58.1, February 2011

Editorial: Exploring the Borders of Technical Communication: Corporate and Organizational Communication

Exploring the Borders of Technical Communication: Corporate and Organizational Communication

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor

With STC's Body of Knowledge project, the technical communication community strongly focuses on issues of professional and academic identity: Who are we, how has our field developed, and what do we have to offer? It is hard to think of anything more important in the highly competitive professional and academic environment we are currently in. However, it may also be fruitful to consider the developments in adjacent fields, which may complement our knowledge and skills and offer opportunities for technical communicators. In a number of editorials, I would therefore like to explore the borders of our discipline.

Academic journals that focus on communication may be divided into general journals that mainly seem to approach communication as a societal phenomenon, and more specific journals that primarily see communication as an instrument organizations need to achieve their goals. Examples of the general journals are the ones published by the International Communication Association (ICA), such as Communication Theory and the Journal of Communication. Specific journals focus, for instance, on technical communication, marketing communication, health communication, human-computer interaction, business communication, or corporate and organizational communication.

In this editorial, I will explore the interface between technical communication and corporate and organizational communication. Historically, a distinction can be made between corporate and organizational communication. Corporate communication specifically addresses issues of identity, image and reputation, and emphasizes the required univocality in an organization's (external) representation. Organizational communication focuses on the perspective of employees within an organization, and thus highlights the multivocality within an organization. Organizations, in this view, are phenomena that emerge from the concerted efforts individuals make to fulfil their own needs. This reflects a difference in dominant research paradigms. In corporate communication, research tends to be strongly functionalistic: Communication is seen as a tool that should be improved for the benefit of the organization. In organizational communication, research is often interpretive: the main goal is to better understand the way employees make sense of the organization they work for and the job they have.

It would not make sense to dedicate this editorial to the differences between technical communication and corporate and organizational communication. The differences are quite obvious. But what about the potential overlap, common ground, and synergy? In my view, four characteristics of our discipline call for attention to developments in the fields of corporate and organizational communication. First, the field of technical communication appears to be professionally oriented: Everything that affects the daily work of technical communicators is considered to be of potential interest. Second, all technical communicators work in organizational contexts. To fully understand the work of technical communication professionals, organizational variables must be taken into account. Third, many technological innovations are implemented in organizational settings. On the basis of their expertise in gearing technology to the needs of people and instructing people to use technological products, technical communicators may significantly contribute to such innovation processes. Fourth, the context of corporate and organizational communication offers many complex writing opportunities for which technical communicators appear to be very well equipped.

Technical Communication as a Professionally Oriented Discipline

The variety of topics addressed in technical communication journals and magazines suggests that this selection is not solely made on the basis of conglomerates of theoretical frameworks or communication problems, but also on the basis of practical issues technical communicators are confronted with. Everything that may be helpful to the job of a technical communicator may be addressed in the literature. In the past we have, for instance, seen articles about green printing, copyright issues, and attracting visitors to the Web sites of technical communication agencies. As a result, all organizational aspects that technical communicators have to deal with are of potential interest to the field as well.

The Relevance of Organizational Contexts

Technical communication professionals do most of their work in organizational contexts. The awareness has grown that organizational characteristics may strongly affect the job of technical communicators. Relevant issues are the position technical communicators have in the overall organizational structure, and the functioning of multidisciplinary teams within and between organizations. Furthermore, it seems crucial to pay attention to the core values, mission, vision and identity of organizations. Only when the quality of the user experience is recognized as one of the central features of an organization, technical communicators may be expected to receive sufficient support in their attempts to serve the users. Discussions about the added value of the work of technical communicators may be enriched by research attention for corporate reputation. To what extent can technical communicators contribute to the corporate reputation of an organization?

Technological Innovations in Organizations

Many technological innovations in organizations fail. Implementations of new software systems, new media or new work procedures often cause problems and do not have the intended effects. This is not unique for technological innovations: The same applies to mergers, major strategy changes and acquisitions. In the majority of the cases, the human factor appears to be the main cause of the problems. Either the decision on the technological innovation appears to be suboptimal or the implementation falls short, often because of friction between the existing organizational procedures and the new system requirements. Both problems are linked to the core of the competences of technical communicators, who have the expertise to advise on technological innovations and to facilitate a smooth implementation process aimed at adjusting intended users and technology to each other. The same things technical communicators do for individual users they can also do for technology in complex organizational settings.

Writing Opportunities for Technical Communicators

Finally, technical communicators distinguish themselves from many other communication professionals by their attention for functional writing skills. Important and complex documents that have to be written within an organization may be a really good opportunity for technical communication professionals, especially if the documents have more or less instructional aims.

In all, it seems interesting to further explore the relationship between technical communication and corporate and organizational communication in specific research projects. There is a lot to be gained from collaborative projects aimed at combining insights from both fields.

Upcoming Changes in the Editorial Team

Much to my regret, the two associate editors of the journal, Sherry Southard and Avon Murphy, have decided to take a step back in the course of this year. Sherry Southard has been the editor of the Recent & Relevant section for nine years. Avon Murphy has been the editor of the Book Reviews section for 18 years. Both sections have always been highly appreciated by the Technical Communication readers and have contributed much to the success of the journal. Sherry and Avon did a terrific job soliciting contributions, selecting content, and editing texts for their journal section. What is more, they provided invaluable advice about the further development of the journal. It was a privilege to work with them. I am very glad that Sherry and Avon decided to stay on the journal's Editorial Advisory Board. I am also glad to announce that we have already found two very competent successors. Lyn Gattis is going to be the new Recent & Relevant editor. Jackie Damrau will serve as the new Book Reviews editor. Welcome to the team, Lyn and Jackie!

In this Issue

The first article in this issue, by Sam Dragga, is a good example of the interface between technical communication and corporate and organizational communication. In the article, corporate codes of conduct are analyzed, focusing on the questions whether their formulation emphasizes compliance or cooperation, and whether they distinguish between legal and ethical issues. On the basis of a thorough analysis of three documents, he shows that current codes of conduct are far from optimal, and that technical communicators may be qualified to contribute to this complex type of document.

The following two articles both address the increasingly important topic, intercultural communication. In a detailed case study of the adaptation of an organizational training for Japanese audiences, James Melton focuses on the role of physical and social spaces in a high-context culture. On the basis of interviews, a survey and observation, Daniel Ding describes the characteristics of an academic technical communication program in China. His results show that there are fundamental, culture-inspired differences compared to technical communication programs in western countries.

The fourth article, by Michael Albers and John Marsella, focuses on students' comprehensive editing abilities. On the basis of an analysis of student feedback on a report, they conclude that technical communication pedagogy should focus more on the structural aspects of document quality.