If you think back to the summer of 2018, many of you might remember receiving an email inviting you to participate in a census of technical communicators. The invitation promised that the results would be published in an upcoming issue of Intercom. This is that issue.
Before sharing those results with you, I want to provide some additional background about the census that was not feasible to include in the invitations sent last summer—seven basic questions which explore the reasons for conducting the census, explain the procedure followed to conduct the census, analyze the results, and acknowledge the limitations of those results.
Why a census?
I have a double-double career in academia and industry in both technical communication and training and development. I mention that because the idea for the census emerged from practices in my other field, training and development. Major organizations have conducted annual or bi-annual surveys of practice in that field for more than three decades. Training magazine launched its first Industry Survey in 1982 and, with one exception, has conducted it every year since. That survey primarily focuses on the numbers: the sizes of training budgets, expenditures on outside services, the subjects covered by training, the media used in training, and the size of the employer-provided training industry.
By the 1990s, others followed suit. The Association for Talent Development (ATD) (formerly the American Society for Training and Development) launched its State of the Industry survey, focusing mostly on per-worker metrics, such as the average number of hours of training, average expenditure on training per worker, and the number of training programs for which the typical training and development professional has responsibility. Also in the 1990s, the Conference Board of Canada launched a survey that was similar to ATD’s. In both professional and peer-reviewed circles, these reports are widely cited, because they provide insights into the overall situation in training. I have always lamented that we did not have a similar study in the technical communication field, because it could provide insights into common questions that repeatedly get asked, like the position of technical communication in organizations, the extent to which different technologies and processes are used in everyday practice, the concerns that technical communicators have about their careers, and the professional development practices of people in the field. (Disclosure: I am Research Director for Training, though I do not work on the State of the Industry Report, and was a reviewer for the most recent Conference Board of Canada Learning and Development Outlook.)
Everything came together when preparing the editorial calendar for the upcoming year of Intercom. The last issue of the year is typically a State of the Industry issue, and usually features predictions or opinions from people in the field. The census was suggested, and the Intercom Executive Editor and Editorial Advisory Panel liked the idea. STC recognized that agreeing to this issue also meant that they would need to provide support for the survey, which they did.
Hasn’t someone done a study like this?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that some studies of particular segments or people in tech comm have been conducted. WritersUA, for example, conducts an annual survey of user assistance professionals. Similarly, as we administered this study, The Content Wrangler ran a study of tools used by content professionals. The Center for Information Development Management conducts surveys of practices of its members.
But since 1995, when STC conducted a similar, one-time study, no one has overseen a comprehensive study of technical communicators—user assistance writers, API writers, engineering proposal writers, technical editors, technical illustrators, their managers, and others—that explored not only characteristics of their job but also of their professional development practices and their perceptions of their jobs and the profession. That’s how this study differs.
What does the census cover?
Like most censuses, ours is intended to learn more about who we are and what we do as technical communicators. But because this is a census of people who share a profession, ours also sought information about engagement with, and feelings about, current jobs, fields, and professional statuses. Specifically, the census explores these issues:
- Who we are and how we came to be technical communicators: our demographics, education, and professional backgrounds. The first article in this special issue explores who technical communicators are.
- What we do: our current jobs and job titles, the characteristics of the organizations in which we work, reporting relationships within those organizations, the types of projects on which we work, the processes followed when working on them, and the types of tools that assist us. The second article in this special issue explores the work of technical communicators.
- How we develop ourselves professionally, including the professional literature we read, events we attend, the training in which we engage, and the associations to which we belong. The third article explores the professional development practices of technical communicators.
- How we feel about our jobs and careers, including perceptions of working conditions, satisfaction with and security in our current jobs, perceptions of our place within the larger professional order, and our satisfaction with our careers in technical communication. The fourth article explores the perceptions of jobs and careers.
How was the census conducted?
Before launching the census, a pilot was conducted with five technical communicators working in different roles (management, individual contributor, and contractor) and in different places (in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) to ensure the completeness and clarity of the survey instrument. Based on their comments, the census was revised.
The census launched 11 July 2018 and closed 27 August 2018. During that period, STC and I recruited participants. Several email messages were sent to the STC email list, inviting known technical communicators to participate in the census, announcements about the census were included in the TechComm Today e-newsletter, and announcements were posted on the STC website. In addition, several announcements were sent to LinkedIn groups associated with technical communication and technical communication management, as well as to individual technical communicators on LinkedIn.
All of the messages and announcements explained the purpose of the census and what participation involved, and they also provided a link to the survey. The messages and announcements also mentioned an incentive to participate: 120 $10 USD Amazon gift cards would be awarded to those who completed the census.
Those who clicked on the link first encountered a landing page with an informed consent form. The form described the tasks involved in participating, as well as the risks and benefits, including the drawing for gift cards. Those who formally agreed to participate began the census.
The census had six sections:
- About Your Job, which explored characteristics of jobs and the organizations for which technical communicators work
- Professional Development, which explored the formal and informal training of technical communicators
- Satisfaction with Your Work, which explored satisfaction with resources for participants’ jobs, respect received, and concerns about job security
- Perspectives on the Profession, which explored satisfaction with the profession, long-term career intentions, and perceptions of the role of technical communication within the larger ecology of the organization
- Participation in the Community, which explored the events technical communicators attend and the organizations they join
Those who completed the survey were provided with the opportunity to enter a second survey, where they would provide their contact information for the drawing. Researchers kept census responses separate from those for the drawing so that the responses to the census would remain anonymous. The names were provided to the STC office, who conducted the drawing without involving me or my research assistant.
In all, 676 people completed the census. The responses of those who exited the survey before completing it were not included in the analysis of the data.
What are the limitations of the census?
As studies go, the census was a behemoth. It took at least 30 minutes to complete and asked nearly 60 questions. But even with that many questions, we could have asked more. For example, the census did not ask questions about the audiences served by technical communicators. That’s an important question, as some people have written that it is gravitating toward engineers, while others see the future in highly connected, end-user documentation, like a content Internet-of-Things.
But that’s just one of the limits. Another is the representativeness of our study. We primarily (though not exclusively) recruited from STC and 591 of the participants are STC members, representing 13% of the membership. As the largest professional organization serving the field, that’s a natural source to find technical communicators. But not all technical communicators belong to STC, so the concern arises about the extent to which the participants are representative of the broader population of technical communicators, even though we recruited outside of STC.
A third limitation is how we reported results in this issue. The results reported here are aggregate, rounded to the nearest whole number. This ensures simplicity of reporting, but it limits precision.
Finally, there are also the general limits of all survey research. Survey research is great for identifying trends and issues, but not so great for ferreting out nuance and meaning. To ensure responding is as easy as possible, surveys typically suggest possible responses, as this census did, but the suggested responses represent the knowledge base of those who prepare the census and, in any diverse field, even a well-informed group, has its limits. To address that, the “other” option was included with most questions, along with opportunities to write in responses, but we admittedly overlooked a few details—an issue about which some participants contacted STC and me.
In addition, survey research is great for identifying “how much” something affects us, it’s not always so great at explaining the resulting patterns. Statistical analysis can help fill in some of the gaps, but that’s beyond the analysis presented here.
How does the census affect you?
That depends on you and your interests and needs. I anticipate that the typical technical communicator will use this census as a point of comparison. They can assess the extent to which their backgrounds, job situations, tools, and processes are similar to those of other technical communicators. Similarly, they can assess their professional development practices and perceptions of their jobs and careers with those of other technical communicators.
Those who are selling products or services to technical communicators might use the results of the census to gain a general understanding of the broader technical communication market. In that way, they can determine whether their products and services appeal to the general market or a specific segment.
Those who are professors, like me, can use the census results to learn what’s going on in practice overall, and assess the extent to which our research and teaching align with it. The results might inspire ideas for future studies and adjustments to teaching.
Should this census be conducted again in the future (and I hope it will), people interested in following the evolution of the profession—professors who study the field, as well as advocates who assume professional and thought leadership roles—have scientifically collected data and points of comparison (responses to the same questions at different points in time) on which to base recommendations for the future.
What happens next with the census?
As noted earlier, the results presented in this issue are only the aggregated responses to questions. This is a rich data set that demands further in-depth analysis, and we plan to pursue that in the months ahead. The additional analysis is being targeted for publication at peer-reviewed publications, including Technical Communication. The analyses will look for patterns in the data. For example, do the results suggest that technical communication jobs in particular industries or geographic regions have unique characteristics? Do the results suggest that people with certain demographic or job characteristics are more or less likely to engage in professional development?
In addition, I hope that the census will be replicated in two to three years. By periodically collecting data about the people in the profession and their jobs, we not only learn about what we do, but over time, we can observe how the profession is responding to changing economic and social conditions.
I have also scheduled a formal presentation of the census at the 2019 STC Technical Communication Summit & Expo, 5–8 May 2019 in Denver, CO.
For now, however, we have a first portrait of technical communicators. The rest of this issue shares different parts of that portrait.
I would first like to thank STC for the opportunity to conduct this study, for providing access to members to collect the data, and for providing a publication in which to report it. I would also like to thank STC for recruiting our sponsor, WebWorks, who funded the incentives that spurred participation in the census. And for those concerned about the role of the sponsor in shaping this census, I would also like to thank our sponsor for respecting the independence of the research.
Thanks also go to Liz Pohland, Stacey O’Donnell, Andrea Ames, and James Cameron for their personal intervention in launching this census and publishing the results.
I would like to thank Yuan Chen, a PhD student at Concordia University, who handled much of the legwork of this study and who is therefore credited as a co-author on the rest of the articles in this special issue.
I would also like to thank the pilot users of the survey, who helped ensure that the census was as complete and clear as possible. Although privacy rules prevent me from naming you, you know who you are, and I remember your contributions.
Most of all, I would like to thank the 676 people who completed the census for sharing your time, facts, and perceptions with us. By design, I do not know who you are, but thanks to you, we have the largest-ever survey of technical communicators, and without you, we would have no census data to report.
— Saul Carliner