65.2, May 2018

Special Issue Introduction: Emerging Forms of Project Management in Technical and Professional Communication

Benjamin Lauren and Joanna Schreiber

In January 2016, The World Economic Forum published The Future of Jobs Report, which indicated that 65% of primary school students would eventually work in jobs that do not currently exist. This is a staggering percentage—one that points to swift and widespread changes to how people work. It also points to the need for job preparation that moves beyond developing skillsets and toward an ability to practice critical and reflective thinking. As such, recent published work has suggested that adaptability is increasingly valued over experience in the workplace (Evans, 2016; Johnson, 2016). Further, discussions about the necessity of developing interdisciplinary, or “T-shaped,” workers has also been argued by IBM as essential for today’s employees (see Beyond IT Inc., 2009). As a field, technical and professional communication (TPC) is not immune to this evolution, of course.

Many of the changes noted in the previous paragraph closely align with Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s (1996) vision that TPC is symbolic-analytic work. We can locate examples of this point in recent scholarship. For example, many of us now work in user experience (Reddish & Barnum, 2011), content strategy (Andersen & Batova, 2015), and as entrepreneurs (Spinuzzi, 2016; 2017). What we’d like to add to this conversation through this special issue, however, is that project management should remain an essential part of how our field thinks about the future of symbolic-analytic work. In fact, we believe it shapes these processes in important ways that deserve attention.

Scholarship in technical and professional communication (TPC) has examined economic and structural transformations that have influenced how projects are being managed at different workplaces. For instance, the near ubiquitous use of information communication technologies (ICTs) has brought on “the rise of networked organizations” (Rainie & Wellman, 2012), which has contributed to decentralized team structures (Spinuzzi, 2015), and changing production cycles and processes (Dubinksy, 2015). Furthermore, these changes have influenced how we define our values as field and the career paths available to us (e.g., St.Amant & Meloncon, 2016: Brumberger & Lauer, 2015). In our view, lost in conversations about these large-scale changes in TPC work are discussions about project management (PM). Dicks (2013) has argued, despite being “critically important” to TPC, PM lacks a “dedicated” body of research in the field. A review of the literature in TPC in the last ten years since JoAnn Hackos’ (2007) Information Development seems to support this claim (Lauren & Schreiber, 2018).

Perhaps project management is overlooked because, as Scott Berkun (2009) humorously reminds us, it comes across as boring or dull. To those who express their surprise at his work, Berkun argues, “Project management is only as boring as the thing being managed” (par. 6). We agree that project management, when done well, is far from dull. One reason is that we see project management as a designed system, not unlike other social and cultural systems that emerge to help groups govern their interactions. Yet, we acknowledge that, as a career, it is not seen as glamorous. Maybe this is because project managers don’t own a product or experience that they help teams develop. Project managers are not artists, producers, or engineers. In our view, the project manager is more of a stage manager, navigating and facilitating the mundane of everyday work that is crucial for teams to be successful.

Deliberately, this special issue builds off an integrative literature review we published in the preceding issue of this journal (see Lauren & Schreiber, 2018). In that article, we developed a sample of 128 sources (derived from an original sample of 326) from 2005 to 2016 to illustrate how PM has been situated in our field. We found that while PM was widely discussed as an important skill, TPC has done little to theorize it. The exigence for this special issue is that PM is not a static skill but a changing body of knowledge and practices. Additionally, we discovered that our field often talks about project management as a skill set to be acquired rather than as complex (symbolic-analytic) knowledge with a coordinated set of practices. The published work we encountered is very much focused on teaching project management tools instead of positioning it as a social practice that directly influences the outcome of our work in TPC. In our view, a focus on teaching (while important) is also short-sighted, because if project management is a designed system, then it is made up of an ecosystem of rhetorical situations that require critical thinking and appropriate action. In other words, it is important to charter a project, but how we approach such work is essential to the outcome of the chartering process. It makes good sense that a field so interested in advocating for people might also take the lead in ethical, human-centered management of project work.

Furthermore, TPC might also spend some time developing its own theory for managing project work, particularly the communicative aspects. We do not believe those theories are inherently about tools and processes but about positionality. How are people organized on teams? What are their relationships? How is work made visible? What power issues are at play? How can project management practices respond to these questions? How might TPC enrich project management practices? How can processes be developed that assure quality? The questions we list here affect both the disciplinary knowledge and practice of TPC. They also promote a flexible and proactive approach to workplace practices and frameworks that we think serves both researchers and practitioners. We hope readers of this special issue will ponder these questions and see ways in which to use such questions to build from the entries in this special issue.

Special Issue Contents: Providing a Foundation for Research and Practice

The entries in this special issue illustrate a range of emerging project management concerns as well as diverse methods for studying and reflecting on project management. They provide an excellent foundation for future research and development of best practices of project management as symbolic-analytic work.

Discussing issues related to quality and process, JoAnn Hackos and Lori Fisher provide two complementary commentaries about ISO standards and project management. In “Information-Development Project Management as an International Standard,” Hackos points out that many of the practices associated with ISO 26511 are aligned with best practices she’s been advocating in her widely adopted texts for many years. She argues that by explicitly incorporating the ISO and foregrounding such practices as part of a global system, academic programs can better prepare students to effectively engage in information management practices at both global and local levels. In “Project Manager Role in Quality Standards,” Fisher argues that ISOs help increasingly decentralized organizations develop quality content across projects.

In “Flexible Project Management Processes: A Case Study of a Distributed Trade Organization,” Katherine Robisch explores the distributed work of trade associations and how this structure affects project management practices. Robisch draws from interview and ethnographic data to illustrate the development of processes and products used to facilitate project management practices and team communication in a distributed trade organization. Her work helps us think about questions related to how teams are organized and the relationship between project management practices and the various rhetorical situations that surface at work.

Potentially building on Winsor’s (2003) work, Elaine Wisniewski, in “Novice Engineers and Project Management Communication in the Workplace,” uses the five-phase process from the Project Management Institute to examine the project management practices of early-career engineers. She draws from both observational data and interviews with managers to illustrate that engineers are required to effectively engage in the communication practices related to project management and take on the role of project manager early in their careers. In doing so, she sets the stage for future research and improved pedagogies that focus on supporting workers during the early years of their careers.

In “‘Filling to Capacity: An Exploratory Study of Project Management Language in Agile Scrum Teams,” Erin Friess conducts an exploratory study where she presents a linguistic analysis of project management language used by Scrum teams. She notes that TPC roles are largely absent from the team meetings she studied and asks readers to reflect on what TPC practitioners could offer these teams. Additionally, she presents us with a method for studying scrum language that other researchers can adopt and repeat in a variety of contexts.

In “Toward an Encounter Team Model of Clinical Project Management: A Needs Analysis of a Family Health Center,” Dawn Opel, Cathy Abbott, and William Hart-Davidson analyze technical communication activities from an organizational (as opposed to agent) level. Their research addresses questions about making the work of a health clinic visible. To perform a needs analysis, their team of researchers collected and coded ethnographic data relating to technical writing activities that structure workflow and provide recommendations to improve communication activities that facilitate coordinated care.

Doug Divine and Mark Zachry address questions related to how we can design project management systems to support reflection. Though Enron is a famously failed project-based organization, its infamous demise left a large corpus of email, which Divine and Zachry use to illustrate that email can be used to develop reflective tools. Using the Project Management Body of Knowledge as a control for defining project management, they model project work as activity systems in order to illustrate email as one way to develop reflective tools. The goal is for technical communicators to help deploy such tools to ground communication and learning practices in fast-paced, collaborative environments.

Last, but certainly not least, Stan Dicks provides us with a commentary that introduces a prescriptive-descriptive continuum for thinking about work in project management. In his commentary, he specifically helps us generate useful approaches for thinking about how practitioner and academic work can (and must) stay in conversation with each other as we think about the future of work and the role of project management in facilitating what we do in TPC. His commentary is both inspirational and insightful.

Conclusion: Building Project Management for Future Work

As we conclude the induction to this special issue, we’d like to call attention to a very important word in the title of this special issue, the word emerging. Project management practices are, of course, changing and emerging. What we would like to ask is, How has TPC actively participated in emerging project management practices and framework? And what would it mean for TPC to actively participate in shaping project management practices?

The entries we’ve assembled in this special issue illustrate project management as a rich research site for developing and refining best practices and frameworks. Further, many of the entries illustrate the importance of TPC methods and concepts as central to, but not always recognized, in project management. With this special issue, we advocate for TPC to work to build ethical, human-centered project management frameworks that better situate the complex role of communication practices in teams. Taking inspiration from Grabill (2006), we too would like to encourage TPC researchers to critically build on existing descriptive research. In other words, research describing project management practices provide a foundation, but unless we critically engage with descriptive research, it becomes a best practice by default.

Nearly twenty years ago, William Hart-Davidson (2000) asked an important rhetorical question in regards to TPC influencing information technology: “Why not us?” (p. 146). We argue that, in the case of project management, this question is applicable beyond the individual and is a charge for researchers and practitioners in TPC. No doubt, project management will continue to evolve with or without our input. Yet, we believe TPCs need to be more than participants—we must lead discussions about project management. Smartly, our field has generally ignored the assumption that technological development is the role of other disciplines or that the only role for TPC in technological development is to write about it. Project management presents our discipline with the same problem. In this special issue, the contributions offer us both a charge and an invitation to shape ethical, human-centered project management practices in a variety of workplaces and contexts through a TPC lens. In this way, we hope to offer a first step toward what it would mean for TPC to critically engage with project management as a practice and as significantly impactful knowledge work.


Brumberger, E., & Lauer, C. (2015). The evolution of technical communication: An analysis of industry job postings. Technical Communication, 62, 224–243.

Carliner, S. (2012). Using business models to describe technical communication groups. Technical Communication, 59, 124–147.

Dicks, S. (2013). How can technical communicators manage projects? In J. Johnson-Eiloa and S. Selber (Eds.), Solving problems in technical communication (pp. 310–332). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Dicks, S. (2010). The effects of digital literacy on the nature of technical communication work. In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st Century theory and practice (pp. 51–81). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dubinsky, J. (2015). Products and processes: Transition from “Product Documentation to… Integrated Technical Content.” Technical Communication, 62, 118–134.

Evans, J. (2016, October 22). Your experience is probably worth a lot less than you think [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/22/your-experience-is-probably-worth-a-lot-less-than-you-think/amp/

Grabill, J. (2006). The study of writing in the social factory: Methodology and rhetorical agency. In J.B.Scott, B. Longo & K. Wills (Eds.), Critical power tools: Technical communication and cultural studies (pp. 151–170). Albany, NY: SUNY.

Hackos, J. T. (2007). Information development: Managing your documentation projects, portfolio, and people. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley.

Hart, H., & Conklin, J. (2006). Toward a meaningful model of technical communication. Technical Communication, 53, 395–415.

Johnson, T. (2016, November 6). How to avoid becoming extinct in your technical writing career [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://idratherbewriting.com/2016/11/06/how-to-avoid-extinction-in-your-technical-writing-career/

Lauren, B., & Schreiber, J. (2018). An integrative literature review of project management in technical and professional communication. Technical Communication, 65, 85–106.

Law, J. (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. New York; London: Routledge

Rainie, L., & Wellman, B. (2012). networked. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Spinuzzi, C. (2015). All edge: Inside the new workplace networks. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

St.Amant, K., & Meloncon, L. (2016). Addressing the incommensurable: A research-based perspective for considering issues of power and legitimacy in the field. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 46, 267–283. doi:10.1177/0047281616639476

Walton, R. (2013) How trust and credibility affect technology-based development projects. Technical Communication Quarterly, 22, 85–102. doi: 10.1080/10572252.2013.726484

About the Guest Editors

Benjamin Lauren is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University, where he teaches in Professional Writing, Experience Architecture, and Rhetoric and Writing. He is also an Assistant Director of the graduate program in Rhetoric and Writing. His work has been published in Technical Communication, Computers and Composition, the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, Intercom, User Experience Magazine, and Transactions on Professional Communication. He is available at blauren@msu.edu.

Joanna Schreiber is an Assistant Professor of Professional and Technical Communication at Georgia Southern University, where she is coordinator of technical and professional writing courses. She currently serves as Treasurer for the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC) and as Book Review Editor for Programmatic Perspectives. Her research focuses on the ways in which communication practices inform and are informed by efficiency management practices, and her work has been published in Technical Communication and Technical Communication Quarterly. She is available at jschreiber@georgiasouthern.edu.