Category Archives: Workplace
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.
As technical communicators practicing or in training, I’m sure most of us understand the importance of audience in our work. We are taught to anticipate the audience and any secondary (tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary…) audiences. Who are they? Why are they using our documentation? What do they need? How will they use it?
Chapters 7 and 8 of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication both consider audiences. In Chapter 7, “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher develops a framework and lexicon for communicating with audiences from other cultures. In Chapter 8, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” Ann M. Blakeslee considers traditional audience analysis and discusses what may need to change as technical communicators’ products become increasingly digital.
Communicating Across Cultures
In Chapter 7, Thatcher recounts the challenges he has had working with teams in South and Central America. While ordinarily one would assume challenges across borders would be due to language barriers, Thatcher’s problems went more deeply than that. Although communications and instruction were in the correct language, they were not written with the target cultures in mind.
As a result of this experience, he has created a framework of cultural traits and communication recommendations (oral, writing, e-mail, or hypertext) that can be used to effectively communicate with other cultures. These traits are:
- individual (p. 176)
- collectivist (p. 176)
- universal (p. 176)
- particular (p. 177)
- diffuse (p. 177)
- specific (p. 178)
I have worked on international teams before, with members in Europe, South America, or India. Language and time zone were issues, but there were other problems (especially with the South American and Indian teams) that I just could not figure out what was going on. Thatcher’s observations rang true with my experiences working with these other cultures, and his recommendations for communicating make sense in retrospect.
Most recently, I worked on a project with team members in India, as well as locally based team members from India. The problems mostly came from e-mail miscommunication and their struggle in understanding our expectations for their product. Thatcher asserts that Asian and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures tend toward collectivism, with particular and diffuse characteristics – so I am assuming these traits for India.
E-mail: Thatcher observes that e-mail can be too ambiguous for a collective target audience and too nonverbal for a diffuse audience (p. 185). Often I would send an e-mail that seemed, to me, perfectly clear – only to receive responses (in the case of offshore teams) that didn’t seem to match my email, or simply confusion from the recipient. The local teams would almost never respond to my e-mail; they preferred, instead, to come to my desk and talk to me in person, where we would hash out any confusion.
Work product: One of the biggest frustrations I had working with this team was that no matter how much guidance we gave (style guide, examples, templates, etc.) for how we wanted their finished product to look, feel, and sound, they struggled to meet our expectations. I chalked it up to the fact that English was a second language for the offshore team and most of the local team. However, in retrospect, I realize it may have been more cultural than linguistic. Thatcher’s observations illuminate two critical cultural differences that may have cause these issues.
First, particular cultures are much less likely to use signposting, templates, linearity, uniformity, and consistency – which are traits that technical communicators value in our writing (p. 188). While cultural important to an American audience, it was less so to the offshore team who produced the documents – they didn’t realize their importance and didn’t emphasize those traits.
Second, writing style was a huge issue. We wanted “plain language,” but we ended up with meandering sentences with too much jargon and context. Of course, this is partially due to nonfluency in English, but I think a large part of it was cultural. According to Thatcher, Americans (individual, universal, and specific) emphasize writing that is “reader friendly” (p. 176) and targets the “lowest common reading style” (p. 109). Meanwhile collective cultures prefer “writer-friendly writing patterns” (p. 176); particular cultures prefer writing that is more based on social relationships as context and uniqueness (p. 177); and diffuse cultures prefer more indirect and holistic writing (p. 189).
In short, the cultural expectations driving their output were completely different from the cultural expectations driving our requirements. It wasn’t simply a communication barrier; it was cultural as well. I still work with teams from India and the Middle East, as well as teams from Asia (particularly China). Moving forward, I’m sure I will refer to Thatchers wisdom again when attempting to communicate with other cultures.
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
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?
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.
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?
Technology, the world and its people are constantly changing and advancing. Technical Communication is no different. As we transitioned from the industrial age into the information age, so will the standards of technology and technical communication.
I feel as though technology, Technical Communication and education are intertwined. As technology became more widely used, distributed, more affordable, as well as more complex, so did the job of Technical Communicators. In the past, technical communication was limited based on the technology at the time, but with the evolution of personal computers, better software programs and eventually the Internet, technical communication had to evolve as well. Those who could not make this transition from commodity work to symbolic-analytical work were unable to remain in this field of work. Education would become a determining factor on whether someone could remain a Technical Communicator for a company. Companies valued professionals who could do work that could not be easily outsourced to other countries, that did not need to be micro managed or have heavy supervision, who could work in groups, who understood current technology and most importantly, could adequately explain this information to costumers without difficulty.
Costumers became an important part in how information was being distributed. In the past technical communication was distributed in its printed form with limited ways to be customized but as technology evolved, it became more flexible and easily individualized. Costumers no longer even needed to look at an owner’s manual for certain products or call a hotline. All they needed to do was go online, find a message board and look for the answer to their questions. This made life for the costumer easier and more convenient, however it does have the negative effect of dehumanizing the costumer service and costumer relationship.
Globalization was another reason for this shift in technical communication. As our world became more connected, companies did not need to only rely on in house professionals, they began to seek independent contractors to do jobs on specific projects and even outsource those jobs to other countries. I see the pros and cons of doing this. The pros would be that with the decrease of Technical Communicator employees there would be less, layoffs or retraining of newly hired employees. There would also be less benefits or pension plans companies had to give out to long-term employees. This would be beneficially for the company but potentially bad for potential employees. The con would be that with the loss of management positions, Technical Communicators have more responsibility and have less room for error. This could be detrimental for company who hired a Technical Communicator whose performance is subpar.
As the world continues forward so will technology. Each year companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Nintendo and Samsung, produced more advanced and unique items for public consumption. A Technical Communicator’s skill and education will have to continue to advance and improve to keep up with demand for these products. They have become more flexible, creative, versatile and educated. A Technical Communicator has evolved and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“Today, outsourcing is not just a trend; it is an integral part of how smart companies do business”, “…a company concentrates on its core business and relies on outsourcing partnerships to get the rest done”
~ Harvard Business Review
In the past 30 years, the rapid pace at which technology is evolving has drastically shifted the modern business climate and the world of technical communications. As a result of these emerging technologies, both the tools we use and the scope of our work as technical communicators has changed. Thus, the digital revolution has resulted in a “blurring of boundaries in our field and our work” due to major changes in economics, management and methodologies. To keep up with these significant advancements, many companies have been forced to shift their product base and find ways to restructure themselves.
Through re-engineering and an adoption of radical new changes many companies have found ways to cut costs. Major layoffs have occurred as a single person now can execute jobs that once took seven people to complete. Moreover, globalization has played an undeniable role in this change.
That is to say, globalization and “improved methods of communication make it economically possible and desirable to work with people from all over the world…”. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly common for companies to send their work to countries such as India, China, Korea, or Brazil. Asa result, outsourcing, is an important factor for companies to keep their competitive edge. According to 2011 outsourcing report, “Over 94% of the Fortune 500 companies outsource at-least one of their major business functions”. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that both the company I work for, as well our clients outsource jobs.
For instance, Wunderman, has offices around the world and takes advantage of its bandwidth by outsourcing jobs. Specifically, the Minneapolis branch utilizes its Buenos Aires office for much of its production work. While 6000 miles physically separate us, we communicate with each other through weekly conference calls, Skype and software called Brandshare to keep tabs on the project. However, there is a difference between the tasks that are delegated to Buenos Aires and the work that stay in house. The projects we send to our off shore resource is oftentimes grunt work and involves little creativity. In contrast, the higher-level work generally stays in house where we can have more control over the project. Overall, despite the language barriers that sometimes occur our Buenos Aires team has proven to be a valuable resource in saving Wunderman both time and money.
Likewise, on the client side, Best Buy outsources a sizable amount of its work as well. While I know outsourcing occurs in the majority of it’s departments, I am only familiar with what goes on in the marketing sector. The bulk of Best Buy’s creative work is outsourced not only to Wunderman, but also to several other creative agencies across the country. This allows them to distribute their workload evenly and hone in on each agency’s specialty. Other aspects related to the production of marketing materials such as coding, subject line testing, and analytical reports are outsourced as well. If that wasn’t enough, Best Buy also utilizes creative resources in India for some projects. Because of the time zone difference, this allows them to work around the clock and have the finished product on their desk the next morning.
While outsourcing certainly has its benefits such as producing jobs and reducing costs, there also are several downsides. It should be no surprise that when work is outsourced at an international level there are oftentimes disparities. While many companies play by the rules, others take advantage of these workers and skirt environmental and labor laws in the process. For instance, these individuals work hard, if not harder than their US counterparts for significantly less pay. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average hourly wage for Chinese manufacturing workers is less than a tenth that of their average U.S. counterparts. Additionally, Factory workers in China are more than three times more likely to get killed at work. With these grim statistics in mind, it is clear these workers will do anything for a job.
One of my coworkers used to work for a different Fortune 500 company that would send her to India for weeks at a time. While this third party business in India was an important asset to company, the picture she painted of her time there was bleak. Each week, the company would bus in workers from neighboring cities up to three hours away to its headquarters in New Delhi. There, the workers typically would work 10-14 hour days without complaining. At the end of the day, instead of returning home, many would sleep at the company campus’s small apartment complex- only to repeat it all the next day. Consequently, families would only see each other on the weekends because it was easier and cheaper to do so. Unfortunately, this practice is common and is a reality that all too many are unaware of.
In sum, it is clear that technology is a driving force of the economy around the world. Our demands for newer, better, faster technology and ways of communicating clearly fuel this practice. As a result, we are reliant upon both these technologies and the foreign workers who produce these products to do our jobs. So, while outsourcing certainly has its benefits, perhaps there is more to consider than the business aspect of it. Maybe, we ought to consider the humanizing side as well.
Content strategy is a buzzword that people have been using the past few years, but what does it mean and why should organizations care? We can all agree that Web 2.0 technology and applications have changed how people use content. We can also agree that if content is not useful and easy to find, customers and users will move on. My paper considers how a technical communicator can transform content into a business asset by responding to the following questions:
- What is a content strategy? What is it not?
- How do you develop a content strategy?
- What is a content audit?
- How do you implement a content strategy?
Once the above questions are answered, my paper concludes with my own case study in understanding what is involved in a content strategy and some of the challenges faced when I converted my company’s FrameMaker files into DITA.
Prior to this class, I had never blogged. I kind of like it. I also learned that I hold my breath when I check my work email. 🙂
For workers, the Internet and its supporting technologies have changed the way businesses are run. With all the benefits, there are also drawbacks. The work/family borders can easily blur, as employees can be accessible throughout the entire waking hours, both during work and family times. This paper aims to analyze the expectations of digital technology, and specifically, how we define a successful work/family dynamic, best communication methods, and examples of planning for a vacation from technology. It also attempts to examine the broader implications of always being tethered to the workplace.
Ishii’s article is somewhat dated, as the statistics for mobile telephone conversations have probably increased sine 2006 when the article “Implications of Mobility” was published. However, Ishii’s implications have merit eight years after publication. I was particularly struck with the three types of mobility (spatial, temporal, and contextual) outlined (p. 347).
Contextual mobility, while potentially liberating for users–as they can turn off their phone if they wanted–is a double edged sword. In the workplace, with mobile phones, the expectation is for all employees to be “on” at all times, no matter the hour. I have gotten emails from work at 9:30 at night. This mobility and the implications of so much mobility and accessibility is something that we must be aware of, and intentional about creating boundaries.
I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but after reading Turkle’s Alone Together, I’ve been reading all our assignments through the lens of whether or not we’re allowing the technology to dictate our attention spans and stress levels. Perhaps I should get a landline and an answering machine to cut down on my accessibility. But then again, how could I read that 9:30 pm email from my coworker right when she sent it if I didn’t have my cell phone near me (and synced with my email account)?
Zachry and Ferro’s article, Technical Communication Unbound, helped me organize my thoughts on a topic that has been circulating in my mind for some time: the value of a writer.
This particular part of their article was the source of inspiration for the topic of this post:
“..it now appears that the tasks of those working in the profession are necessarily expanding to include such concerns as real-time monitoring of texts and other communicative performances that circulate in the network of social media.”
Since the responsibilities of a writer are evolving and expanding, I would hope that this means that the respect and appreciation for tech writers is increasing with it.
In my own personal experience, this is not so. At my place of employment, more importance is placed on skills such as design or coding, which has been made completely clear to me from recent conversations with my boss. In fact, I’ve been told that my position as a content writer, “requires no real skills.”
With the emergence of social media and its emphasis on shorthand writing forms, it is easy for one to think less of writing or not even think of it as a useful skill at all.
I suppose that I worry that, with the increase of responsibilities, tech writers will be thought of more as an administrative assistant with a laundry lists of tasks to accomplish and less like a professional with useful skills.
Barry Thatcher’s article, Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures, brings up one of the most important, but rarely discussed aspect of digital communication: cultural differences. No matter where we are in the world, we can access the Internet from the same types of devices, but not always the same websites. Or, sometimes one website is adapted to display differently according to region and native language. We are using the same Internet, but not always viewing, absorbing and processing the same things.
I work for an ecommerce web design company that is based in the US but works with several contractors in Pakistan and India. Aside from working with people overseas on a regular basis, we get clients from all over the world. Lately, I have been noticing that a lot of our clients want bi or multilingual websites, which, from a coding and design standpoint, can be complicated and ultimately expensive. Additionally, a lot of the major ecommerce platforms we work with will allow multi-language support, but only with a lot of custom coding, which, again, can be quite expensive.
One of the most complex problems we have yet to find a solution to is the ability to create a bi or multilingual ecommerce store with the checkout process to be in the language of the shoppers’ choosing. Yes, even with custom-coding and advanced functionality, it is incredibly difficult to translate the checkout process in a language other than English with a hosted ecommerce platform.
Thatcher’s article had me thinking of this particular issue because we are able to translate every part of the online shopping experience except for the most important: the checkout. This is where actual money is exchanged and people want this to feel the most comfortable, but we are unable to do that for them. I’ve been doing some research on this for work and I have discovered that many international shoppers simply accept this as the norm, but I feel like it is unfair for this to be so.
Ultimately, cultural differences on the Internet have led me to contemplate the benefits and downfalls of ignoring cultural norms an instead create a universal, digital culture with its own set of beliefs, language and functions. Some may argue that this already exists, but as Thatcher has us realize, we have only been viewing the Internet through a North American lens. The Internet is different everywhere and we need to take that into consideration more often.
Audience analysis is something that I’ve always struggled with in my career. As a technical communicator who has spent more than seven years documenting various software products, I often wonder why it is so difficult to understand the users of a particular product or why it is impossible to have contact with them. Since documentation is so important, why does all customer contact and audience analysis come from product management, marketing, or support? If we are providing information to customers, shouldn’t we as technical communicators be the first line of contact? I understand that the main reason is to respect customers’ privacy and time, but that just seems like an excuse.
Similar to cases three and four in Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age, my company also provides enterprise network security services and products. We produce 500+ page PDFs and HTML help. We want to improve our documentation, but we don’t truly know our reader’s needs. Like most linear-based PDFs, our content is not chunked and some of the important tasks are buried in paragraphs. We are also interested in providing tutorials, but since we have absolutely no contact with our customers, we don’t know if creating these tutorials would be valuable.
Blakeslee explains that there are three things writers need about audiences:
- How readers will read and interact
- What context will readers use the information
- What expectations do the readers have before using the information
The chapter then gives detailed examples in the case studies of the strategies and methods writers use to analyze their audience. Some use bulletin boards, personas, and support call logs. Others use industry conference proceedings, whitepapers, or training materials. At my company, we get some feature request information from product management. We also receive software bugs that are logged if customers or employees find issues in our documentation. While our current methods aren’t the best, I feel encouraged to apply some of the questions listed in Appendix A to improve our documentation and to provide the best user experience possible.
William Hart-Davidson defines a content management system (CMS) as a “set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (pg. 130). Basically, a CMS sits on top of your content and assists with the following functions:
- Topic management: searchable, reusable content
- Single-source publishing
- Translation/localization workflow
- Collaborative development and version control
- Central output format management
Furthermore, Davidson claims that a best practice of content management includes the
“Need to separate content from presentation (pg. 130).”
But just how difficult is it to separate information from presentation and design?
In my experience, it is very difficult. While it is relatively easy to use the same chunks of content (e.g., single XML files) in multiple output formats, it is not easy to customize the design, format, and style of an information product. Let me explain.
We are currently implementing SDL LiveContent as our CMS. It is very expensive, and due to budget restrictions, my manager went with the basic, out-of-box implementation. In addition, we are required to provide two types of output—PDF and HTML—for every major software release. To create PDF output, we must develop stylesheets to transform our XML to XSL-FO. XSL defines the presentation of XML objects and properties that specify the page format, page size, font size, and paragraph/table/heading/list styles. However, since we went with the basic SDL LiveContent implementation, the difficult, time-consuming task of developing stylesheets for XML to XSL-FO transformation must be done by ourselves. (SDL LiveContent offers services to create the stylesheets, but it is very expensive.)
If we don’t develop stylesheets, we will have little control over the presentation (also referred as “signposting” in chapter 2) of our content. This is unacceptable to my manager, as she expects all of our content to continue to have our professional, company-branded formatting.
If this wasn’t complicated enough, SDL LiveContent recommends a different professional formatting solution from the one that we currently use (and have already spent a lot of time customizing that stylesheet). We all agree that we do not need to have two or three publishing tools to generate a PDF or HTML. We also don’t want to have a complicated, manual workflow process that takes the content from our CMS, generates output (PDF and/or HTML), and then stores it back in the CMS. We don’t have someone on our team who can write scripts to do that and there isn’t a bridge to connect the CMS with our current publishing tool.
Ideally, we want to have our content stored in one repository, and from there, we want to be able to generate output on an ad hoc, as needed basis. We want to click a button—have all the magic happen—and then view the PDF that has a beautiful, professional layout. How we get there is my responsibility over the next few months, but I’m convinced that we will have to ditch our current publishing tool and will have to develop brand new stylesheets.
Content managers face the twin pressures of simultaneously reducing the total investment a company must make to produce content and increasing the quality, quantity, and sustainable value of that content. – William Hart Davidson
There it is, black and white, plain as day; the centerpiece of the modern business structure. We must create more with less while making our creations higher quality than those before them. Logically, it makes no sense. How can you create more things with less materials and resources?
Magic, of course.
Thankfully technical communicators are not only trained in various technical disciplines, but the Arcane Arts as well. Some of their specialties include time travel (yes, travel, not management) and The Impossible.
From the beginning, Hart-Davidson’s article struck a chord within me. Primarily, I liked that he got right down to the heart of the matter: the expectation to do more with less.
It boggles my mind that companies truly believe that this model works and that their employees are getting their degrees in magic on the side to keep up with the workflow. Newsflash: Everyone does not get a letter to Hogwarts. I would know since I’m still waiting.
I recently started a new job at a startup ecommerce web design company and I already feel the pressure of this expectation. I’m supposed to split my mind in three different ways simultaneously and accomplish several tasks at once. These tasks vary in nature and focus, but somehow I manage to get them all done. I just internally worry about the quality of my work, but not for long, because the fast pace always forces me to keep moving forward and not dwelling on what has already passed.
I don’t foresee this issue getting any better with time, but worse. I can understand the need to be competitive, but realistic expectations goals need to be set. Like I said before, not everyone was lucky enough to get their Hogwarts letters to study magic.
Beyond Single Sourcing by William Hart-Davidson was a breath of fresh air for the topic of technical writers. Whether you are thinking about a career in technical writing, wary of your current job safety, or bored because you are stuck updating product bulletins for a conglomerate, Davidson creates an outline for the future. Granted theory is almost always shinier when it is discussed, the author lays out logical and plausible applications for expanding roles and responsibilities for technical communicators.
Davidson’s message stirred passion inside of me… my pupils dilated, my heart rate increased and my mind raced. I love an “idea-person” and the author is just that. In a world which can seem mostly cloudy, an economy that is only improving on TV, and a society where negativity is just easier, Davidson is the warm glow of a family room fireplace on a cold winter’s night. He neatly displays his vision on Table 5.1 (p136) which he organized into three rows: text-making, creation and management of information, and design and management of workflows and production models.
The first row of text-making relates to creating an environment for a company’s information to thrive and grow. The technical writer can create support processes such as templates, guidelines, and usability confirmation to help foster growth in the informational environment. The second row of the table describes how the technical writer is involved in the life cycle of the information. They are responsible for the quality, accessibility, and the upkeep of the information’s environment. The third row deals with how human interaction and the information’s environment coexist. Having intimate knowledge of the information and its environment puts the technical writer in a unique position to refine work processes, improve workflow, and develop training materials.
Davidson has presented three intertwined objectives for identifying, developing, and managing a company’s information. Each have a number of possible job titles attached to them and all of them relate to how a technical writer views, interprets, and creates information. A growing question among companies in a “net profit era” is “what does a technical writer do?”. Individually, that is a question each person must answer themselves. However, Davidson offers a clear idea of what technical writers are capable of. Personally, I would not consider myself a “glass half-full” or “glass-half empty” person, but rather a “the glass isn’t big enough” kind of guy… and Davidson fills me up.
Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was written specifically for me! Many items described in the first two chapters—recent introduction of Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), structured authoring and reuse, implementation of a content management system (CMS), transition of job and team titles, and participating in agile development methodology—affect me directly.
Job title and team name transitions
Digital technology has personally changed my job, job titles, and team name in less than two years at Hewlett-Packard. In July 2013, I started as a contract technical writer on the Technical Publications (Tech Pubs) team.
Four months later, I was converted to a full-time employee and my job title was replaced: information developer. Around this same time, my manager decided that our team would be called Information Development (Info Dev).
Last May, our division was restructured and our team name changed for a third time; we are now called Content Development and Delivery (Content). Moreover, since I managed the FrameMaker conversion to DITA project, I plan to renegotiate my job title at my annual performance review next month to information architect.
We also work on small teams (based on our product offerings) that incorporate the agile development methodology.
FrameMaker conversion to DITA
This past year, I championed a project—including tracking and documenting the entire process—that converted our FrameMaker product library into DITA.
What is DITA?
In Saul Carliner’s chapter “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”, he describes DITA as an XML-based architecture that divides content into small, self-contained chunks of information that can be reused into several different communication products (pg. 42).
The highest structure in DITA is a topic: a single XML file. DITA has three main topic types: concept, task, and reference. In her book, Introduction to DITA Second Edition: A Basic User Guide to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, Including DITA 1.2, JoAnn Hackos defines the three topic types with questions:
- Concept: What is this about?
- Task: How do I?
- Reference: What else? This information may also include APIs, error messages, or command line reference lists.
All of the DITA topics can then be assembled, prioritized, and collected into a DITA map—basically a Table of Contents.
Our FrameMaker conversion to DITA process included the following high-level steps:
- Evaluate and select an XML editor. We looked at MadCap Flare, AuthorIT, XMetaL, and oXygen. After much debate, we selected XMetaL.
- Conduct a content inventory to identify and prioritize which FrameMaker books to convert. In addition to documenting software, we also document hardware, and decided to keep these guides in FrameMaker—it’s static content that does not change very often. We also decided to keep our legacy software releases in FrameMaker and only converted the latest version.
- Clean up the source FrameMaker files as much as possible before the conversion to ensure that just the right amount of information was included within a given Heading. Not all of our existing content was consistently structured to contain one concept, one procedure, or one set of reference information. We determined that the PDF generated from FrameMaker would be our source of record to verify that all content was correctly converted.
- Create and run a Mif2Go script to convert every FrameMaker Heading into its own DITA topic. The script also attempted to accurately transfer every paragraph and character tag in FrameMaker into the respective DITA <element> tag. Our library of approximately 1,000 pages (in PDF) converted into more than 4,000 DITA files (topics).
- Using the PDF generated from the FrameMaker source file, open the DITA map (and then each DITA topic) to verify that all content was properly formatted. This step took a significant amount of time to do as all 4,000 files needed additional clean up and validation.
- Use WebWorks to generate output for a DITA map. We created custom stationery files (specialized CSS) that transfers every DITA <element> into a specific look and feel (i.e., paragraph and character style). We have two types of output: PDF and HTML.
- Implement a content management system (CMS) to store all of our DITA files. We selected SDL, and our team training on how to use it starts tomorrow!
I just recently started a new job at an ecommerce web design company in my hometown, Philadelphia. It’s a startup environment and even though I am starting at the bottom of the food chain, there is a ton of room for advancement and growth – which has me excited and accepting of the low starting salary.
It seems pretty “American,” a few young guys in an office near downtown Philadelphia, working at making it as ecommerce web designers. It’s the new American dream – the successful tech startup.
Here’s the kicker; neither of them are web designers and neither of them have a background in web design.
This company either pursues a client lead or a client calls in, they hear what the client needs for their site, they send a scope of the project and an estimate of the cost (never less than three grand) to the client. If the client says yes, the company contacts their design team in Pakistan and voila! in a few weeks you have a website “homegrown” with good ol’ Philadelphia web designers.
It blew my mind, really. All of the design and SEO is done in Pakistan! It’s actually my job to edit blog articles and social media posts that are written poorly in English and make them sound more “American.” Yes, this does fit the entry level description of a technical writer, but it still makes me uncomfortable that the bulk of the work is outsourced, or, as the company describes it “created in collaboration with design teams in Pakistan”.
Dicks’ discussion in Chapter 2 makes me think about my current job. Yes, they hired me because they needed me but I realize that I really do need to prove it to them that I am valuable to the company and that I can prove to be an asset to their operation. All they need is to find someone in Pakistan that has excellent mastery of the English language as well as knowledge and understanding of American culture and I would be out of a job!