58.4, November 2011

Guest Editorial: Professionalization of Technical Communication: Zeitgeist for Our Age Introduction to This Special Issue (Part 1)

Nancy W. Coppola


Purpose: To trace the contemporary currents of professionalization for technical communication and our watershed initiatives in recent history.

Methods: Analysis of literature, including social media, and conversations with our thought leaders.

Results: Two of the three established processes for professional identity are described; the third process will take shape in the next issue of Technical Communication.

Conclusions: We have emerging paradigms for the body of knowledge, evolving consensus on core competencies, and economic markers of disciplinary status.

Keywords: professionalization, core competencies, body of knowledge, disciplinary status

Practitioner's Takeaway:

  • There are two online resources for information that constitute the body of knowledge for our profession.
  • The integrated combinations of knowledge and skills valued by practitioners are similar to the core competencies of academics.
  • Professional status for practitioners and disciplinary status for academics show comparable struggle and advancement.

In the mode of an intellectual throw-down, Gerald Savage, in 2003, emphatically exclaimed that the technical communication field lacks the status, legitimacy, and power of mature professions. He chided practitioners and academics alike for our identity crisis: “We cannot be recognized by others if we can't even recognize ourselves (Kynell-Hunt & Savage, 2003, p.1). Both volumes of Power and Legitimacy in Technical Communication, edited by Kynell-Hunt and Savage, show that professions emerge in processes of struggle for market control and closure, their members seeking definition of a coherent body of knowledge and pursuing development of a professional history that will provide a unifying identity (Kynell-Hunt & Savage, 2003, 2004). These ideological, economic, and political processes for professional identity are already in play for technical communication, but are we there yet? Or, in this changing, contingent, and globalized world, have we already bypassed the traditional notion of profession to arrive at an entirely different view of contemporary professionalization?

This special issue of Technical Communication addresses those questions in the first collected, multiple-author response to professional status since that seminal two-volume collection edited by Kynell-Hunt and Savage. This introduction will look at the ascent of professionalization in the past decade and map advancements to the cultural and economic framework of today. We break from voices of the past in the lack of heraldic pronouncements of professional status; nor do we call for a reshaping, remapping, reconfiguring, revising, or rethinking our field. As Rude (2009) notes, the prefix re implies dissatisfaction and the idea that we need, somehow, to be modified. Rather, we find much to be satisfied about, evident in many of the activities in our field described in this introduction: emerging paradigms for the body of knowledge, evolving consensus on core competencies, and mediating disciplinary status. These are the first two processes for professional identity in play for technical communication—ideological and economic. Important political processes will be described in the next issue of Technical Communication, the second part of our special issue on professionalization.

Emerging Paradigms for the Body of Knowledge

We might begin with the bedrock of professional issues: our underlying disciplinary body of knowledge. STC President Hillary Hart (2011) claimed the body of knowledge as a presidential goal for 2011–2012, describing it as framing out the multiplicity of skills, concepts, and knowledge—areas that enable technical communicators to contribute so effectively to business, government, and the public good. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber (2004) boldly declared 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. They provide a foundation for our body of knowledge in the landmark volume Central Works in Technical Communication, a collection of influential articles and best work that encompasses complex theoretical topics, research methods, and social issues. Their work, dedicated to the theory that underlies scholarly research and common professional practices, comes closest to what we might call a canon of literature for technical communication. Contrast this iconic work with another way to imprint core knowledge on those who would claim competency as a technical communicator: the DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Test) in Technical Writing. The DSST, which enables schools to award credit to students for knowledge equivalent to that learned by taking a college course in technical writing, covers knowledge of basic facts and terms, understanding of concepts and principles, and the ability to apply knowledge to specific problems and situations—all in a 2-hour multiple-choice test. Although these are wildly different forms of knowledge frameworks, the contrast points up the complexity of developing a unique core knowledge base for technical communication.

And then there is the capitalization issue. The initial capitalization form—Body of Knowledge—represents the formal document the professional associations call by that title. Think of the PMBOK © Guide, the global standards published by the Project Management Institute that provide guidelines, rules, and characteristics for project management. The lowercase form—body of knowledge—refers to the collected set of resources published by the associations to represent guidance on knowledge in their field (Morris, Crawford, Hodgson, Shepherd, & Thomas, 2006). Fortunately, we have two emerging paradigms for defining a technical communication body of knowledge: the EServer TC Library and the STC Body of Knowledge Portal (TCBOK). The TC Library proclaims that it is “the single most comprehensive technical communication body of knowledge in the world” (“About this Site: EServer TC Library,” 2011). The TCBOK hedges its claim by acknowledging that “the team is not creating a body of knowledge for the TC profession, but rather attempting to organize, make accessible, and connect together the plethora of information necessary to train for and practice within the profession” (“Body of Knowledge – experimental wiki – About the STC TCBOK project,” 2010). To accomplish this, the team created the architecture for a web-based portal to provide access to a TCBOK more emerging than known.

However, these are paradigms built from different hermeneutic approaches, as TC Library creator Geoffrey Sauer and TCBOK founding task force member David Dayton stated in their ATTW 2010 conference panel “Bodies of Knowledge for Technical Communication: Paradigms and Possibilities.” Sauer (2010) described the TC Library development as inductive, with content sorted into 12 categories and tagged with metadata such as author, language, publication, and year. A tag cloud visually represents the relative prominence of the library's content, which is determined by the number of works added by its contributors. The TCBOK portal was developed deductively, according to Dayton, with content categories culled from peer-reviewed literature and then hierarchically arranged through group affinity diagramming. The initial framework for the high-level taxonomy was validated by the STC membership at conferences and through surveys. Carolyn Rude, the panel respondent, identified common elements of the two knowledge-gathering efforts: (1) practitioner bias, in which the taxonomies favor workplace outcomes and do not address important research questions; (2) identity, or making clear who we are and what we know; (3) academic-industry relations, or helping to breach this divide by including work of both academics and practitioners; and (4) foregrounding knowledge, or making knowledge more important than the functions performed.

Favoring outcomes over function in defining a body of knowledge helps professions evolve, according to the Change Management Solutions (2008) report to STC. Its review of 10 emerging professions found that bodies of knowledge defined objectively (by a defined outcome) were more successful that those defined functionally (by the processes and functions performed). The consultants found that the development of the body of knowledge must be market driven and positioned to address the problems of the end-user, not the techniques of the practitioner; outcome-defined professions tend to be more responsive to changes in customer/client needs, business environments, and technological advances. They also more readily absorb new practices and practitioners, rather than competing with them (Change Management Solutions 2008, p. 27).

How successful are our body of knowledge efforts today? If we measure success by frequency of use, then surely we would call the TC Library successful. With 17,000-plus visitors and 100,000 hits a day, the open-access website “is the most popular technical communication website in the world” (Johnson, 2008). The TC Library links to more than 20,000 works, only 10% of which are peer-reviewed, so that its users—professional, scientific, and technical communicators—may browse content located elsewhere. If we measure success as user design for multiple stakeholders and their needs, then we would call the TCBOK a success. With 14 personas and their detailed tasks and scenarios created for the site, the portal “has the potential to be much more than a means for technical communicators to stay up to date. …[it] can serve many other kinds of people—from students looking to enter the field to business executives trying to understand what technical communication is about” (Minson, 2009). The TC Library continues its rapid growth in both usage and content development. Since I chronicled its development as an early task member, the TCBOK (2010) has paused for reflection. As a collaborative wiki, the platform provides only a raw development site without the user interface of a finished Web site. After the initial flurry of activity, content population has flattened. An upcoming STC Webinar hopes to capture and inspire academics to use the portal for student projects in developing content and moving this initiative forward.

Toward Consensus on Core Competencies

As practitioners in an applied field, we manifest our professional knowledge as core competencies. Although we do not yet have a collection of empirically based and nationally recognized core competencies, we are moving toward consensus on knowledge and skills necessary for success. Recent research explores and theorizes disciplinary competencies as well as mediates them in new arenas. In our assessment research at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), we have defined core competencies as those integrated combinations of knowledge and skills that allow evidence-based demonstration of professional accomplishment to stakeholders of our field.

Our literature gives us various taxonomies of core competencies for technical communicators. We have access to a deep sense of practitioner knowledge (Davis et al., 2003; Harner, Johnson, Rainey, & Rude, 2003; Hayhoe, 2002; Turner & Rainey, 2004), as well as survey data (Dayton & Bernhardt, 2004; Whiteside, 2003) and categorized bibliographic information (Alred, 2003; Smith, 2004). Others have described professional roles that are enabled by our core competencies. Saul Carliner (2001) detailed a long list of core competencies for technical communicators as information designers, Corey Wick (2000) enumerated core competencies that enable technical communicators to lead in knowledge management, and William Hart-Davidson (2001) interpreted our core competencies for playing a role in information technology systems.

All to what end? In our research at NJIT, we identified core competencies through literature review, particularized them by faculty and advisory board for local context, and assessed them as student outcomes in ePortfolios. In 2009, we completed nine instances of portfolio assessment over 5 years, confirming the validation efforts to establish core competencies through ePortfolio review. Supported by a research grant from the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC), we partnered with faculty of the graduate program in technical communication at Texas Tech University (TTU) to field test, share assessment strategies, and work toward a common set of core competencies (Coppola & Elliot, 2007). The two teams were able to find a collaborative set of core competencies for our programs, shown as a data point in Table 1 of comparative competencies (Coppola, Elliot, Barker, Carter, & Kimball, 2007). Although small, this pilot project validated our claim that a community of researchers could collect localized competency sets that respond to their programs' curricular initiatives and school missions (Coppola & Elliot, 2010). A current CPTSC Program Assessment and Review initiative, led by Thomas Barker, reports outcomes and assessment methods of 27 technical communication programs. The CPTSC Outcomes Survey (Barker, 2011) was administered to program directors and administrators listed in the CPTSC academic database to determine programmatic outcomes and methods of creating and reviewing outcomes. Their snapshot of sets of program outcomes provides a data point for Table 1. Each program strives for a desired end: a set of variables that, when taken together, will serve as the core competencies of our field.

If assessment of program outcomes allows evidence-based demonstration of professional accomplishment to the academic stakeholders of our field, how do we determine whether our core competencies align with those of the professional stakeholders? Kenneth Rainey, Roy Turner, and David Dayton (2005) answered that question by surveying 67 technical communication managers to learn which core competencies they seek in new hires. The authors first identified a comprehensive list of competencies valued by academics through content analysis of 156 course descriptions from the 10 top undergraduate programs in technical and professional communication in the United States. Dayton's follow-up interview with three of the surveyed technical communication managers both contextualized and corroborated the survey data. The core competencies most important to those who hire our graduates are also represented as a data point in Table 1.

How do we know that these core competencies are truly ours? Corporate strategists C. K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel (1990) give us four characteristics to test. Core competencies are unique skills that (1) provide a significant source of competitive differentiation, (2) transcend a single market, (3) make a significant contribution to the perceived customer benefits of the end product, and (4) are not easily imitated. The authors use an elegant metaphor that is as appropriate to technical communication as it is to a corporation: The diversified corporation is a large tree. The trunk and major limbs are core products, the smaller branches are business units; the leaves, flowers, and fruits are end products. The root system that provides nourishment, sustenance, and stability is the core competence. You can miss the strength of competitors by looking only at their end products, in the same way you miss the strength of a tree if you look only at its leaves. (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990, p. 82)

We are reminded here that our core competencies are not defined by the end products we produce but by our demonstrable knowledge and skills. And we recognize that technical communication is as much about craft knowledge as codified knowledge, often tacit as well as explicit.

How might we think about writing, then? Is writing knowledge of the game (a prerequisite to getting into the casino), or table stakes (capabilities that are crucial for survival but do not confer any specific differential advantage over other competitors in that industry)? Or is writing the casino itself, a core competency that is not easily imitated anywhere else on the strip? When particularized as writing for a specific audience directed by clearly defined purposes, writing takes its rightful place as a core skill for our profession.

The newly formed STC Certification Commission (STCC) (STCC Candidate Instructions for STC Certification, 2011) identified broad areas of practice that represent the major activities performed by technical communicators. The committee, led by past Society President Michael Hughes, validated these areas of practice against (1) the new job description of technical writing given in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook, (2) the International Standards Organization technical writing standard (ISO26514), and (3) more than 40 help-wanted ads from various locations in the United States and Canada. The results showed strong agreement between the areas of practice and what these sources consider the major elements of technical communication. The certified practitioner demonstrates proficiency in the following areas:

  • User, Task, and Experience Analysis—Define the users of the information and analyze the tasks that the information must support.
  • Information Design—Plan information deliverables to support task requirements. Specify and design the organization, presentation, distribution, and archival process for each deliverable.
  • Process Management—Plan the deliverables schedule and monitor the process of fulfillment.
  • Information Development—Author content in conformance with the design plan, through an iterative process of creation, review, and revision.
  • Information Production—Assemble developed content into required deliverables that conform to all design, compliance, and production guidelines. Publish, deliver, and archive.

For actual demonstration, however, the areas of practice are broken down into nine areas called “competencies,” shown as a data point in Table 1.

Table 1. Comparison of Competencies from Professional and Academic Sources

Cross-institutional assessment1

Programmatic outcomes2

Managers' expectations3


Balance of theoretical knowledge and practical skills

Document design

Collaboration with subject-matter experts

Project planning

User-centered design

Rhetorical situation

Collaboration with coworkers

Project analysis

Rhetorical awareness


Analysis of users' needs

Solution design

Writing and editing


Assessment of/ability to learn to use technology

Organizational design



Document design and word-processing applications

Written communication

Ethical and multicultural practice


Self-motivation and evaluation

Visual communication

Facility with multiple technologies


Evaluation of own work

Content development

Theory and practice

Content management

Audience analysis

Final production

1 Combined Core Competencies: NJIT and TTU 3/15/07 (Coppola & Elliot, 2007)

2 Programmatic Outcomes (Barker, 2011)

3 Top Competencies ranked as important by managers (Rainey et al., 2005)

4 Candidate Instructions for STC Certification, Version 1.0, June 1, 2011

The table shows the key integrated skill sets identified by certification, managers' expectations, program outcomes, and cross-college portfolio assessment. It has not been reorganized to highlight commonalities, but it quickly shows that the competencies cross-reference among the four sources. Semantic differences account for some variation; academics might talk of “rhetorical situation,” while managers might speak to “analysis of users' needs.” “Ethics” figures prominently in academic responses (columns 2 and 4) but seems absent from those of professionals (1 and 3). However, Rainey and colleagues (2005) (column 3) recognized the omission and state that “the ability to observe ethical and legal obligations” was an important identified skill but that it was not easily categorized in their main sections. And the certification application of STCC (column 1) requires that candidates abide by a code of professional conduct promising integrity and honesty. “Research” was not high on the list of competencies sought by managers, but they did find field-testing a manual and conducting secondary research useful. And STCC's Solution Design Competency asks the candidate to demonstrate the ability to design high-level solutions for implementing information products, showing research methodology and synthesis of research results into an overall design solution. The takeaway from this exercise is that practitioners and academics are not that far apart when we talk about core competencies.

Mediating Disciplinary Status

Achieving disciplinary status for technical communication practitioners and academics has enormous economic importance for us. Practitioners define the business environment and economic value for our field; academics compete for critical resources and stakeholder status in their specific institutional sites with the coins of their realm: teaching, research, and service.

Disciplinary status is closely aligned with professional status. Sociologists tell us that the concept of professionalization yields information about the way work is organized under a common educational identity, the kind of memberships that occur in professional organizations, and the nature of the emergent shared work culture (Evetts, 2011). For practicing professionals, STC has worked hard to provide authoritative differentiation. In 2010, work with the BLS resulted in a separate chapter for technical writers in the Occupation Outlook Handbook, an essential reference document for corporations. This means that for the first time the BLS has acknowledged technical writers as distinct from other writers, a critical boundary for our autonomy.

A common educational identity for academics requires a different negotiation of space, but it does not appear that our campuses are as well differentiated as our corporations. Our disciplinary status on the nation's campuses has been as storied and hard won as our status of practicing professionals. Before 2010, the Classification Code for Instructional Programs in the United States, which is used to report institutional data to the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System, included two almost identical codes for technical communication: Technical and Business Writing and Technical and Scientific Communication. These codes differentiated the focus of our academic programs on the genres we produce rather than recognizing common knowledge, actions, and ideas. The Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition successfully lobbied both the National Research Council and the National Center for Educational Statistics for disciplinary status. The result was inclusion in the National Research Council taxonomy of graduate programs under the designation Rhetoric and Composition and one code for all instructional programs in Professional, Technical, Business, and Scientific Writing (23.1303) (Phelps & Ackerman, 2010).

Rude (2009) notes an instance in which technical communication is omitted from one important reference work's list of disciplines that constitute English studies. English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s) (McComiskey, 2006) includes chapters on linguistics, creative writing, rhetoric and composition, literature, critical theory and cultural studies, and English education. Rude interprets this omission as an artifact of politics and power: anxiety about the surge of the “immigrant” field and an effort to suppress it (2009, p. 190). Her assessment points the way to our next discussion of the processes in play for professionalization of technical communication: politics and power.

In This Issue

An important aspect of professionalization, according to Savage (1999), is awareness of our historical identity. Several historical studies in the first volume of Kynell-Hunt and Savage (2003) show the promise of shaping professional consciousness through historicizing technical communication. In this special issue, Edward A. Malone leads the way forward by looking back with “The First Wave (1953–1961) of the Professionalization Movement in Technical Communication.” Malone notes that recent discussions about the professionalization of technical communication have shown little awareness of this early history. When scholarly articles on the topic include a literature review at all, they usually limit their review to post-1970 or even post-1980 scholarship. Malone's article fills a gap in our understanding of the history of technical communication as a profession by reviewing six professionalization issues and providing an historical perspective for each. He finds that our history teaches us to be cautiously optimistic about our achievements.

Janel Bloch examines professional consciousness as one of five professionalization themes in a collection of internship reports of technical communication graduate students. Her article “Glorified Grammarian or Versatile Value Adder? What Internship Reports Reveal about the Professionalization of Technical Communication” provides a study of interns over the recent quarter-century; this is an important longitudinal study that successfully examines a substantial and relevant data set. This article argues that steps toward enhancing professionalization can be made in the earliest work experiences of a technical communicator's career, by all involved—interns, employers, and faculty. Bloch also provides recommendations for students, sponsoring organizations, and faculty to design internship programs that will help contribute to the professionalization of the technical communication field.

We title this special issue “Professionalization of Technical Communication: Zeitgeist for Our Age” because running through the initiatives described here and in the next issue is a clearly discernible pattern that shows an appetite for professionalization. I see a growing collective consciousness, but certainly not collective agreement, for professionalization. It is a spirit—or zeitgeist—for our time.


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About the Author

Nancy W. Coppola, PhD, is professor of English and director of the Master of Science in Professional and Technical Communication at New Jersey Institute of Technology. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, 2010 recipient of the STC Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching, and 2005 and 2006 IEEE Rudy J. Joenk, Jr. Award for excellence in research. Contact: coppola@ADM.NJIT.EDU.