59.1, February 2012

The Three Approaches to Professionalization in Technical Communication

Saul Carliner

Abstract

Purpose: Explores internal divisions within our profession by exploring one particular type of tension: that technical communicators do not have a unified view of professionalization for the field.

Method: Proposes that prevailing approaches to professionalization are rooted in theories of occupations, the exclusive right to perform a job. True occupations have such rights legally; aspiring occupations like ours are disciplines. Common components of an infrastructure for occupations include professional organizations, bodies of knowledge, education, professional activities, and certification.

Results: Disciplines often establish these in anticipation of becoming an occupation, but some practicing professionals interpret and use them differently, resulting in a spectrum of approaches to professionalization. At one end of the spectrum is formal professionalism, which views professionalization as a stepping stone to full occupational status. It is rooted in a worldview that values expertise and sees the infrastructure of an occupation supporting the development of expertise and controlling access to the profession. In the center of the spectrum is quasiprofessionalization, in which individuals participate in the activities of the occupational infrastructure but without the expectation of exclusive rights to perform the work. Quasiprofessionalization is rooted in professional identity. At the other end of the spectrum is contraprofessionalization, which refers to initiatives that offer or promote professional services outside of parts of or the entire infrastructure, sometimes circumventing it completely. This world view is rooted in market theory and characterized by concepts like do-it-yourself (DIY), user-generated, and subject matter expert (SME)-provided documentation.

Conclusions: The differing views suggest tensions regarding support for specific efforts to professionalize technical communication, including formal branding of the profession, establishment of certification, and support for professional organizations.

Keywords: professionalization, certification, branding of technical communication

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Do not assume that other technical communicators share the same beliefs about or interest in professionalizing the field.
  • The different views on professionalization explain these differences in beliefs and interests.
  • Because of differing views on professionalization, technical communicators face challenges in branding the profession, promoting certification, and building professional organizations.
  • Even if technical communicators reach consensus on the infrastructure of professionalization, they face a competitive environment for certain types of high-value assignments, such as knowledge management and information architecture, as other emerging professions seek the same work.

Introduction

In the past decade or so, technical communicators have made significant strides in establishing the infrastructure of a profession. Both the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and tekom, the German professional association for technical communication and information-development, have established certification programs. STC has made significant strides in formalizing a body of knowledge and gaining recognition for the profession from government bodies like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides official definitions of occupations from which employers can develop job descriptions and salary scales. These efforts supplement long-standing work like establishing and running formal academic programs in—and professional associations on—technical communication, as well as producing the conferences and publishing the journals, professional magazines, and webzines that form the foundation of the body of knowledge. Many of these efforts started in the 1950s.

In her Call for Papers for this special issue, guest editor Nancy Coppola (2010) commented that such efforts toward professionalization are supposed to bring unity to a field:

Studies show that professions emerge in processes of struggle for market control and closure, for definition of a coherent body of knowledge, and for development of a professional history that will give the field a unifying identity.

But perhaps that is a false assumption. Just consider the division that exists over certification. Some members of the profession strongly support it. For example, the late Ken Rainey (2001) noted,

An objective, fair, and meaningful system of certification will greatly benefit the profession of technical communication as well as individual technical communication professionals. Any reputable profession offering service to the consuming public owes itself and its consumers the validation that an objective, fair, and meaningful certification system would bring.

Others, like Geoff Hart (2008), think certification is a waste of time:

The virtues of certification cannot be ignored, but they are outweighed by the drawbacks: There’s no evidence that employers will value certification; it can be highly subjective; and it requires ongoing renewal, even for experienced practitioners, to avoid diluting its value. The more important task must be to demonstrate our value to employers. Only once they understand our value will certification provide a means to assure employers that they can expect to receive that value.

To be honest, we have not really had this discussion. Most of the discussion of the “struggle” for professionalizing technical communication focuses on external struggles, especially within the academic environment (Kynell-Hunt, 2004), such as struggles for recognition as an academic discipline and struggle for legitimacy and respect as a distinct profession. When we explore discord within the profession, we usually focus on the well-documented tensions between the academic and professional segments of the technical communication community (Carliner, 1995; Savage & Kynell-Hunt, 2004).

Other internal tensions threaten professionalization, and they do not receive much attention. The divisions do not fall along the well-documented fault lines of academe-industry relations. For example, certification has its proponents and opponents in academe as well as industry.

This article is intended to start the exploration of the internal divisions within our profession by exploring one particular type of tension that exists among those involved with technical communication: that we do not have a unified view of professionalization for the field. Specifically, this article provides a background by exploring definitions and components of professionalization. Then it explores a spectrum of views on professionalization, from those who fully embrace it to those who actively resist it. Last, this article explores the implications of differing implementations of professionalization among those in the same community on the unity of the field.

A Background: Definitions and Components of Professionalization

Although many early presentations on professionalism at STC conferences focused on dress and attitude, the conceptual basis of professionalization actually emerges from theory and research on occupations and is rooted not in how one presents oneself, but in one’s exclusive right to perform a job. This view of an exclusive right to perform work provides a basis for considering the core issues of professionalism, including the following:

  • What is a profession?
  • Which activities support and promote professionalism?

What Is a Profession?

Evetts (2003) and Trice and Beyer (1993) distinguished between professions that that have an exclusive legal right to perform a job and professions that do not. Trice and Beyer (1993) use the term occupation to distinguish professions that not only have an exclusive, legal right to perform those jobs, but also “control training for the access to doing that work, and to control the way that work is performed and evaluated” (p. 186). Only professions that have all of these rights are true occupations. Many perceive occupational status as the ultimate recognition of white-collar work like medicine, law, and engineering. But many blue-collar fields also have occupational status, including cosmetologists (hairstylists), electricians, and plumbers. No worker can legally work in these fields without a license; earning a license requires training at an authorized institute.

Past efforts to characterize professionalization in technical communication (such as Savage, 1977, 2003) have used such occupations as a point of comparison between the current state of our field and those of other fields. To distinguish among those who do and do not have such legal rights, this article uses terminology adapted from Trice and Beyer: occupation to refer to disciplines whose members have exclusive legal rights to perform work and control training for the field, as well as the performance and evaluation of the work. Law, medicine, accounting, and cosmetology are examples of occupations. The term profession refers to disciplines whose members do not have such rights. Training, human resources, corporate communication, public relations, and technical communication are examples of professions. None has the exclusive legal rights of an occupation. The term discipline refers to any field of practice, encompassing both occupations and professions.

Note that this use of terminology differs from other uses of the same terms. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines occupation primarily for the purpose of categorizing the types of work (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010) rather than the right to perform that work. Similarly, other articles in this special issue use the term profession for categorizing disciplines, and do not distinguish among professions with and without exclusive legal rights to perform work.

But this distinction between disciplines is central to traditional understanding of professionalism. Many, like Savage (2003) use occupations (which he calls “mature professions”) as a point of comparison. Savage uses this comparison to explain the status of technical communication, which “lacks the status, legitimacy, and power of mature professions” (p. 1). But as Evetts (2003) notes, this traditional view is, perhaps, rooted in beliefs and values and, as labor markets globalize and working conditions for occupations change, so are views about professionalism (Evetts, 2011).

Which Activities Support and Promote Professionalism?

One of the core components of traditional views of professionalism is the insfrastructure of the profession. Trice and Beyer (1993) note that many professions that lack occupational status often attempt to establish an infrastructure of activities that support the growth of a profession. Sometimes they do so with the hope of gaining occupational status, sometimes merely to improve perceptions within the workplace. Most of the components of the infrastructure could be used to establish domain over a particular type of work, should a profession choose to become an occupation. Although each profession establishes its own infrastructure, these infrastructures seem to include five common components: professional organizations, bodies of knowledge, education, professional activities, and certification.

Professional Organizations provide people who work in the same discipline a forum for exploring issues of common interest (Trice & Beyer, 1993). Professional organizations provide a central address for the profession—that is, a group that can bring together people in a profession and coordinate the activities of the profession. The exact nature of professional organizations varies from organization to organization. At one end of the spectrum, professional organizations provide members with an opportunity to share professional knowledge and business contacts, as did the former International Technical Training Association. At the other end of the spectrum, professional organizations define the discipline and actively promote that vision not only within the profession, but to employers and sponsors who might hire members of the profession, such as the U.S.-based, 250,000 plus member Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM Membership Center, 2011). Online communities of practice, such as the Social Media Breakfast, which let people participate in conversations through the Web and social media, are increasingly playing similar roles but without formal membership and, as a result, without the resources of professional associations. Some only converse online; others occasionally meet in person (such as Ignite, which holds local meetings about once a year).

Bodies of Knowledge refer to content with which all members of a discipline should be familiar (Information Technology Terms Dictionary, n.d.). A body of knowledge typically serves as a basis for determining competent performance in the field, which is used to assess entrants to the field and evaluate the performance of professionals afterward. As the focus of professional organizations varies, so do efforts to establish bodies of knowledge. Some focus on production of content, and involve recruiting and publishing content about the practice of the profession in newsletters, Web sites, magazines, and peer-reviewed journals. Organizations like the Academy of Human Resource Development take a production approach. In contrast, other organizations have attempted use structured processes like nominal group techniques and DACUM to define the content in a body of knowledge and recruit and publish content that describes and illuminates this defined body. Examples include the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) and the Project Management Institute.

Education, both formal academic education and continuing professional education, prepares people to practice in the field and is a primary means of ensuring ongoing professional development. Formal academic training refers to degree programs at the associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels offered by colleges and universities. Formal academic training also refers to formal apprenticeship programs, which are often administered in collaboration with high schools. Examples of degree programs in disciplines include business communication majors with public relations concentrations at the undergraduate level and master’s degrees in human resource development (HRD) (which prepare training and development professionals). In the absence of controlling these programs through an accreditation process, as occupations can do, professional organizations seek to support academic education by providing scholarships and other types of material support to participate in, and influence the content of, formal education.

Continuing Education refers to workshops, seminars, and self-study programs that address topics of interest to the discipline. Continuing education programs are offered by a variety of organizations, including colleges and universities, adult education arms of public schools, private providers (often for-profit), and professional associations. Examples of continuing professional education include courses leading to project management certification, which are offered by private providers and continuing education groups, and facilitation skills courses for trainers, which are offered by continuing education programs, ASTD, and private providers like Langevin and the Training Clinic.

Professional Events serve a variety of purposes. Some events have an educational or informational agenda and serve a purpose similar to formal education; others have social or business agendas, or multiple agendas, and play as much a role in establishing a central position for the professional organization as they do in achieving other purposes. A common example of a professional event is the monthly meeting sponsored by the local chapter of a professional association. These meetings typically feature a guest speaker and, thus, have an educational focus. But most include networking events, and some have wholly social agendas. Still other events, like job fairs and presentations by vendors, have business agendas.

Another common type of professional event is the conference, which has educational, social, and business agendas. Some also provide opportunities for organizations to conduct their own business; many professional organizations—especially those with members in varied geographic regions—hold their annual general meeting in conjunction with a conference.

Certification assesses the competence of individual practitioners against the norms of the profession (Hale, 2000). Although certification is voluntary (that is, one can practice a profession without certification), it is intended to control entry into the field and provide the means of assessing competent performance. Certifications exist in many of the communication disciplines related to technical communication, in addition to certifications of technical communication offered by STC and tekom. These additional certifications include the following:

  • Business communication (Accredited Business Communicator (ABC), offered by the International Association of Business Communicators [IABC])
  • Public relations specialists (Accreditation in Public Relations, offered by the Public Relations Society of America [PRSA])
  • Biology editors (Board-Certified Editor in the Life Sciences offered by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences)
  • Instructional designers (Certified Performance Technologist, offered by the International Society for Performance Improvement)
  • Training and development professionals (Certified Technical Trainer, first offered in 1997 and now administered by CompTIA; the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance offered since 2006 by ASTD; and the Certified Training and Development Professional and Competent Training Practitioner, offered by the Canadian Society for Training and Development).

Note, however, that use of terminology for these credentials is inconsistent and, in some cases, incorrect. At the most technical level, the accreditations offered by IABC and PRSA are actually certifications. Accreditation is—

A process of verifying that educational programs adhere to established standards of performance. For example, Engineering and Business programs are accredited by specialized organizations that have established performance standards for academic programs in the field. These standards affect not only the curriculum itself, but the qualifications of the instructors, the facilities for teaching, library and laboratory facilities, and other support services (STC Certification Commission, 2012).

Similarly, the tekom certification is actually a certificate, which validates successful completion of a program of study, rather than assessment of competence in the context of a job (STC Certification Commission, 2012).

Differing Implementations of Professionalization

Combined, this infrastructure of activities forms the basis for professionalism in many disciplines. Many people who work in a discipline are driven to establish and strengthen the components of a professional infrastructure, or participate in the activities, by an implicit or explicit assumption that the goal of professionalism is to establish an occupation. For example, when discussing the benefits of certification to the field of HRD, Kahnweiller (2009) noted, “If there were a process that certified HRD practitioners, this could provide some assurance to those who employ or engage HRD professionals as consultants that individuals possess at least rudimentary knowledge and skills to practice HRD effectively” (p. 226). That view certainly prevails in the literature on technical communication, sounding similar to the quote from Rainey presented at the beginning of this article.

But the empirical evidence suggests that perhaps other expectations motivate professionals to participate in professional organizations. Research of the Association for Association Executives suggests that two of the primary reasons that people join professional organizations are access to publications and similar members-only content, and networking. Only a small percentage (usually fewer than 20%) actively participate in the organization (1993, 1995, 1996, 1997). The same research consistently found that the larger the chapter of an organization, the smaller the percentage of participation. More than differing levels of participation in professional organizations, such empirical evidence suggests that a singular view and approach to certification might not exist.

The next section explores that possibility. It first proposes three distinct approaches to professionalism. Then it individually explores these three in depth.

The Spectrum of Views on Professionalism

One assumption underlying much of the literature on professionalism in technical communication is that the concept of professionalism described thus far in this article is a shared one. This view of professionalism is called formal professionalism. People who advocate for formal professionalism see professionalism a stepping stone to full occupational status. This is rooted in a worldview in which expertise matters and those who demonstrate expertise are entitled to say who enters the field, how people prepare for the field, and how expertise can be evaluated. Formal professionalization has its roots in the traditional guild systems and, more recently, in licensed occupations. As Evetts (2003) notes, such closure is one of the goals of formal professionalization.

Implicit in formal professionalism is a belief that professional organizations serve as the primary advocates and coordinating bodies for their disciplines, and have both a right and responsibility to review and approve efforts undertaken to support the profession, including bodies of knowledge, education, professional activities, and certification.

But as support for certification varies among people who practice technical communication, so views of professionalism vary among people who practice all disciplines. Those who fully embrace professionalism subscribe to beliefs similar to those of formal professionalism. But as opinions on certification range from strongly for to passionately against, and everywhere in between, so do opinions on professionalism. Formal professionalism stakes territory at one end of this spectrum; partial support of professionalism, or called quasiprofessionalism, stakes the territory at the center; and strong opposition to professionalism, or contraprofessionalism, stakes the other end of the spectrum. Figure 1 shows this range of approaches to professionalism.

Figure 1. Spectrum of Approaches to Professionalism

Figure 1. Spectrum of Approaches to Professionalism

For example, some people who practice in a discipline appreciate the support that the infrastructure of professionalization provides, but do not necessarily see these activities as leading to occupational status, nor do they see the professional association as the only source of knowledge, education, professional activities, or validation of competence.

Such a view of professionalism is called quasiprofessionalization and involves efforts by individuals and for-profit organizations to provide services that either duplicate or fill holes in the programs and services provided by nonprofit professional organizations. Such efforts are offered outside of the scope of the formally organized professional community. Sometimes, the quasiprofessional effort is motivated by economic factors: A member of the field sees economic opportunity that he or she wants to explore individually, rather than offer to the organized profession. In other instances, the quasiprofessional effort is an effort to resist an initiative by the organization, such as an effort to resist a particular definition of technical communication, which some professionals might perceive as restrictive or not encompassing their own specialty.

Quasiprofessionalization is rooted in professional identity rather than an exclusive right to perform work. Professional identity refers to the “roles” that people see themselves playing (Goffman, 1959). In these instances, the professional identity demarcated by the professional society contradicts the professional identity held by the individual, who chooses to support his or her own identity. For example, if the official definition of a technical communicator describes the discipline as designing and developing content for practical uses, then people who primarily see themselves as user advocates would have professional identities at odds with the officially defined professional identity. In contrast to professionalization, which focuses on the exclusive right of a community of people to perform particular work, professional identity is focused on a self-conception and, as a result, is more focused on the individual than the community.

That is not to say that the search for professional identity is a solitary activity. Many quasiprofessional activities involve community. But rather than focusing on exclusive rights, quasiprofessionals focus on finding like-minded individuals with whom to interact.

Others who practice in a discipline such as technical communication and need to have technical content developed for their organizations actively resist efforts to professionalize; this view is called contraprofessionalization. Contraprofessionalization refers to initiatives that offer or promote professional services outside of parts of or the entire framework of the profession or occupation.

In practical terms, contraprofessionalization refers to efforts to circumvent paid professionals partially or completely. Do-it-yourself (DIY) documentation (such as that offered by Pyro.org), user-generated documentation (Gentle, 2009; Khanra & Bisras, 2010), and subject matter expert (SME)-provided documentation (Gentle, 2009) all represent efforts to circumvent paid technical communicators and engage others in preparing technical content for publication.

In some cases, organizations completely circumvent technical communicators. In other cases, organizations engage technical communicators to guide users and SMEs in their work. Technical communicators design and structure databases of content, develop templates to guide users and SMEs when they write content, and edit and oversee approvals of the resulting content (Gentle, 2009).

Contraprofessionalization has its roots in free market theory, which often seeks to remove barriers to competing in the marketplace (such as advocated by economists Adam Smith and Milton Friedman), and in which anyone is eligible to perform work. That work is successful if the results are acceptable to stakeholders.

In some cases, sponsors want the freedom to choose the services that best meet their needs, and, for whatever reasons, feel that users and SMEs who prepare documentation provide a better value for their documentation dollar (or whatever currency they use). Some sponsors want to avoid the cost of professional services. Other sponsors have concerns about the quality of work. Typical complaints seem to focus on the failure of technical communicators to accurately document the content or provide content that is sufficiently rich in context (Carliner, under review; Carliner & Bernard, 2011).

More fundamentally, however, the conceptual roots of contraprofessionalization emerge from a growing DIY culture in the worlds of high technology and media in which technical communicators work. The New York Times (2009) reports that—

“Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere,” Robert Capps of Wired magazine wrote this summer in an essay called “The Good-Enough Revolution.” Companies that had focused mainly on improving the technical quality of their products have started to notice that, for many consumers, “ease of use, continuous availability and low price” are more important.

Shell (2010) notes that “cheap” and self-service have increasingly characterized many segments of the economy.

Contraprofessional efforts are not limited to technical communication. They even affect established occupations. For example, software like Business in a Box (Magder, 2011) that helps users write their own leases, business contracts, wills, and divorce settlements represent a contraprofessional effort against attorneys. Kamenetz (2010) explores how a DIY education can circumvent accredited colleges and universities staffed by tenured professors to provide a university-level education and, in some instances, credentials.

Consumers of all types of services are realizing that they do not need perfect products and services, they just need ones that reliably perform the most basic tasks. For example, after years of growth characterized by increasingly powerful computers and software, the development of the $100 computer by Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped consumers realize that computers that let them surf the Net and perform word processing were often sufficient, and could reduce computer costs by as much as 75% (PC Magazine Encyclopedia, n.d.).

As computer manufacturers sold consumers more powerful computers than consumers needed for years, so, perhaps unwittingly, professional technical communicators have sold sponsors more communication services than they really need. To contraprofessionals, the executives who said in the 1980s and 1990s that intuitive interfaces that required no additional documentation really had a point.

And even the documentation that is necessary can be produced far less elaborately than in the past. Within technical communication, the DIY forces have their roots in publishing. As technology is now supporting nonprofessionals in creating acceptable content, so desktop publishing in the 1980s and help authoring tools in the 1990s allowed technical communicators to circumvent typesetters, layout specialists, and other professionals—resulting in huge drop-offs in their employment (Carliner, 2009). In other words, a form of professional Darwinism is at work. In previous decades, technical communicators displaced various types of production specialists, including typesetters, editorial assistants, desktop publishers, copy editors, illustrators, graphic designers, and, to some extent, developmental editors. Now the technology, to some extent, could be replacing technical communicators.

Contrasting Formal Professionalization, Quasi-, and Contraprofessionalization

These differing views suggest tensions regarding support for formally professionalizing the field of technical communication. This section considers practical implications of these differing views of professionalization with a focus on the five components typical of a professionalized infrastructure described earlier: how formal professionals, quasiprofessionals, and contraprofessionals view professional organizations, bodies of knowledge, education, professional activities, and certification. This, in turn, helps technical communicators better understand the positions of those who have other views regarding these activities, as well as what drives those differing views.

Formal Professionalism

Savage (2003) characterizes professionalization as “an exclusive process; it requires the undemocratic presumption that, as the basis of expertise, certain kinds of knowledge should not be freely available to everyone” (p. 3). Evetts (2003) adds that professionalism is an attempt to manipulate the market for a particular discipline from within the field.

This view guides approaches to the infrastructure of professionalization. The formal professional view of professional organizations is that they serve as the central address of the profession. They are the first logical stop for people seeking information about a profession, coordinate all efforts to establish standards of practice and the education needed to achieve those standards, and validate education and practice—ideally with formal structures like certification. Perhaps this is why technical communicators established organizations like the Society for Technical Writers and Editors (the original name of STC), the engineering-focused IEEE formed a Professional Communication Society, as well as national organizations of technical communicators in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, and Germany between the 1950s and 1970s.

Formal professionalism views a body of knowledge as central to building a profession (Johnson-Eilola & Selber, 2001) because it provides definitions of the field and key concepts related to it, as well as documents best practices and related research (Hayhoe, 2000). Perhaps that is why all of these professional organizations quickly established newsletters and, when feasible, peer-reviewed journals, like this one. The peer-review process, which mimics processes used in the physical sciences, adds credibility to content because peers who do not know the identity of an author have deemed a piece worthy of publication.

With a substantial body of published literature, formal professionals have sought to officially sanction a core body of knowledge with which all professionals should be familiar. The Body of Knowledge project sponsored by STC represents an effort in this direction. Other projects of this nature have been initiated, such as that of the Northwest Technical Center, which developed a set of competencies required by all technical communicators that STC adopted in the 1990s when an earlier effort to define the body of knowledge did not succeed. Although formal professionals see the body of knowledge as central to defining the profession, they do not see it as static. Most bodies of knowledge undergo periodic reviews to make sure that they represent current knowledge and practices in a discipline and have provisions for revision.

In terms of education, formal professionals support degree programs in the field, viewing them as the primary means of entry into the field. The first academic programs in technical communication were established about the same time as the first professional societies and peer-reviewed journals, at Carnegie-Mellon University, Rensselear Polytechnic University, and the University of Minnesota. As the profession grew, so did the number of academic programs—at one time, the database of academic programs compiled by STC listed nearly 200 programs worldwide. Under ideal circumstances, formal professionals would seek to accredit these programs—that is verify that they cover particular content and skills and meet standards of academic performance.

Recognizing that much education in this field happens outside of academia, formal professionals also strongly stress the importance of continuing education. Many seek formal recognition through continuing education, as witnessed by the interest in certificate programs offered by STC and schools like the University of California at Santa Cruz and Simon Fraser University.

Formal professionals view events like conferences, monthly meetings of professional associations, and participation on committees as essential parts of the professional experience. In addition to providing a means of developing a professional network, such events provide an opportunity to participate in decision making about the profession and receive an experiential education that complements the formal one.

Certification represents a zenith of formal professional efforts, as it codifies what it means to be a professional in the field. Beyond its gatekeeping function, certification makes a strong political statement about the nature and value of the profession.

Quasiprofessionalism

Because quasiprofessionalization involves efforts by individuals and for-profit organizations to provide programs and services that either duplicate or fill holes in those provided by nonprofit professional organizations but outside of the scope of the formally organized professional community, it typically takes a utilitarian approach to professional organizations, bodies of knowledge, formal education, professional events, and certification.

Quasiprofessionals see a general value in professional organizations, but often view particular organizations as means to particular ends. As long as the organization meets their needs, quasiprofessionals continue to participate, sometimes quite actively. But quasiprofessionals often reach points in their development during which professional organizations no longer meet their needs. For example, some technical communicators saw their careers moving more toward usability or content management, and slowed or stopped participating in STC and focused their efforts instead on the Usability and Content Management Professionals Associations. Many taking the quasiprofessional approach to professionalism also find value in informal associations, such as interactions through nonsponsored Web-based communities like KeyContent.org, BoxesandArrows.org, and TECHWR-L that serve technical and professional communicators but work outside of the framework of a formal, nonprofit professional organization.

In terms of bodies of knowledge, the quasiprofessional has mixed feelings. On the one hand, journals, magazines, and similar resources provide these people with insights, ideas, and justifications that strengthen their work performance. But these same people have ambiguous feelings about a formally documented body of knowledge that specifies core knowledge and competencies expected of everyone practicing in a discipline because, in addition to specifying what the discipline is, it also specifies what the discipline is not. And quasiprofessionals might fear that part of their professional identities would be excluded from a body of knowledge.

In terms of formal education, many people advocating for the quasiprofessional approach value formal degrees and continuing education in the field, but do not see them as exclusive routes to entering the field or building competence. Many quasiprofessionals bring an eclectic range of experiences to their jobs—often unconventional ones (for example, some technical communicators have backgrounds in theater, others in engineering), and see efforts to define education as precluding other routes of entry into the field. People who advocate for the quasiprofessional view see more value in continuing education, because it typically focuses on applied skills that directly address immediate work challenges. However, they do not feel that anyone has an exclusive right to offer this education; they are open to a variety of types of providers, from professional organizations to private companies.

In terms of professional events, the quasiprofessional viewpoint sees value; it even sees value in volunteering for professional organizations. But quasiprofessionals often approach professional events for social and networking benefits, or to fill gaps in programming offered by professional organizations, rather than as a statement of advocacy for formal professionism. Some quasiprofessionals even start their own events to meet needs not directly addressed by professional organizations. For example, conferences like LavaCon and the Center for Information Development Management provide programming for managers of technical communication groups, and WritersUA provides conferences and information for senior-level user assistance authors.

Quasiprofessionals see certification as a means of validating knowledge and, perhaps, as a marketing tool. But they do not see it as central to their professionalism and are not likely to be among the early adopters of certification. Furthermore, they often feel that no single certification fully represents the breadth of their knowledge, and they may seek several certifications, each reflecting a different aspect of their professional profiles.

Contraprofessionalism

Contraprofessionalism figuratively gives the finger to the exclusivity of professionalism. In fact, it often resists or undermines professional efforts.

Consider the contraprofessional view of professional organizations. Many contraprofessionals do not see the value in them. Those who do see value see it primarily in purely utilitarian terms—gaining jobs or business. For example, nonmembers who show up at a professional association meeting only when they have come up empty in a job search or to advance their careers—and stop attending once the search ends or the career reaches the intended goal—are examples of a contraprofessional view.

Similarly, contraprofessionals actively resist the establishment of a body of knowledge, often suggesting that doing so restricts the field. These people see no boundaries on the profession, so attempts to establish boundaries run contrary to their views. For example, a common objection to establishing a body of knowledge for technical communication is that technical communicators illustrate, edit, and work on user interfaces and that a body of knowledge would probably not reflect that. For similar reasons, contraprofessionals also see little value in formal degree programs in the field, because they could restrict entry into the field.

Contraprofessionals are less resistant to professional literature and continuing education, because they provide practical instruction and insight into succeeding in the job; however, they see such training and reading as optional. The primary assessment of professional competences is found in employer satisfaction with completed work. Contraprofessionals believe that they might be able to achieve such goals without any receiving formal training or reading any professional literature.

Professional activities such as meetings and conferences can offer similar utilitarian value. But volunteering to work for professional organizations is unnecessary. It might even contribute to efforts to define and constrict the work.

Not surprisingly, contraprofessionals see certification as restrictive and constraining—and unnecessary. Because employers determine whether their needs are met, additional outside assessment provides little, if any, value.

Table 1 summarizes the views of formal professionalism, quasiprofessionalism, and contraprofessionalism on various components of the infrastructure of professionalization.

Table 1. A Summary of the Views of Formal Professionalism, Quasiprofessionalism, and Contraprofessionalism on Various Components of the Infrastructure of Professionalization

View of professional organizations

View of a body of knowledge

View of formal education

View of professional events

View of certification

Professional

Serves as the central address of the profession, establishes standards of practice and the education needed to achieve it.

Central to defining the profession. Does see it as changing, requiring periodic reviews and, if deemed necessary, revisions. Also states what the field is not.

Degree: Gatekeeper to entry to profession. Needs to be accredited to ensure that it addresses the Body of Knowledge and prepares students to take the certification exam.
Continuing education: Essential, not just for developing competence but also for maintaining competence.

For professionals: Education, although with social benefits.
For researchers: Opportunities to build reputations, learn the latest developments. Also good for networking.

Central to promoting the field.

Quasiprofessional

A means to an end, mostly for employment or social purposes.

Mixed feelings. As a source of intellectual direction, fine. As a definitive word, probably not.

Degree: Optional but beneficial.
Continuing education: Optional, but an important means of staying current in the field.

Opportunities with several benefits:
Educational
Business
Social

Optional

Contraprofessional

Organizations that have networking benefits but often place boundaries around the professional.

Constraining; places definitions and boundaries that preclude other views.

Degrees and continuing education: Beneficial, but the real assessment of competence is in the work—both the ability to sell it and the ability to please sponsors with it.

Opportunities with several benefits:
Educational
Business
Social

Counterproductive. Like a body of knowledge, it constrains individuals.

Practical Implications of These Forces on Profession-Building Efforts

If these three these differing forces are at work, how does that affect efforts to build the profession of technical communication? This section explores that issue. It starts by exploring the impact on branding the profession, then considers the impact on certifying professionals, and concludes by suggesting the impact of these differing forces on professional organizations themselves.

The Impact of the Forces on Branding the Profession

Implicit in the movement toward professionalization is an attempt to brand the profession. Branding represents “the sum of the total impressions” (Herzog, 1973, reported in Dobni & Zinkhan, 1990) that technical communicators would like others to have of our work. Branding is also essential to marketing a service; if potential customers do not know what a product or service does or how it differs from similar services, they have no compelling reason to choose this service over others. The effort by STC in the late 2000s to have technical communicators recognized as a distinct profession (Burton, 2008) by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is an attempt to address that communication.

Suppose, for example, that a potential sponsor seeks someone to write content about a product for the company Web site. The sponsor is considering a technical communicator, a business communication generalist, and a public relations specialist for the assignment. Branding suggests that, without a compelling argument that the technical communicator brings something unique to the assignment that neither the business communication generalist nor the public relations specialist can bring, any of the three will do. Sponsors who cannot perceive a difference among the three will likely choose based on price or personal preference, rather than on the unique qualifications of the technical communicator that distinguish this candidate from the others.

The issue of branding for technical communicators is a serious one. Although no study has been performed lately, a study conducted in Western Canada in the mid-1990s did explore this issue. Researchers (Cash, 1995) first asked organizations that had used the services of professional technical communicators whether they felt that technical communicators added value to their projects. Organizations participating in the study said yes. Then researchers asked, what value did technical communicators bring? Although customers felt that technical communicators added value, they could not verbalize in concrete and specific ways the exact and unique nature of that value. In other words, technical communicators essentially had no brand identity in the eyes of these recent customers

Actually, technical communicators need look no further than our own literature to find a confusing brand identity. In addition to calling ourselves technical communicators, we have called ourselves many other names—and many of those names have not included the words technical communicator or even writer. In the 1990s, the then-executive director of STC compiled a list of job titles used by STC members for their membership records. The report identified several hundred unique titles. Among them were product information specialist, documentation specialist, business analyst, and information developer.

The term information developer emerged in 1980, as an attempt by IBM to provide a single job title to its technical writers, editors, and illustrators. This effort followed the change in name of the Society for Technical Writers and Editors to the Society for Technical Communication. Technical communicators originally referred to writers and editors separately. The name change was intended to break those barriers, among other issues. IBM shared the sentiment, but felt that illustrators should be included and a different name applied (Davis, 1986). About 15 years after that name change, a survey of STC members showed that a majority of them preferred the term information in their job titles (Carliner, 1998). STC even toyed with the idea of changing the name again to information design, but a subsequent branding exercise suggested that brand equity exists in the name technical communication (Stolgitis, 2000) and STC reaffirmed its commitment to the name technical communicator (Burton, 2008) in efforts to promote brand recognition of the profession.

For those who seek to professionalize, clarifying the name and providing a clear description of responsibilities like those identified by the Bureau of Labor Standards is an appropriate effort. But for quasiprofessionals, the name technical communicator does not speak to their self-identity. As a result, some have called themselves content strategists or content developers. Such distinctions have limited value to contraprofessionals, who believe sponsors either see little need for the service or will hire whomever offers the best proposal at the time that the sponsor seeks assistance.

The Impact of the Forces on Certifying Professionals

The distinction among technical communicators, information designers and developers, and content strategists and developers illustrates the challenge in certifying professionals in the field.

Regardless of their views on professionalism, most people acknowledge that certification acts as a barrier to practicing in a discipline: these views differ in how they feel about that barrier. Professionalization forces welcome it; they feel it gives them an edge in the job market. But not all people seek certification to limit entry into the field. Because certification is voluntary (Jong, Fisher, & Carliner 2011), many people seek it as a means of validating their identity—that is, for quasiprofessional purposes.

That is certainly the case with similar voluntary certifications. Professional organizations offering similar voluntary certifications promote those certifications using reasons associated with quasiprofessionalism. For example, the ASTD notes that its Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) “equips you with the tools to be the best in the field and lets employers know that you have real world, practical expertise that can be readily applied to the current work environment. CPLP gives you the capability, credibility and confidence to be a high performing contributor in your organization” (ASTD CI, 2009). “No one asked me to do it. The CPLP is about me” (ASTD CI, 2010).

Contraprofessionals resist certification because they feel it limits opportunity for people who might otherwise be capable of performing the work. The process of developing a certification requires that members of the profession identify the key competencies, “clusters of interrelated knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary for performing effectively in a particular area” (CSTD, 2010, p. 11). The STC Certification Commission, which oversees certification of technical communicators, devised its list of competencies from an earlier study of the work of technical communicators by the Northwest Technical Center. This study asked technical communicators to describe their work, and from that description, researchers devised their list of competencies.

The Certification Commission updated and validated the list to reflect current working conditions. According to the instructions for certification candidates (STC Certification Commission, 2011), these competencies include the following:

  • Project planning
  • Project analysis
  • Solution design
  • Organizational design
  • Written communication
  • Visual communication
  • Content development
  • Content management
  • Final production

But how unique are these competencies? Content strategists see themselves as responsible for planning, creating, delivering, and governing information within an organization (Halvorson, 2010), with an emphasis on both the content that is ultimately created as well as the process that created it (Sheffield, 2009). These competencies look remarkably similar to the following competencies addressed by the certification of technical communicators: project planning, project analysis, solution design, organizational design, content management, and final production. The primary difference is the competency governing, which is part of the job description of the content strategist but not of the technical communicator.

Similarly, a “former” [the person’s self-identified designation] technical communicator described the role of a content developer as follows:

For me, the difference between “technical writing” and “content development” is that Technical Writing was primarily instructional (in the positions that I held) focusing on software and/or systems/process training. Content development seems to be a more general type of writing that provides information—but more about a company, a product, not necessarily user or system documentation (personal correspondence, 2010).

These responsibilities, in turn, sound remarkably similar to those of the information designer, which Carliner defined nearly a decade earlier (2001, p. 158) as follows:

Information designers act as architects of projects, solving the complex communication problems presented by project sponsors (that is, the programmers, engineers, marketing professionals and others who hire us to communicate their technical content with a group of designated users) and developing the blueprints of the solution that will be both acceptable to sponsors (Robinson & Robinson, 1989) and effective with the intended users.

That is, an information designer also requires competencies with project planning, project analysis, solution design, organizational design, content management, and final production.

In other words, the competencies assessed through certification might not be perceived as unique to technical communication. But as noted in the discussion on branding, technical communicators have also referred to themselves as content strategists, content developers, and information designers, so perhaps the true distinction is not in competencies but in branding.

Moreover, none of these descriptions of competencies addresses what is believed to be a unique characteristic of technical communication: the ability to easily communicate highly technical content in an appropriate way to the intended audience. The competencies defined for technical communication merely assume that the content addressed is technical; they do not explicitly define what makes content technical, nor do they specifically assess the ability to communicate it—but then again, neither do the proposed competencies for the other professions named.

The Impact of the Forces on Professional Organizations

Although the differing forces in professionalization have an effect on branding and certifying the profession, their most fundamental impact is on the role of the professional organization.

From the view of professionalization, the role of the professional organization is to govern the discipline and serve as its public voice. Full membership in such an association is limited to those who have or are seeking certification. Although those who sell products and services to these professionals may participate in the organization, they have a full voice in its operations only if they are certified.

The quasiprofessional view of a professional organization is more that of a club. It is a community of like-minded people who share professional interests but also enjoy one another’s company. Such an organization provides guidance on professional standards and conduct, but has neither the means nor the will to impose such standards. Without certification, for example, a professional organization cannot censure members whose behavior is unethical, or organizations that use outdated processes.

The contraprofessional still sees a role for the professional organization, but a more laissez-faire one. Professional organizations serve as marketplaces, bringing together buyers and sellers of services. Such a definition could include workers who provide communication skills and sponsors who need such skills, as well as organizations seeking to sell software and services to those workers and employers.

These differing views are reflected in the differing concepts of STC. Some people see STC as a professional organization and value the guidance it provides on standards, work processes, and recommended roles. Others see STC as a club and become frustrated with the organization when the conversation no longer interests them. Still others see STC as a marketplace and value it as long as it provides financial value to them—and lose interest when it does not.

Implications of These Opposing Forces for the Professional Status of Technical Communicators

The competition among these different viewpoints on professionalization match a similar but more fundamental competition for our skills. Underlying all of these differing views are differing beliefs about how to achieve meaningful work in the field.

One area in which competition is particularly stiff is in managing organizational knowledge. A recent inquiry about the certification process mentioned:

Most organizations in their line organization do not have a department focusing on knowledge management, but most progressive organizations know that it is a must to retain the corporate knowledge they have and fully utilize this knowledge internally and externally. Among the enablers, of course, is technical communication. This is the core reason why I see Knowledge Management as a relevant degree to technical communication. Including KM expands the true value of technical communication as not being confined only to producing documents and user manuals (personal correspondence 2011).

Whether they call themselves technical communicators, content strategists, or information designers, professional communicators are by no means assured of earning these highly competitive assignments. Knowledge management experts, instructional designers, and information architects, among others, also aspire to the same assignments—each bringing their own competitive advantage and each trying to protect their “turf” (Grice & Krull, 2001). The stakes are high: Those who design and structure these databases of content have the opportunity to work on meaningful projects, guide the work of others, and have impact across an entire organization. Those who merely ensure compliance with the templates, edit content, and post it are performing the white-collar equivalent of factory work (Brown & Duguid, 2000) that, at its worst, is repetitive and mind-numbing or, as one technical communicator called it, “technical stenography.”

Therein lie some of the key stakes in this tug-of-war between the influences of professionalization, quasiprofessionalization, and contraprofessionalization. Proponents of each approach suggest that theirs is the route to the higher status work. But ultimately, the distinctions come not from these differences—they will come from the workplace.

Some distinctions will result from changing relationships between professionals and employers. Evetts (2003, 2011) notes, for example, even in medicine and law—among those most often named as occupations—a transition from independent employment to staff employment with hospitals and law firms is changing the extent of independence they have, even as licensed occupations. So even if technical communicators achieve full professionalization, its actual nature when that happens might differ from its nature now.

Some opportunities for technical communicators will be completely lost to DIY documentation. For many, “Good enough is the new great,” as declared by the New York Times in its review of major developments in design (New York Times, 2009). Cell phones that occasionally drop calls? Annoying but acceptable. Self-produced video for Web advertising? Amateurish but also acceptable. And user-generated documentation? Dense and winding, but acceptable, too. Other opportunities will be lost to professionals in other fields, like those in knowledge management just described.

Some who work in this field will gain opportunities by calling themselves content strategists or information designers. And others will gain opportunities by certifying themselves as technical communicators.

These scenarios suggest that certification can serve as a catalyst for greater segmentation among technical communicators along the lines of formal, quasi-, and contraprofessionalism. These scenarios also suggest that, among those who choose to certify, regardless of which segment they belong to, the act of certification can act, too, as a catalyst for the type of unity Coppola mentioned in her Call for Papers.

Most significantly, these scenarios suggest that technical communicators should not assume unity regarding professional issues. Different beliefs exist and, as a result of those differences, feelings about, and commitment to, branding, certification, and organizations like STC differ.

Note

This article is solely intended as a theoretical analysis of the concept of professionalism within the context of technical communication, so members of our community can better follow differing viewpoints. It is not intended to advocate for or against any viewpoint.

Acknowledgment

Thanks to Nancy Coppola for encouraging me to stick with this article, even when I was focused on other projects.

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About the Author

Saul Carliner is director of the Education Doctoral Program and an associate professor in the Department of Education at Concordia University. A two-time recipient of the Best of Show Award in the Frank R. Smith Outstanding Article competition, he also serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication and as a board member of the STC Certification Commission and the Canadian Society for Training and Development. He is a Fellow and past international president of STC. Contact: saulcarliner@hotmail.com.