59.2, May 2012

Editorial: Technical Communication in Practice: Who Needs Professionals?

Menno D.T. de Jong, Editor

This is my first editorial after the double special issue on professionalization, guest edited by Nancy Coppola. The special issue helped us to consider our field from various angles. The articles provided a lot of food for thought and discussion. Most of them would not have been written without Nancy Coppola’s initiative to compile a special issue on this theme. I want to express my gratitude and appreciation to Nancy for her hard work and for the resulting two great journal issues. This is a clear demonstration of the value special issues may have for our discipline. It is my aim to draw up a list of themes for new special issues. Practitioners and researchers with challenging ideas are always invited to contact me.

Speaking about professionalism, the provocative question in the title, of course, is meant to be answered in only one way: we all need professionals. More specifically, we all need technical communication professionals. Technology is everywhere and technological developments seem to go faster than ever. Many western governments warn for a shortage of engineers to keep the innovations going. Within the engineering disciplines, however, the awareness is growing that there is always a human side to technology. Whatever is being developed, its success will depend on the people who are supposed to use it. This is not limited to the so-called technology acceptance, which, admittedly, is important for sales and dissemination. In the long run, however, it is even more important whether people and organizations are able to optimally benefit from the technology they adopt. And whether technological devices and software are geared to the needs of people and organizations. It is obvious that highly trained technical communication professionals are needed for this complex and responsible job.

On the individual level, underuse and inefficient use of software and devices seem to be common phenomena. Technological innovations in organizations often fail because of human and organizational aspects. I can mention many examples of all problems mentioned—underuse, inefficient use, and failed innovations—from my immediate experiences. And I am sure everyone can. However, the empirical evidence for the problems is still limited. The underuse and inefficient use of software and devices does not seem to be a major topic in the academic literature, even though it could help us to emphasize the role technical communicators may have, and it could be a fruitful starting point of analyzing how users develop their skills over time. In the literature on technological implementations, the descriptions of successful implementation processes seem to be overrepresented. More attention to what happens in such processes will easily set the stage for the crucial role technical communicators may have. Organizations are often penny-wise and pound-foolish in such processes.

What, are core competencies technical communication professionals should have? This is a difficult question to answer, if only because there are so many different things they should master. Affinity with and understanding of technology and technological development processes must be key competencies. Empathy with the user and an understanding of professional and organizational contexts are also essential. Insight in the body of knowledge of our field (as well as adjacent fields) is very relevant as well, and so are analytical and (applied) research skills. And last, but not least, writing skills and insight in the use of visual presentation formats are competencies that are most generally attributed to the technical communication professional. In Dutch we would say that we are looking for a “sheep with five legs,” which seems to be a funny expression since no one has ever made clear why the fifth leg would be beneficial to anyone.

In This Issue

This issue contains three articles. The first article is written by Clinton Lanier and can be characterized as a study of a technological innovation in an organization, and at the same time as a study into the practice of technical communication professionals. Lanier empirically investigated the implementation of a new content management system within an organization. He found that insecurity, perceived difficulty and unfamiliarity were key problems, and showed how these problems may be solved. I think this is a very relevant research direction within technical communication, opening doors to new professional and theoretical issues with high practical relevance.

The second article, by Meinald Thielsch and Isabel Perabo, is a new contribution to a long and fruitful line of research in this journal. Thielsch and Perabo conducted a large-scale survey into presentation software among German students and professionals. Rather than focusing on the design of slides—the main topic of several contributions in the past volumes of Technical Communication—they focus on the presentation software itself and the use of such software. As such, they sketch a broader picture of the use of presentation software. Their results also show that presentation slides may have a stand-alone function: when they serve as handouts, are sent via e-mail, and so forth. These may all be fruitful directions for future research into the use of presentation slides.

The last article in this issue is written by Saul Carliner. He applies the theories of business models to the practice of technical communicators, distinguishing between six different business models and acknowledging that there may be mixed variations in practice. Each business model is well-described, along with its implications for technical communicators. This article contributes to our knowledge about technical communication professionals at work, and more specifically about how their work is affected by the way they are embedded in an organization.

Frank R. Smith Outstanding Article Award 2011

Each year, an independent jury of three researchers and practitioners selects one outstanding article and up to three distinguished articles that appeared in Technical Communication during the previous calendar year. This year’s jury members were Charlie Kostelnick (chair), Kit Brown-Hoekstra, and last year’s winner, Tatiana Batova.

The award honors the memory of Frank R. Smith, during whose 18 years as editor this journal became established as the flagship publication of STC and of the profession.

This year, the jury selected one outstanding and one distinguished article.

2011 Outstanding Article in Technical Communication

Henk Pander Maat and Leo Lentz. Using sorting data to evaluate text structure: An evidence-based proposal for restructuring patient information leaflets. (August 2011)

“This article is an exemplary piece of research that addresses several important questions about genre conventions, reader expectations, and research methodology. It is well written, demonstrates thorough analysis, and uses statistical methods to prove significance. It illustrates how quantitative research methods can be applied to important communication problems, challenges regulations in favor of user-centered design, and is immediately useful to practitioners.”

2011 Distinguished Articles in Technical Communication

Luc Desnoyers. Toward a taxonomy of visuals in science communication. (May 2011)

“This article is ground-breaking work that addresses a key issue in visual communication that has not received much attention: classifying the wide array of disparate graphical forms used in many different scientific and technical disciplines. The article is well written, provides a broad scholarly perspective on the subject, and proposes an ingenious and comprehensive taxonomy that will enhance our understanding of visuals.”