Purpose: This article provides a snapshot of how industry leaders currently conceptualize our identities and relationships, as well as some of the challenges we continue to face as a profession.
Method: This study used a modified Delphi method. To gather data, we used two sets of survey questions and two structured interviews.
Results: Technical communicators are functioning as agile, adaptable, and multi-specialists in a broad range of organizational functions. They have become increasingly visible and valuable assets throughout a project lifecycle, and in many cases are able to define their own roles, which include team leadership and management responsibilities.
Conclusion: Technical communicators continue to serve in core functional responsibilities in a wide range of industries.
Keywords: professionalism, technical communication, skills, job titles, relationships, organizations
- Multiple skills and specializations define technical communicator roles within organizations, while agility and adaptability often determine a best fit in terms of roles.
- Technical communicators with a breadth of both project experience and specializations typically prove to make successful project managers for technical information products.
- Job titles tend to be largely defined by the nature of content and product families within organizations that employ technical communicators.
- Technical communicators are becoming increasingly visible and valuable contributors throughout a product lifecycle, rather than during one or more phases of projects.
The identities and relationships that define technical communicators demonstrate breadth and depth, in both skills and experience. In specific workplace settings, our identities are further defined by specific specializations, job titles, functions (within an organizational structure), and relationships with peers, subject matter experts (SMEs) and managers. We are also defined through our education, practices, standards, processes, as well as our uses of technology, tools, language skills, and media. We have sources of codified knowledge, including books, journals, magazine, information products, a body of knowledge, and formal and informal educational programs and credentials. As technical communicators, we are interdisciplinary; we are user experience designers, information architects, information developers, writers, editors, educators, and more. Our roles in professional contexts are often complex, and as a result, many of technical communicators are considered to be hybrids of sorts, with experience in both professional and academic contexts. In short, technical communicators are adaptive, resourceful, and agile in the work they do.
Our identities are also an extension of this work, and can be characterized as highly collaborative, multimodal, interdisciplinary, geographically dispersed, user-driven, and technologically mediated and situated. Statistical trends and technical communication research support many of these major themes. Almost all working technical communicators have bachelor’s degrees and nearly half (46%) hold higher degrees (Hart & Conklin, 2006). We have extensive disciplinary and interdisciplinary connections, and technical communication products are a valuable part of virtually every industry. In 2013, the top ten industry sectors that employ technical communicators included computer systems design, architectural and engineering services, management/scientific/technical consulting, employment services, software publishers, scientific research and development, management, publishing, instruments manufacturing, aerospace (2013–2014 STC Salary Database). As a result, we not only draw from a range of core and related skill sets, but we work closely with SMEs, and can be found serving vital roles with a broad reach across all levels of an organization.
It should come as no surprise, then, that with identities and relationships that are broad and diverse, our reach and value is equally so. The range of jobs in technical communication today includes technical writers and editors, indexers, information architects, instructional designers, technical illustrators, globalization and localization specialists, usability professionals, visual designers, Web designers, teachers and researchers, and trainers (STC Web site). In terms of our collaborative contributions, most technical communicators spend between 20 and 80% of their time working on teams in a variety of roles and specializations (Hart & Conklin, 2006). And considering our location and value, in 2013, in the United States, ten states accounted for more than half (54%) of all technical writers: California, Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Illinois (2013–2014 STC Salary Database). The average annual wage reported for a technical communicator was $67,900, ranging from $40,270 to $105,760 (2013–2014 STC Salary Database). Undoubtedly, other contributing factors and characteristics help define our identities and relationships as technical communicators. Some of these factors we know from this historical information, but understanding how our roles and relationships have evolved, particularly within industry, is of great importance.
This article is one part of a special issue of Technical Communication reporting the results of a large study of technical communication managers from prominent companies in the tech sector, including Adobe, Boston Scientific, Computer Associates, Google, IBM, Madcap, and Oracle. These managers served on the Advisory Council for the Society for Technical Communication in 2013–2014.
This article reports the results of one part of that study, focusing on technical communication Identities and Relationships and how they have evolved in some of the top companies that employ technical communicators. It is accompanied by two other articles, which address findings about other pertinent aspects of technical communication today: Products and Processes (Dubinsky, 2015) and Education and Training (Kimball, 2015b).
In focusing on Identities and Relationships, this article challenges some of the preconceptions and past trends, asking questions to explore a deeper understanding of what skills, specializations, experience, jobs, and values define our roles and relationships within industry settings. This study aims to provide a snapshot of how industry leaders currently conceptualize our identities and relationships, as well as some of the challenges we continue to face as a profession.
Our professional identities and relationships continue to evolve with our processes, products, standards, and technologies. Reviewing a selection of scholarship from the past decade provides a snapshot of the profession as well as a contemporary perspective, which largely informed the questions asked in the study. This selection summarizes some of the selected trends related to the identities and relationships of technical communicators in the profession, and reveals some interesting, but somewhat unsurprising trends.
One way our profession has been defined is through the efforts toward creating a set of core skill areas for professional certification. Early certification efforts led by members of the STC in the mid-1990s focused on eight core competencies: advocacy, design, execution, innovation, use of media, research skills, user of support tools, and usability (Turner & Rainey, 2004). These were later revised into nine core competencies: project planning, project analysis, solution design, organizational design, written communication, visual communication, content development, content management, and final production (qtd. in Coppola, 2011). In a comparison of competencies from both academic and professional sources, Coppola (2011) concluded that our core competencies must be defined by knowledge and skills, in addition to the products and processes. She further argued that “disciplinary status is closely aligned with professional status,” and that professionalization speaks to how we create a common identity (Coppola, 2011, p. 282). In a special issue on the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK), Hart and Baehr (2013) suggest that the boundaries that shape our discipline are determined by the “tacit practices, skills, experiences, products, processes, and interdisciplinary knowledge” of the field (p. 259). Similarly, these boundaries help define the professional identities of technical communicators.
Another trend related to identities and relationships suggests an increasing connection between roles and products in the work technical communicators produce. (For more on the products and processes of technical communication, see Dubinsky 2015 in this special issue.) Conklin (2007) concludes “the practice of technical communication work is becoming more interactive and collaborative, and less solitary and textual,” suggesting an interesting parallel relationship between product and identity (p. 210). In essence, as our work becomes more interactive and collaborative, so do our professional relationships with colleagues, customers, and peers.
Conklin also found that while technical communicators were responsible for individual products, their roles have expanded into areas such as project managers and relationship builders within a workplace (Conklin, 2007). Echoing this trend, Spinuzzi (2007) argues that technical communication work has become increasingly distributed “across time, space, disciplines, fields, and trade,” influenced undoubtedly by various stakeholders and technologies (p. 272). Technical communicators’ identities are defined, in part, by the work they do, and that has been moving increasingly toward information sharing, single sourcing, project management, and content management (Spinuzzi, 2007).
Yet technical communicators’ identities and relationships are also closely linked to process. Hart and Conklin (2006) suggest a close functional relationship between successful technical communicators and their ability to operate relative to corporate business and strategic processes. This underscores the importance of professional identity as a function not just of product, but also of process. Furthermore, their study of technical communicators revealed professionals serving in multiple roles, including writer, information management, publications manager, information architect, and editor, among others (Hart & Conklin, 2006). Hart and Conklin’s analysis of themes from discussions with their sample of technical communicators revealed the following to be most significant: business, interaction, self and technical communication, clients and users, organizing, and technology (Hart & Conklin, 2006).
In a related study, Slattery (2007) argues that both the experience and strategies that technical communicators use to manage complex information environments influence “what it means to be a technical writer in the 21st century” (p. 323). He further suggests that the expertise of technical communicators has evolved and is no longer relegated to the simple assemblage of documents or technical skills, but is more holistic in nature (Slattery, 2007). This would seem to suggest technical communication professional identities are defined in part by the breadth of skills, rather than depth in a particular singular specialization.
And finally, another interesting trend in technical communication identities and relationships underscores some of the tensions which impact our professional standing. Hackos (2005) notes the potentially disruptive effect of technology on the future of the profession and its identity, and suggests that to help mitigate this effect, a focus on creating information products that best suit customers’ needs is a critical success factor. Rude (2008) underscores the tensions in the relationships between technical communication researchers and practitioners in her special issue on public and community discourse. She acknowledges that research results have “entered our classrooms and have influenced the identity of the field, but researchers and teachers do not have the direct pipeline to practices that we have as academics preparing students for work as practitioners in corporate settings” (Rude, 2008, p. 268). It would seem the profession still has challenges with how technology and partnerships (between academic and professional sectors) affect how our identities evolve and how best to collaborate within the umbrella of interdisciplinary specializations that currently define the field. This study explores questions related to many of these important trends and tensions that have characterized the profession over the past decade.
Summary of Methods
For a full description of the methodology for the entire study, please refer to the issue introduction (Kimball, 2015a). But in short, we conducted a modified Delphi study, which is a methodology intended to assess the ideas and opinions of a group of experts by asking them to address similar questions through several rounds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Specifically, we conducted four rounds of data collection:
- Round 1: survey
- Round 2: survey
- Round 3: face-to-face focus group
- Round 4: synchronous online focus group
The population for the study was small, defined by the membership of the STC’s Advisory Council. Nonetheless, the iterative framework provided by a Delphi study generated a large amount of data for analysis and comparison, including survey data, written comments, textual transcripts, and observational notes.
Given the large and multivariate nature of the data, we employed text mining and visualization techniques extensively to code and identify patterns and contradictions in the attitudes expressed by the participants. Statistical information graphics including bubble graphs, spark line graphs, and radar charts were created using content analysis themes, categories, and relationships. These graphics provided us with a more objective perspective than simple subjective interpretation would allow, and arguably greater reliability than manual content analysis, which relies on subjectively derived codes to begin with. This analysis revealed interesting, though inevitably provisional and exploratory findings.
The purpose of this portion of the study was not to review what we already know, but rather to provide a snapshot of professional identities of the field from a contemporary industry perspective, filtered through the lens of academic inquiry. Specifically, this portion of the larger study attempted to address the following questions:
- What roles should technical communicators play in organizations?
- What organizational structures enable technical communicators to do their best work?
- How do technical communicators see themselves relating to SMEs, users, and management?
- How do we describe that role in terms of job titles and professional identity and what are the implications of this naming?
The following sections provide a summary of results from the survey rounds, focus group rounds, and a concluding discussion.
Rounds 1 and 2: Survey Results
The first two rounds of the study consisted of surveys including questions related to professional identities and relationships. The first round of questions was presented as an online survey with the scope of questions focusing on specifics related to the professional identities and relationships technical communicators have within specific industry settings. These questions aimed to explore the kinds of job titles, relationship to other fields and specializations, level of autonomy, advancement opportunities, and how the technical communicator role has changed over the past five years. The second survey round consisted of followup questions explored the leadership and management roles, the relationship between usability studies and technical communication, factors that influence job titles, and the relationships between technical communicators and related disciplines. Each subsequent section below presents a summarized question followed by a discussion of the results from participants.
Survey Round One
Participants were provided a list of questions, provided below, along with a summary of response trends and related visual information graphics. The following categories represent the range of topics addressed: (1) job titles and organizational context, (2) relationships between subfields and related disciplines, (3) role of autonomy, authority, and advancement, and (4) changes in roles and staffing. A summary and discussion of the results by individual category is provided below.
Job Titles and Organizational Context. This category of questions focused on where in the company technical communicators work, who supervises, and who evaluates them. The following questions were asked:
- What do you call your company’s technical communicators ‐ what are their job titles?
- For whom do your technical communicators work? Who supervises them? Who evaluates their performance?
- Describe the organizational context in which your technical communicators work. Do they work in a separate publications group? As part of a multifunction team? With whom do they work every day? With whom do they interact less directly?
Technical writer, information developer, and content developer were identified multiple times, from the wide range of titles selected. In many cases, participants selected more than one title, likely due to the breadth of function of technical communicators in their organization (see Table 1). In some cases, many technical communicators were identified as having highly specialized or even dual titles.
In terms of organizational location, participant responses included the following: quality / research & development, information services, and information development departments. In some cases they worked in centralized teams, and others were separate groups such as a documentation team. In many cases they reported to a manager, but also received regular feedback or worked closely with SMEs and peers in other departments. Generally, their work is directly supervised or evaluated by team leaders and department managers. These results would seem to suggest that while technical writing and information development continue to be essential roles, many technical communicators are defined more broadly by a wide range of skills and disciplinary functions.
Relationship Between Subfields and Related Disciplines. This question explored the relationship between what technical communicators do in that workplace context and their relatedness to other subfields/related disciplines. The following specific question wording was used:
What’s the relationship in your company between technical communication and similar fields that deal with the design, development, and distribution of technical information for users?
Six categories were provided, including user experience design, information design, knowledge management, usability, interface design, and information architecture. For each category, participants used the following scale to describe the relationship between a category and its relationship to the field from the following list: specialty within technical communication, distinct relationship but overlapping, separate field (see Figure 1).
Participants identified information design, information architecture, and knowledge management as distinct specialties within technical communication. Participants varied their responses describing the relationship between the other three specialties—usability, interface design, and user experience design. More participants characterized their relationship as separate fields, rather than core competencies within technical communication. And a few indicated that these areas were distinct skill sets within technical communication, but perhaps overlap with other disciplines. What this suggests is that information design, information architecture, and knowledge management are essential skills within technical communication, while usability, interface design, and user experience are valued skills, which may or may not considered to be a part of core competencies of technical communicators in all organizations.
Role of Autonomy, Authority, and Advancement. This category asked participants to discuss advancement opportunities, as well as the level of autonomy and authority in technical communication roles. The following open-ended questions were asked:
- Describe the typical pattern for advancement or promotion for technical writers in your company (if there is one). Do they generally stay in the field of technical communication, or branch out into other roles? If the latter, what other roles? How long are they likely to stay at a particular level along this path?
- How much autonomy and authority do your technical communicators experience? In other words, in what areas or aspects of your company’s activities are technical communicators considered the experts?
Responses to these questions were somewhat brief and tended to vary widely by company. Many technical communicators are considered to be disciplinary experts in fields such as user experience, information architecture, product documentation, and as general word experts. As such, many had a great deal of autonomy in content creation or assumed direct responsibility for what they produce. In terms of career progression, participants reported that a majority stay in the field or in technical communicator roles, although the names of those roles may change depending on organizational change. Some move into other fields such as project management. In one particular case a “writer moved into a hybrid role that included tech writing, product operations and platform management.” These responses suggest that while technical communicators have some degree of autotomy within organizations, they must also be adaptable to other roles as part of their career progression.
Changes in Roles and Staffing. This final category explored how the role of technical communicators in the organization has changed in recent years, including staffing levels. One open-ended question and one multiple choice question (with comment option) were asked:
- In the past five years, how has the role of technical communicators in your organization changed?
- In the past five years, how has the number of technical communicators changed in your organization? In the comment area, please tell us why you think this change occurred.
Responses suggested that roles change with specific technologies and business operations. Technical communicators have been moving from a passive to a more active role, with increased autonomy, greater management responsibility for information products, new roles, working on multiple projects simultaneously, and the use of fewer job titles to complement specific business practices. Technical communicators are considered to be “product experts” which have become “hubs” for engineering, services and training. One response stated that roles have changed dramatically, with new roles created “to better complement our company’s agile approach to product and information development.” Responses also show that most participants perceived an increase in the number of technical communicators in their organizations or a maintenance of the status quo; only one reported a small decrease. (see Table 2).
Participants offered specific reasons for this growth or maintenance of numbers in their written comments, which included the “volume and complexity of products,” “aligned with portfolio management,” and more international hires in countries such as the Czech Republic and India. While the general trend suggested that technical communicator staff either increased or stayed the same, many of the reasons for these changes were linked to products, team functions, or specific organizational needs.
Survey Round Two
One of the purposes of the initial survey round was to collect basic statistical data and responses to help build subsequent rounds of questions, and to provide participants with summaries of previous comments and trends in overall responses. These trends led to questions related to leadership and management, usability, roles, and subfields or related disciplines. While shorter in length, the questions in this round were designed to pinpoint specific points of interest from round one. To better illustrate these trends, participants were furnished with a summary report of responses from the first survey round, including related information graphics, from which followup, open-ended survey questions were produced.
Leadership and Management Roles. The first followup question focused on the specific leadership or management roles technical communicators serve in the organization. Since many participants identified the importance of team leadership or management responsibilities, the followup question asked was:
In what leadership or managerial positions do technical writers currently serve in your organization?
While responses tended to be short for this question, the general trends in responses suggested that technical communicators serve in leadership and management roles at all levels, including manager and director positions, in some cases. One response indicated that they “serve in first line, second line, [and] executive management” which included responsibility for areas such as “content strategy, information architecture, [and] content team leadership.” Other specific roles identified included documentation manager and technical writing manager. In a few responses, it was either not applicable or very few managers had technical writing backgrounds. The specific leadership and managerial positions seemed to be largely dependent on the organizational structure, although in some cases, it was not clear why a few organizations had few managers with technical writing backgrounds.
Usability and Technical Communication. This followup question focused the relationship between technical communication and usability in roles and functions within an organizational context, which came up in first round survey responses. This specific question asked was:
Usability came out as largely separate from TC on the question about the relationship between fields, and on the analytical approaches question it came out near the bottom in importance. What do you see as the relationship between usability testing and technical communication?
Responses supported the notion that usability and technical communication roles in their organizations shared an integral relationship. The relationship between the two was suggested to be essential and a component of user-centered design. Participants characterized the relationship between usability and technical communication as follows:
“Content is a product like the software, hardware, etc., that our companies create. Thus, we believe technical communication of any kind should be subject to user-centered methodologies, such as usability testing, but also including user research, scenario development, persona development, etc., in service to designing the appropriate content and content experience.”
“Absolutely essential. Our writers work very closely with UX in multiple areas: Observing client tests to see how they use the product, user research, UI terminology and product usability. UX and writing teams are in a similar position: outside of engineering but part of the development process.”
“UX is also an area that writers can move to as their careers develop.”
One participant noted a disconnection between usability and technical communication, though it was unclear what the specific causes for that disjunction might be:
“The [two] of them in current state (practical reality) do not go hand in hand. They are very disjointed. If technical writing can be done based on the real use cases utilized to develop the process/ system it might be a different story.”
Earlier responses from Figure 1 suggested that usability and user experience design were either somewhat related or considered to be a separate discipline from technical communication. Here, however, responses suggested that usability and user centered design were integral to the work that technical communicators produce in these organizations. In some cases, technical communicators, as writers, could even move into user experience design as part of their career progression.
Factors Influencing Naming of Job Titles or Roles. Building on responses from the first round, this followup question explored how key factors influenced names selected for specific job titles in the organization:
What factors influence actual job titles of technical communicators in your company? In what ways?
Responses to this question included the following:
“TCers are members of the software development job family, thus the TC titles are related to the software developer titles. A technical communicator in our company can rise to the level of Senior Technical Staff Member, for example, and that is a (traditionally) software development (and other technical job role) designation. We also consider industry-standard roles, such as information architect and content strategist or designer. We often describe TCers in 2 ways—the software-development oriented title and a more content-oriented descriptive role title.”
“We have a tech writer job ladder, so that is their official title, but they can call themselves whatever they want in their intranet profiles.”
Generally, the responses illustrated a wide range of contributing factors, which included where in the organization the job was located, the amount of time spent creating content, the relationship to products, or in some cases, self-selected titles. Based on the responses to this question, job titles seemed to be more driven or influenced by organizational context, rather than specific trends in the field or in other organizations.
Relationship to Subfields and Related Disciplines. To further explore the relationships between technical communication and subfields/related disciplines, a followup question was asked, presenting participants with the radar charts (Figure 1) and a revised question asking participants to comment on the results:
Please comment on the differences you see in the radar charts showing responses to the question, what’s the relationship in your company between technical communication and similar fields?
Specific responses to this followup question included the following:
“In our company today, UX design, interface design, and usability are all considered one field—specialties, perhaps, but one field. Information design and information architecture are considered a second field. We don’t really have a practice called ‘knowledge management’ in our company, although sometimes tech support has a specialty dealing specifically with content and those folks call themselves ‘knowledge managers.’”
“User Experience: logical that it would spread vertically. Info Design: is usually specialized w/in TC. Knowledge Management: should be 50/50 on vertical scale and lean to the right. UX: usually more engineering related. UI: the current model matches our company. Info Arch: I wouldn’t see this as specialty w/in TC; would partly come from separate fields.”
“Technical Communication is much related to information design.”
Generally, these responses confirmed that the trends illustrated in the radar charts seemed to accurately represent the participants’ experiences. In a few cases, responses attempted to clarify relationships between disciplines within their organizational context. While these skills or specialties differ between organizations, in terms of their value or emphasis, collectively they function as core skills which adequately describe the work of technical communicators.
Rounds 3 and 4: Onsite and Online Focus Groups Results
The final two rounds of this study included onsite (Round 3) and online (Round 4) focus group discussions. The onsite focus group discussion questions addressed followup questions related to the technical communicator’s role in relation to information design, research, and individual specialization. The online focus group discussion focused specifically on a single question, which dealt with the evolution and future directions of technical communicators’ professional identities.
Onsite Focus Group
The onsite focus group was conducted as a 90-minute meeting session with industry panel participants at the 2014 Society for Technical Communication Annual Summit. Questions asked participants to describe relational and conceptual aspects of information design, research value, and specialization related to technical communicators in their organization. Two visions for technical communicators arose in the conversations in the onsite focus group discussion. Some comments suggested that technical communicators must grow in more specialized ways, into roles such as usability expert, information designer, user experience designer, and so forth. Other comments suggested that technical communicators must broaden their skills, so they can contribute flexibly to product teams. Several themes and related concepts also emerged from the discussion, which were mapped from a textual transcript of the session onto a bubble chart, provided in Figure 2.
Specific themes that emerged from the discussion are identified by large print text terms in the center of each of the bubbles. By default, themes are named by the most prominent concept in them. These themes included the following, in order of coherence: technical, design, content, customers, and people. (In addition, four themes stand alone, each containing a single concept; UX, need, tech, and start.) Within each sphere, each small text term represents related concepts (or topics) for each theme. For clarity, Table 3 lists each theme and its related concepts.
The specific questions asked in the focus group and selected quoted responses from the textual transcript are provided below. These responses provided insights about how design, research, and specialization relate to technical communication in their respective organizations.
How do you define design, and what role in design do technical communicators have?
“It depends on the type of support you have from your organization. We took a bold step last year for mainframe products … what we’ve done is we’ve brought in UX designers. We have a UX design team for mainframe products, for every single business line. So the conversation is now between them and Information Services.”
How do you define research in terms of it being something that a technical communicator might need to know how to do?
“You know, and then another one was we see trends across our company and industry as a whole that the focus is very tactical. We are so driven to create content of any kind i.e. for the product that we often do not consider for whom we are writing and what the writing contents should be. Hence research, which would shore up on us of who we were writing for, what content they need to achieve for their goals, is not of the highest importance.”
“Because you are so heavily invested in agile, we want these self-starting self-regulated teams. And that’s what agile is all about. So in a way that’s actually helping information services at CA get people to be self-starters. Our information engineers are working with their architects with their information architects to develop those stories for each spread.”
Is specialization a good thing, a direction that technical communicators are going in, or is it something that we should be thinking more broadly about? Is it fair to say that these are more facets of technical communication that technical communicators are going to have to build skill sets into, or are they more like tracks?
“We see information architecture as a range of skills. Some of them are tactical. Every writer, every editor in my organization, IBM, has to have some degree of tactical information architecture skills.”
“So you have to have the big picture, but when you start getting titles and starting to focus so it’s not a specialization is just where in spending my time, that’s this growth path. Because now you have more scope, you have more people you’re working with.”
The onsite focus group responses provided a number of interesting insights. First, the relationship between information design and user experience was again emphasized in the responses. When respondents were asked to identify these areas in terms of their relatedness to the field, they saw more separation as disciplines, but when describing their functions as skills sets in working situations, they saw them as much more integral and related. Second, research skills are acknowledged as important in user-centered content development, yet not considered to be absolutely essential to specific organizational roles. And while responses indicated “self-starters” and “agile” communicators were important to the team, the focus of the discussion seemed to emphasize “tactical” skills over research skills. And finally, with regard to specialization, individual areas of expertise were valued, but typically as part of a larger picture, or “growth path” for technical communicators. This seemed to suggest that possessing multiple skill sets is valued, especially since the trend in responses indicated that individual contributors were typically assigned a single, specialized function, in a team setting.
Online Focus Group
The online focus group was conducted as a 60-minute online meeting, using GoToMeeting conferencing software, which included the use of audio and text chat. For identities and relationships, participants were asked only one core question:
At your company, which direction do you think technical communicators are or should be heading?
As with the onsite focus group, specific themes, concepts, and relationships were mapped from a textual transcript of the session onto a bubble chart, provided in Figure 3.
Specific themes, identified by large text terms in the center of each sphere, included the following, in order of coherence: technical, adaptable, plateauing, organization, and career. Within these themes, several concepts, or smaller text terms inside spheres, were identified related to each major theme (see Table 4).
Selected quoted responses to this question are provided below, to help illustrate how respondents characterized these themes, concepts, and their relatedness within their respective organizational contexts.
At your company, which direction do you think technical communicators are or should be heading?
“I think that most of us are in agreement that the role of the technical communicator has to expand. I believe we have to keep pace with what’s happening in the world. Technology and information is just so fluid right now, and so dynamic. I think, in terms of the career path, technical communicators are, are not doing what they did even five years ago. I think they’re all being asked to do more and more and to broaden their skill set. And actually, from the career perspective, I think that for a technical communicator, that’s kind of exciting. Because I think that one of the things that they can do is, they learn new skills and grow these new skills. They have opportunities for other positions, especially in larger companies like mine. A technical communicator can easily move or, I should say, much more easily move, around the organization because of the skill set that we’re able to give them, and it goes well beyond writing.”
“It’s definitely more into the expectation to be more just more. Both a content curator, as well as you know, mobile today is a big thing. It’s going to be even more mobile tomorrow. So the user experience, and even design to a certain extent is going to be expected.”
“We’re trying to find new and different ways where our information engineers can broaden their skills sets, broaden their roles, and be more integral in the agile scrum team.”
“You know, this is about technical communicators developing new skills and really broadening their skills. And user interface design, the whole user experience base, that’s part and parcel of good content, right? So if an information engineer, technical communicator, whatever you want to call them.”
“The technoratas, or the content contributors, ought to be more involved in the overall user experience and the design of the documentation, even the design of the product. We’ve seen it on our end. We try to get our technoratas on our end to be more involved in the design and usability, and I think it does depend on the organization, on how they’re structured.”
“They’ve really become very engaged in the entire life cycle, from product design, giving feedback, getting development to make changes, going back and forth.”
“I think often domain expertise is enough.”
In general, these responses seemed to suggest a general movement beyond individual specialized roles to more agile, broader, or flatter organizations. In terms of specializations and skills, participants acknowledged a difference between skills technical communicators acquire in educational and workplace settings. It’s also important for technical communicators to learn a breadth of specialized skills and to understand how to translate them into a product environments and varied user contexts. In particular, the last quote suggested that domain knowledge is highly valued, while tool knowledge (while valuable) is secondary, and better acquired skills while on-the-job. Equally interesting is the belief that specializations and skills will continue to broaden, and provide technical communicators with increased mobility and opportunities within these organizations. Additionally, there is a trend toward involving technical communicators throughout the entire product lifecycle, perhaps due to the value they bring through a breadth of specializations. In summary, technical communicators continue to move into roles that suggest greater autonomy and serve essential functions throughout the lifecycle of information products.
The findings from this portion of the larger study have important implications for the professional identities and relationships of technical communicators. In this portion we explored specific practices and trends in technical communication job titles, roles, specializations, skills, career opportunities, management roles, and relationships in teams and within a larger organizational context. In general, participant responses tended to be very idea driven and concept based, which is an outcome the Delphi method fosters.
Initially, it was anticipated there would be great differences in responses to many of the questions about identities and relationships. And in fact there were some differences in specific job titles, the value of skills or specializations, and even in the use of terminology. However, participants often used different terminology or titles even though they were expressing similar ideas as their peers.
In regard to job titles, specific titles are still largely defined by the nature of the content and product family within organizations. Organizational factors and even technical communicators themselves have influence in the acquisition and identification of job titles and roles. Jobs titles and roles within organizations also seem to be highly influenced by products themselves, and in some cases, by technical communicators with self-selected job titles.
In part, professional identities, including specific job titles and roles, are also formed and shaped by both skills and specializations. The specializations identified as most valuable or related to the profession included information design, knowledge management, and information architecture, while others such as interface design, usability, and user experience design were considered important, but weighed differently in organizational contexts.
However, breadth of specializations was also repeatedly mentioned as being important to technical communicators’ identities. In earlier rounds, some respondents said technical communicators should consider avoiding specializing in single areas such as information architecture or user experience design, in favor of maintaining a breadth of skills. This breadth would permit technical communicators to be more agile, adaptable, and flexible in their roles and to add greater value to organizations. Yet others suggested that specialization, in some sense, is inevitable. The role of specialization may still need to be explored to determine the optimum benefits of both breadth and depth of specific skill sets for the technical communicator.
While skills and specializations help define roles within the organization, successful technical communicators adapt to fit the mold of what is needed. Multiple specializations enable technical communicators to define their own roles, to a certain extent. In some cases, specializations lead to growth paths within organizational contexts. In terms of relationships and value, management and organizations understand individual technical communicators by their collective skill sets and specializations, rather than as a one-size-fits-all definition of their role. They have become increasingly visible and valuable assets throughout a project lifecycle, and in many cases are able to define their own roles, which include team leadership and management responsibilities. Furthermore, their roles and relationships continue to be equally influenced by product, process, and technology.
And, in terms of career advancement opportunities, technical communicators who demonstrate their abilities (and value) can more easily move into more managerial or team lead roles. Their ability to manage complex information products and documents, even on a micro-level (individual project), are valuable skills in managing projects, teams, and external contributors. As a result, technical communicators are proving to make good project managers and team leaders within these organizations.
Future studies might address a broader range of industries and organizations that employ technical writers to understand the complexities in how different work processes impact our identities and relationships. Additional research might also focus on a deeper investigation into how products influence our roles and the specializations which contribute to the value technical communicators offer. As a field, we also need a broader understanding of the interdisciplinary overlaps between technical communicators and related professions. And toward that end, we might also investigate how technical communication hybrids, either by education or experience, contribute to the complexities of our professional identities.
One thing is certain: our professional identity as technical communicators is both strong and vigorous. Technical communicators as a profession and as individuals have already “grown beyond the identity crisis of what to call ourselves or how to explain what we do as professionals” (Hart & Baehr, 2013). Organizations are recognizing the value we bring to the development and sustainability of information products, within a wide range of industries. Looking ahead, our identities will likely continue to broaden, as will the skill sets and individual specializations. Technical communicators should work toward multiple specializations to increase their breadth and value to organizations and the development of various information products. In terms of relationships, we are becoming increasingly valuable resources throughout the product lifecycle and should continue to find ways to become adaptable and agile communicators in the industries that produce technical information.
For a broader contextual perspective on the profession, read the introduction to this special issue (Kimball, 2015a) and the other two articles in this three-part study: Dubinsky (2015) on Products and Processes, and Kimball (2015b) on Training and Education.
Conklin, J. (2007). From the structure of text to the dynamic of teams: The changing nature of technical communication practice. Technical Communication, 54, 210–231.
Coppola, N. (2011). Professionalization of technical communication: Zeitgeist for our age. Technical Communication, 58, 277–284.
Dubinsky, J. (2015). Products and processes: Transition from “product documentation to . . . integrated technical content.” Technical Communication, 62(2), 118–134.
Hackos, J. (2005). The future of the technical communication profession: The perspective of a management consultant. Technical Communication, 52, 273–276.
Hart, H., & Baehr, C. (2013). Conceptualizing the technical communication body of knowledge: Context, metaphor, and direction. Technical Communication, 60, 260–266.
Hart, H., & Conklin, J. (2006). Toward a meaningful model for technical communication. Technical Communication, 53, 395–415.
Kimball, M. A. (2015a). Special issue introduction: Technical communication: How a few great companies get it done. Technical Communication, 62(2), 88–103.
Kimball, M. A. (2015b). Training and education: Technical communication managers speak out. Technical Communication, 62(2), 135–145.
Rainey, K., & Turner, R. (2004). Certification in technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 13, 211–234.
Rude, C. (2008). Introduction to the special issue on business and technical communication in the public sphere: Learning to have impact. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 22, 267–271.
Slattery, S. (2007). Undistributing work through writing: How technical writers manage texts in complex information environments. Technical Communication Quarterly, 16, 311–325.
Society for Technical Communication. (2015). 2013–2014 salary database. Retrieved from: https://www.stc.org/publications/products/salary-database/.
Society for Technical Communication (2015). Defining technical communication. Retrieved from: https://www.stc.org/about-stc/the-profession-all-about-technical-communication/defining-tc.
Spinuzzi, C. (2007). Technical communication in the age of distributed work. Technical Communication Quarterly, 16, 265–277.
About the Author
Craig Baehr is an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and professor of Technical Communication at Texas Tech University. He serves as co-chair of the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge Committee, program director of the STC Academic SIG, 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: email@example.com.
Manuscript received 8 April 2015; revised 6 May 2015; accepted May 7 2015.