60.4, November 2013

Sustainable Practices for Developing a Body of Knowledge

Hillary Hart and Craig Baehr


Purpose: This special issue attempts to situate the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) within the framework of other bodies of knowledge to understand the relationship between a profession and its BOK. The issue also investigates how approaches such as developing taxonomies, engaging communities of practice, and constructing framing metaphors can inform the evolution and content strategy for a body of knowledge or an organization-specific knowledge base.

Method: Reviewing the literature on developing bodies of knowledge and consulting with academics and practitioners on specific developmental goals and objectives for the TCBOK led us to posit three areas for focused investigation: constructing information taxonomies, engaging users and developers as a community of practice, and employing conceptualizing metaphors that can guide development without sacrificing complexity.

Results: The articles’ explorations of content strategy, information taxonomies, and user engagement are shown to be relevant for developing both company-specific information standards and field-wide bodies of knowledge. We leave open the question of whether use of conceptualizing metaphors belong more to construction of a BOK than to a set of standards.

Conclusions: The TCBOK is a healthy, maturing collaborative project, which perhaps indicates we have matured as a field, and explains who we are and what we do as a field. It articulates the boundaries of knowledge in our field and the value added to the profession. Continued development and maintenance of TCBOK will benefit from continuing research into the relationship that professions sustain between their body of knowledge and disciplinary practices in the field and in the academy.

Keywords: body of knowledge, knowledge bases, user engagement, information standards, conceptualizing metaphors

Practitioner's Takeaway

  • Developing a body of knowledge includes many of the skills and practices unique to the work technical communicators do.
  • The boundaries of a body of knowledge are determined by the tacit practices, skills, experiences, products, processes, and interdisciplinary knowledge that define the field.
  • A mature body of knowledge asks more than “what knowledge do we include?”; it also asks “what practices will sustain and add value?”
  • Developers of information standards can use many of the approaches outlined here.

Defining a Body of Knowledge

It is 2013, and anecdotal evidence tells us that most practitioners and teachers of technical communication (TC) still have some trouble explaining what it is that they do. Even after numerous calls for “professionalizing” the field of TC (Rainey, 2005; Rainey et al., 2005; Technical Communication Special Issues, November 2011 and February 2012), for moving toward “a coherent body of knowledge” (Spinuzzi, 2005); and even after the launch of an effort to create an accessible body of knowledge by volunteer members of the Society for Technical Communication (chronicled in Coppola, 2010)—technical communicators still encounter the blank looks … “technical what?” Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at the concept of “body of knowledge” as it defines a profession, a disciplinary field, or even an organization-specific set of standards. Why and how do bodies of knowledge become constructed and accepted? When do they tend to arise in the history of a profession? Is a body of knowledge the product (the repository of the collected information) or is it something more?

Let us start by positing that a body of knowledge can be developed and codified within and for any organization or disciplinary community. This codified knowledge exists in various forms including knowledge bases, portals, documented practices, written standards, to name a few. When the body of knowledge (BOK) defines a field, it serves to mark that particular field as a profession. The boundaries of that knowledge are often interdisciplinary and include theories, practices, standards, research, and general information both tacit and codified. From our review of how knowledge bases and bodies of knowledge are developed, it seems that in all cases, developers must make decisions about how the information is organized (taxonomies), vetted (construction and maintenance), and represented (metaphors, personas, and so forth).

This special issue of Technical Communication brings together four articles representing a diversity of perspectives on the care and maintenance of bodies of knowledge, including the need for them in the first place. Because technical communication is such a situated field, dependent on particular settings for the development and deployment of particular practices, the authors are from both the academy and industry, and each article focuses on a different aspect of what our initial investigation revealed of how contemporary bodies of knowledge are developed. It seems that developers of all knowledge bases must grapple with at least two goals:

  1. Develop a workable taxonomy;
  2. Develop a process of construction based on the developers’ conceptions of how to collect and prioritize information: who will be involved? And developers of field-wide bodies of knowledge must work on a third goal:
  3.  Frame the project using concepts and metaphors that ensure the BOK is “a living and dynamic corpus of work” (Coppola & Elliot, 2013)

Screen Shot 2014-01-08 at 1.38.34 PMThus, three of the articles herein focus on one of these three goals, while the fourth helps us parse some of the differences between an organization-specific knowledge base (or set of standards) and a field-wide body of knowledge.

We examine briefly, in this editorial introduction, the development of a Body of Knowledge (BOK) in several fields and attempt to locate the under-construction Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) in the recent history of how bodies of knowledge have emerged and for what purposes. Three current BOKs stand out for their relationship to technical communication and their differing approaches to achieving the three goals above: the American Society of Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge (ASCEBOK), the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), and the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK). In their foundational documents, developers of these BOKs see themselves as constructors of a knowledge base that attempts to capture the essential concepts, skills, theories, and practices that define the particular field. The features of these BOKs are listed in Table 1. The major trend we see in these data is that the more recent BOKs (PMBOK and SWEBOK) tend to have greater numbers of “builders.”

For the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), “A body of knowledge (BOK) represents a strategic direction and foundation for a learned profession, defining the knowledge, skills, and attitudes/attributes necessary to enter practice at the professional level” (ASCE, 2012), In the case of ASCE, the body of knowledge serves as the repository of information from which both licensure examinations and academic programs draw their content. The primary purpose of the ASCEBOK is to ensure that engineers entering practice are adequately prepared and have proven their preparedness by becoming licensed. Indeed, the ASCEBOK, originally published in 2004 and revised in 2008, was created in response to new standards promulgated by the professional association; it is intended to form the foundation of the licensure process. The ASCEBOK is determined by experts (60 of them in the last go-round) and in the 2008 version, the BOK is codified into 24 “outcomes” for learning. These outcomes are then divided into three categories: foundational (mathematics and humanities, for instance), technical (materials science, problem recognition and solving, for example), and professional (communication, teamwork, and so forth).

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), on the other hand, is constructed around processes: each of the five groups of processes (47 in all) defines skills, tasks, and knowledge required for a specific phase of a project. This taxonomy makes good sense because the common denominator for this field is the project, which must be initiated, planned, executed, monitored, and closed. The PMBOK is also organized around 10 Knowledge Areas (KAs). This BOK, which serves as the basis for eight different certifications, was developed by the Project Management Institute with help from volunteers.

The Guide to the Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK) organizes itself around 10 Knowledge Areas, which are then classified according to “the taxonomy of engineering design knowledge” proposed by Walter Vincenti (1990, p. 37) and also the pedagogical categories attributed to Benjamin Bloom (1956). Teams of experts in the field developed the KAs, but the resulting taxonomy and the first Guide were submitted to hundreds of stakeholders for comment, in keeping with the SWEBOK developers’ commitment to transparency and consensus “by all significant sectors of the relevant community”(p. 42). Such consensus has resulted in an additional 5 KAs (15 total) for the 3rd edition (not yet published).

That commitment to consensus is shared by the TCBOK developers, and it is ambitious: gaining “consensus” on what constitutes a field as broad as technical communication is, and continues to be, difficult. A body of knowledge for any field tests the boundaries of that field; it attempts to define the knowledge that has become part of common practices, standards, and theories that inform the work that field entails. Responding to a survey distributed to its members by STC in 2007, technical-communication professionals cited industries as diverse as insurance; merchant wholesalers; software publishers; and independent artists, writers and performers. And their job titles ranged from online help developer to graphic artist to content strategist to translator. Defining a profession involves delineating the boundaries of skills and knowledge necessary to practice, which means defining what may be related but not central disciplines that the field nonetheless draws upon. Other BOKs, such as the SWEBOK, outline these boundaries in their defining document (1999). In that same 2007 STC survey, respondents listed these related disciplines for TC: organizational management, project management, computer science, human factors, and information technology. That is quite a broad range of knowledge areas. As for industries worked in, technical communicators work everywhere, from chemical manufacturing to education to software publishers. Breadth of the field is not the only, but it is certainly a major, challenge in developing a BOK for technical communication. Table 2 outlines the TCBOK features, using the same categories as in Table 1. We can notice that the metaphors for TCBOK are somewhat softer than for the other BOKs—“personas” as opposed to “bar,” “foundation,” “base,” “stoneman.” The TCBOK taxonomy is still in flux, however, and has not yet been published on a public site (see Baehr, “Content Strategy,” in this issue, for more detailed information on content strategy and the TCBOK), though the development site is open: http://stcbok.editme.com/.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 4.28.45 PMOf course, organizing information is what technical communicators do. The various TCBOK teams have brought to the development of a body of knowledge their experience with and application of the best practices in the field. Thus the developers are determined to prepare a “guide” that is easily accessible, well organized, searchable, and—most of all—continually being vetted and expanded by practitioners in the field. Not just by a few designated experts, but by anyone who has experience (whether in academia, industry, non-profits, and/or government) and wishes to contribute.

Unlike other BOKs, the intent of the TCBOK is not to codify a set of skills either for certification or as a way to assess educational programs; certification and program assessment, which the three BOKs described above have led to, are related but very different projects that may or may not grow out of the TCBOK (TC certification is currently in its beginning stages). The goal of the TCBOK project is to create a way for professionals to collaborate on defining for employers, educators, the government, and technical communicators themselves what defines technical communication as an interdisciplinary and evolving profession. The TCBOK project has a six-year history and dozens of technical communicators who have served as advisors, contributors, and volunteers in its continuing development. In 2012-2013, a new team took on the next phase in the project’s development to restructure content, promote social engagement, and establish new publication and editorial policies.

All in all, developing the TCBOK has presented many challenges that happen to be central to the work technical communicators do. These commonly shared practices include content management, user-centered navigation, information structuring, online publication policies, and social engagement practices. To design, structure, administer, and engage volunteers in the knowledge portal, the team had to make use of a wide range of theoretical perspectives including user experience design, structured authoring, information modeling, social capital theory, knowledge management, information findability, communities of practice, and social media integration.

This special issue aims to explore these perspectives and practices more broadly in developing bodies of knowledge for technical communication, within individual corporations as well as professional associations. Development of the TCBOK provides a case study in integrating practice and theory to develop an accessible, flexible, and continually evolving corpus that is nonetheless authoritative and reliable. But TCBOK is only a fairly large example of the issue every knowledge organization confronts: how to elicit, organize, and make accessible the standards, concepts, skills, and practices that define the knowledge base of that organization, whether a Fortune 500 company or a professional association representing a disciplinary field seeking to be recognized as such. Individual articles in this issue examine the construct of a body of knowledge from the perspectives of its conceptualization; the role of social engagement (social media integration and interpersonal engagement); decisions about content strategy, including information modeling and knowledge management; and the process of developing organization-specific practices, knowledge resources, and standards.

Conceptualizing a Body of Knowledge

We all know that metaphors are powerful ways of getting at truth without sacrificing nuance. The metaphor of “body of knowledge” is especially interesting in the way it combines a concrete word for an organic being (“body”) with one of the most abstract of words (“knowledge”). Applied to technical communication, the metaphor delineates the very nature of the profession: the “head” that develops content strategies, information bases, and so forth, and the “heart” that remains always an advocate for the user. In their article, “Conceptualizing the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge—Context, Metaphor, and Directions,” Nancy Coppola and Norbert Elliot draw on research on the power of metaphor not only to make meaning but to stabilize knowledge and guide scientific theory and practice. In technical communication, metaphor can also serve as a teaching tool to disseminate complex ideas to the public.

Beginning with an explication of “body of knowledge” as a metaphor suggesting “a living and dynamic corpus of work,” this article provides a conceptual analysis of the TCBOK initiative by focusing on metaphors of relational variables and trading zones. In the authors’ exegesis, the formative variables of the TCBOK attempt to define the core knowledge areas and their detailed “facets.” Drawing on others’ use of variable models, Coppola and Eliot construct a model for the intersection of the domains of technical communication with specific settings. The outcome of the relationships examined by the model is best practices. To develop a model sufficiently useful for establishing the scope of TC practice, however, the authors propose expanding the model to include both ways of producing knowledge: the traditional way generated primarily in an academic setting and the 21st century version in which knowledge creation is “transdisciplinary and often socially produced.” Both types of knowledge may be easily shared within the digital space of the TCBOK, but to foster easy collaboration of academics and practitioners to produce new knowledge, the authors propose their second operative metaphor: an interactive trading zone in which the two groups may “trade one another’s expertise in order to solve a specific problem.”

Trading zones map out boundaries of disciplinary knowledge based on the function and unique skill set of the individual technical communicator. These zones operate “as a digital ecology in which various stakeholders may develop new ways of engaging the variables of technical communication.” As the authors demonstrate, creating “knowledge exchanges fostering collaboration and negotiation” was important to development of the TCBOK; their model seeks to extend this practice as TCBOK grows, paying increased attention to intrapersonal and interpersonal domains of TC. These domains include “intellectual openness” and “conscientiousness” (intrapersonal) as well as “collaboration and leadership” (interpersonal). We find compelling the authors’ final recommendations for maintaining, improving, and advancing the TCBOK as the field advances.

Ensuring Community Engagement and Building Social Capital

Joel Kline and Thomas Barker have documented in this journal the social history of developing the TCBOK from 2007-2011 (Kline & Barker, 2012). They found that the original organizational framework was successful in helping teams collaborate and create sustainable practices, which in turn, led to a heightened sense of professional status and value added information products. What eventually slowed down work on the TCBOK was a diminution—once the nitty-gritty content gathering, tagging, and creating began—of fellowship and excitement among the members of what was a community of practice.

In their article, Konstanze Alex-Brown and Joel Kline explore this framework (and others) within socially-mediated workplaces in developing and maintaining knowledge assets. They propose a model that integrates socially-mediated tools (technology), communities of practice for knowledge sharing (human networks), and social capital (value-added knowledge assets) to leverage organizational knowledge sharing within knowledge bases. Their article examines the results of two studies to determine best practices for integrating tools, networks, and knowledge. Their findings suggest that organizations focus on four important goals: negotiating shared practices, sustaining community, building a diverse community, and encouraging shared discourse. The value-added benefits include an increase in the ability to innovate, compete, network, and collaborate using the knowledge assets relevant to the organization’s work.

Strategizing Content and Constructing Information Taxonomies

Building a knowledge base or a body of knowledge requires a coherent content strategy, and key to that is building a usable information taxonomy with a range of tools that meet both user expectations and information-gathering needs. Information taxonomy models support content strategy by guiding authors in content creation, facilitating reuse of content, and supporting adaptive content (Rockley & Cooper, 2012). Some of the domain areas, representative of the content assets in TCBOK’s information taxonomy, include the following: information management, information design, information development, instructional design, user experience, visual design, technical writing, technical editing, and usability testing. This list is by no means complete but represents the current, evolving taxonomy present within the existing body of knowledge project.

As a metaphorical construct, the body of knowledge represents all that is assumed to be known in the field, its boundaries, trends, and possibilities; knowledge that is both tacit and documented. A knowledge base, on the other hand, is a tangible, codified information product, with a systematic approach, sustainable process, navigable interface, and findable content. In Figure 1 each rectangle represents a different knowledge domain, such as information design, Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 4.31.38 PMusability, technical editing, which overlap and comprise the entire body of knowledge. The center darker square represents the boundaries of the codified product (TCBOK) as a knowledge base. In actuality, the shapes are likely not as rigidly defined, but more amorphous, since it is difficult to draw distinct boundaries in such knowledge. Other codified (and smaller) knowledge bases, such as journal article libraries, documented standards, white papers, may exist either inside or outside the shaded region.

Sustainable practices that involve ongoing participation from subject matter experts, students, industry practices, and emerging research, are important to the overall content strategy for the TCBOK project. The process of developing and sustaining this content strategy requires analyzing users, content, organizational needs, processes, and technology (Rockley and Cooper, 2012). In “Developing a Sustainable Content Strategy for a Technical Communication Body of Knowledge,” Craig Baehr explores the complexities of a sustainable content strategy for the TCBOK project, including its integral role with regard to information findability, information taxonomies, and user preferences. In a case study approach, the article examines factors that affect content strategy in a fairly mature, large-scale knowledge base project, the TCBOK. It outlines specific content strategy goals, including: collecting user feedback; examining other technical communication taxonomies; and discussing decision making practices as they affect information taxonomies, navigation tools, and working prototypes. The article finds that as a knowledge base (and its user base) matures, an effective content strategy may require a hybrid approach in balancing both user preferences and technological feasibility and in managing a successful and sustainable product.

Developing and Implementing Standards

One of the decision points for developers of a professional body of knowledge is to determine whether what is being built is really a knowledge base of standards or a body of knowledge. PMBOK has come close to morphing into a set of standards. Or at least the newest version of its Guide, titled PMBOK Guide and Standards, insists that “PMI’s global standards are the foundation of the profession” (PMI, 2013). Standards are important for many industries and many products—for safety, for consistency, and so forth. Whether a body of knowledge can be constructed as a set of standards is open to question. Certainly within a particular corporation, standards make sense for products, whether information products or other kinds, but if Coppola and Elliot’s definition of the metaphor that is body of knowledge (“a living and dynamic corpus of work”), is accurate, then surely a BOK goes far beyond standards in its content and its content management, to say nothing of breadth of its user (and developer) base.

Since, from its very first inception, the TCBOK was envisioned as a collaboration of academic and industry practitioners, we felt it important to include in this special issue an article entirely from the perspective of industry practice. The article by Bob Vitas explains how IBM information developers have created community-driven information quality standards. Developed by a council of experts, these standards were developed by internal and external experts in the IBM information development community. Standards used were classified into three categories: corporate (specific global requirements), information quality (specific to the information development community), and as-required (specific only in certain situations). The overarching theme of this initiative was to enhance the total information experience for the customer by ensuring higher levels of quality, value, and user experience.

The many challenges associated with implementing and tracking compliance with the standards included the variability of contributing authors, differing customer expectations, and the necessity that some standards had to be broader and higher level than others, to name a few. While the initiative is just getting started, this article offers many insights and practices toward developing standards that account for corporate requirements, customer needs, and information development community practices. From our viewpoint as academics interested in understanding the practices of TC in specific settings, it was especially intriguing to read Bob Vitas’ account of the decision to build the standards “with a grass-roots approach,” ensuring that the entire community of Information Development professionals were intimately involved in the process.


It seems to us that any body of knowledge is much more than a collection of knowledge assets collected and networked in codified form. It exists beyond these boundaries in the tacit practices, skills, experiences, products, processes, and interdisciplinary knowledge that define the field. A mature body of knowledge asks more than “what knowledge do we include?”; it also asks “what practices will sustain and add value?” In the case of the TCBOK, these practices include content strategy, social engagement, information standards, and metaphorical constructs that govern how we map out our future.

For technical communication, the TCBOK represents a codified product that is healthy and maturing. The attempt to develop such a collection of knowledge assets for the profession indicates we have matured as a field, and perhaps grown beyond the identity crisis of what to call ourselves or how to explain what we do as professionals. That is one purpose of the TCBOK—to articulate this value and to map the boundaries of knowledge in the profession. There is still much to be done—both for the BOK itself and the field. Other knowledge assets must be discovered and integrated to help further expand the TCBOK’s value. And research should continue to explore the relationship that professions sustain between their body of knowledge and specific disciplinary practices in the field and in the academy.

It is our hope that the articles in this issue on bodies of knowledge and knowledge standards contribute to the ongoing conversation about how to define the field of technical communication or at least create spaces where boundary delineation can be negotiated by the community of all TC practitioners: those from the academy, industry, government, non-profits … and all those who travel back and forth between those settings.



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About the Authors

Hillary Hart is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication and currently serves as the chair of the organization’s Body of Knowledge Committee. As Distinguished Sr. Lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Texas, she has developed in the last 26 years a multi-level program in engineering communication, teaching over 165 undergraduate and graduate engineering students yearly. Hillary has published one book and over 20 technical articles on environmental risk communication, engineering research ethics, and defining technical communication. Contact: Hart@mail.utexas.edu.

Craig Baehr is an STC Associate Fellow and associate director of Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. He is program director of the STC Academic SIG, content team facilitator for the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge project, and faculty sponsor for the STC Texas Tech University Student chapter. He is author of Web Development: A Visual-Spatial Approach and Writing for the Internet: A Guide to Real Communication in Virtual Space. Previously, he worked as a technical writer and trainer for ten years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Contact: craig.baehr@ttu.edu.

Manuscript received and accepted 17 October 2013.