Katherine A. Robisch
Purpose: This article examines project management and technical communicators at the distributed workplace of a trade association. Members work with association writers to actively influence the content and products, resulting in a unique rhetorical situation that drives iterative and flexible project management processes.
Method: This case study draws from semi-structured retrospective interviews conducted as part of a larger ethnographic study of trade organization communicators, their educational products, and their interaction with association members.
Results: The organizational structure of a trade organization results in a rhetorical situation in which technical communicators interact constantly with association members in both informal and formal settings, which leads to invention for informational products. The association restructured their communications team twice during this study in efforts to get more workers in contact with members and to create better content packages where editors, designers, and other specialists have input at multiple stages. Restructuring and the participation of members meant project management strategies must be flexible and arise from the rhetorical situation.
Conclusion: Though not drawing on specific project management strategies like Six Sigma or Agile, this organization creates and adapts flexible processes so that technical communicators can best serve their organizational mission. In addition, processes respond to the rhetorical situation created between members and writers, as well as between managers and technical communicators. Managers work to empower these TCs who are taking on more project management roles.
Keywords: content management, project management, distributed work, empowerment, practitioners
- This study offers examples of project management as developed from the organization’s rhetorical situation and working as a process within content management instead of a separate practice, helping TCs recognize how our skills as symbolic-analytic workers contribute to organizing work as well as producing texts.
- This study shows how less formal project management strategies can allow for more participation from TCs and involved audiences.
- This study examines how project managers can balance a TC’s need for empowerment and direction.
- This study provides valuable descriptions of specific skills requested for technical communicators, building on scholarship on technical communication education requirements and showing practitioners how characteristics can help to establish expertise and trust.
“Being able to multitask, manage time, problem solve and communicate effectively are crucial to organizations that are small and mighty” – Interview response
Technical communicators are exposed to all sorts of project management methodologies—from Lean and Agile to business model applications like “venture capital” or “contractor” models (Carliner, 2012). Dicks (2004) calls attention to management philosophies and how and why they influence managing TC projects, arguing TC managers should advocate for their workers’ value to the organization not just as wordsmiths but employees interacting with other disciplines in the organization. Training each level of TC workers helps to ensure their development as leaders and project managers. Further, as more TCs work in distributed work environments like adhocracies or in networked project teams, understanding their role in managing projects means looking at their texts as well as their contexts, including the ways in which they interact with audiences, material, and subject-matter experts. Examining these contexts as participatory can help to describe the ways TCs’ roles are expanding in organizations, fulfilling Dubinsky’s (2015) call to make TCs work more visible as “directors” and integrated team members with multiple skills. One participatory context technical and professional communication has yet to focus specifically on is the distributed work of trade associations like the American Medical Association or Public Relations Society of America.
This study examines the distributed workplace of a trade association (IHIRA) where texts are managed and assembled across teams of association workers and their member constituents. In this type of workplace, project management is an iterative and rhetorical process as teams interact with each other and outside customers (association members). As technology and rhetorical demands change, this organization actively modifies their project management strategies. For IHIRA workers, project management strategies emerged from and responded to rhetorical situations as workers developed expertise and content in conjunction with their member constituents. As one participant explained: “I’d like to say it has some sort of tie-in to higher function process management, but no, it really kind of developed out of what we thought made sense.” Looking at what “made sense” to these workers, developing informal project management strategies shows how TC work in distributed environments involves both authoring texts and developing systems to manage their own work processes.
A technical communicator’s flexible skill set means he or she works in a variety of organizations including trade associations for independent retail. According to one of my participants, there are about 35,000 independent home improvement retail stores that exist in the US and in Canada. These stores carry hardware items, lumber and building materials, and farm and home supplies in various combinations. The term independent retail means they own themselves and purchase from product distributors at buying markets—unlike big box stores like Home Depot and Wal-Mart who have large corporate buying resources, as well as resources to help run operations and other aspects of the store. These box stores directly compete in the same markets as independent stores, both in small towns and large urban areas. Increasingly independent stores are also competing with e-commerce sites like Amazon and its vast and quick delivery network. Competing against such big entities means independents must carefully run their businesses from products offered to marketing campaigns to in-store operations. Unlike big boxes that have entire departments for these areas, independents might only have one or two people, and, many times, each employee wears multiple hats. Fortunately, independent stores can splice in some of these resources through the assistance of their trade organization, the Independent Home Improvement Retail Association (IHIRA)1.
Trade organizations or associations “serve as agents for disseminating and exchanging information within industries, and often act as informal regulators by setting voluntary standards of behavior for industry members” (Rajwani, Lawton, & Phillips, 2015, p. 225). Therefore, a trade organization offers knowledge products to members; in this case, IHIRA offers a news source and magazine discussing issues in the industry, market tools and studies, and educational opportunities like online training programs for employees, among others. Each of these information products is created through the technical communicators of the collaborative teams of IHIRA’s office as well as retail owners who are members, creating an interesting project management situation.
IHIRA’s Mission and Products
The Independent Home Improvement Retail Association (IHIRA) is a trade organization for the home improvement industry and explains its mission to help independent home improvement centers, lumberyards, and hardware stores, regardless of their wholesale affiliation become more profitable retailers (company website, 2017)
Trade association texts explain how IHIRA enacts its mission through three ways: education, advocacy, and association.
- Education resources include paid and free online training modules and a college-level certification program, as well as the IHIRA print and digital magazine offering industry news and how-to advice.
- Advocacy initiatives include a state of independents conference, an advisory group, and research studies on topics like social media, employee compensation, and operations costs.
- Association resources include roundtable networking events to discuss issues like financial affairs, human resources, and marketing, as well as an all-industry conference.
These initiatives, as well as seminar presentations and other informational products produced by IHIRA emphasize the association’s devotion to their members’ concerns and show the importance trade organizations place on asking what their members need and developing resources to help them in response. Association members then drive much of the invention and content development for the association’s information products, influencing the invention and project management strategies of association workers.
Situating the Discussion
Technical Communication in Distributed Workplaces
Examining the project management of an association means examining its organizational structure, which is a distributed workplace. Much TC research has examined distributed work (Slattery, 2007; Spinuzzi, 2007; Spinuzzi, 2015; Swarts & Kim, 2009), especially in terms of flattened and networked forms where workers coordinate across work activities traditionally separated by “temporal, spatial, or disciplinary boundaries” (Spinuzzi, 2007, p. 268). Unlike more traditional work organizations like bureaucracies with strictly delimited trades, distributed work allows for information to flow in multiple directions among temporary assemblages of workers. Workers are multi-specialists who cross boundaries between fields to interpret clients’ requests (Spinuzzi, 2015). IHIRA’s employees are technical communicators who cross boundaries to find out what information products members need in order to better run their stores.
TC’s Role in Organizing Distributed Work
Technical communication has addressed flattened organizations’ work in terms of content management and symbolic-analytic work (Johnson-Eilola, 1996), particularly in terms of TCs taking a more active role in creating content management systems (Andersen, 2014; Hart-Davidson, Bernhardt, McLeod, Rife & Grabill, 2008; McCarthy, Grabill, Hart-Davidson, & McLeod, 2011). Distributed work often lacks central organizing forces, so workers build their own infrastructure through information technologies and worker-created texts (Swarts, 2010).
Technical communicators at IHIRA build and modify their own project management infrastructure, creating texts and tools to manage projects in addition to the educational resources they produce. Instead of a formalized project management method like Agile, they manage projects in response to the needs of the rhetorical situation, allowing for more autonomy and participation. Examining this type of project management can help to show what formal methodologies leave out (Lauren, forthcoming) and how technical communicators can contribute to project management strategies.
Many TC studies of distributed work don’t narrow to the level of the individual worker, whom Slattery (2007) and Burris (1993) caution may lose expertise and status as they work farther from subject-matter expertise. That is, TCs could be relegated to mundane writing tasks instead of the empowered symbolic analytic work Johnson-Eilola (1996) describes. This study shows how individual workers of IHIRA develop industry expertise as they interact with members and manage projects.
Related Work on Trade Associations and Worker Cooperatives
Alford (1989) studied collaborative texts of a hospital trade association, finding workers created and adapted texts and genres flexibly to enter dialogues with geographically dispersed members. Writers adopted organizational personas instead of valuing individual creativity, and most collaboration with members occurred through texts instead of talk.
Like Alford’s hospital trade association, IHIRA has geographically dispersed members and emphasizes collaborative writing—though collaboration occurs through many channels.
Edenfield (2017) examined worker cooperatives, which are mutually owned like trade associations but differ as they have no outside members and emphasize a balance between profits and member needs. Cooperatives, like TC, value relationships between people and texts, and Edenfield advocates bringing TC theory to bear on co-ops’ challenges, successes, and failures.
IHIRA’s mission statement emphasizes profit and success for members, and helping members become more financially successful drives much of the information content IHIRA produces and distributes.
This article draws on data from a larger study of a trade organization and educational seminars offered at distributed buying shows. Trade organization employees created and delivered seminars to show attendees to share ways to improve their businesses. That study showed how writers managed and delivered content in a distributed environment and the specific literate activities they performed. To build off that previous work, this article specifically considers IHIRA’s project management processes and the ways they’ve adapted in recent years.
- How does the trade association manage projects and content in conjunction with member needs?
- How have processes developed and changed for producing content over the past few years?
- How does this case study compare to other TC research on project management and symbolic-analytic work?
Approved by the author’s institutional review board, methods included attending seminars by association employees to audio record presentation dialogue; conducting observations of audience members and participation; and collecting texts involved in the presentation, such as feedback forms and slide decks. Audio recordings were transcribed for coding and further analysis. These audio and print texts acted as a starting point for analyzing and tracing texts.
Bounding the Study: Focusing on Association Seminars
Studying distributed work’s contexts can easily lead to “runaway objects” (Spinuzzi, 2011). To bound this study, I followed Haas and Witte (2001) who concentrate on engineers working on the same project. I limited my scope to the actors who present educational seminars at national buying shows.
These seminar presentations offer examples of technical communicators working for the association, directly interacting with members. The seminar is made of an assemblage of texts, including the speech and audience dialogue and slide deck, and draws from other informational products produced by IHIRA in conjunction with member input and needs.
Participants and Site
My participants present at industry events throughout the year, but to scope the project, I limited data collection to one distributor’s twice annual market. Attendees included independent store owners from every US state and Canadian province, as well as several international countries. Markets are held at large convention centers in the US and seminars take place in meeting rooms near the exhibition floor.
Interview participants included three current and one former upper management association employees. Through the course of the two-year study, participants’ job titles changed, but all participants had worked for the association in various text-producing roles for at least five years:
- Noelle, a former director of membership services, who presented two of the recorded seminars
- Max, a publisher and executive vice president, who presented three of the recorded seminars
- Ned, an education initiative executive director, who presented four of the recorded seminars
- Sue, a communications director, who did not present any recorded seminars but helped design and author slide decks and other texts, in addition to other project management initiatives
Post-seminar Semi-structured Interviews
To further analyze these seminars and trace the texts involved, I conducted post-seminar, semi-structured reflective interviews (see Appendix A), much in the spirit of DePew (2007). DePew advocates going beyond textual analysis to triangulate data by interviewing digital composition researchers regarding published studies. These interviews allowed the authors to explain certain choices and constraints faced in their study, shedding additional light on their findings. For my study, these interviews helped to explain how the seminar presentations fit into a larger content management and invention process of the association—processes that have changed greatly over the past few years in efforts to better manage projects.
Despite the overall study’s focus on presentations, this article concentrates on the project management strategies of generating informational products at IHIRA, as gleaned through post-reflective interviews with seminar speakers and IHIRA senior management.
Interview Data Recording and Analysis
Interviews were conducted via phone and recorded and transcribed, except for Sue’s interview, which was conducted via email due to travel constraints. Phone interviews each lasted approximately an hour. Textual analysis of seminar decks and speech helped to diagram the resources IHIRA uses and recycles or repurposes through different informational products, and some of the persuasive techniques speakers implement, but such methods did not demonstrate strategies for how content and projects are managed at IHIRA. To learn more about how IHIRA writers assemble and repurpose texts like the seminars, I had to interview speakers and a communications director.
Interview transcripts were coded using starter and open codes (Spinuzzi, 2013), drawing from a grounded theory approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Codes focused on strategies of invention, member interaction, processes, job and team descriptions, expertise, recycling content, managing documents or tools, and skills desired for future workers.
Managing Projects in the Trade Association and Sharing Expertise
Members of IHIRA, as an interactive audience, have a direct influence in the content and information products the association produces. To keep up with their needs, many of the IHIRA employees stay in contact with members in multiple communication flows, as Figure 1 demonstrates. Max explained how association writers visit stores across North America to talk to retailers and research stories, while other workers might talk to retailers in informal conversations at distributor shows or after presentations. Retailers come together to meet with IHIRA employees at more formal settings like roundtables. All workers who engage with retailers in any setting come together once a year in a content development retreat.
Roundtable discussions and conversations at markets and store visits offer a place for IHIRA employees to gain subject-matter expertise and hear constituents’ needs and ideas, which directly figure into the content writers create and ideas they bring back to IHIRA. In each of the post-reflective interviews, participants described member interaction in conjunction with invention, or generating and developing content packages. The retreat provides a place for IHIRA employees to discuss what topics are concerning members or happening in the industry and then plan content for the magazine, training courses, and other informational products. Sue explained that each team brings a few story ideas to the retreat, then divides the work tasks amongst the team members. Team members range in age and experience, so the retreat also helps to put them in conversations with Max and Ned, both of whom have over 20 years in the industry.
In some instances, Max and Ned act as subject-matter experts and quickly coordinate with team members to find sources. In other ways, however, editors and team members have devoted time to talking with retailers on multiple levels, including attending various roundtables and turning to social media to engage with members and research for stories. Developing expertise as a writer then becomes an integral part of the project management process at IHIRA. Writers can develop expertise by connecting with other association workers, and they can also work directly with their audience to develop content pieces. The unique structure of a trade association means it must constantly interact with the members it serves, allowing the audience (association members) to become more active in the rhetorical situation. The audience is involved, to draw from Johnson (1998), meaning they are actively engaged and participating in communication. According to Lauren (forthcoming), such participation facilitates a rhetorical agency. Writers at IHIRA have the opportunity to actively participate in learning opportunities with their audience of members through the multiple communication flows.
This rhetorical situation also means a top-down, prescriptive approach to project management could constrict writers or limit their agency to develop expertise. With multiple points of interacting with the audience, writers have to develop and refine flexible processes for managing projects. Noelle explained how researching for the development of training modules and attending the roundtables helped her develop expertise in the industry:
I personally made a lot of effort to not only put on those things but sit through them and learn and ask questions. I had to become confident in my own abilities to know what I was talking about too, so spending time with [Max] and [Ned] or in those classes and roundtables and being able to develop some of that training as well was very helpful.
IHIRA employees’ direct interaction with members helps facilitate ideas for content packages and feedback, as well as helping to initiate newer employees into the industry. Knowledge and expertise then get passed through various processes between newer and experienced writers and association members, which IHIRA’s project management strategies must accommodate.
Roundtables and Certification Programs: Sources for Invention and Expertise
The retreat represents one spot where IHIRA draws from audience member suggestions to create informational products to meet members’ needs. Ned also explained how roundtable discussions came out of conversations with retailers who wanted to get together with other members to discuss issues like marketing and merchandising. Roundtable discussions led to suggestions for other topic roundtables, like human resources and financial management. Conversations with members involved in roundtables led to creating a college-level management certification program for store employees who want to take on greater leadership roles in their organizations, which one of my participants described as an important need to address, as the average age of an independent home improvement retailer is around 60. Students in the program must complete a business improvement plan for their stores, which they enact, write up, and present to their classmates. Alumni from the class come back to help present case studies and network with new students. As Ned explained, IHIRA stores these capstone improvement projects and shares them with new students each year, as well as uses some ideas in seminar presentations or magazine stories. Storing and sharing the capstone projects marks another way IHIRA collaborates with members to create and share information assets.
Breaking Down Department Silos: Considering New Ways to Manage Projects
Like many organizations in the past few years, IHIRA has gone through a process of reorganizing its production team to break down siloed departments in which workers kept processes, ideas, and information within their department instead of collaborating across departments and sharing resources. While perhaps not the flattened co-ops (Edenfield, 2007) or all-edge adhocracies Spinuzzi (2015) describes, IHIRA sought to reorganize teams from marketing, design, training, and research to better utilize resources and produce more interactive content packages. Figure 2 demonstrates their original model of working, which visualizes how, just a few years prior, IHIRA had separately operating teams for areas like training, research, and the magazine, and few team members interacted or shared knowledge. Max gave an example of the training department working on loss prevention modules while the magazine department worked on stories about increasing transaction size and the research team conducted a study on inventory turns. Because each department was siloed, no one was sharing resources, even though some resources could be helpful to other departments. To change this process, IHIRA brought everyone together in one area and created teams with a peer-feedback loop. This meant everyone would think about loss prevention as an organizational topic, where one team would research loss prevention and then all teams would figure out: which elements of the findings worked for magazine stories, which elements worked for a training module, and which elements worked for videos or live presentations. Figure 3 shows how organizing teams around a research topic meant sharing resources.
Max extended the loss prevention example: “a story in a magazine might talk about here are three retailers who had a huge loss in the business and what they did to mitigate those losses in the future.” Training materials could include quizzes and videos on how to spot potential loss vulnerabilities. A seminar presentation could walk audience members through 5 steps of training employees:
We look at what’s this topic? Then how do we tell the story differently using these different resources we have? We have a pool of information, and 50% of that might cross over into each one of the different ways we use it, but each one still has a unique element to it.
New Job Titles, New Processes
Restructuring teams also meant changes in job titles. Sue started at IHIRA in 2008 as a graphic designer before advancing to a design supervisor, art director, then creative director. Through these roles, she noticed a disconnect between editors and designers. Typically, editors determined topics to cover, wrote most of the story, and then handed a finished draft to designers without much collaboration or communication. She explained:
This seemed like such a waste of talent and opportunity to create more meaningful story packages. When writers and designers work together on stories from beginning to end, they both learn more about the subject matter and provide different perspectives on the best way to present the information together.
Under the new team concept, Sue’s title became “Director of Communication,” and editors, developers, and designers began reporting to her. Max worked with her to determine how to best assemble employees into teams and decided on 10 teams of three to five people based on subject matter. No team leaders were assigned, so each team could autonomously divide labor and hold each other accountable, resulting in a democratic and employee-led structure. Figure 4 shows how teams reassembled and adapted processes to generate different kinds of content collaboratively.
Magazine stories and online elements became more creative and interactive as people with different skill sets worked closer together. More staff members gained industry expertise and invested in the organization and the retailers they served. Having 10 teams, however, meant more processes, meetings, and deadlines, according to Sue. Lack of a team leader sometimes led to lack of initiatives and accountability, and some products were substandard, and workers missed deadlines. Aspects of project management like scheduling and accountability must be strategic, meaning they respond to the audience needs and broader situation. In this case, the rhetorical situation between Max and Sue (rhetors) and project teams (audience) needed to be addressed.
Max and Sue decided to iterate their division of labor. They consolidated 10 teams until four remained and each team member only worked in two teams. Figure 5 shows how teams were consolidated from 10 topic areas to four broader topics. The four teams consolidated included:
- How-to, Management, Operations, and Training
- News and Research
- Marketing and Outreach
- Category Trends and New Products
Responding to workers’ need for accountability, Sue assigned a team leader for each team and created documents to outline specific member responsibilities. Additionally, each team included at least two editors, at least one designer, and least one member with “special skills” like Web and video development, research skills, and social media expertise. Bringing these skill sets together for a whole process meant designers could offer suggestions for multiple ways to share information, such as creating infographics instead of text copy, earlier in the content creation process. Figure 6 shows how placing a team leader strategically with two editors, a designer, and a special skills worker was a response to the organization’s need to clarify accountability while maintaining different TCs’ contributions early in the invention process.
Project Management Documents: Facilitating Distributed Work
Distributed work can lack a central organizing force, Swarts (2010) notes, which often leads to groups building their own infrastructure using information technologies and texts they create. As IHIRA worked with the new team approach, Sue developed documents to help teams manage processes. She created a three-month calendar to help teams focus not just on the upcoming magazine issue but projects three months out. With a project-focused structure, teams needed to plan in greater detail than previously. As a self-identified process person, Sue explained the best way to help people learning is through developing documents, whether through processes for checking out equipment, production process sheets, or roles and responsibilities guidelines. Creating documents helps to manage projects and lets employees take more active roles, but Sue stayed cautious not to create so many documents that workers would feel lost. These documents helped to stabilize work into repeat processes, but Sue developed documents continuously in response to team members asking questions or facing issues with projects. Not all projects have the same process, but these documents help to break down some aspects of work and give team members the chance to teach themselves and act as more empowered workers. This strategy for managing projects isn’t a formal system, but it is highly rhetorical—responding to the needs of the audience (team members), with the purpose of giving enough direction for them to complete work but with processes that aren’t prescriptive, allowing them to participate in managing the process. Some documents explain how to use the organization’s tools; like Google Drive, Slack, Trello, and WordPress; to better collaborate and manage projects. As technical communication research has described (Slattery, 2007; Swarts, 2010; Spinuzzi 2007, 2015), distributed teams coordinate through writing and create processes and texts to manage their decentralized structure.
Example Project Management Process: Annual Operating Costs Study
Following the texts and processes of IHIRA’s annual Operating Costs Study (OCS) shows how the four-team structure manages projects and information across each other and association members. For the study, IHIRA compiles financial data submitted by members into a report that shows industry averages and ways to gauge and improve their performance, focusing on metrics like sales, profits, and transaction size. Retailers participate by sending in their financial information through an online form, emailing their information, completing a print survey and mailing it, or faxing documents. IHIRA keeps the information confidential but does return to each participant a free personalized financial analysis of composite financial statements, including a strategic profit model and a tool to calculate what-if scenarios.
The above process description shows how project management strategies at IHIRA are responsive to the rhetorical situation of the organization’s work. Content information comes directly from the audience of association members, while the rhetors of IHIRA work to assemble the information to fit the purpose of the study—helping their members gauge and improve their business performance. First, IHIRA’s CFO works with the news/research team to update, design, and print the survey. Then the marketing team steps in to work with the CFO to craft a promotional campaign to solicit responses from members. Members have multiple ways to submit their information, reflecting how IHIRA keeps up with technologies and processes of their members. Providing multiple ways to participate also shows how IHIRA meets the audience needs of their members; some may have extensive technical skills and standardized documents, while others may use less technical tools. The OCS directly reflects the mission and purpose of IHIRA—to help retailers, regardless of size or affiliation, be successful.
Once members send in their information, the CFO works with an intern to crunch numbers and build individual reports for each participant. Again, the participatory nature of these reports requires flexible project management strategies. As authors, the CFO and intern have to craft a report that meets the needs of the individual retailer. Once all the data have been compiled, the CFO works with the news/research team to write and design the study as a report. Together, they also identify numbers or metrics that are interesting and plan additional projects that involve the study. This might include a magazine story, a series of how-to videos about using the study to benchmark performance, or even a training module on how to utilize the study’s information. The CFO and news/research teams’ work of writing, designing, and planning future projects acts much like the retrospective meetings in Agile processes. The 2016 study came as an interactive package where users could choose their store classification (home improvement center, hardware, or lumber/building materials dealers), then enter their information for a direct comparison. Presenting the information as an interactive package shows again how IHIRA meets the needs of their audience and stakeholders, who can easily compare and forecast their own information and quickly conduct their own analysis.
The project lifecycle of the OCS study and materials extends to other IHIRA texts. Many of IHIRA’s seminar presentations in this study referenced the OCS study. For example, two participants mentioned using the OCS as a benchmarking tool in a “Quick-Wins” seminar. Mentioning the study as one opportunity to help improve business also gave the speakers a chance to promote the study and solicit additional recipients.
Learning how to best involve people in project management strategies needs to take focus as we examine changing workplaces (Lauren, forthcoming). For IHIRA, developing ways for teams to communicate also means accounting for team members interacting with association members who participate directly in invention. The process is iterative and reflexive, as TCs work with audience members and in teams to develop broader content packages, but its user testing procedures are not as formal. As a trade organization, IHIRA emphasizes its mission to help retailers by interacting with its members in unofficial feedback loops and multiple methods of communication. Members participate as an active audience because of the rhetorical situation created by IHIRA that maximizes opportunities for their interaction. Prescriptive project methodologies risk losing out on such participation, which may explain why IHIRA iteratively develops strategies in response to audience needs.
Balancing Empowerment and Project Management
As my participants reorganized teams, they addressed the complex rhetorical situation in their organization. Managers had to craft tools to respond to team members’ exigencies, but they also had to leave room for agency. The four-team structure, assigned team leader, and documents to help detail processes helped return some autonomy to employees, even though the process documents came from a director instead of being created through a more democratic process.
Developing Expertise and Allowing for Participation
Team members gain expertise and ethos (i.e., credibility) from working closely with member constituents and from learning from senior employees. Condensing to four teams allowed more workers to interact with members, leading to increased subject-matter expertise and buy-in to IHIRA’s mission to help independent retailers. More team members interacted with association members, then collaborated to think in terms of content packages involving text, design, and interactive Web tools, instead of a linear process leading from editor to designer to web developer. Again, the organizational situation of IHIRA allowed for these different team members to participate early in the invention stage to conceptualize and manage projects.
Maximizing opportunities for interaction isn’t always a smooth process, and project managers should expect “periods of confusion and frustration” (Lauren, forthcoming). Such periods occurred at IHIRA when trying to empower team members to take initiative and demonstrate willingness to learn—qualities each participant listed as important at their organization. According to Sue, “The biggest thing that I think applicants find difficult to understand is just how much we do and how fast we do it. Being able to multitask, manage time, problem solve and communicate effectively are crucial to organizations that are small and mighty.” Communicating effectively at IHIRA also means being honest about one’s abilities. Max explained, “Let’s don’t pretend that you know something that you don’t know and don’t try and make something appear that is something that it isn’t.” He described a former employee who always made a point when interviewing or presenting to tell people when she didn’t understand and ask them to clarify, which disarmed members’ expectations and created trust and credibility.
Obtaining trust and credibility, especially with association members, is key to the audience/rhetor relationship in IHIRA’s rhetorical situation. Lauren (forthcoming) asserts project management methodologies can control both how teams communicate and what they develop. The organizational structure of IHIRA as a trade organization also allows for writers to interact openly and learn from member constituents. Formal project management strategies often include user testing as an official stage, but IHIRA communicators work iteratively with members throughout multiple project lifecycles.
Responding to IHIRA’s organizational rhetorical situation, Sue and Max implemented team leaders, which led to accountability. At the same time, the invention process of addressing topics with designers, specialists, and editors helped maintain some team member empowerment. Implementing team leaders allowed Sue to help push workers to take more ownership and initiative, and some workers saw this strategy as an opportunity to grow in the company. Fostering initiative can be one of the hiccups of rhetorically grounded project management practices. As Sue explained:
Small companies really don’t have the time to encourage staff to always be looking for ways to improve the things we do. Just because a project is done a certain way for 15 years, doesn’t mean we should just do it that way for 15 more. Ask questions, bring new perspectives. It shows you care and you typically learn a lot from it.
IHIRA benefited from a rhetorical situation that valued team members and encouraged them to see content as packages and gain expertise through interacting with members. But they couldn’t always explicitly encourage “taking initiative,” likely because the distributed nature of their “small but mighty” organization required all workers to wear multiple hats, addressing multiple situations.
Creativity, Initiative, and the Importance of Personal Characteristics
Technical writers, who must often continually read their audience, also need to be aware of the unarticulated values of their distributed workplaces. Such awareness may be increasingly important in sites where project management is not a formalized process. Workplaces like IHIRA show how project management processes grow out of rhetorical situations. As experts in rhetorical analysis, TCs can actively and quickly contribute to these project management processes if they can identify and seize the opportunities. These opportunities don’t exist as specific steps or check points in a project lifecycle or strict process; instead, TCs must advocate for early involvement in content processes and demonstrate their value to help develop content management practices that benefit the organization.
The association workers in Alford’s (1989) study talked about adopting the persona of their organization and the times it might mean stifling their creativity and initiative. Conversely, at IHIRA, workers were encouraged to creatively solve problems and collaboratively approach designing and developing information products. The flexible processes at IHIRA “made space” (Lauren, forthcoming) for workers to participate in managing projects. Alford worked with a hospital association, however, and conducted her study before some of the information technologies allowed for trade organizations to be more widely dispersed and for multiple venues of reaching members. In Alford’s case, personal characteristics like “problem solving” meant adhering to association guidelines and culture over looking for new ideas or creative solutions. At IHIRA, however, creative solutions and willingness to try led to career advancement, as Noelle stated, “I would not have had the opportunities to move up and do different things at IHIRA and become a director in five years if I hadn’t been willing to try different things or ask to be a part of different things, and I was willing to do that.” Worker initiative and willingness to learn became increasingly important as IHIRA created new products to respond to member needs, as Noelle further explained:
Part of it is also a necessity of the business. If we wanted to be able to offer new things to the industry, someone had to do it, and the resources weren’t there to hire somebody new. I was the one willing to do that, and so I got to try different things.
The personal characteristics Noelle, Sue, Max, and Ned cited as being important echo what Brumberger and Lauer (2015) found in studying technical communication job postings. This study furthers those findings, because, as technical communicators continue to work in team and project-based distributed workplaces, they need to be prepared to take initiative and wear multiple hats for each project without depending upon regular reinforcement—or formalized steps like those of specific project management methodologies. Creating process documents at IHIRA allowed for stabilizing some procedures and offered some direction, but these documents did not necessarily provide guidelines to encourage workers to take opportunities and help revisit processes.
Future studies on distributed or ad-hoc work should continue to look at the personal characteristics necessary for newer and less formal project management teams. Future technical communication research should continue to focus on smaller and distributed organizations not just in terms of content management but how they enact policies for encouraging worker initiative. This study presents an interesting case in which senior workers want initiative and willingness to learn and are willing to reorganize work to best create information products. Investment from employees, however, requires being willing to work closely with members at retail stores to almost become the subject matter experts. This echoes Brumberger and Lauer’s (2015) assertion that “willingness and ability to learn—again, frequently mentioned in the job postings as a desired characteristic—trumps expertise with a specific toolset,” though they concede the most marketable candidates will have both. Studying these trade association writers who interact with members to gain expertise also helps to mitigate Burris’ (1993) concerns of polarizing expertise in distributed workplaces. As we further research into smaller distributed workplaces interacting closely with customer concerns, we can continue to examine how differing expertise is valued or diverges.
One limitation of this study is that it involved interviewing only senior workers instead of other team members who participate in the project management and development processes. All workers interviewed have worked as technical communicators to gain expertise in the industry, and most cite their journalism or design background as informing their perspective and helping them to become subject-matter experts in the industry—and, consequently, top association employees. Still, discussing processes and initiatives with more workers who have been reorganized and work with the production documents and tools might offer a greater perspective.
Also, this case study of one trade association does not offer generalizable results for every trade organization or workplace involving technical writing and project management. Still, as a smaller meta-organization (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2005), it deserves technical communication’s attention. “Small but mighty” organizations conduct work at an incredible and in-depth speed with fewer resources and informal processes, offering a new take for examining project and content management in action. Perhaps not as empowered as Edenfield’s (2017) worker co-ops, trade associations and their members still work together to produce content. These are some of the networked and federated spaces where technical communication involves distributed work, which leads to creating project management strategies to bridge tasks. These smaller instances and their processes, though seemingly less rigorous, can help us to see what’s at the heart of project management and symbolic analytic work and to argue for the value of our work in many fields.
Though not drawing on specific project management strategies like Six Sigma or Agile, this organization creates and adapts flexible processes so technical communicators can best serve their organizational mission of helping members run successful businesses. In addition to the mission, processes respond to the rhetorical situation created between members and writers, as well as between managers and technical communicators. Managers work to empower these TCs who are taking on more project management roles, depending on their understanding of initiative. As TC educators, we need to take into account that our students might not be working under formal project management models, meaning they must continue to use their expert rhetorical skills to read their audience of managers as well as end-users. Practitioners must also pay close attention to the organizational needs of their workplaces so they can be prepared to implement or revise project management strategies that best meet organizational goals. TCs can be taking a more active role in project management, particularly in distributed work, if they recognize and seize such opportunities.
The author wishes to thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for their detailed feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Derek Van Ittersum also deserves special thanks for his assistance with data analysis. This research was approved by the IRB.
- IHIRA, its products, and participant names are pseudonyms
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About the Author
Katherine Robisch is a PhD Candidate in the Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice program at Kent State University, where she teaches courses in business and technical writing. Her dissertation focuses on how writing organizes work in federated work spaces and ad-hoc environments. She also works as a freelance writing and marketing consultant for independent companies. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 8 January 2018; revised 31 January 2018; accepted February 12, 2018.
Appendix A: Semi-structured Interview Questions
- What are the IHIRA “teams” who help put together content
- How has the structure of the “teams” changed since you’ve been at the association?
- What are your job titles and responsibilities at the association? What are some of your previous job titles and responsibilities during your time there?
- Do you have any official systems/databases or schedules to keep everyone on task? Or to organize projects?
- What about texts/documents that do so (i.e. project checklists for editors? Post-it note systems or calendars?
Regarding content packages/content management
- How much of that goes through your team?/what is your role in developing, managing, producing these?
- How do you break up tasks and responsibilities like going through the data, writing the report, designing the print and online products or stories?
- Who creates online tools, like the calculators and comparison tools?
- Are you or members of your team coding or working with technology to create content, whether for web or other applications?
- How is work split up regarding training materials?
- What has been your role/your team’s role in the leadership training institutes?
- What is your/your team’s role in creating seminar presentations?
- I’ve heard and seen the association make efforts to present a more consistent brand image—what has been your/your team’s role in that?
- In terms of content management–do you have a system or something set in place as a repository for all the info?
- How do team members work together to create magazine stories and related content?
- How do they share content and topic expertise? Reach out to association members?
- What other tools, practices, processes have been helpful in terms of organizing work?
Managing projects and content?
- For students/future workers who want to work in associations like your, what advice do you have? What skills do you look for/hope to find?
Appendix B: Methods
|Original Study||Project Management Portion|
|Research Questions||1) What specific literate activities are performed to achieve the desired outcomes with the seminar presentations? Who performs these activities?
2) How does the work done to compose, present, and experience these seminars illustrate or challenge existing theories of distributed work?
|1) How does the trade association manage projects and content in conjunction with member needs?
2) How have processes developed and changed for producing content over the past few years?
3)How does this case study compare to other TC research on project management and symbolic-analytic work?
|Site||2 educational seminars at each of the 5 buying shows (10 seminars total)||Phone and email follow-up interviews regarding larger project data collection|
|Methods||Record and transcribe seminar audio, collect presentation slide deck and other presentation materials||Transcribe phone and email interviews; collect sample documents if available|
|Coding & Analysis||Starter & open codes focusing on presentation persuasive techniques, content recycling in seminar speech and slide decks, and resources pointed to and drawn from||Starter & open codes focusing on processes of invention, member interaction; expertise sharing; team development and responsibilities, and managing processes in creating presentations and other products|