57.1, February 2010

The Technical Communication Body of Knowledge Initiative: An Academic-Practitioner Partnership

Nancy W. Coppola


Purpose: This article chronicles the STC Technical Communication Body of Knowledge process from 2007 to 2009 and provides key elements of a landmark project to develop a body of disciplinary knowledge.

Method: The author, who is a member of the Body of Knowledge Task Force, documents the chronology of the project through firsthand accounts. A brief review of literature helps to place this initiative within the context of technical communication professionalization and identifies its uniqueness from previous efforts.

Results: The project demonstrates a productive partnership between practitioners and academics. It promises to help technical communicators assess their own level of knowledge and skills, provide easily accessible information for those wanting to hire technical communicators or enter the profession, and define the profession as a specialized set of skills, abilities, and knowledge.

Conclusion: This project laid the groundwork for a body of knowledge that has the potential to establish technical communication as a true profession.

Keywords: Body of knowledge; Academic-practitioner partnership; Professionalization; STC history

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • The TCBOK demonstrates how practitioners can use research strategies of mind mapping, card sorting, affinity diagramming, and shareholder analysis to solve workplace problems.
  • Technical communicators must continue to validate the TCBOK framework and enable a value proposition that resonates with employers and credits practitioners for their professional contributions.


The divergence between academics and practitioners, the lack of a coherent knowledge approach within the academy and the workplace, and the desire for unity among shareholders—these are the challenges in defining the technical communication body of knowledge and developing a framework for compiling it. The tensions, present since the founding of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), are enduring. At the present writing, however, we have an opportunity to achieve a structural framework for joining the divergent knowledge bases of academics and practitioners and creating a coherent body of disciplinary knowledge.

This article documents STC’s Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) initiative, an effort of many to resolve seemingly archetypal tensions within our profession. Both practitioners and academics recognize the importance, and the struggle, of establishing technical communication as a fully mature profession. Teresa Kynell-Hunt and Gerald J. Savage devote two volumes to mediating the issues surrounding professionalization of technical communication: Volume I,
The Historical and Contemporary Struggle for Professional Status (2003), and Volume II,
Strategies for Professional Status (2004). Contributors to these volumes provide contending strategies for professionalization of technical communication. Following the arduous path of law, medicine, and engineering for professionalization, notes Marjorie T. Davis (2004), requires our professional societies to set standards and establish minimum qualifications for practice. Robert R. Johnson (2004) argues for a professionalization process that orients our field to ethical conduct, stewardship of technology, and social responsibility. Professionalization, according to George Hayhoe (2003a), requires that academics and practitioners develop a shared understanding of theory, research, and practice.

Common to all strategies, however, is building a unified body of knowledge, or the complete set of concepts, terms, and activities that make up a professional domain. In its report to STC, Change Management Solutions (2008) examines how other professions successfully evolved, noting that a prerequisite is an identifiable and independent body of knowledge. Kenneth Rainey (2005) has long argued for “codification of the bodies of knowledge through the development of an encyclopedia of technical and professional communication” as the first step toward professionalism. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber (2001) agree, insisting that our field will not achieve the status of a mature profession until it can come to grips with a coherent body of disciplinary knowledge.

Our potential to establish a disciplinary body of knowledge has long been present. Hopeful predictions of who we are and what we need to know to succeed have been common for more than a decade. “But when the STC job competencies committee fulfills its mission, we will be able to proclaim clearly who we are, what we do, and how we make a difference.” Such was the 1995 proclamation of the job competencies committee established by then–STC President Saul Carliner (Daniels, 1996). STC, as our largest professional organization, has led the way in dedicating effort and resources to the complex task of unifying the profession by establishing a body of knowledge (Turner & Rainey, 2004). Why, then, is this initiative different? The current TCBOK effort is unique because it separates the process of building a disciplinary knowledge base from the process of professional certification for technical communication. The team decided that certification is a separate effort that may make use of the body of knowledge, as will many other individuals and groups, but is not within its scope. This time, STC, a practitioner-oriented organization, made a serious effort to incorporate academics into the process, recognizing the value of theory and research to a robust knowledge base. Finally, as this article demonstrates, maturation of technology and proliferation of tools allowed for a virtual community of this magnitude and complexity.

This article documents the TCBOK project and history. It begins with the vision-forming process, July–December 2007; moves through Phase 1, establishing the framework for the knowledge portal, January–May 2008; Phase 2, refining the framework for the knowledge portal, June 2008–April 2009; and concludes with Phase 3, developing governance, strategy, and change management, May 2009–September 2009. This chronological framework, which is shown in Figure 1, constitutes the body of knowledge story.

Figure 1. Technical Communication Body of Knowledge Project Timeline

Prologue: Re-envisioning the Body of Knowledge, July–December 2007

The current project was born in the summer of 2007. Acting on a proposal by Hillary Hart, University of Texas, Austin, the academic-industry liaison, STC invited leaders from its organization, industry, and technical communication programs in universities to prepare for a critical topics summit that was to strengthen the relationship between academic and industry practitioners. One of the five critical topics was defining a body of knowledge for technical communication. Chaired by David Dayton, Towson University, this group (Marjorie T. Davis, Mercer University; Sandi Harner, Cedarville University; Hillary Hart, University of Texas, Austin; Paul Mueller, UserAid; Ellen Wagner, Adobe) prepared for the summit by establishing prior research on a rationale for a body of knowledge and the approaches that other professional associations have followed in the process.

On September 28, 2007, the five teams met at the University of Houston-Downtown for the Academic-Industry (A-I) Leaders Summit. The TCBOK team presented recommendations emerging from its pre-summit research and online conversations in stikipad.com, a now-defunct hosted wiki tool (Dayton et al., 2007). The team recommended that the TCBOK should

  • Separate its efforts from any certification and/or accreditation efforts. Not only was a separate STC-supported team examining certification, but the TCBOK group hoped to develop an objective knowledge base outside the certification polemic. We feared that putting the horse before the cart would result in a process that emphasized products for accreditation rather than a process of discovery.
  • Adapt the open, collaborative model for development set by the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) and its body of knowledge (Usability Professionals Association, 2008). Rather than a formal, codified system, we sought the model of a flexible repository that is relevant to the needs of the discipline.
  • Collect and analyze existing frameworks in other professions for categorizing and defining knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Technical communication shares critical similarities with other professions whose services are consumed across a wide range of disparate industries and commercial activities, and that faced competition from overlapping professions and underwent radical redirection within the last 25 years. We sought to identify and learn from those commonalities.
  • Emulate academic-industry collaboration represented by ABET, Inc. (formerly Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). We realized that only through the shared expertise of practitioners and academics would TCBOK be able to define the profession by the outcome achieved rather than by functions performed.
  • After the summit, STC President Linda Oestreich appointed Hart and Dayton to co-chair a task force by organizing a charrette, a design workshop for 15 practitioners and 15 academics to take place in first quarter of 2008. Instead, budgetary constraints forced a change of plans; the STC Board of Directors approved funding a group of 10 that would work online for several months and then meet face to face.
  • This remains, however, a pivotal moment in our story: academics and practitioners found common ground and a willingness to push forward.

Phase 1: Establishing the Framework for the TCBOK Portal, January–May 2008

Setting: Walking the Wall

The TCBOK Task Force began its work at the turn of a new year in 2008 in a virtual asynchronous meeting space, Basecamp, a Web-based project management tool for collaboration. The task force consisted of five industry and five academic practitioners, whom Hart and Dayton recruited, and included Hart and Dayton: Alex Blanton, Microsoft; Kelli Cargile Cook, Utah State University; Nancy W. Coppola, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Marjorie T. Davis, Mercer University; Mark Hanigan, On the Write Track; Michael A. Hughes, IBM Internet Security Systems; Janice (Ginny) Redish, Redish & Associates, Inc.; and Daphne R. Walmer, Medtronic, Inc. Our task was to jump-start the process of creating a body of knowledge for the technical communication profession.

Hart and Dayton immediately focused us on our goal of drafting project documents—a purpose and rationale statement, audience personas and scenarios of use that represented primary user groups envisioned by the team, students, and a high-level outline of the technical communication body of knowledge with a draft of information architecture. We all needed help understanding how to create, manage, link, and find information within this new knowledge space. Dayton prepared a screencast with Jing software in which he narrated a quick tour of the Basecamp site (2008a).

The new team of 10 collaborators was aware of the enormousness of the task and its possible historic importance. From our first days, we knew that only a Web-based portal would be able to bring together the dynamic and diverse core components and myriad specialty components of technical communication. But the challenge of how to go about creating even the highest-level outline and information architecture proved daunting. Each of the task force members came to the goal with widely varying knowledge and skill sets. There were postings on taxonomies and methodologies, on learning styles and content strategies. From research to project management, in phone conferences and in Basecamp, we 10 floundered, each of us speaking rather different languages. We spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what to call this thing we were creating—Web of Knowledge, Map of Knowledge, Network of Knowledge, Knowledge Portal—a conversation that covered up the underlying tension of our divergent knowledge bases through convenient metaphors.

Enter Ginny Redish, whose calm, expert voice posed a simple question: Who is the audience for the knowledge portal? This was, as they say, an “aha” moment. Aim trumped metaphor, and we were on our way.

Mike Hughes took the lead in identifying and describing groups with a stake in defining a body of knowledge for technical communication (2008). Dayton jumped in and analyzed Hughes’s table of stakeholders to draw out high-level user goals that the TCBOK might serve as a first step toward creating personas and scenarios. Using Writeboard, a wiki feature of Basecamp, and following Redish’s storytelling guidelines (2007) for developing personas and scenarios, the team began to describe the people who would use a disciplinary body of knowledge. We were galvanized by our tasks—each of us could imagine ourselves as users of the knowledge portal. For example, one user type is the technical writer who wants to keep current with the field. To make this user type realistic, Redish posted a slide deck with examples and templates for persona development (2008) that included key attributes, daily tasks, fictional career details, informational needs from the body of knowledge portal, and then a typical task that the user might perform in the knowledge portal. Thus, a task scenario for this typical user was: A veteran practitioner goes to the TCBOK wiki looking for guidance on how to implement structured authoring as a first step toward a transition to single-source publishing.

Davis and Hart drafted the initial framing document that would describe why defining a body of knowledge is necessary. Their purpose and rationale statement is worth quoting here (2008):

First of all, a profession cannot be recognized as a profession until it is defined as such. Engineers, for instance, have a body of knowledge they must master before they can practice as engineers…. Although technical communicators may not yet want such a highly codified and subdivided set of skills and practices, we do need an authoritative place to find answers to that eternal question: “What do technical communicators do, anyway?” New practitioners need to see their professional development pathways spelled out, along with concomitant educational/training opportunities. Veteran practitioners need a means for assessing their progress and determining what additional training they may need. Or they may simply need quick access to guidelines for new techniques and technologies…. And executives, who may never have heard of technical communication, need a place to find out what it is that TCers can do for their company.

Secondly, many recent studies of technical communicators show that writing is just a part (and sometimes a small part) of what successful technical communicators actually do. In Hart & Conklin’s co-authored survey [2006], only 8 out of the 75 responses listed “writer” as a unique identifier. Our data show that communicators seem to be spending about the same amount of time on communication processes as they are on creating end-user documents or products. If we want to maximize our value to the business functions of corporations and agencies, we need a body of knowledge that will make that value clear to employers. STC has recently petitioned the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for a re-definition of technical “writer” to technical “communicator.” Citing TC as a growing field with many jobs coming online in the future, the petition describes how limiting and inaccurate the term “writer” is.

The First Weekend Workshop

With the rationale, conceptual overview, value proposition statement, and personas and scenarios in good draft shape, we met in Herndon, Virginia, near STC headquarters on April 24–26, 2008, to develop consensus on the design artifacts for the preliminary information architecture.

The nine TCBOK members who attended the weekend workshop, along with ex officio member Lloyd Tucker, STC director of education and membership, worked to develop a taxonomy from the bottom up through affinity diagramming, a popular project management technique. As our facilitator, Redish came to the meeting with a card set of more than 100 sticky notes with nouns (for example, indexing, agile development, usability) from individual maps of content topics that several of us had created over time (Coppola & Elliot, 2007; Davis, 2008; Dayton, 2008b). In this card-sorting activity, she asked us to arrange the sticky notes on a wall in any order that made sense to us. Divided into teams, each with one-third of the cards, we began to walk the wall, sorting, grouping, and labeling with liberal application of our sticky notes. Slowly, the hierarchy emerged. We concurrently sifted the content categories through the STC Special Interest Groups (SIGs) and even the STC Summit conference tracks to make sure we covered all the bases.

In the afternoon, Redish reminded us that we needed to move from a content focus to our user focus. This time, using our personas to role play, we walked the wall again, taking the perspective of our archetypal users. How would our shareholders use this map? What were the big categories and how could they be found?

At the end of the day we had, as Hughes said, “netted the beast.” We had a taxonomy of the knowledge portal for technical communication. At this first stage of a long process, we had defined what we were trying to create as a conceptual framework, the high-level taxonomy that tags and illustrates the interrelationships of components of the body of knowledge in technical communication.

Following the April meeting, the STC Board of Directors sought member feedback to the preliminary work of the TCBOK Task Force through one of its periodic Web-based Knowledge-Based Governance surveys. Prior to the May 2008 board meeting, a survey emailed to members included a table of the top-level topics of the draft knowledge portal site map. In defining the profession, respondents rated four topics as extremely important: information design and development; collaboration; business knowledge; and deliverables (Dayton, Hart, Hughes, & Redish, 2008).

Preparation for Summit 2008

During the next weeks, the team prepared for the STC Summit 2008, June 1–4, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With the goals of eliciting feedback, populating the map with content, and validating the current content, the TCBOK Task Force created the following conference artifacts.

Borrowing from the successful affinity diagramming event described earlier, a “Walk the Wall” system allowed the portal map to be interactive. Tucker developed the wall-size graphics of the overall 11 main topics (Figure 2) and the in-depth individual maps of the 11 topics as indicated by Figure 3. This draft map of the TC Knowledge Portal was displayed at STC Central in the Exhibit Hall along with stacks of sticky pads and free STC pens to encourage conference attendees to post their comments and feedback. Throughout the conference Burton, Oestreich, and the TCBOK Task Force exhorted conference attendees to “walk the wall.”

Figure 2. Mindmap of the Technical Communication Knowledge Portal Showing 11 Main Topics and Second-Level Subtopics

Figure 3. One of 11 Main Topics in Mindmap (Figure 2) With Detailed Content

So that attendees would have a takeaway and a reminder to volunteer, we developed a TC Knowledge Portal Handout. Distributed at sessions and at STC Central, the handout gave the project rationale and overview, a value proposition statement of the profession that resonates with employers so that practitioners can gain credit and professional acclaim for their contributions, and contact information. It also included four personas and scenarios that represented primary audience groups envisioned by the team: practitioners, managers, students, and instructors.

Further, two summit presentations provided information and sought feedback on the initiative: (1) “Technical Communication Body of Knowledge I: A Framework for Moving Forward” (Dayton et al., 2008), a progress report on the first steps; and (2) “Technical Communication Body of Knowledge II: Open Forum for Discussion and Feedback” (Coppola, Davis, & Hanigan, 2008), a follow-on session designed to give conference attendees an opportunity for feedback.

At the end of the conference, TCBOK Task Force members had talked to hundreds of attendees, gathering their insights and input. Dayton harvested sticky notes from conference attendees and collated the comments in an Excel spreadsheet. Each of the 11 top-level domains of the TC Knowledge Portal was tabbed in an Excel file with text denoting comments and suggesting new topics.

And so we had come to a milestone moment in STC history. We had, collectively, developed a high-level framework for a body of knowledge that was preliminarily validated by the membership. We emerged with a more unified team spirit.

Phase 2: Refining the Framework for the Knowledge Portal, June 2008–May 2009

At a June 4, 2008, meeting with the STC Board of Directors in Philadelphia, the original TCBOK team was expanded and reconfigured. Hart and Hanigan signed up as the 2008–2009 co-chairs, Caroline Jarrett, Effortmark, UK, joined on as the project manager, and Connie Kiernan, United States Mint, and Rob Hanna, ASCan Enterprises, became communication managers. The Phase 2 goals for the project were to collect, analyze, and implement input to redesign and perhaps reconceptualize the draft site map.

This next phase ushered in new tools for collaboration, many more channels for collecting feedback, and new volunteer team members with fresh perspectives and zeal. In order for the original static diagram of the overall knowledge portal to be interactive and dynamic, it was moved to a Web-based environment. STC funded a subscription to CoMapping, an application based on mind mapping. This tool brought a visual interface showing connections between blocks of information text to our map along with real-time collaboration and updates. Hanna consolidated each of the domain maps provided earlier into a single aggregated map and ported data from each of the 11 domain maps individually for easy linking when published.

Portal Map Published on Web

With the TC Knowledge Portal Site Map published, we could now solicit feedback though these channels:

    • Member feedback from survey: September 30, 2008–November 10, 2008. Kiernan led development of a two-part survey, shown as Figure 4, that was posted on the STC Web site. The survey, which was emailed to all STC members as well as posted to other professional organization listservs, asked members first to respond to the collective personas and scenarios and then to review the individual domains in the site map. About 150 STC members dedicated an hour on average to provide very detailed and thoughtful comments on the survey.

Figure 4. Survey Posted on STC Web Site Seeking Member Feedback on TC Knowledge Portal

  • Feedback from other organizations: September 2008–October 2008. We promoted the survey on professional listservs (Association of Teachers of Technical Writing [ATTW], Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication [CPTSC], and Writing Program Administrators [WPA]) and in special sessions at the International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) in Montreal (July 13, 2008, led by Hart) (Davis & Hayhoe, 2008) and at CPTSC (Coppola, 2008).The goal at these sessions was to demonstrate the generic value of the TCBOK initiative to help technical communicators assess their own level of knowledge and skills; provide easily accessible information for those wanting to hire technical communicators or enter the profession; and define the profession as a specialized set of skills, abilities, and knowledge.

The Second Weekend Workshop

With hundreds of collected comments from these many different resources, our task—to develop a pathway for people interested in technical communication to find and navigate the huge amounts of knowledge in our profession—had just become far more complicated. Another face-to-face meeting was in order. This time, we (Saul Carliner, Concordia University, Coppola, Hanna, Hart, Hanigan, and Kiernan) traveled to the STC headquarters, then in Arlington, Virginia, for a meeting on October 24, 2008. We were joined by STC staff Lloyd Tucker and Shaf Syed, Webmaster, and Caroline Jarrett by phone from the UK. Our agenda was to identify the tasks needed to wrap up the site map activity, including analyzing and incorporating the received comments, to plan the deliverables for the 2009 STC Summit, and to think about the direction after the summit.

Initial survey feedback on the TC Knowledge Portal told us that encountering 11 domains was just too confusing. We decided on a more focused entry to the portal that organized the 11 domains into four overarching classifications. Therefore, a person coming to the portal would find (1) About Technical Communication; (2) Managing Your Career; (3) Producing Technical Communication; and (4) Advancing Technical Communication Through Research and Practice. The new team structure included volunteer teams from academe and industry with a leader and a TCBOK Steering Committee that took the lead at the four top levels of the structure. We also began to codify the information architecture with these terms: Domain—high-level areas of knowledge under which are organized skills and knowledge areas specific to technical communication; Node—second-level skills and knowledge areas; and Knowledge Element (KE)—specific knowledge elements that will be linked to sources of information (articles, original content, other Web sites, etc.). Figure 5 shows the information architecture of the knowledge portal map.

Figure 5. Information Architecture of TC Knowledge Portal Map Created with CoMapping Software

By the turn of a new year in 2009, the domain teams were busy vetting comments and survey feedback into individual domains on the CoMapping site. A technology team was working on finding a more collaborative editing tool, and the steering committee was grappling with a way to structure the internal DNA of the portal map. As we dug deeper into populating the framework, talk of certification arose. As noted earlier, our original tenet from the A-I Leaders Summit was to avoid conflating the TCBOK and plans for certification. And with no procedure for managing changes to the portal, differences about ownership arose. One steering committee member suggested creating domain titles as verbal phrases that reflect what a technical communicator would want to do with this area. For example, the domain Academic Programs would become Finding Academic Programs because a user would want to know how to find an academic program. The team spent a good deal of time hashing out the semantics of naming—a dialogue, as noted in Phase 1, that covered up underlying tensions. With questions about rigor, inclusion, and flexibility unresolved, no real progress was being made. We became stuck.

Fortunately, another expert voice provided a calm and reasoned resolution. This time it was Davis who created a 9-minute video for her Mercer University distance learning class in the Master of Science in Technical Communication Management (MSTCO) as a straightforward introduction to a project that would involve the students in populating the portal site with content (2009). But the video also served to remind us about our collective goals for the project. At the same time, a new wiki tool was selected by a committee of four and launched by project manager Jarrett. We put aside semantics and moved into the EditMe wiki with renewed purpose.

A Wiki Saves the Day

Using a wiki presented new challenges for the distributed team. The very nature of a wiki with its bottom-up process of content creation in a linear structure did not easily translate the visual hierarchy of our previous portal map. At the wiki’s top level, nested structure became invisible, forcing the user to go to the node itself to see the structured relationship. Fortunately, in February’s monthly conference call, Jarrett offered to lead the wiki team in developing a straw man site with administrative procedures to maintain it.

Therefore, for the wiki top level, the domain leads wrote an overview so that people coming to the page would be able to quickly discern whether they were in the right place to answer their questions. The overview described how that item (Designing and Developing Information, for instance) is defined within technical communication practice and theory: “Designing and developing information describes the processes of defining a technical communication project, determining how the content will be presented, developing and producing that content, and assessing the extent to which the content achieves its intended purpose.” Under the overview paragraph, the list of topics provided enough description to guide users.

At the same time, Jack Molisani, ProSpring Staffing, refined the personas based on member feedback from the survey. The 14 personas represented the wide cross-section of people who might come to this encyclopedia of technical communication content. Kiernan continued to add to her extensive bibliography of reference works and glossary of terms related to technical communication practice. And Jarrett added meta-content pages to the wiki home page so that the project status, history, and personas were integrated and easily accessible.

Summit 2009 Run-Up

By the March conference call, the STC Summit 2009 strategies were in place. We wanted to show STC members in May how they and others would be able to use this portal to find information on specific topics, careers, programs, research, and practices—all intuitively organized, easily accessible, and in one place. Figure 6 shows a screenshot of the wiki homepage. The goals were to present this wiki appropriately as a stepping stone for exploring issues around creating, populating, and managing the content and to allow people to interact with it as an early draft of the future TCBOK. To create enthusiasm and gather volunteers and ideas, the summit sessions were highly interactive. Session 1 (Carliner, Coppola, Hart, and Reilly, 2009) asked audience groups to role-play three different personas and query the TC Knowledge Portal for appropriate information. Lisa Pappas described this session as it happened in her blog (2009). Session 2 (Davis, Dayton, Hanna, Hart, Kiernan, and Jarrett, 2009) also invited audience groups to test different pages of the TCBOK Portal for content, organization, and usability. Judith L. Glick-Smith, MentorFactor, Inc., praised this session as “pure collaboration, which means everybody wins. No sense of trying to control the meeting. Presenters solicited feedback without judgment or limits” (2009).

Figure 6. Screenshot of the TCBOK wiki homepage, November 2009

At the same time, an interactive display at the STC booth asked members to watch a video introducing the portal to find themselves in the personas, and then to edit wiki pages (Hart, 2009). Attendees posted comments in the technical communication definition and the future of technical communication pages.

Behind the collaborative demonstration of TCBOK progress, pressure within the team was mounting. These tensions flared at a morning TCBOK meeting in Atlanta on Monday, May 4. Task team members, some of whom had been part of the process since the A-I Leaders Summit in Houston in 2007, were understandably fatigued but still protective of the portal. Others were concerned about the need for a robust and thorough vetting process for credibility of the TCBOK. And members had differing approaches to populating the wiki with content, with some observing the original hierarchy of the CoMapping site while searching for consensus and others creating entirely new information architecture.

With unresolved questions about intellectual property and ownership, the time had come for setting direction, establishing ground rules, and creating formal governance.

Phase 3: Developing Governance, Strategy, and Change Management, May 2009–September 2009

By the end of May 2009, when the dust settled, Kiernan joined Hanigan as project co-chair, replacing Hart, who had been elected to the STC Board of Directors. Their first response to a maturing task force structure was to create a governance committee charged with drafting the project charter. Meeting in twice-a-month phone conferences through the end of August, the governance team (Kiernan, Hanigan, Jarrett, Hart, Joel Kline, Coppola, Hanna, Cheri Mullins, and Dayton) created a document that defined the scope of the project and established major milestones. On August 31, 2009, the STC Board of Directors approved a revised Project Charter for developing and implementing a Technical Communication Body of Knowledge project.

The Project Charter has attempted to define the scope of this huge collaborative project—what it includes and what it does not. There is pressure, for instance, for STC to begin thinking about developing certification courses and programs based on the core competencies being defined in the TCBOK. But the team has decided that certification is a separate effort that may make use of the body of knowledge, as will many other individuals and groups, but is not within the scope of the task force’s efforts. Similarly, the governance team has had to begin grappling with the intellectual property issues that arise from a collection of links, bits of organizational content, definitions, longer original papers, etc. STC will not and cannot own the body of knowledge that exists in the literature and in industry best practices, but access to original content and content controlled by others will probably have to be monetized, if only to recover use fees. The charter attempts to outline the various audiences and goals we envision now and over the next few years.

With the Project Charter in place, the team has begun to develop a strategic plan and a change management process. To date, Larry Kunz, Systems Documentation Inc., is leading the team in creating a strategic plan that focuses on populating the portal with usable content in the first year, then migrating it to a platform with maintenance. The team is also developing a change management process, including editorial, content, and structural change requests, reviews and approvals, as well as dispute resolution. As the first instance of change management, Jarrett compiled an audit of the wiki portal to determine if content published at the STC Summit 2009 has been revised without team review. This phase in the project, which is ongoing at the time of this writing, is also a period of looking inward and critical self-reflection. Can we continue a democratic volunteer process while resisting hegemonic takeovers? Will we be able to forgo commercialization until content is properly vetted?

What We Have Learned

As well as producing key project deliverables, we have learned a lot about the realities of such a large volunteer project. Jarrett provided these managerial examples:

  • The project responds well to clearly defined goals and deadlines.
  • There is a great deal of enthusiasm for this project both within STC and among our professional and academic colleagues in related fields.
  • We need time and input from the leaders in our field: busy people. If they throw themselves into our project, as so many involved in the project have done, then they achieve a tremendous amount. We have also seen a degree of burnout as previously active project members have had to withdraw as other commitments intervene.
  • We work best with a relatively small team at the center that in turn divides up specific tasks and takes them away to even smaller teams (one to three people).
  • We have varying levels of familiarity with technologies. Any of us might be an expert with several while being a beginner at others. Broadly, we are eager to learn new ones, but we may need time and coaching to do so.
  • After two years of proselytizing the knowledge project by members of the various task teams who were—and are—buoyed by the challenge of being bleeding-edge adopters of a landmark innovation, it is time to pause and take stock. We have made concrete that which existed only as abstract calls to action and mutable scenarios. Yet we recognize the prevailing dynamic and organic structure of any body of knowledge. With a sense of community, we moved individual tacit knowledge to explicit collective intelligence. And we realized the potential for a productive partnership between practitioners and academics, a potential that Menno de Jong (2009) has envisioned as “a system of dialog and co-production in which practitioners and academics interact with each other about pressing issues on the research agenda and in which practitioners and academics collaborate to contribute to the body of knowledge.”
  • This project laid the groundwork for a body of knowledge that has the potential to establish technical communication as a true profession. But there is much more to be done. Blakeslee and Spilka (2004) decry the paucity of scholars working on complementary research questions leading to a coherent body of knowledge. They note that “too much research in our field is driven by individual interests and inclination rather than by some overarching initiative” (pp. 76–77). Could not the body of knowledge project provide such an overarching initiative for researchers? Gerald Savage (2003) reminds us that the process of professionalization inevitably involves ideological, political, and economic struggles. “Professionalization is bound to have its undesirable costs for practitioners who lack formal training, for university programs and academics that fail to recognize the real needs of professional education and research, and for professional organizations that do not develop critical awareness of how professionalization actually occurs and accept the necessity of effective political work toward that end” (p. 162). Yet these are struggles we must undertake if we are to benefit from recognition as a profession.
  • This has been the backstory of a landmark project in our field, one that was built by volunteers who have devoted hundreds of hours of sweat equity and goodwill. It is also the story of a professional organization that had the vision for and commitment to this initiative while supporting it with substantial resources. Each of you will contribute to moving our profession forward; the TCBOK story of the future will be written by you.
  • How to volunteer, from Mark Clifford: “Go to the volunteering page on the wiki (http://stcbok.editme.com/Volunteering) and follow the easy instructions there, or email me, Mark Clifford (mark@cliffordsells.com), with your contact details. I’d like to know what section(s) of the TCBOK you’re interested in contributing to. We can then set up a contributors account for you.”


All the TCBOK Task Force members are coauthors of this article. But I want to acknowledge the special efforts and insightful comments of Marjorie Davis, David Dayton, and Hillary Hart, and my colleague Norbert Elliot.


Blakeslee, A. M., & Spilka, R. (2004). The state of research in technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 13, 73-92.

Carliner, S., Coppola, N., Hannigan, M., Hart, H., & Reilly, A. (2009, May 5). What makes a technical communicator a technical communicator. Presented at the STC 56th Summit, Atlanta, GA.

Change Management Solutions. (2008, February). What makes a profession professional? Benchmarking successful professions. Report prepared for the Society for Technical Communication.

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About the Author

Nancy W. Coppola is an Associate Fellow of STC and Professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She directs the Master of Science program technical communication, as well as two graduate certificates, at NJIT. Her research on technology transfer, program assessment, and environmental rhetoric has been published in many journals. She twice received the Rudy J. Joenk Jr. Award for best research article published in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. Contact: coppola@ADM.NJIT.EDU.