Current Challenges to Our Industry
In this issue of Best Practices, we highlight Barbara Giammona’s study of trends in the technical communication profession. Through wide ranging interviews with industry leaders, Barbara traces changes that communicators face in the market. Outsourcing, offshoring, and fewer employment opportunities appear to be significant issues that present us with challenges to innovate and change.
None of these challenges, however, is new. A large percentage of technical communicators work as independent contractors and have done so for more than 20 years. With the layoffs we have faced recently, especially in high-tech industries, more writers find themselves working as independents, some unwillingly. Outsourcing to large agencies has been in place for more than 10 years. Employment opportunities were seriously limited during the recession in the early 90s, in large part a product of a downsizing and “rightsizing” predilection at the time.
During the dot.com boom of the 90s, the profession expanded exponentially. Myriad employment opportunities led to great salary increases, causing many people to enter the field and expanding the membership in professional societies. The dot.com bust and the ensuing depressed business climate, exacerbated by the “jobless recovery,” has led to layoffs and decreased employment opportunities for technical communicators in the US, Europe, and Australia.
Same old tune of boom and bust? Or, is a new tune emerging, one that we should pay close attention to? Should we carefully consider modifying our professional practice?
Indeed, as Barbara concludes from her excellent study, we need to become more business savvy and assertive in our relationships to our larger organizations.
In 1992, I developed the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM) as a means to define and promote industry best practices. In the past six months, we have seen a marked increase in interest in IPMM assessments. Managers, under pressure to prove their worth and the value produced by their staff members, find that an objective outside assessment that compares their practices with those of industry leaders has become essential. We have conducted more assessments in recent months than in the past few years, with encouraging results.
Department managers should consider an IPMM assessment in the near future. Not only is it possible to demonstrate to senior management that your organization follows excellent business practices, you can also use IPMM as a mechanism to foster process and quality improvements. One department manager, for example, used the IPMM recommendations to pursue customer studies with senior management support. Another demonstrated that the existing staff was working efficiently and could not afford further reductions in force.
Most important, managers have used the results of an IPMM assessment to inform senior management of the quality of their organizations. Following an assessment, we routinely present the results and our recommendations to senior management. I have been amazed and gratified at the response from division managers, vice presidents, and CEOs. Because we speak the language of practical business in our presentations, senior managers respect the assessments and frequently suggest additional positive actions themselves.
The one trend in my list above that can be directly affected by an IPMM assessment is offshore outsourcing. Many companies that are outsourcing IT and software development functions offshore rely upon the Capabilities Maturity Model (CMM) of the Software Engineering Institute to evaluate offshore agencies. In the March 1, 2004, issue of CIO magazine, Christopher Koch quotes Dennis Callahan, senior vice president and CIO of Guardian Life Insurance, as saying that “Level 5 was once a differentiator, but now it is a condition of getting into the game.” Companies are using CMM Level 5 as a condition of doing business with an offshore company.
An assessment of an offshore agency can provide your organization with critical decision-making knowledge. Should your company outsource its technical communication to an agency that is completely unaware of industry best practices? I should hope not.