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.
Where do we come off knowing how a user will access the web? With Google, I can find something that’s deep within a site, and avoid all the crumbs to get to the page I wanted. In Spilka’s book, Ann Blakeslee makes the good point that technical communicators need to shift from “developing documentation based on what writers think their readers need,” to how they “will actually use the information to complete a task” (p. 216). Luckily, we expect repetition in both communication and online. So we can have the same information on more than one page on a website to make sure someone sees it, even if they skipped the two pages leading up to the page they sought.
That is the science. The art is how much to say and what to omit so as to keep the added value of visiting the site (so it’s not just ten pages of the same information over and over again). But, I think that’s a secondary concern. The first concern is to have a task-based infrastructure so that the audience can find what they’re looking for, and not have to sift through paragraphs of information. About the ‘how much to add where’ question, I think it’s a constant challenge to keep tweaking. From my personal experience, I’d rather have a straightforward answer to my query, and then I can dive into the hyperlink tunnel to find more answers if I so wish. That way I do get to know what the website has to offer, just not in a linear manner.
So should we change to a task-based communication? Yes. If you think not, I’d love to hear why; I am open to changing my mind on this if I hear a compelling reason.
As someone who is not currently working in the field of technical communication, I enjoyed the introduction of 21st Century Theory and Practice and the chapter by Saul Carliner. I enjoyed reading about the changes of the field that I aspire to join in the near future.
The field of technical communication has evolved so much during the past 25 years, because technical communication is such a computer-driven field. As I read through Chapter 1, I made a mental comparison of my father’s career path. The chapter reminded me of my father’s job, which I wrote about in my technology literacy narrative during the first week of class. A major influence on my technological upbringing, he started his job in 1986 with the job title of Data Processing Manager in one person department at a small school district in south central Kansas. Now in 2013, his job title is Director of Information Technology and he manages over 15 full-time employees who report to him on a daily basis. The reason his job changed, like technical communication, is because it had no choice. You can’t keep going to middle school if you have been promoted to 9th grade. The same is true for technology. You can’t keep using an outdated system when everyone else moves to the more advanced system. The only way technical communication could survive was to embrace every change it ever faced.
To connect the chapter with the introduction of the book, the opening page states only some 2% of hospitals have made the transition to digital (p. 1). I think it is unfair and unrealistic to think that gigantic operations, such as hospitals, can suddenly make the leap from paper to paperless in a matter of years. They were never expected to become digital until recently, unlike technical communication, so they did not take the technology tip and transition gradually. Hospitals have been doing business just like normal. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think hospitals becoming paperless will be benefit the hospitals, insurance companies, and patients, I just don’t see it happening in the immediate future. According to Forbes in January 2013, only 1.8% of hospitals have an electronic record system in place. Many hospitals, according the article, are not ready and are asking for more time, despite the amount of money they have received to assist in their transition from paper to paperless. I worked at a very large hospital in the accounting department part-time while I was in college. The reason I got the job, in fact, was to help transition their invoice system to a streamlined digital process. The hospital was trying to use a new system, called GHX, and there were so many hiccups with the system that they extended my employment by an additional year.
I compare it to teaching my 80-year old grandfather to set up an email account and get a cellphone. It took YEARS for my family to convince him to set up an email account and use a cellphone. After he finally did, it took quite a while for him to be able to use his new technology correctly. Asking people to change from one habit to another, especially when they have been doing things the same for a long time, is unrealistic and requires a great deal of time.
To conclude, I am not surprised that technical communication has made so many leaps in the digital age. Such changes and adjustments are necessary for the continuation of the field. I hope to learn more about the programs and software I will be using when I start working in a technical communication field, but who knows if they will even be the same by that time!