59.1, February 2012

Guest Editorial: Professionalization of Technical Communication: Zeitgeist for Our Age Introduction to This Special Issue (Part 2)

Nancy W. Coppola


Purpose: To trace the contemporary currents of professionalization for technical communication and their impact on us.

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

Results: A third aspect of establishing professional identity is described: emerging technological, sociocultural, and political currents. The ideological and economic processes were addressed in Technical Communication 58, 2011.

Conclusions: Technical communicators are emerging as active players in today’s dynamic enterprise with integrated skill sets to navigate rapidly changing work structures. Roadblocks are still present.

Keywords: professionalization, new economy, political currents, body of knowledge

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • Snapshot of the new professional in the new economy allows technical communicators to compare their own capabilities.
  • We are all the new professional—those who practice in the workplace and those who practice in the academy.
  • We all need to contribute to building a collective body of knowledge that will sustain our current professionalization efforts.

We live in an age of irony.

Technical communication has just begun to attain the status of a mature profession—at the very time that the cultural and economic value of many professions are declining. This paradox, posited by Brenton Faber and Johndan Johnson-Eilola (Kynell-Hunt & Savage, 2003), positions the outdated ideal of traditional professions against a contemporary landscape of our postindustrial age. Gerald Savage (2004), in his conclusion to the important two-volume collection (with Kynell-Hunt) on professional status for technical communication, asserts that a modern industrialized, national profession is increasingly inappropriate to the circumstances and needs of our practice. In our changing, contingent, and globalized world, many say that we have bypassed the traditional notion of profession to arrive at an entirely different view of contemporary professionalization (Evetts, 2011; Hart-Davidson, 2001; Salvo, 2006; Spinuzzi, 2008; Swarts, 2011). This introduction to the second volume of our special issue looks at contemporary professionalization within the context of emerging political currents. Let’s continue our discussion of zeitgeist(s) in an age of irony with a look back to the professionalization issues in the last issue (November 2011) devoted to this topic. A short summary of contemporary cultural and economic impact comes next, followed by what such influences mean for our profession.

Ideological and Economic Processes for Professional Identity (Part 1)

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; these themes, identified in the literature of technical communication, were the focus of the first in this two-part series. We have made some gains in one important market impact—disciplinary and professional status. For practicing professionals, STC worked with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to create a separate chapter for technical writers in the Occupation Outlook Handbook, an essential reference document for corporations. This action had consequence: For the first time, the BLS has acknowledged technical writers are distinct from other writers, a critical boundary for our autonomy. For professionals working in the academy, the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition successfully lobbied both the National Research Council and the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) for disciplinary status. The result was inclusion in the taxonomy of graduate programs by the NCES with one code for all instructional programs in Professional, Technical, Business, and Scientific Writing (Classification of Instructional Program Code 23.1303). We have emerging paradigms for a body of knowledge in the online resources of EServer TC Library and the STC-sponsored TCBOK (Technical Communication Body of Knowledge).

What have we learned from Part 1 of our conversation? An historical perspective for professionalization issues in Edward A. Malone’s article showed us the first wave of professionalization from 1953 to 1961; Malone finds that our history teaches us to be cautiously optimistic about our achievements. For Malone, the creation of international organizations is evidence of our profession’s relevance and growth. Janel Bloch documented the professionalization experiences of technical communication interns. For Bloch, the Body of Knowledge initiative and the process of credentialing will serve as a cohesive force to help early career professionals maintain disciplinary and community integrity as they face challenges of identifiability, status, value, and professional consciousness.

Emerging Technological, Sociocultural, and Political Currents in Professionalization (Part 2)

To make sense of our position as a profession, we need to understand the technological, social, cultural, and political forces that affect our world and transform the way we live and work. Certainly the convergence of technology and globalization has most significantly transformed our professional landscape. “Software is eating the world,” proclaims Marc Andreesen (2011) in The Wall Street Journal. He notes that we are now six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet. At present, he notes, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale. We recall here Thomas Friedman’s (2005) pronouncement that cheap, ubiquitous telecommunications had finally obliterated all impediments to international competition by flattening corporate structures. Innovators are increasingly independent and networked free agents rather than a vertically integrated conglomerate (Castells, 1996). The nature of work has changed. There is more emphasis on individuals who constantly define their value through self-transformation and rebranding.

Johndan Johnson-Eilola (1996) has been talking about this shift for almost two decades, since he began drawing from Robert Reich’s (1991) new classification of symbolic-analytic work as a way to relocate the value of technical communication in the information economy of the 1990s. Symbolic analysts are the top tier of workers, well-educated, who apply systematic thought to identifying and solving problems, typically with new information technologies. Johnson-Eilola rightly saw this framework as a way for technical communicators to play a central rather than a service role as professionals. In Reich’s newer work (2002), the economist finds that the people gaining the most value in the new economy are not especially skilled in using information technologies; rather, the real value they add to the economy is their creativity—their insights into what can be done in a particular medium (e.g., software, finance, law, entertainment, music, physics), what can be done for a particular market, and how best to organize work to bring these two perspectives together. “They are creative workers,” (52) Reich affirms, reinvigorating Richard Florida’s (2002) claim that creativity is to the 21st century what the ability to push a plow was to the 18th century. Reich recognizes that technology increases the value of creative work by allowing it to spread more quickly throughout an organization’s network and ultimately to the consumer.

Faber and Johnson-Eilola (2003), in reexamining the central role that universities play in maintaining the professional class, advance Reich’s expanded ideas to view technical communication as a knowledge process with methods at the ready for solving problems associated with capitalist economic models. Their new professionals are “valued for their abilities to orient themselves to new problem situations, to come up to speed on technologies and contexts, to apply cross-disciplinary strategies and knowledge in ways that creatively address the current situation” (231).

Clay Spinuzzi (2007) would see these new professionals employed in distributed work, which he defines as “polycontextual, crossdisciplinary work that splices together divergent work activities (separated by time, space, organizations, and objectives) and that enables the transformation of information and texts that characterize such work” (p. 266). His study of a telecommunications company shows us how communication is the connection between these distributed work activities. Those who will do this work need to “understand how to make arguments, how to persuade, how to build trust and stable alliances, how to negotiate and bargain and horse-trade across boundaries” (p. 201). Analysis of distributed work environments gives us a postcapitalist economic model in which individual talent displaces systematized tradition.

Within contemporary networks of distributed work, the digital economy of postcapitalism is dramatically changing rhetorical theory and writing practices, according to James E. Porter (2010). The social dynamic of Web 2.0 threatens to overturn the fundamental expert-novice rhetorical model (think of the linear communication model, the Shannon-Weaver model), upon which writing and communication theory has long depended. Porter finds that integrated skill sets for this economy are the abilities to—

  • Repackage, redesign, remediate, and redistribute existing information for new audiences and contexts;
  • Make and maintain connections (a) between people, and (b) between people and information resources;
  • Design social networks that enable productive collaborative thinking and work and that allow for the effective and efficient distribution of information;
  • Select and tailor information for small market niches (specific audiences); and
  • Design indexing, tagging, filtering, and searching strategies that allow audiences to find needed information (p. 190).

If we listen to the pundits, the new economy provides flexible, mobile labor markets that are made global in scope through ubiquitous, cheap information technologies. And the new professional is an innovative, independent and networked problem-solver who creatively works across disciplines, time, space, and organizations to design solutions.

Are We the New Professionals in the New Economy?

If any profession is responsive to changes in the economy and technological advances, it is technical communication. Indeed, technical communicators have long been boundary-spanners whose knowledge crosses multiple disciplines. Jason Swarts (2011) finds that networking, collaborating, and distributing information are part of the technical communicator’s work. His study of 26 experienced technical communicators explores how they construct social connections and network with communication technologies that link people, text, and other technologies. Yvonne Cleary, in this issue, shows the work depicted in the bloggers’ comments—blogging itself included—is professionalizing work in a field that has undergone transformative changes due to a globalized economy and advances in networked technology. Hillary Hart and James Conklin (2006) confirm the two-way collaborative process in their study of experienced technical communicators. Their survey data show that at least 85% of communicators spend at least 20% of their work time on teams. Some technical communicators spend about the same amount of time planning and facilitating communication processes as they do creating end-user documents and products. Many of the surveyed technical communicators who had ill-defined work roles were nonetheless satisfied, a fact that suggests that technical communication work is becoming less routine and standardized and more flexible and adaptive.

Our flexibility and adaptability come in part from our being a relatively young field that allows us options and decision making not found in more entrenched professions. Our rhetorical approaches are well suited to rapidly changing contexts and priorities. And we are meeting globalization challenges; Bruce Maylath (2010) gives us an example of the globalization trend in the merging of historically distinct roles of technical communicator and translator. While especially noticeable in Europe, the trend is driven in part by the acceleration of the documentation process, such that, with the help of content management systems, technical documents are composed in 30 or more languages simultaneously, thus obliterating translators’ earlier distinctions between source text in source language and target text in target language.

We could say, then, that technical communicators are emerging as active players in today’s dynamic enterprise composed of flexible labor practices that are, at once, entrepreneurial in sprit and global in domain. And we have the integrated skill sets, or core competencies, to navigate the complexities of rapidly shifting work structures. We have success in the marketplace, a critical factor, as Savage has asserted, to the establishment of a profession.

  • Core competency statements are themselves articulated political action (see Savage, 2010).
  • These statements extend beyond naive assumptions of market control (see Evetts, 2011).
  • These statements displace outdated, paternalistic notions of power with identification of specific talents (see Slack, 2003).

None of these confirmatory statements of professional presence should, however, let us believe that we are home safe. Present are problems with achieving professionalism—internal divisions, a lack of social knowledge, and the absence of commitment to social activism. Saul Carliner, in this issue, explores tensions within technical communication along the competing lines of formal, quasi-, and contraprofessionalism, with the proponents of each claiming theirs is the route to higher status. Carliner cautions that we should not assume that all technical communicators have a unified view of professionalization. Nor do all professionals have the same degree of social vision. Newcomers to the profession often lack social knowledge and therefore the key to active participation and professional status in organizations, according to Dale L. Sullivan, Michael S. Martin, and Ember R. Anderson (2003). They define social knowledge as a tacit consensus about moral values, strategic goals, and practices that suggest preferable actions in new situations (p. 124). Kelli Cargile Cook (2010) reported that her study of doctoral graduates showed many lacked the skills that we might label as social knowledge in their job search as new professionals—the ability to describe practical applications of their work and a business understanding of the organization they were visiting. Marie C. Paretti, Lisa D. McNair, and Lissa Holloway-Attaway (2007), in their study of students participating in a cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural team project, found that the students, who were digital natives comfortable in their use of virtual collaboration for social tasks, were not able to transfer those skills to establish social presence and shared goals in a professional distributed work environment. Although we are a young profession, Patricia A. Hallier and Edward A. Malone, in this issue, remind us with their introduction to Israel Light’s essay, published more than 50 years ago, that our history shows similar roadblocks to professional status.

If we are to support professionalization, Faber (2002) advises that students need to learn how to be public advocates, working with media, generating public interest, building support, and creating political consensus for their occupational status on local, state, and national levels (p. 330). But Salvo (2011) spotted an instance of positive social activism when he attended the presentation of prestigious dissertation and publication awards at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)/NCTE ceremony:

Both committee chairs [Bernadette Longo and Derek Ross] effectively described technical and scientific communication as integral part of the CCCs/NCTE mission, emplacing our work in the larger context of rhetorical scholarship. And there was a palpable moment during Derek’s presentation when it became clear he had (therefore our community had) the full attention of the audience…. As Derek and Bernadette linked research methods, engagement, activism, and scholarship with literacy, pedagogy, technology, and science, our community’s work was well represented and our accomplishments as a community of scholar/teachers clear.

Savage (2010) has said that once we understand something about the processes for professionalization, they become apparent in many of the activities in our own field (p. 164). Such is the example of positive social activism noted by Salvo above. But there are others.

Many scholars have called for a clearly defined professional practice on which to focus any research we might want to conduct. Blakeslee and Spilka (2004) decry the paucity of scholars working on complementary research questions. They note that “too much research in our field is driven by individual interests and inclination rather than by some overarching initiative” (pp. 76–77). To enact shared visions and goals, Spilka (2002) proposes creating a new consortium of broad-based democratically elected stakeholders to lead the field toward professional status and encourage research that addresses the practices of practitioners. Apparent processes for professionalization may also be found in Cleary’s description in this issue of technical communication bloggers as a “virtual discourse community who share concepts of practice, identity, and learning.” Joel Kline and Thomas Barker, in this issue, conducted research on a practitioner and academic community in order to theorize how structured collaboration might minimize the specific professional identity of being an “academic” or a “practitioner” in favor of the negotiated identity of a community member working toward mutual goals. They argue that when a community of practice develops between academics and practitioners, it negotiates the meaning and application of professionalism and provides the basis for professional consciousness.

Several themes emerge from the multiple voices that contributed to this two-volume special issue. We are all the new professionals—those who practice in the workplace and those who practice in the academy. But we cannot presume a unified willingness to accept professionalization among all technical communication professionals. We have a 50-year history devoted to professionalization issues, yet there is exigency to examine these anew in light of emerging political currents. The future is collaborative. Multidisciplinary teams will increasingly solve progressively complex problems of communication. The future is metacognitive. Media have led to enormous amounts of information, and those who can think critically about macro trends and their impact on micro contexts will be best able to chart the direction of distributed communities of practice, such as technical communication professionals. Yet, as individuals, we will participate in integrated professional roles that move beyond narrowly defined identities. No one here advocates embracing the traditional model of professionalism, which maintains centralized control and exclusive ownership over information to the detriment of the public good. What continues to emerge as a transformative power in these conversations is the collaborative construction of a professional body of knowledge. Born out of important research questions and workplace knowledge, a technical communication body of knowledge best captures our collective spirit toward professionalization—zeitgeist in the age of irony.


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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.