blog posts and insightful comments on my posts throughout the semester. Thank you all for creating a helpful and supportive discussion environment. Best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season and a great new year! The abstract for my paper is below.
The emergence of digital technology has had a profound impact on the field of technical communication and its actors. This paper explores changes in the field of technical communication and in the roles of technical communicators, evolution of the technical communication audience, and Information Design and Content Management Principles. My intent with this exploration is to establish where my current technical communication strategies are consistent with the field literature and theory and identify areas upon which I can improve and new methods that I can utilize.
I have now completed my final paper. The topic I chose for this lengthy process involves technology, digital literacy, and the degradation of quality and rigor in student learning.
The title of my paper is The Ugly Side of Technology: A Breakdown of What’s Happening to Education and Strategies to Maintain the Quality and Rigor of Student Learning. Below, I have posted my abstract. Enjoy!
Technology affords people innovative learning opportunities, such as using digital tools to shape understanding. However, it produces many adverse effects that can overshadow the benefits, including the degradation in the quality and rigor of student learning. Unless parents and teachers take action, student learning will continue to suffer. In a detailed analysis, the author discusses the growth of technology by acknowledging the digitally literate generation and discussing the digital literacy narrative of a young woman. Next, the author highlights the benefits of technology, but contrasts them with the many negative effects technology causes on student learning, including the breakdown of reading for comprehension and the increase of multitasking. Finally, the author provides strategies for both parents and teachers to help maintain the appropriate and necessary use of technology. Parents and teachers must provide students with strategies so they realize that technology does not replace traditional learning and that digital literacy requires the same, if not more, rigor as traditional reading and writing.
Therefore, I say farewell and enjoy your winter break! I am glad to have shared the experience of this course with all of you and I hope to collaborate again in another course.
. . . . I sure don’t but I had interesting experiment last semester communicating in a language I don’t know the first thing about! To clarify, I am talking about ENGL-712 Communicating in Multilingual Environments. As part of the final project for the class, we had to find a foreign language site and use Google Translate to try and not just write a post or comment on the site, but get actual responses back from the other users. I chose a French site thinking that since two kids are learning French, they might be able to help me out if I got in a bind. Wishful thinking that was, but it was still a fascinating experiment. This was just a small part of a semester long class in understanding how a company that has international clients that don’t speak English as their primary language, communicates with these clients.
I ended up enjoying this class so much that when I took ENGL-637 this summer, I focused on a small local company that had found themselves becoming an International company without really planning on it. They are a manufacturing company and they have quite a few instruction manuals that they are in the process of updating. I went in intent on finding out how they handle (or take into consideration) their international clients as they are updating the manuals. Do they translate them? Do they do any adjusting for translation on the other end? What special things do they need to take into consideration as they write manuals with non-native English speakers as their end users? The answer I found out pretty quickly was – NOTHING. They found translating to be cost prohibitive (which it is even for large companies) and since they are selling their machinery to a middle man – a distributor – they seem to be legally covered safety-wise without needing to translate the documents. I also found their attitude to be similar to Thatcher’s (2010) comment:
“Unfortunately, this kind of ethnocentrism—assuming that another culture will simply use digital media the same way as your own—is actually quite common in much U.S. research and theory, a point I discuss more thoroughly elsewhere (Thatcher, 2005).” (p. 170)
When I asked more questions about their lack of translation, the comment was, (I am paraphrasing here) “Oh we don’t need to worry about it, Everyone we deal with speaks English really well”. I was pretty shocked! Interestingly enough, when I posed a similar question to my husband, whose company is also International, he said almost the exact same thing. When I asked my husband about translating legal documents, he said they have the plant in that location hire a translator to do that. Similarly, the company I worked with this summer relies on the end user to do all translating. When I asked my husband how they know the document (in his case usually contracts) says what they want it to say, he kind of stared at me with a blank face. When I pointed out to the summer company that their distributors may be able to speak English but (a) it is probably British English (and there is a difference) and (b) just because they can speak it doesn’t mean they can read it well enough to put machinery together,
they stared at me with blank faces (I love stumping people with an attitude!). In both cases, they just don’t know what they don’t know. The company from ENGL-637 is just now venturing into putting all of their documents online in digital format with the intent of eventually having it be an interactive online-help system. If their digital literacy is anything like their (albeit, currently being upgraded) manual-writing-system literacy where international clients are concerned, they will need more help than they realize. Digital literacy is still a new and expanding field even in our own country, much less understanding how other countries will use this form of communication. Unfortunately, our embarrassing ethnocentric attitude may get in the way of ever being completely digitally literate where foreign clients are concerned.
In our Digital Literacy reading this week, I found much interesting content, and I got stuck on the idea of audience in the digital age from Chapter 8. Now with technology allowing writing in the digital age readily accessible to potentially all Internet users or to anyone who can access an online document, this much broader sense of audience really does cause some serious consideration for technical communicators. Who, exactly, are they trying to reach and why? Are they friends, fans, or followers? The idea of considering the target audience has taken on new meaning in our Internet, user-driven, and social media run online world these days.
I found that the five case studies offered to us by Blakeslee were helpful in gaining an understanding when thinking about the much bigger “audience” a tech writer now must consider. She notes, ” …we still need to approach audiences as contextual, unique, and particular, just as we have been doing all along” (202). This finding made me think of the old adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I cannot help but think that audiences will always be very specific, very particular, and very clear in what they want. I think this line sums it up nicely, “Such evidence also points to the need to tease out the unique and complex characteristics of modern digital audiences” (202). It seems that digital communicators these days, much like in days past, should still seriously consider their audience and its needs to really reach the users.
This idea of heuristics was brand new to me; “the digital environment gives writers various mechanisms, or heuristics, for this learning–in other words, it provides them with alternative methods for understanding user needs and a means to solicit user feedback during both early and later phases of learning and research; it also helps them respond to and interact with users” (204). It is this new age of interaction that really has me intrigued with today’s digital communication age. The entire concept of audience in the online arena has changed with the way we can and do interact with each other on the Internet. Now, digital communicators work in a world where they know their audience might prefer interaction and the opportunity to offer feedback right away compared to earlier days where this was not necessarily possible. The audience of today is a bit more demanding.
With the demands and desires of audiences today, digital communicators who realize that this process is much more user driven today will benefit and be able to target and retain their audiences. Those who ignore their audience needs or oversimplify their needs will not achieve success at reaching their audience. It must be acknowledged that digital audiences are complex and will require a bit more than what we might have called an audience in former days.
I think the audience has more power today than ever before to affect how digital communicators must write. Noted by Blakeslee are three very important ideas about how digital communicators must continue to gain a contextualized understanding of their audiences, and I think it is worth it here to point them out again:
- 1) need to know how readers will read and interact with their documents
- 2) need to know how and in what contexts readers with use their documents and
- 3) need to know what expectations readers will bring to their digital documents
I am not sure that in the past authors in the print or early digital realm really considered point three very much. However, in this time of heavy user interaction, those who fail to realize and address the expectations brought by the reader will not reach them the same way others might.
Audience has really opened up quite a bit with the Internet and its power of interaction and immediate feedback.
I’ve never traveled out of the country, so I find it interesting the reading this week stated different countries have websites that show information differently, for example they use less pictures. This does make sense to me because I think about living in NJ and traveling to other places within the US. It’s amazing how different things can be in different states. I know NJ is very fast paced and when I travel sometimes it’s like being in a different country! In some places people are much more relaxed and friendly. I liked the example website provided in the reading, but would have enjoyed a deeper dive into examples of websites in different countries and why they are created the way they are. I did some Googling and found a website in Spain and Ireland, and both have a combination pictures and words. It looks like they’re laid out similar to websites that I’d expect to see in the US, so I’m not sure if I’m missing something, or not researching enough sites/locations.
Some of this is over my head information wise as I’ve never built a website, but there’s plenty of information on the web about how to build sites that will be used in different regions and how important it is to communicate with people in their own language. The site below provides a lot of information on this topic.
I find it interesting the readings mentioned that studies haven’t really been done on how audiences are adapting to the digital age. I found the case studies that were done though to be interesting. The one mentioned how they use their support calls to help create content. When I managed a knowledge base I used to do the same thing. I’d go through the customer support ticket logs and listen in on phone calls to see what customers were asking and how they were asking it. This helps get insight into what the customer needs to know and helps build the structure of the knowledge base so the customer could find it. The reading also mentioned that the online environment is designed for quick feedback. This is a very good point because in most knowledge bases users can leave comments or choose to give a thumbs up if the article was useful and a thumbs down if the article wasn’t helpful.
The reading did mention one of the issues with online content is that the information is available for everyone. I don’t think this is true though, as some websites you have to log in to get access to content. It is true that the content can be emailed to someone and be shared quickly and easily, but paper content can be photocopied and passed around too.
I also found The Implications of Mobility study entertaining. I’d like to comment on three points I picked out:
- 58% of business users agreed with “mobile phones restrict my freedom”
I can really understand this comment. I have a work cell phone and I agree it restricts my freedom. For example, there are two big meetings this week on Tuesday and Wednesday I’m managing material for. I’ve been receiving emails/texts and working over the weekend because I’m accessible via my work phone. I feel the days of having a weekend to myself are gone!
- Mobile phones blur the boundary between public and private space
I agree that it seems people have private conversations in public places. Just waiting online at the grocery store you can hear more about a person than you need to.
- Internet could reduce depression by providing a means to obtain social support
I’ve never thought about the Internet being helpful to people in this way, but I guess it really could. I think if someone is being bullied and they find a support group and bond with people, it really can turn their attitude around. Even if they’re talking to someone across the globe, it’s someone that relates to them and understands them.