59.1, February 2012

Negotiating Professional Consciousness in Technical Communication: A Community of Practice Approach

Joel Kline and Thomas Barker


Purpose: To examine the elements of professional consciousness in technical communication to facilitate the growth of professional identity.

Method: To develop a structured collaboration model based on Wenger's three dimensions for establishing a community of practice: joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire.

Results: Structured collaboration shows strong potential to nurture a community in which the specific professional identity of being an academic or a practitioner is minimized in favor of the negotiated identity of being a community member working toward mutual goals.

Conclusions: Effective collaboration between the academic and practitioner communities creates a negotiated professionalism through better research, better education, and a more comprehensive body of knowledge. Structured collaboration along the lines of community of practice can be used to encourage professional consciousness, which can lead to professional status.

Keywords: communities of practice, professionalism, academic/industry relations, body of knowledge, TCBOK

Practitioner's Takeaway

  • Professional consciousness equates to professional status in technical communication.
  • Professionalism consists of an identity that ensures consistency in job expectations, contributes to value added, and defines the scope of a career.
  • Shared, collaborative activities among academics and practitioners following a productive, five-part set of characteristics called Collaborate, Apply, Facilitate, Negotiate, and Activate (CANFA) can increase professional consciousness among technical communicators.


This article addresses the collaboration of academics and practitioners in an effort to understand and improve professionalism. We address activities that bridge the academic and practitioner divide in our profession in ways that allow the growth of an essential element of professionalism: professional consciousness. We use the term professional consciousness to mean the collective, long-term, professional identity assumed by a group that defines the scope of a lifetime career (Savage, 1999). Professional consciousness, as Savage points out, does not describe work in particular work settings or institutional contexts, but functions to define an exclusive culture within which a practitioner can find lifelong fulfillment, advancement, rewards, and recognition.

Our work draws on research conducted on a practitioner and academic community to develop a model for academic/practitioner collaboration. This work suggests that effective collaboration among the academic and practitioner communities will improve professionalism through better research, better education, and a more comprehensive body of knowledge (BOK). It develops a model based on Etienne Wenger's (1998) three dimensions for establishing a community of practice: joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire. Research conducted on practitioners and academics during the STC's Technical Communication Body of Knowledge project (TCBOK) is used as a basis to model effective qualitative outcomes for academic/practitioner collaboration. Our paper shows how properly structured collaboration can nurture a community where the specific professional identity of being an academic or a practitioner is greatly reduced in favor of the negotiated identity of being a community member working toward mutual goals. We argue that when a community of practice develops among academics and practitioners, it negotiates the meaning and application of professionalism and provides the basis for professional consciousness.


If we want to carve a clear path to professionalism in technical communication, one way is to find strategies that allow us, both in discourse and activity, to rise above the divisions of academic and practical that have polarized the field. In this essay, we argue that bridging this gap will lead to professionalism by developing what Savage calls a “professional consciousness” (2003, p. 155). Other arguments might focus on core skills that both areas exhibit, on the promotion of technical communication as a profession in government and labor publications, or on a key element—such as technology, history, and functionality in various workplaces—as central to our profession and therefore worthy of recognition as a defining characteristic. These efforts at building professional status, both politically and socially, are important. But the primary difficulty that most scholars find in defining our profession and achieving professional status is that technical communication exists both as a field of practice and a field of academic study. Coming to grips with this gap, which we share with other professions (such as engineering, medicine, journalism, and law) continues to represent the major obstacle to professional consciousness.

The relationship of the academic community to the professional community in technical communication reflects the broader conversation about how these two groups relate (Rynes, Bartunek, & Daft, 2001; Hayes, 2007; Kruecken, 2003; Leydesdorff & Curran, 2000). These studies examine processes of knowledge creation through publication and through the contributions that either community makes to innovation within a specific field. Many of these studies identify a gap between the two, based on methods of problem solving (e.g., Agrawal, 2001) or differing views of the characterization of research (e.g., Blumenthal, Campbell, Causino, & Louis, 1996). Other lines of division, according to Dicks (2002), fall along those of theory versus practice; industry settings versus academic settings; and business versus academic discourse styles; as well as opposing views on employment structures; collaboration strategies; and views of power, philosophies, and trust that get lumped together under the umbrella of “cultural” differences.

These cultural differences contribute to the gap between academics and practitioners in technical communication. Dicks identifies a “productive tension” between these two communities in technical communication. He defines them as culturally opposite. Two major book-length studies of professional issues in technical communication focus primarily on resolving the differences between the scholarly and practical sides of technical communication (Kynell-Hunt & Savage, 2003; Mirel & Spilka, 2002). Both these works and others offer a range of possible causes and solutions to bridging the professional gap (Clark & Anderson, 2005; Pringle & Williams, 2005; Albers, 2005; Hayhoe, 1998; Heba, 1999; Killingsworth & Palmer, 2002; and Hart & Glick-Smith, 1994).

These approaches often point to cases of successful interaction among academics and professionals but rarely do their studies suggest concrete strategies to build new professional communities. For example, some technical communication researchers see a need for the research agenda to change to meet some of the needs of industry. In “The Issue of Quality in Professional Documentation: How Can Academia Make More of a Difference?” Spilka (2000) describes an area of the academia/industry relationship for the production of documentation. Spilka notes that one area of interest to industry, but not to academia, is “how best to define, measure, and achieve quality in workplace documentation.” She provides examples of academia/industry disjoint by showing how industry values quality, and how academia has not responded with relevant research.

Similarly, Cooke and Mings (2005) address the changes in usability research to meet industry needs in “Connecting Usability Education and Research with Industry Needs and Practices” (2005). The authors discuss a small-scale study at Microsoft and seek ways that academic usability research and teaching can add value to industry. Like the pedagogical research on bridging the gap, these articles provide recommendations rather than concrete strategies for solving our academia/industry issues.

While these scholars suggest a number of solutions to the persistent and polarizing gap between academics and practitioners, without concrete strategies, specific issues—such as views of technology, views of research and a much broader set of cultural differences—continue to divide the profession along familiar lines. Of all the attempts to overcome those lines, the identification of both academics and practitioners as members of the same community, within a specific framework of communities of practice, has suggested itself as a productive approach. We turn now to the approach that scholars in technical communication often employ to create a conversation about the academic/practitioner gap.

Rather than forward an analytic model or categorization structure, most authors offer general solutions. The articles in Mirel and Spilka's (2002) Reshaping Technical Communication offer several perspectives on the community, including chapters on the academia/industry relationship by Bosley, Blakeslee, Paré, and Bernhardt. Bosley (2002) and Blakeslee (2002), in that volume, argue for common ground: “My argument in this chapter thus rests not solely on assumptions of difference, but also on metaphors of common ground, overlap, and similarity” (p. 42). However, the predominant tone of the book lies in the theme of community. For example, Janice Redish's foreword sets the tone for the book, proclaiming that “Community is going to be a major theme of the new century” (p. vii). The chapter by Bernhardt (2002) continues this theme, grounding it in concepts of communities of practice. He argues that the communities of practice hold promise for bridging the academic/practitioner split. He asserts that academia and industry should remain separate in their goals and practice, but argues “that their relationship could improve significantly with the shaping of what I call active-practice, an approach that involves educators and practitioners working together through project-based activities to achieve more fruitful and fulfilling working partnerships” (p. 82). Citing Wenger (1998), Bernhardt calls for the creation of “a shared sphere of activity” within which both communities can work. Bernhardt offers strategies for creating activities that can foster professional growth, but the specific characteristics of collaborative practice—the mechanisms of collaboration—remain unstated. Our research attempts to fill this gap by examining exactly why communities of practice work, with the intention of providing guidelines for their future development.

This discussion of the scholarship testifies to a conundrum; that professionalism in technical communication depends on bridging the gap between academics and practitioners. This problem persists despite generalizations about how to overcome it. It reveals how discussions of professionalism often take the form of descriptions of how the two identities differ, with the intention of finding common ground: descriptions that fall short of suggesting ways to overcome the gap. Furthermore, this discussion reveals that a communities of practice approach has appeared in technical communication literature, but scholars have not used the specific structures of communities of practice theory, as exemplified in Wenger, to analyze the approach in depth—at least not with application to professional issues (Bridgeford, 2007). Finally, it shows that the communities of practice approach has offered a view of how professional consciousness can grow through engagement, sharing of technologies and tools, and project membership, all within the not surprising realization that people negotiate professional consciousness through these kinds of activities. Finally, these scholars suggest ways that organizations can create opportunities for such engagement, sharing, and membership. The remainder of our article will address precisely that: how a specific community of practice, the TCBOK project, grew and faltered; and how the communities-of-practice approach can shed light on how to make it a source of professional identity that bridges the academic/practitioner split.

Communities Of Practice Theory

Communities of practice is a concept coined by Lave and Wenger in their seminal book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (1991). They developed their theory from a set of widely accepted sociological and anthropological antecedents. Later, began to reconceptualize community of practice to explain how people learn in organizations and how community and identity affect the transfer of knowledge during collaboration.

In his book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Wenger (1998) identifies three dimensions of a community of practice: First, it is a group that coheres through a “mutual engagement” that occurs within an “indigenous” or joint enterprise. These first two dimensions create a “shared repertoire” among the group participants. These three dimensions are critical to understanding successful collaboration and critical to achieving success in establishing a genuine community of practice. Mutual engagement means that people are engaging with one another to define and negotiate the terms of the collaboration. Many industry and academic projects refer to a sense of “buy-in” for projects. Mutual engagement takes buy-in beyond project acceptance to the acceptance and engagement with fellow team members. A joint enterprise results from engaged people working toward a shared purpose and shared goals. This is important because a collection of people who share similar interests is not necessarily a community of practice unless the group collaborates toward a result or a goal. Finally, any community of practice must negotiate meaning, identity, and tools. This is what Wenger calls a shared repertoire, which is the language, conventions, and tools that are used for collaborative sharing in a community of practice.

Iverson and McPhee (2008) define why Wenger's three components—shared repertoire, mutual engagement and joint enterprise—seem appropriate as a theory to characterize sharing between academics and practitioners, noting that community of practice theory strongly emphasizes the interactively constructed nature of engaging, belonging, and sharing tools. Our argument is that this constructed identity underlies the professional consciousness required for professionalism. The three dimensions of community can help us identify and understand the kinds of activities, engendered through membership in a community of practice, that lead to professionalism.

Much of the technical communication literature on the community of practice approach is written for the industry workplace or to address pedagogical aspects of technical communication education. For example, Fisher and Bennion (2005) provide a case study model for deploying community of practices in the technical communication workplace, while Lappenbusch and Turns (2005) present a model at an IEEE presentation for using community of practice in the classroom. Numerous technical communication articles discuss collaboration and collaborative learning without mentioning the concept of community of practice, including Gurak and Duin's Technical Communication Quarterly article “The Impact of the Internet and Digital Technologies on Teaching and Research in Technical Communication” (2004). The active-practice model by Bernhardt (2002), introduced earlier, shows promise as a theory-to-practice model, especially because it recommends activity-based collaboration that supports the findings of our research. We now turn to profiling some of the successful and unsuccessful collaboration from the STC TCBOK project as background for how communities of practice will allow academics and practitioners to negotiate professional consciousness.

Profiles of Collaboration

As we saw previously, scholars have suggested the communities of practice approach to building professionalism, but the application of theoretical principles, with the intention of finding out what works for technical communicators, has not yet occurred. The STC TCBOK project provides the opportunity to allow us to see what kinds of structures of engagement, project membership, and shared technologies can contribute to the development of professional identity.

The TCBOK began in summer 2007 from a proposal developed by the organization's academic-industry liaison at the time. In fall 2007, STC held a critical topics summit in Houston and identified a BOK as one step to becoming a unified profession. The BOK also provided a foundation for the development of a technical communication certification program, should STC decide to pursue one, although at the time the certification issue was not associated with the project.

From this critical topics summit arose a TCBOK task force. This task force then developed the initial framework and activities for proceeding with the project. Nancy Coppola, who was a member of this task force, notes that it was sometimes a struggle. “We spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what to call this thing we were creating … a conversation that covered up the underlying tension of our divergent knowledge bases through convenient metaphors.” (Coppola, 2010). Also, at the time, the BOK organizers did not conceive of it as an activity that could spawn professional identity. In fact, it was one of five initiatives discussed at the Houston Summit (Barker & Hart, 2008).

The TCBOK involved almost three-and-a-half years of collaborative activity among both academics and practitioners, and as such, it provides an excellent opportunity to study how separate groups construct, or fail to construct, a shared, professional identity. Ultimately, the task force members collaborated on project documentation, persona development, and a value proposition. Subsequent meetings, workshops, and presentations at annual STC summits led to additional collaborative progress for the tasks and mission of TCBOK. Detailed taxonomies and knowledge maps were created for topical areas of the discipline of technical communication. Feedback on these topical areas was sought during the 2008 annual Summit. STC members at large could view a display or “wall” of the topical areas and use sticky notes to suggest changes or additions to specific areas.

After several months of refining the topical areas, the task force membership, which had grown to more than 40 volunteers, chose a wiki technology to initially situate the TCBOK. An EditMe wiki was created, and continues to serve as the public TCBOK portal for the project. In late 2009, the TCBOK mission shifted from topic identification to content development. “Populating content” became a priority for the TCBOK.

The following section characterizes successful and unsuccessful collaborative outcomes using the STC TCBOK project as a case study in professional development. As defined by Wenger (1998), community of practice theory posits three dimensions to the formation of a community: joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire. For our research, we analyzed the experiences of participants of the TCBOK project using this rubric with data we collected from standard case study data types: interviews, documents, archived information, observation, and physical artifacts. For some quantitative triangulation, we surveyed current TCBOK participants, and we correlated the survey results with the personal interviews.

For our purposes, the profiles that follow, which grew out of the collected data, support our contention that academic and practitioner collaboration can lead to a community of practice that negotiates the meaning and character of professionalism. We contend that these profiles also show how, when the structural dimensions of a community of practice (as defined by Wenger (1998)) are not reflected in their collaborative behavior, the professional consciousness among the members significantly decreases. The community of practice approach provides a powerful tool for understanding the constructed nature of professional identity.

Profile One: Persona Development Builds Community

The development of personas by the original TCBOK project team is an example of a successful outcome facilitated by the three dimensions of community of practice (http://stcbok.editme.com/Personas). Coppola describes a momentum shift that occurred during persona development, “Enter Ginny Redish, whose calm expert voice posed a simple question: Who is the audience for the knowledge portal?…an ‘aha’ moment…we were on our way” (2010). Many of the original members identified the persona-development phase as a watershed period. E-mail correspondence among BOK members at that time show an intense discussion surrounding these personas.

Every team member from this period who was interviewed pointed to the persona exercise as one of the most important stages of the TCBOK project. One academic said the benefits of the persona exercise were both collective and individual. “I immediately took elements from our persona exercise back to my classes for undergraduate and graduate students.” Another interviewee noted that the persona exercise was a perfect activity for an academic and practitioner collaboration. Remarked one interviewee, “It had elements of theory and application which could support someone crafting their own ideals into a persona.” How did the persona development, as a collaborative activity, encourage the growth of a community of practice?

First, the process of achieving the sense of a joint enterprise (indicative of a community of practice) during the early TCBOK project was a struggle until the persona-development phase. The steps to normalization (norming) in the prologue phase did not necessarily contribute to joint enterprise. Questions arose regarding what to call the actual BOK (e.g., is it a “body of knowledge?” “a portal?” a “map of knowledge?”). Other questions arose about style, taxonomy, and methodology for developing content. In one of our interviews, an original participant noted that one's perspective on the field of technical communication led to divergent opinion. This team member noted that some practitioners had a “product perspective,” seeing technical communication as form design or document design. Others took a “process perspective,” noting the skills of audience analysis, language, design, and management used to achieve communication. These divergent opinions impeded progress because participants were conceptualizing a BOK based on their local, job-specific definition of technical communication.

Until the team took on the shared task of envisioning the end user, collaboration as members of a joint enterprise was hampered. When the team could conceptualize the BOK through the eyes of a user, something that each could do irrespective to their academic or practitioner identity, a sense of joint enterprise began to develop. The collaborative activity acted as a catalyst to suggest broader definitions of technical communication and, thus, the professional identity that such a view could support.

Likewise, the process of engagement in mutual relationships flourished during the persona-development phase. Coppola (2010) notes that the team, during this period in spring 2008, was “galvanized” by the tasks established by the group (p. 14). Survey data indicate that the respondents felt mutually engaged, one of Wenger's (1998) requirements for the presence of community, during this phase. More than 87 percent of respondents reported that they felt “engaged” in sharing ways of doing things within their community. In addition, the presence of mutual engagement is shown by most of the data collected for this dimension. Interview subjects, for example, said that they “felt engaged” in the project, especially the prologue and Phase I parts.

The e-mail communication during this period indicates a consistent and frequent dialogue that encompasses communication about technical deliverables, as well as conceptual questions about how to build a framework for TCBOK. The physical artifacts of two websites in particular, a Web 2.0 tool called ComappingTM and a BasecampTM project collaboration website, illustrate how engagement occurred as participants worked on tasks to build the framework for the taxonomy of the BOK Portal. One interview subject said that this was the “best” collaborative effort in which she was ever involved.

In addition to feeling involved and engaged in the project, the persona-development activity led team members to develop a shared repertoire, which shifted the team to a community identity that was independent from each person's academic or practitioner identity. The meaning that participants associated with the profession of technical communication began to coalesce as they developed personas, taxonomy, and strategic documents. Strategic and document-based collaboration led to participants negotiating the meaning of a BOK Portal, what a BOK portal should contain, and who comprises the audience for such a project. One interview subject stated that the use of Web 2.0 tools actually helped to negotiate meaning. Using the same tools, such as Comapping and Basecamp, initially led to some learning problems, however the team soon adopted the same tools and began to negotiate the meaning and process of activities through the use of similar tools. This tool adoption led to a “strong sense of team” without “cliques or camps,” according to one interview participant.

Thus, the persona-development activity led to a sense of professional consciousness. Coppola (2010) notes that each TCBOK participant could imagine [himself or herself] as a user of the knowledge portal (p. 14); it was not simply a deliverable product. A set of personas helped to solidify who might come to the knowledge portal, but it also facilitated mutual engagement, shared purpose, and a common set of tools. Wenger's (1998) three dimensions of a community of practice are reflected in the development of these personas: joint enterprise through a conceptual vision of the users of the BOK, mutual engagement through co-creation or user profiles, and a shared repertoire surrounding the meaning of audience and the tool of persona development.

Furthermore, all three dimensions contributed to a growing sense of an integrated community between academics and practitioners. Participants eventually developed a community identity—in this case a TCBOK community identity—when all three dimensions were present. The presence of joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire in the persona-development phase clearly led to an early community that melded participant's identities into one of being a TCBOK community member and not an academic or practitioner.

Profile Two: Content Population Lacks Engagement

What became clear to us in our research was that membership in the large-scale TCBOK project was not, in itself, enough to engender a community of practice, and thus the professional identity that theoretically comes with that activity. Specific activities within the timeline of the project led or failed to lead to that development. For example, what began as a working community of practice around the persona-development activity of the TCBOK project began to deteriorate during the content population phase. The population of content on the TCBOK portal has been slow during some periods and downright stagnant at other times. One might identify a number of reasons why this occurred, given that some elements of the project carried on as usual. For example, regular TCBOK project team meetings took place via conference calls. Many roles for TCBOK positions, as conceptualized by the Strategic Plan and Project Charter, were filled with committed volunteers. What could have caused the stagnation of progress in the project at this time?

Overall, the sense that members had of being part of a joint-enterprise dimension during content population remained consistent through the other phases of the project. During the period after the persona development, there was still significant support and purpose behind the concept of developing a BOK. One participant noted that “the TCBOK project's purpose was clarified when it was uncoupled from an exploration of certification.” This move took some pressure off the TCBOK project to populate content immediately. The use of Basecamp and Comapping tools helped maintain the sense of purpose. Activity with these artifacts, as well as comments from interviewees, suggest that team members shared a sense of purpose during more recent phases when the project gained momentum from exposure at the STC Summit in Philadelphia. The work of the editing group, in which volunteers developed editing guidelines and procedures, and the sense of shared purpose of the academic programs group, in which volunteers populated this topical area down to the fifth level, contributed significantly to a sense of shared purpose (joint enterprise.) The wiki technology itself facilitated a sense of joint enterprise as the larger volunteer base increased and the activities became more routine.

Similarly, a sense of shared repertoire was maintained during the content-population activity. In fact, the larger volunteer group seemed to maintain a shared repertoire promulgated by the wiki as the dominant artifact/activity. Many of the volunteers continued to participate in defining the BOK, and outlining specific concepts within the discipline. Similarly, although the volunteer base grew, a significant number of people remained on the TCBOK team from near the beginning. This institutional memory helped new volunteers to understand the meaning and language surrounding the project. A Yahoo!Groups site contained all the documents that the team developed, including the project charter, strategic plan, and archived minutes. Other important documents, such as the rationale for a BOK and the definition of technical communication on the wiki site itself, were accessible by all team members and available to STC membership. The project expertise that grew around these structural components of the project contributed to a sense of shared repertoire.

A significant portion of shared repertoire came from the existing TCBOK: It represented an effort to impart meaning by populating content. One interviewee remarked that “In some areas, a blank page which awaits content population is an incentive,” while in other places the finely conceived content that filled the topical area—developed collaboratively—provided a sense of community. The e-mail discussion and Yahoo!Groups forum collaboration on creating a wiki to host the knowledge portal provided yet another example to contributors of how their team members came together to collaboratively build and negotiate a sense of shared purpose. Finally, words and activities developed for the wiki and its structure helped negotiate meaning, overriding one's or academic or practitioner identity. Terminology such as volunteer, role, editing, portal, persona, knowledge map, and walking the wall (negotiated earlier) helped to maintain the shared repertoire—and sense of community—among team members. One interviewee noted that she liked the term walking the wall, which came from an early affinity diagram exercise during Phase 1 of the project. She noted that it made her feel “like I was ‘walking the walk’ with other technical communicators.” This shared nomenclature was extended in 2008 to the physical “wall” setting the TCBOK project team created at the 2008 STC Summit in Philadelphia, where summit participants could review the taxonomy on the wall and scribble changes on sticky notes.

Thus we can see that during the more recent phases of the TCBOK activities, the sense of belonging to a joint enterprise (the TCBOK project itself) and the sense of a shared repertoire (using tools, technologies, and terms)—each key elements of Wenger's three-part theory of successful communities of practice—helped the members maintain a sense of a broader community.

What was missing, however, and what contributed to the moribund nature of the project during these phases, may have been a lack of a sense of mutual engagement. With regard to the members' participation as a model of professional activity, the later, more recent phases of the TCBOK represent a significant relapse into the familiar academic and practitioner stalemates.

As an indication of the lack of engagement during the latter phase of the project, one interviewee noted that efforts inside the project began to be eclipsed by efforts outside of the project. It is significant that this interviewee noted the change of community that came about when the project shifted to content population, noting “less to share, less glamor, less kudos…. sometimes, not fun.” As the TCBOK moved from strategic planning (i.e., the development of taxonomy and structure) through project governance (i.e., policy and management tools) to content population, the members' sense of engagement withered. Early and eager TCBOK participants cooperated willingly on activities or deliverables, which fostered a sense of mutual engagement. Later, many project activities that contributed to this mutual engagement during the early phases—such as persona development—were abandoned or completed. Engaging activities that centered on taxonomy development, formulation of the definition and rationale for TCBOK, mind mapping the structure for the knowledge portal, and building the wall-sized chart at the 2008 Summit with which conference attendees could view and interact were completed. Furthermore, activity-based efforts such as the development of documents to anchor the project did not continue. Engaged teams had developed documents for a strategic plan, content development toolkit, governance policy, and a project charter to control deliverables and milestones, but once this work was complete it was not replaced with other engaging activities. Our data, collected from observation, interviews, and artifacts, identifies a period in fall 2009 when this activity-based collaboration slowed, and the focus moved to content population. Questions such as “is TCBOK more like a web of knowledge or an encyclopedia” had been answered, and in their place members faced the rather non-negotiable, vague, and arduous task of “filling in content” under knowledge domain areas. Ostensibly, with a healthy framework, competent leadership team, and committed volunteer base the project seemed primed for a Wikipedia-type explosion. But content population was portrayed as essentially a solitary task, and no personas were developed for “contributors.” As mutual engagement failed to develop, so did the content fail to appear, and the TCBOK members begin to identify themselves with their corporate or academic contexts. As one interviewee put it, “We academics aren't going to write content for the BOK, we write for journals.” The blood sport of “why don't they do this” began.

Profile Three: Communities of Practice Dimensions Absent During Intellectual Property Discussion

Our final profile characterizes the joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire dimensions on the issue of Intellectual Property and openness of the TCBOK portal. More precisely, it characterizes the absence of two of these community factors—joint enterprise and mutual engagement—during this period. Early conceptions of TCBOK were linked to the concept of certification: Some team members conceived a portal in the early phases that would support the certification process by codifying the kinds of information necessary for certification exams.

Our interviews and review of documents show that these TCBOK team members referred to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) that was developed by the Project Management Institute as a model. The PMBOK was created to support the Project Management Institute accreditation process in project management. Other TCBOK team members referred to the model from the Usability Professionals Association, which is a more open and flexible compilation of usability knowledge.

One participant noted in an interview that the idea to make the content accessible solely to STC members seemed “logical.” This interviewee noted that STC already has content for which it charges, for example its publications, training materials, and webinars. So a BOK with a requirement for STC membership would be an extension of this concept. Ultimately, this issue—intellectual property—became very controversial and contentious. The effect of this the intellectual property issue on the members feeling of belonging to the community and mutual engagement brought the TCBOK activity to its current standstill.

Significantly, interviewees noted that disagreements occurred along the lines of academics versus practitioners, with practitioners favoring the monetization of the content and academics supporting a more open access system. Examining the case study data indicates an absence of two of the three Wenger (1998) community of practice dimensions on this issue (and during this period): joint enterprise and mutual engagement. Members, for one thing, did not feel that they belonged to the same enterprise and reverted to their localized, organizational identities.

Data indicate that team members could not seem to coalesce and develop a sense of joint enterprise when the direction of the project was antithetical to their beliefs, and no activity appeared to help them negotiate the impasse. Two interviewees, one from the original group of 10 and one from a later group, indicated that they left the project because of the issues of content openness and ownership. One interviewee noted that compromise was made more difficult because the opinion on the issue fell primarily along academic/practitioner lines. Academics believed in open access and felt that fellow academics might not make contributions to TCBOK because of a perceived ownership of content by STC. In an interview, one TCBOK participant questioned the input, value, and impact on other technical communication stakeholder organizations like the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing or the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication. The intellectual property issue, splitting because of academic and practitioner outlooks, kept the team members from defining mutual identities for one another because it failed to define real tasks for collaboration. In this instance, an academic was someone who wanted to have an open TCBOK portal and a practitioner was someone who wanted to monetize the TCBOK. No sense of shared purpose developed from this scenario or, more precisely, no shared purpose existed to prevent this scenario from developing. Until this point, in 2008, the TCBOK team had solved several problems and worked together to build a framework for the portal. However, during the intellectual property discussion there was no shared activity to engage in on this topic; no domain mapping or persona writing. There was little middle ground to compromise because charging for any type of access to the portal was ideologically flawed from most academics' perspectives, and providing significant content for free meant very little competitive advantage from the practitioners' perspectives.

If the participants had been involved in some real activity or, in Wenger's (1998) terms, joint enterprise, such as the formation of an Intellectual Property Adjudication Council, they might have willingly developed a community and negotiated a workable professional identity. The ideological perspectives linked to their professional identities might have been more manageable and, thus, might not have played such a large role.

Mutual engagement was also absent during the intellectual property discussion. Early efforts of the TCBOK team demonstrated the sense of engagement in the project regardless of an academic or practitioner background. For example, Coppola explains that activities such as mind mapping, taxonomy development, and the persona development that we detail in Profile One contributed to mutual engagement and to each participant's idea of who belonged in the community. The intellectual property issue, however, fragmented this perception of who belonged. Practitioners became identified with a closed portal and monetization and academics became identified with an open portal and no competitive advantage. We did see a few notable exceptions. One academic, for example, noted in an interview, that some colleagues were situated in applied educational certificate programs and a few of them agreed with the idea of an STC-controlled TCBOK and monetization. The interviewee said that no practitioner felt the TCBOK should be open and free, at least during the period when the issue became controversial. Who felt they belonged to the community, at least for this issue, was all about the person's perspective on intellectual property and little else.

In Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Wenger (1998) brings up an important indicator of a thriving community of practice: The members share a discourse reflecting their community's perspective. According to this indicator, multiple perspectives may exist, but only productively when the discourse conventions (such as those surrounding intellectual property) are shared. Cessation of discourse—conversations, messages, chats, Internet messaging calls—can also reflect a lack of shared discourse conventions. Our survey data indicate that during the most productive phases of the TCBOK, a majority were aware (62%), through their e-mail addresses and ways of speaking about issue, whether someone came from an academic or practitioner background. Although it did not matter necessarily, the background was associated with a specific perspective on the intellectual property issues of the TCBOK.

Of course, there was no decrease in civility or respect. One interviewee noted that “Everyone on the project were ‘nice people.’” This is not a scenario where arguments became personal or hostile. But it became a situation where people with differing opinions on the intellectual property issue stopped discourse. One respondent noted, ruefully, “I don't belong here anymore.” Astutely, the TCBOK team recognized that this was an ideological perspective issue and not one that, they felt, could be resolved or negotiated through mutual engagement. In the end, the team tabled the issues in hope that a decision to move on might offer a chance to restore the mutual engagement necessary to continue the project.

Finally, there was shared repertoire between team members during the intellectual property issue; however, it was an extension from other TCBOK team activities and not generated by the issue. The tools, language, and organization of the team remained consistent even during disagreement regarding the treatment of intellectual property. Team members communicated face-to-face as well as through e-mail and Basecamp. Nothing about the intellectual property discussion changed the tools, artifacts, or meaning that the team had developed to that point. After that point, however, the team failed to develop or rather to negotiate a shared meaning of the TCBOK with respect to its access (open or proprietary). Ideas for content access split roughly along academic and practitioner identities. It was clear to academics why most practitioners wanted to make the content on TCBOK proprietary; however, they did not agree with the decision. Likewise, it was not that practitioners did not have an appreciation for an open portal; however, the competitive advantage and value-added aspects for membership seemed to call for proprietary access. Despite maintaining a consistent and steady shared repertoire, the community failed to engage or develop a shared purpose during this intellectual-property controversy period. Without engagement or joint enterprise the community failed to coalesce and collaborate effectively. The academic/practitioner split, if anything, was heightened by this topic in contrast to most of the other activities that led a professional identity rather than an organizational one.

Application Principles

Our analysis seems to indicate that Wenger's (1998) community of practice dimensions of joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire are essential and visible elements of academic and practitioner collaboration. Furthermore, community of practice development is the primary mechanism for negotiating a professional consciousness in a field containing a diversity or dichotomy of professionals with strong organizational affiliations. If this is the case, how can academics and practitioners within the field of technical communication nurture these community of practice dimensions into their collaborative projects? Indeed, how can they nurture professional consciousness?

Recommended Collaboration Applications

We have introduced communities of practice theory; rationalized that professionalism is an important negotiated meaning, or “consciousness,” between academics and practitioners; and recounted collaboration success and failure from the TCBOK project as evidence. Our final section addresses the growth of communities of practice by both academics and practitioners. We attempt to answer the question “How can we apply community of practice theory to define and improve professionalism in our field?”

As we ask this question, it is worth reminding ourselves that fundamental disagreements over ideology are rarely solved in communities of practice, regardless of the tightness and value of the community. The three profiles given demonstrated the importance of all three dimensions (joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and shared repertoire) in developing an effective community. Without an effective community, there is no chance to negotiate and develop the consciousness aspect of professionalism.

Finally, we turn to other difficult initiatives—such as certification—to see how a professional consciousness or a pattern of negotiating differences based on an awareness of inclusive professional identity might become less contentious.

We turn now from description to the question: What principles has our research discovered that can be used to nurture the changes for successful collaboration between academics and practitioners? We mentioned Bernhardt (2002) earlier in this essay, noting how his conceptualization of active-practice was one of the first to list ideas for communities of practice. This section of our paper adds to Bernhardt's list (pp. 87–89) with additional application ideas, integrating them with Wenger's (1998) community indicators, as a model for community and a basis for the development of professional consciousness.

In his chapter, Bernhardt focuses on the role of academic institutions and corporations in building professionalism. We suggest the professional organization as another important professionales locus. We disagree with Bernhardt, slightly, in our focus on membership organizations, not corporations, as the entities that can bring the two communities together. We have no bias against the workplace. But Bernhardt is astute to note that there is an academic perspective that sometimes derives from English department culture and humanities-based conceptions of education. This academic culture can be at odds with technical communication programs within the departments, and against the workplace culture itself.

Several parts of the results of our research show the value of membership organizations, such as STC, the Usability Professionals Association, or the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. Research conducted on practitioners as part of a pilot study for Kline's dissertation indicates that practitioners want a strong relationship with academia. Corollary research suggests that both academics and practitioners overwhelmingly find conferences and seminars to be the best place to interact and find ways to collaborate with members of the other community. Some of the successful collaboration that occurs during the TCBOK project between academics and practitioners validates how a broad industry membership organization like STC can facilitate active-practice projects. But smaller organizations or committees within larger organizations can also recognize and foster communities of practice, especially if they employ a coherent model built on the research presented in this paper.

The CANFA Model of Communities of Practice Collaboration

In an attempt to build a model of successful collaboration that can lead to the development of professional consciousness in technical communication, we would like to suggest a five-part set of characteristics called Collaborate, Apply, Facilitate, Negotiate, and Activate (CANFA). We feel that when practitioners, academics, and organizational leaders wish to foster professional consciousness among technical communicators, this model may help point to work that leads to productive results. Many in the academic community have called for more collaboration on the terms (see Mirel & Spilka, 2002).

Figure 1. The CANFA Model of Community of Practice Collaboration

Figure 1. The CANFA Model of Community of Practice Collaboration

The mixture of community of practice dimensions from both academia and industry is deliberate. We recommend the areas of research, education, and training/certification as locations to foster academic and practical communities of practice.

The Community Must Collaborate

As we have seen, Wenger (1998) develops a conceptualization of practice using the terms participation and reification with elements of mutual engagement, shared repertoire, and joint enterprise. This approach to collaboration participation helps members join and identify with each other. Unlike an interest group, for example a group of fans of a sports team, a community of practice member needs to participate with other members and reify the “abstractions, tools, symbols, stories, terms, and concepts” that give meaning to the practice (p. 59).

A strong theme that became evident from the data we studied for this paper indicates that collaboration is essential for any research, education, or training community or practice to emerge. TCBOK member participation in the user persona-building and taxonomy activities was critical. Some of the TCBOK initiatives, such as the content development phase, faltered because they did not foster academic/practitioner collaboration. Likewise, as Bernhardt emphasizes, building research panels comprising both academics and practitioners and the development of a platform that uses technology to match research needs with researchers are all good collaborative activities. Similarly, industry advisory boards for academic programs, mentorship programs, and certification initiatives are good opportunities. However, their structure needs to build collaborative participation from both communities to succeed. Without collaboration, the knowledge and social presence necessary to negotiate meaning, something that Wenger (1998) notes is critical to community, fails to occur.

One of the successes of the TCBOK project was the collaborative nature of the culture. Team members initially jumped into negotiating the meaning of important terms: What is a TCBOK portal? How do we define technical communication? What is the value proposition of our discipline? Who will use a BOK? From this collaboration came a culture of professional consciousness in which meaning was negotiated through the collaborative efforts of the community. A similar process needs to grow between researchers and educators in the discipline.

The Work Must Apply to Workplace and Institutional Settings

Many academics in technical communication have requested that academia consider research that can be applied to industry (Blakeslee, 2002). We believe a community of practice model could help this occur. Each community benefits from a research community of practice that develops ideas for applied research.

In colleges and universities, groups need to apply their efforts in the classroom and training room. In certification, both academics and practitioners could work together to identify major activities performed by technical communicators and how they are applied, measured, and supported through education. The research itself is improved. These applied activities improve immeasurably by building the talents of both practitioners and academics. For example, the academic community adds an understanding and skill set in research methodology and design grounded in theory. The practitioner community adds a perspective of relevancy for the direction of the research and a pragmatic tool set to connect the research design to meaningful industry knowledge. Through applied principles in the classroom, community of practices that include both communities gain the ability to negotiate longstanding perspectives (often barriers is a more appropriate term) held by respective communities.

Academics often believe that choosing an applied research topic shackles their independence and reduces them to the level of corporate shill. A research community of practice would help academics to craft research agendas that are still independent but bounded by workplace and industry needs. Conversely, the research of an educational community of practice could help the practitioner community to craft research programmatic outcomes that center on problems germane to industry and the profession and are not so focused on company problems or gaining competitive advantage. Practitioners might also benefit from the outcomes and assessment skills possessed by educators if they ever hope to craft a workable certification enterprise.

The Collaboration Must Be Facilitated

In Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998), the authors caution managers about trying to “manage” communities of practice. As a reviewer of this article suggested, managers “should provide the space and resources for it to flourish on its own” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). In our investigation of the TCBOK, we found significant support for this “nurturing” approach. Indeed, many industry communities of practice are created without the need for leadership or facilitation. Often, workplace issues or needs foster a community that develops from the bottom up, in which staff-level employees form a community of practice to address these needs, without a leader. Even industry communities of practice that form by top-down dictate often develop independent of leadership or facilitation.

Our proposed academic/practitioner communities of practice are different. We found that the joint enterprise for the community of practice develops independently of the academics' or practitioners' institution and job. In many instances, the communities of practice in industry tend to be homogeneous, formed by people with similar roles and identities. Our proposed communities of practice, which may lead to a professional consciousness, have grown from a groundwork that allowed for a broad mix of academics and practitioners.

Because of the broad mix of diverse organizational identities, the communities of practice between academics and practitioners need to be facilitated. Some person or entity must play a role in facilitating activities, communication, and project management. TCBOK research shows it does not always need to be the same person. One TCBOK team member took the lead on technology implementation and platforms. Another took the lead on creating personas and facilitating the discussion about how users will interact with the TCBOK. Another team member provided project management leadership by developing the milestones, meetings, tasks, and strategy to perform many of the early-phase activities. Similarly, research communities of practice need facilitation to balance the activities and input from both communities.

The Collaboration Must Be Negotiated

The research clearly points to watershed events such as technology selection, taxonomy development, and the value proposition that were successful because of community negotiation. Although some of the activities progressed without much negotiation, the events that brought the TCBOK members closer took negotiation. Negotiation provided members with a feeling of contribution and helped to solidify the social and professional relationship among the team.

The negotiation process is often overlooked during collaboration between academics and practitioners. Many collaborative projects are scoped by one community for the sake of saving time or defining boundaries. Rarely does an academic/industry research project begin with a negotiation process that allows the two communities to negotiate the components of the project. Anecdotally, most collaborations between practitioners and academics seem to germinate from and are scoped by one community—which then, often as an afterthought, realizes that it might be a good thing to include the feedback of the other community.

One extraordinary aspect of the TCBOK was that there was nothing like it before it took form. One might argue that there were resources, such as information available about the field of technical communication on eServer. However, the value of the TCBOK project came from academics and practitioners joining to define and negotiate everything about the project: structure, terms and definitions, milestones and schedules, purpose, and connection to other entities. Negotiation is critical to the ability of team members to foster mutual engagement, sustain joint enterprise, and build shared repertoire.

The Collaboration Must Be Activity-Based

Our research during the TCBOK project demonstrated the importance of working as a team to build a community of practice. Wenger's (1998) dimensions for community all require activity to develop. Joint enterprise relates to participating in the shared sense of purpose for the organization or community. This does not occur from simply having similar interests. Special interest groups are significant entities within many membership organizations, including STC. However, as Howard (2010) suggests, we should not confuse them with communities of practice. Until such activities exist, there can be no community of practice, just a community of interest, which by itself is incapable of bridging the space between academics and practitioners to negotiate meaning (including professionalism). Research, like any community of practice, requires activity to make it a practice and foster community.

TCBOK examples of active-practice include document-centric committees that developed plans, strategies, policy, and content population guidelines. This focus on developing “something” that was a joint effort of all team members was critical to negotiating meaning. Often, it was not the deliverable (e.g., the user personas) that was the most important result, but rather the process and community that formed during the activity.

Any research initiative that involves both academics and practitioners needs to be designed to include significant amounts of activity for all team members. Similarly, educational activities, such as inviting guest speakers, creating advisory boards, hiring adjunct instructors, and conducting alumni efforts, require activities—meetings, social networking, planning, and discussions—to create the basis for productive knowledge making and consciousness building. As with research and education, certification and the development of standards—essential elements that build professional status—need activity-based reviews, research, and administration. Without activity, participants have little chance to develop the mutual engagement or negotiate the shared repertoire necessary to achieve professional consciousness.


We have argued that collaboration, application, facilitation, negotiation, and activity foster communities of practice between academics and practitioners in technical communication, leading to one negotiated professional identity. This collaboration is essential for a negotiated meaning of professionalism because professionalism rests on accepting and then transcending academic or practitioner identity. Although many technical communication academics have forwarded calls for more collaboration through research, teaching, and practice, no comprehensive model for achieving this has been developed. Communities of practice provide the structure for such a model, and Wenger's (1998) three dimensions can be a programmatic guide to nurturing true communities of practice.

Further, our CANFA conceptual model can help those interested in developing opportunities for professional behavior. The positive effects of the early phases of the TCBOK project hold important implications for professional relationships and professionalism as a cornerstone for the achievement of professional status in our field. The idea that academics and practitioners can engage, negotiate meaning, and share a sense of purpose means that we may be able to solve contentious professional issues collaboratively. Fostering all three communities-of-practice dimensions may help to overcome disagreement over professionalism in our field and provide a pathway to successful practitioner and academic collaboration, especially as it faces eventual certification.

The TCBOK may have hit its final snag with the idea of certification. One reviewer of our article noted that this issue evokes the kinds of questions that threaten to divide academic and practitioner camps further.

What does STC mean by certification? How would that perspective change programmatic and curriculum decisions? Are academics even willing to change curriculum? How does one certify writing, the writing process, and situational and audience analysis? What would stop some company from creating a software program that certifies a person's writing?

Clearly, these kinds of questions from academics will not lead to eager participation in the certification project, because they signify that the academics do not understand what certification means to them. Similarly, practitioners have no active path to help themselves understand concepts of “contribution” to a BOK, and may ask questions like the following:

Why should I contribute to knowledge that I will eventually be tested on? Will certification compete with a college degree? How does one begin to assure quality and ongoing learning to keep up certification? Will I need a license, and what if an organization decides to revoke it? Will that suggest to an employer that I have become unemployable?

The next phase of TCBOK, should one emerge, will require a much stronger sense of mutual engagement. Active participation is hard to sustain during content development, unless it fosters communities that can collaboratively develop, vet, and produce content. The next phase might revisit the most successful phase of the first stage, which was persona development. The development of personas of engagement (as opposed to personas of usage) that show how people within technical communication can connect, might help to make content population more successful. Failure to make the next TCBOK phases collaborative may doom the project to a state in which a few people attempt to maintain the content while the majority of the field complains about what is not there.

As noted, Savage (2003) identifies three elements that contribute to professionalism: market factors (we're the only ones who can do this), socio-political factors (we control entry into the profession by certification and accreditation), and ideological factors (we have a professional consciousness). In the area of professional consciousness, he says, “Without a unified sense of professional identity, practitioners of a field are unlikely to make good progress toward professionalization.” And he explains, “Practitioners may identify far more closely with the particular settings in which they work than with other people who do more or less similar work in theirs” (2003, p. 140). It is not surprising that Savage and others identify the growth of this professional consciousness with efforts to identify a common BOK. Savage says,

In order to transform one's orientation and allegiance from the associations of everyday life, it is necessary that a group should exist through which individuals can identify with common practices, concerns, interests, discourse, and values—a group, that is, which functions as a culture. (p. 141).

We have argued that the group, or community, that grew around the TCBOK project provides an example of the kind of professional consciousness Savage claims as a necessary condition for professionalization (2003). By carefully examining that community through the lens of mutual engagement, shared repertoire, and joint enterprise, we found that professional consciousness depends on the active involvement of members of a community of practice. Professional consciousness exists when members with strong ties to everyday institutional and corporate contexts engage in facilitated, theory-focused activities of broader significance than position and employment. Two activities present themselves as candidates for this kind of consciousness building: certification and defining a BOK. In both endeavors, academics and practitioners can focus on truly professional issues.


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About the Authors

Joel A. Kline is an Associate Professor in the Department of Digital Communications at Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Pennsylvania. His research interests are enterprise 2.0, digital communications, and usability. Prior to college teaching he was a principal in Concept Communications, Inc., a communications consulting firm based in Lebanon, PA. He has a Master's degree from Temple University, a PhD in Technical Communication from Texas Tech University, and the APR accreditation from PRSA. Contact: jkline@lvc.edu.

Thomas Barker is a Professor in the Department of English and the Director of the Technical Communication Program at Texas Tech University. His research interests include risk communication, public policy consulting, social networking, knowledge studies, and qualitative research methods. He is the author and editor of numerous books, collections, and articles on software documentation, consulting in technical communication, and public health communication. He has a PhD from University of Texas and is an Associate Fellow of STC. Contact: thomas.barker@ttu.edu.