Future of Technical Communication—Where Do We Go From Here?
In December 2003, I completed my Master’s Degree in Business. I participated in a program that is part of a growing breed of specialized master’s programs that focus on the management of technology. For my “capstone” thesis project, I conducted research on the future of technical communication. In this article, I will share with you some of my findings, especially those that point to what managers of information developers should be thinking about in these interesting and changing times.1
At the close of the 2003 STC Conference in Dallas, the speakers presented what many felt was a “doom and gloom” picture of the future of our profession. There was an implication that those of us in the field today might be unemployable soon and that the profession as we know it may even disappear.
I chose that point of conversation as a starting point for my research. I interviewed and/or sent detailed questionnaires to 28 senior-level practitioners in our field. These included senior-level professionals, in corporations large and small, located across the US and in international locations including Canada, the UK, India, Austria, Japan, and Taiwan. The group included recruiters, managers, consultants, hands-on practitioners, academics, and individuals who, from their participation in professional society activities and/or prominence in the field, are considered leaders in our profession.
Here is some of what they had to say.
The Forces Affecting Us
First, I found what we all know to be true-that these last few years have not been a good time for our profession. Reduced IT spending has led to a huge downturn in employment. This reality has caused many seasoned professionals to rethink their career goals. Former STC President Judy Glick-Smith told me that she has gone W-2 for the first time in 20 years because her consulting business could no longer pay her salary. Now, she is busy reshaping her consulting business to better meet the needs of today’s marketplace.
But there are other forces affecting us as well. One is the view that we do not provide work that is important and vital to our firms. All too often, we are not viewed as strategic-not part of the mainstream of corporate activities. We are, instead, seen as a “service” function that does not have an impact on the bottom line.
The personality of our practitioners is another strong force. Vici Koster-Lenhardt, Technical Publications Manager for Coca-Cola in Vienna, Austria, referred to us as “an industry of whiners.” Our over-sensitivity, lack of business focus, and inability to be political in the workplace make it hard for us to make a difference. There was a tide of sentiment among the study participants that we are too introverted, too focused on minutia, and lacking in customer focus.
What Will We Look Like in the Future?
It is clear that in the future we will need to be more closely aligned with the product development process. Most participants in the study felt that information developers who could not penetrate the product development process would soon be out of a job. Microsoft is leading the way with this trend by making the interface and the documentation one in its next generation of products. Thus, information products don’t just accompany the product-they are the product. This close alliance between product and product information will require us to stand our ground and contribute as peers with other technologists.
To achieve this stature, we will need to move our function to a point where it is seen as adding high value, with high leadership, and high challenge-where we become strategic contributors. Andrea Ames, STC’s current first vice president and high-ranking information-development manager at IBM, described this notion in detail in the 2003 STC closing presentation that I mentioned earlier. It is safe to say that today most of us do not display the kinds of leadership and value to the client that she is describing.
What We Must Do As Managers
There was much talk throughout my research about the uncertainty of our future as a profession, but little doubt about how to make a difference in that future-the change has to begin with the leadership in our profession. JoAnn Hackos expressed her concerns that only organizations with strong and inspired leadership will survive. “That leadership is politically savvy, aware of arguing for the right values, focused on usefulness for the customers, willing to reduce costs and increase efficiencies, and able to stand with other middle managers,” she says. Without such leadership, she feels that jobs will continue to be reduced and outsourced. In her view, we must change the fundamental ways we frame our business to survive.
How do we do that? We need to look for opportunities to use our unique skills to show value. But seeking opportunity and capitalizing on it is one of those skills that seem to be outside our common personalities. “It’s the looking for the opportunities that the typical introverted technical writer doesn’t do!” says Koster-Lenhardt. “The managers or the extraverts are going to have to be out there creating these opportunities for us.”
One of the ways we can do that as managers is to focus on acquiring more business acumen. This may mean both standing up for ourselves in ways we never have and educating ourselves on aspects of business that we have never before concerned ourselves with. Jack Molisani, a former STC chapter president, whose business includes outsourcing and placement of technical communicators, says, “We are ignorant of how business works. We need to be able to justify our costs against the bottom line. We need to learn to create business cases. We need to speak `CEO.'”
Not only do we as leaders need to develop ourselves, we also need to take a fresh look at who we are selecting in the profession to become our future leaders. This means taking a fresh look at the hiring process. This is a subject close to my own heart-in fact, I’ve written about it in this newsletter (Best Practices August 2001). The bottom line is that we need to be hiring solid, all-around professionals, not just writers or tool jockeys.
But tools have often been our guide when looking at candidates for hire. Saul Carliner, former STC President and professor of Technical Communication at Concordia University in Montreal, says, “If we hire based solely on tools skills, we are setting the agenda for our entire field. Writing is more important than technical skills. Technical skills are perishable.”
Another issue managers are facing today is the question of outsourcing. Most of us in management will face the reality of it in the near future-whether it means that certain work is sent outside our firms or whether our entire function is sent offshore. When considering outsourcing, you should know that
- outsourcing makes the most sense for discretely defined projects
- outsourcing is most effective when it is used to support and lend know-how to existing staff, not simply to remove jobs from the organization
- the use of unqualified outside resources can endanger the integrity of our profession
The Offshore Reality
The global nature of business today is already making offshore information development a reality for many of us. Most participants in this study were concerned about the production of English language materials outside of English-speaking countries.
While there were many critics of the potential downsides of offshore arrangements, some practical upsides were noted as well. “A vendor model is in place for basic writing and editing,” says Suzanne Sowinska, User Assistance Training Manager at Microsoft. “The benefits are low cost and 24-hour work cycles. Content created overnight abroad can be edited during the day,” says Sowinska.
What is the quality of the work coming out of India? Glick-Smith told of work being done for Alcatel in India. She says, “the work that comes back is pretty good. As a result, I don’t think this kind of job is coming back to the US.” We, as a profession, need to be prepared for the project management and editorial challenges that offshore outsourcing will demand, and we must build the relationships needed to succeed.
Where Do We Go From Here?
When I asked the survey participants what is “the next big thing” for our profession, one theme I heard repeatedly is that the next big thing is not a tool or a technology but determining where we go as a profession. As a result of my research, I believe we need to be focusing our efforts in the following areas:
- Become Part of the Development and Innovation Processes. The first step is to make a strong move toward inserting ourselves into the development and innovation processes in our companies. There needs to be a clear connection in the minds of our employers between the sources of a firm’s revenue and our contribution.
- Launch a Public Relations Campaign for Our Profession. The time has come for our profession to make itself better known and understood in the wider world of technology and business. George Hayhoe, editor of STC’s Journal, Technical Communication, said in a recent editorial, “The fact that our profession is not widely known among management and the general public is no one’s fault but our own. If we don’t speak for ourselves, can we expect anyone else to do so?” He suggests that it is time to launch an active PR campaign in schools, with executive management, and in popular periodicals to make ourselves better understood and more widely known (Technical Communication 2003).
- Improve Our Professional Societies. The STC, of which many of us are members, is now examining how to transform itself to better meet the needs of our profession. CIDM is a fine example of the direction in which our professional societies should be headed. They should be led by people exercising the kinds of sound business sense that we are going to be expecting from our managers in the future and should be focusing on issues that will advance our profession.
- Become Better Business People and Better Managers. We need to be able to sit at the table with not only the heads of technology functions in our organizations but also with those on the business side. We need to be able to pitch our services, make a business case for our functions and deliverables, and delineate eloquently the value we provide. The fact is that many of us have trouble making this transition because we rise through the ranks from our traditional contributor’s role. Ironically, because of that role, with its detailed eye to the firm’s products and business, we are often well prepared to make a significant management contribution. The days are gone when we can sit in our cubicles and churn out documents. We now need to prepare ourselves to compete in the world of business as well.
- Repackage Ourselves for the Future. As we look ahead, a whole new generation of future professionals is reaching adulthood. To prepare to be in the workplace with this next generation and to prepare to produce information products to meet their needs, we need to look at the complete skill set that all professionals will need for the future, not just those unique to our own line of work. We must not only be able to write and have technical and tools skills, but we also must have business and financial acumen, build teams and motivate others, and operate in ambiguous environments with integrity and trust (Partnership for 21st Century Skills 2003).
Preparing for the Changes Ahead
There are many changes ahead for us. The gaming industry presents an interesting example. It is significant for the large audience of future adults whose style of interaction and expectations about information delivery are going to be shaped by their gaming experiences today. Suzanne Sowinska observes that “Today’s 13-year olds are going to expect the kinds of information exchange that they see in gaming to be everywhere by the time they grow up.” How will the information arrive in its destinations? Through the work of a new breed of information developers.
I began preparing for the changes in my world by completing my master’s degree because I came to a realization that my skills as a technical communicator and a manager could only be more valuable if they were enhanced by this kind of education. The results of the research I completed in obtaining the degree bore out my suspicions. It’s time for all of us to be more business savvy and add greater value to our firms. I challenge you to think of how you can do this in your own career and in your own firm!
About the Author
1. The complete results of this research will be published in Technical Communication, the Journal of the Society for Technical Communication, in August 2004.