Purpose: India’s community of technical communicators has grown steadily since the 1990s; however, scholarly research contains little about the experiences and needs of this community. We aim to enrich existing literature by sharing questionnaire results that begin to establish the state of the field in India. We discuss the way practitioners associated with the STC India chapter professionalize through education and training and innovate by experimenting with new genres and technologies.
Method: We administered an online questionnaire with 32 questions among participants at the STC India conference in Bangalore; 76 people responded. The questionnaire asked about participants’ professional backgrounds, vision for the future of TPC, and educational experiences. Data from the questionnaire, both qualitative and quantitative, was anonymized, coded, and evaluated.
Results: The data suggest that practitioners in this study view their most significant role as writing and have high levels of content knowledge and experience with cross-cultural collaboration. They are educated in the technical and scientific fields but see themselves as lacking opportunities for university degrees in technical communication. Participants were aware of the constantly changing nature of the economy and workplaces and articulated how technical communication in India may be affected. The data illuminated the potential for improved cross-cultural partnerships in research and industry.
Conclusion: Practitioners in this study possess high levels of education and understand the importance of change in technical communication. They are working to adapt and stay relevant in a rapidly changing field. The data suggest that these practitioners are seeking additional technical communication-specific training. More research is needed to understand the state of technical communication in India more broadly.
Keywords: Globalization, India, Professional Practices, Technical Writing, Education
- An understanding of current trends and practices in an increasingly global market is essential to the work of technical and professional communicators in the current transnational economy.
- Technical communication practitioners should become aware of the expertise and experiences of technical and professional communicators in India and find ways to learn from and collaborate with them.
- Although technical writing skills now include video development, user experience, etc., writing continues to be a central skill for practitioners in India. Focusing on that strength is a way to maintain relevance amid technological changes.
- University educational opportunities in technical communication are limited in India, meaning there is continued room for United States-based STC chapters, instructors, and skilled practitioners interested in mentoring to connect with practitioners there on training and education.
This article reports the results of a questionnaire administered among technical communicators at the Society for Technical Communication (STC) conference in in Bangalore, India, in December 2017. This project aims to enrich the literature about how practitioners of technical and professional communication (TPC) in India professionalize, innovate, and contribute to the field. The lack of literature available about technical writers in India is a problem because TPC communities exist worldwide, yet the field has failed to share practices and values between and among communities. The purpose of this study is to share what Indian practitioners within the STC India chapter community know about TPC with practitioners in other communities. Our research question, as a way of identifying and understanding one of these communities, is the following: “What is the state of technical communication in India?” As a pilot study, this project only begins to address the larger question and aims to point out areas of further research.
We designed this study after the example of Giammona’s (2004) article and questionnaire about the state and future of TPC that aimed to assert relevance. Conducting research on the nature of a community and its place within a larger context is one way of ascertaining the relevance of TPC as a networked, human endeavor that connects writers across continents. Work like Giammona’s needs to be completed in all countries with TPC communities. Giammona’s work included 28 participants, including people in international locations like India, but primarily focused on U.S. professionals. Her results do not tell us anything specific about India, yet India’s TPC community and practices have grown steadily since the 1990s. Giammona’s questions focused on key themes in the field, and we used her questions from 2004, provided in the appendix of her article, as a basis for our research. We updated the questions with contemporary themes and ideas. Like Giammona’s study, this project is small in scale and represents a similar call to conduct more work in India.
Our results reveal the necessity of continuing to take a pulse of the field in India and, more specifically, to understand the role practitioners in India play in the globalization of TPC as a profession. The field needs in-depth, international points of view because technical communicators are now working with each other around the globe. Technical communicators in India represent a significant population of practitioners and, although no exact count exists, the explosive growth in the field means that no exact count of practitioners can currently be made (Matheson, 2018, p. 4). Scholarly research contains little about the experiences and needs of this community, and studies of diverse workplace practices, including the growing community in India, are needed. Given these exigencies, we must pay attention to the particular experiences of TPC communities rather than lumping all practitioners into one category. We can cross-reference what we learn from each community and learn from each other, increasing the benefits of globalization.
The need for this questionnaire arose after we conducted a qualitative study of 49 women working as technical communicators in three different cities in India in July 2016 (Matheson & Petersen, 2019). The project involved a snowball sampling of women and sought to understand the training, workplace experiences, and concerns of women working as technical communicators in 2016. This data showed a need for additional research and reach beyond our original study population, which suggested that female practitioners in India saw themselves and their professional lives through a mix of complex identity factors that included but also stretched beyond gender. In order to understand the dynamics at play among technical communicators in a globalized field, it is necessary to apply a theoretical lens that accounts for the multiple intersectional factors that technical communicators face. In line with Crenshaw’s (1989) work on intersectionality, which explains that one’s experience in the world is greater than the sum of one’s race or sex (p. 140), we observed that our analysis needed to take into account the complexity of intersections of identity, and we designed this project to allow female and male participants to share more about their complex experiences in a globalized profession.
To this end, we borrowed from Giammona’s strategy for understanding the state of the field and developed a questionnaire to be shared among in-person and online participants of the annual STC conference, which is the largest gathering of technical communicators in India. This strategy allowed for a wider range of participation among technical communicators in India. Further, because the questionnaire was available in an online format, it allowed individuals to participate online after we returned to the United States.
In response to the growth of technology jobs, TPC as a profession in India grew quickly through the 1990s. However, the exact rate of growth is unknown. Still, the field lacked formal training or even methods of peer-to-peer information sharing, leading to the foundation of the Technical Writers of India (TWIN) mailing list, which connected technical communicators to one another. By 1998, discussion began about founding a chapter of the STC in India; this process was carried out by fifteen founding members. The first Administrative Council took charge with Gurudutt Kamath as the chapter president in 1999 (About us, n.d.).
The field has continued to grow in India, and Pune University was one of the first to introduce a certificate course in technical communication, which has since been discontinued. In addition, interest in TPC as a profession is evidenced by universities—such as Indian Calicut University, Stella Maris College, Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, and the Indian Institutes of Technology—offering courses in technical writing at various times. However, none of these institutions currently offers formal degrees in TPC (St.Amant, 2007, p. 17; “Technical writing colleges in India,” n.d.).
Limited scholarship about TPC in India has been conducted, in part because technical communication scholarship has a problematic history of focusing solely on Euro-western narratives (Hass, 2012; Petersen, 2017a). More recently, scholars have addressed the ways TPC practitioners in certain communities are often overlooked due to factors such as race, geography, gender, and socioeconomic status (Haas, 2008; Agboka, 2013; Dura et al., 2013; Petersen, 2014; Rose & Walton, 2015; Walton et al., 2015). Practitioners in India continue to be overlooked. However, what exists reveals that TPC in India is fast-growing and contains a robust number of highly trained professionals. This large community is also home to the only chapter of the STC outside the United States and Canada (Communities, 2018), making it an important site of study because of its structural support network.
Taking stock of the field is an important part of regular scholarship, especially since researchers and practitioners must work in tandem to best understand and teach the field to students to retain professional relevance in a global economy. As Spilka (2010) noted, “Technical communicators have important options to consider; given the pervasiveness of technology in our field, technical communicators need to take stock, now, of what recent changes in their work contexts mean for the work, and then make a decision, for example, to adapt to the changes and become a valuable asset to a work environment” (p. 3). Further, Rude suggested that “Any mapping of a field will construct its power relationships” (2009, p. 178). Research about the field is not an individual agenda but part of the greater purpose of building up a community. We must further begin to include communities that have traditionally (and geographically) been on the margins in order to understand TPC as a global, networked endeavor. Further, these global sites of study are particularly relevant because “transnational practices, ideas, or texts are not homeostatic or sacrosanct but rhetorical” (Dingo, 2012, p. 19), and individuals working in these globalized contexts may have different experiences and insights rooted in the local cultures in which they work. Further, common practices in the United States may not transfer to other cultures seamlessly, which means further study is needed to understand the way that globalized TPC practice works in localized areas (Opel & Stevenson, 2015).
Giammona’s (2004) article laid the groundwork for studying the state of TPC practice, and we used her work as a stepping stone to update our understanding with context-specific information. She argued for the importance of technical communicators “becoming more influential and savvy to the businesses we serve, supporting ourselves from within through vital professional societies, and making the world in general more aware of who we are and what we can do” (p. 362). Although Giammona’s work is now somewhat dated, the need to promote TPC is an ongoing issue, one that Petersen (2017b) found among female practitioners in the United States and that we found in our study of female practitioners in India (Matheson & Petersen, 2019).
Giammona (2004) further contributed the importance of understanding the state of the field at a specific moment in time. Her article represents the need to take stock of where we are, and she asked and answered pertinent questions about how we define what a technical communicator is, what is changing within the field, and how practitioners can remain relevant and contribute to the future of changing organizations. Innovation, globalization, education, and technologies are all part of the equation when it comes to assessing, understanding, and reporting on the state of the field. With these themes in mind, Giammona suggested improving professional societies, becoming better at business and management, and keeping up with current trends. She ultimately noted that “our profession . . . seems to be at a crossroads” (p. 352). Similarly, research and practice in TPC is as a whole is at a crossroads, with globalized labor increasingly becoming the norm. However, the research has not kept up with the scope of the increasingly globalized field. This global crossroads demands that scholars pay more attention to social justice, global marketplaces, transnational identities, and workplace trends in order to resist the Euro-western-centric narratives that have long dominated the field. We must give ample recognition to the important work that is occurring globally in the field (Hass, 2012; Petersen, 2017a; Petersen & Walton, 2018). Inclusivity in our descriptions of technical communicators and our understandings of current practice are also urgent. Attempting to understand and meet the needs of practitioners in India, who participate in every aspect of our changing field, is one way of doing so.
As we undertook this project, we understood that scholars already concerned with global issues warn that cross-cultural research requires careful consideration to avoid replicating troublesome colonial tendencies. Agboka (2012) warned against the generalization of cultures and populations, observing that “researchers have tended to use ‘big culture’ labels to name these specific groups in these geographical areas, as if they were monolithic” and that this practice can lead to tokenization, essentialism, racism, culturalism, and, eventually, imperialism (p. 172). Local culture is made of dialogue between insiders and outsiders of any given community, making it hard to separate local culture from global culture (Sun, 2012, p. 25). Further, as cultures clash or intersect, identities are “formed, (re)formed, shaped, (re)shaped, constructed, and (re)constructed. Only by appreciating these ongoing discursive elements during intercultural communication can we appreciate the complexities of culture. Thus, in essence, all culture is interpersonal” (Agboka, 2012, p. 174), and, as such, we should “emphasize the centrality of individuals who become active agents always constructing their cultural identities—not merely passive agents acting out their national or group cultures” (p. 174). As a strategy toward avoiding colonization, scholars have emphasized the value of working closely within communities by collaborating reciprocally, enacting their values, and making a positive impact while still producing insightful research. The community partner, in turn, can help to more widely disseminate the results and recommendations of studies so that all participants can engage in dialogue that promotes understanding (Propen & Schuster, 2008).
We have enacted these values by working closely with our partners in India, networking with technical communicators there, maintaining contact after our visits, and listening to their concerns. Our questionnaire was developed by asking what they needed and allowing STC leadership to confirm that our questions were valid and useful to community members. This article, based on community members’ responses, suggests there is still much work to be done in terms of creating knowledge with technical communicators in India.
We are researchers connected to U.S. universities and, as such, do not live or work in India. This positions us as outside observers to the TPC community in India. To begin this project, we collaborated with our existing contacts in India, such as STC India and the people we met while conducting research in 2016. We obtained permission to administer a questionnaire at the conference in Bangalore, India, on December 8 and 9, 2017; we were already set to share the findings of our 2016 project with conference attendees at this time. The organizers of the conference provided a table to us to use while gathering data, and we received a grant of $7,000 from Utah State University for travel and equipment to conduct the research.
The research was approved through Weber State University’s IRB (#17-AH-002). The online questionnaire was created in Qualtrics, and the questions were reviewed by STC India leadership members. The full questionnaire is listed in Appendix 1. Participants were recruited during our conference presentation, in the conference hallway, and on social media channels using the conference’s social media hashtags. Participants were incentivized to participate with a drawing for twenty $20 gift cards from Amazon. We used dollars instead of rupees because of the need to purchase the cards before we traveled from the United States to India, and we checked with one of our contacts in India to ensure that dollars would work for recipients. He confirmed that it was fine. All questions were presented to every person who agreed to participate. The research was conducted during the two-day conference and the online questionnaire was left open for an additional month to allow individuals to respond. The link to the questionnaire was sent out again via Twitter using the conference hashtags and in Facebook groups to allow individuals who were following along remotely to participate at a distance. Informed consent was obtained through the Qualtrics software. In total, 76 participants agreed to and completed the questionnaire.
The questionnaire had 32 questions divided into sections on participants’ backgrounds in TPC, the state of the field according to their experiences, the future of TPC, management issues, and education. Questions included mostly multiple-choice answers (with features to choose more than one option or to rank options) and some open-ended questions.
Once collected, data from the questionnaire, both qualitative and quantitative, was anonymized, coded, and evaluated. Data from each question was placed in a frequency distribution table as part of a univariate analysis. Distribution data was compared for differences among variables. We recognize that the small sample of 76 respondents constitutes a pilot study and that the results are not necessarily representative of all TPC practitioners in India but are more likely to speak to the experiences of practitioners associated with the STC India chapter. We see a need for and encourage further study in India based on the patterns that are illuminated in this data.
We chose a questionnaire as our research method for two reasons. First, we wanted to emulate what Giammona (2004) did in her study as closely as possible in order to create a similar picture of the field in a specific moment. Second, we wanted to reach a large number of respondents in a short amount of time to capture a snapshot of a section of the field in India in 2017. We knew that a good place and time to do so would be at the annual STC India conference, which is the biggest TPC gathering in India. During those two days, attendees would have the time and inclination to complete a questionnaire rather than sitting down to a detailed interview with us. In addition, the conference emailed and tweeted out a link to the survey in order to allow individuals following the conference at home to participate, enabling a greater reach.
This section overviews findings about education, job entry, skills, changes, trends, and globalization. A total of 76 people responded to the questionnaire. Of them, 49 identified their primary role at work as “writer” (of print and electronic texts), which was by far the most common response. Sixteen identified as “manager,” three as “editor,” and two as “educator.” Each of the other roles listed received only one response.
Table 1. Primary role at work
The majority of respondents had a significant amount of work experience, with 33 reporting between six and ten years of experience in the field. Twenty-five more reported between 11 and 20 years of experience. Only three participants had less than a year of experience.
Table 2. Years of experience
Participants were asked to identify the professional organizations they belonged to with the option to select more than one. Thirty-four participants had no affiliation and an equal number were associated with STC India. Two participants belonged to the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), and no other organization was selected by more than one participant.
Table 3. Professional organizations (some participants belong to more than one organization)
Educational Requirements and Opportunities
In order to understand educational attainment among practitioners in India, participants were asked a variety of questions about their educational achievements and aspirations. Participants were asked to report their educational background from a list of bachelor’s and graduate degrees categorized by broad areas of study, such as engineering, science, literature, business, and art. Participants were allowed to select more than one option where applicable. The most common degree among participants was a bachelor’s degree in engineering (27 participants), followed by degrees in science (12 participants), with literature degrees trailing far behind (3 participants). All other bachelor’s degree categories had only one respondent.
Participants had a high rate of graduate study completion, with 31 participants reporting having a graduate degree. Again, degrees in engineering and science were most commonly represented, with eight participants having a degree in each category. Seven participants had earned a master’s of business administration and four participants had graduate degrees in literature. Notably, no participants reported having a degree in TPC, likely because no such degree programs were available in India at the time of the study. Although degrees in similar fields, such as business communication or mass communication, were available, participants in this questionnaire did not mention having degrees in these areas or seeking out such degrees. Because this is a pilot study, more research is necessary to understand the role of degrees adjacent to TPC in India.
Table 4. Bachelor’s degrees
Table 5. Graduate degrees
In addition to traditional university credentials, nine participants reported having completed a certification course for TPC outside of a university. These certificates were probably earned through private institutions, which are common and often stand in for the lack of university education options available (Matheson, 2018).
Despite having a high rate of education, when asked what kind of education or training new TPC professionals should have, participants chose “experience working in a technical field” nearly twice as often as any other option. Respondents selected “certificate or degree in technical communication” second most often (28 respondents), illustrating the large role that private institutes that offer TPC certificates currently fill. Selected third most often was “mentoring from other professionals” (21 responses), and fourth was “a degree in any field” (17 responses). The five individuals who selected “other” wrote in answers such as attitudes, soft skills, being open to learning, good language skills, and aptitude for technical matters.
Table 6. Training for new professionals
Participants were asked what educational training has been most helpful or valuable in their careers. Seven participants mentioned that above all else they valued the training they got on the job. For example, one participant explained, “Education definitely plays a vital role. But I would consider on-the-job training, which was really helpful for me.” Another explained that their most valuable training was available at work, provided in-house by other TPC professionals.
Six participants mentioned that having a technical degree was their most helpful educational credential. One explained, “Pursuing engineering is my biggest advantage, at least I would live to believe so. It’s helped me in understanding the products I write about and adapting to different technologies easily.” An additional participant pointed out that even without a technical degree, they felt that experience in programming was their most valuable educational experience. Several participants pointed to training on various technologies as the most helpful education they obtained. The technologies they listed being trained on included various computer technologies, products they were using in the workplace, instructional systems, Robohelp, FrameMaker, API documentation, and DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture).
Five participants mentioned conferences as their most valuable training opportunity. They named city-specific learning sessions and STC conferences as important opportunities. Four participants cited their participation in a TPC certificate or training program as their most valuable educational experience. One participant named a particular certificate from a private institution that they found valuable.
Other training opportunities cited by participants included non-technology-specific opportunities, including courses on language or writing, information architecture, project management, leadership skills, editing, film-making, and communication. Others valued their self-learning most, and one suggested that this was most easily accomplished by using books. Two respondents valued all of their training equally, and one indicated that this question did not apply to them.
Participants were asked, “What kind of training/education do you wish were available to you?” Five participants wished for more basic writing training, especially for those without a background in writing. A couple of respondents mentioned wanting more training in basic skills, such as audience awareness or communication.
Three other participants expressed that they hoped to see a more standardized training option for practitioners that would be valued across countries. One participant imagined that STC conference trainings might be able to fill this role. Another wished for more information about how different certificates would be recognized in other countries.
Two participants expressed that they wanted more online training in TPC to be available. One described the importance of having access to training information “on demand.” Another suggested that free or no-cost options would be most beneficial.
Seven participants specifically mentioned the hope for coding- or programming-specific training. Six more people mentioned that they wanted additional technology or product trainings in order to stay abreast of “emerging technologies that actually add value.” One mentioned that these trainings would be especially helpful if they included training on a new project when joining a team working on that product. Four participants said that they wanted more training on information architecture, which they believed would help them to improve “customer cognition and information retention.” Two others hoped for additional training in project management.
A number of participants wanted training for specific skills relevant to their work, such as whiteboarding, presentation skills, graphic design, DITA, user experience, information gathering, DevOps, management, information mapping, business analysis, and publishing. One participant wished to have access to internship opportunities, and one did not have a need for specific training.
Participants were asked to identify from a list the hardest skills to teach or learn in technical communication. They were allowed to select only one choice. Practitioners most often selected writing (12 responses), followed by programming/coding (9 responses), usability knowledge (8 responses), user experience (5 responses), information architecture (4 responses), researching (4 responses), and technical skills/knowledge (4 responses). At the bottom of the list were editing, interviewing, political savvy, project management, video creation, and Web design, with one response each. The participant who selected “other” clarified their response saying, “The hardest part is trying to relearn what was not learnt in school.”
Table 7. Most difficult skills to teach or learn
Joining the Field of TPC
In order to understand the forces that bring practitioners to the field, practitioners were asked about how they came to be technical communicators. Because practitioners in India are often trained in fields outside of TPC, participants were asked how they transitioned to doing TPC work from their area of training. Some participants reported entering the field through “campus placement,” by starting as interns or trainees or by self-training. Thirteen participants observed that their natural interest or skill for writing made it easy to transition into TPC without any formal writing credentials. One participant explained that a love of language helped them make the transition, saying, “I always knew I could write. I was fortunate to be able to showcase my writing skills and bloom into the role.” Other participants explained natural progressions from IT, publishing, software development, marketing, or journalism, because they found a career in TPC was more exciting or interesting.
Seven participants came to writing from coding or engineering as a matter of interest or preference. One participant explained the natural transition from a technical position to writing because they “love writing and hate coding,” and another stated that they chose to leave a software development job because they “did not like coding.” Another described the job as a perfect blend of two skills they enjoyed, saying, “What’s not to like in this job, which involves writing and engineering?” Two respondents reported coming to TPC from engineering because of its more family-friendly reputation. One described coming back from a long break after having a baby and reentering the field as a writer. Another reported making the jump to TPC after “working as a software developer for seven years” in order “to have more time for . . . family.” One participant described being unable to find a technician job “because [she] was a girl,” so she joined the field as a technical author in her industry instead.
Ten participants described coming to the field entirely by chance, stumbling upon it by recommendation through a friend, exposure to the position at work, or by slowly discovering that the work they were doing in engineering jobs was in fact TPC. They then formally made the switch.
Important Skills in TPC Work
Participants were asked to select from a list five skills that they thought to be most important to TPC in 2017. As one might expect, writing was by far the most common choice, with 53 practitioners including it. This finding suggests that, despite technical backgrounds, a strong command of language remains vital to these practitioners. Research skills were selected second most commonly with 43 inclusions, and technical skills/knowledge was close behind, selected 42 times. User experience and information architecture were selected at similar rates as more traditional writing skills, such as editing and organizing information, suggesting that skills for working in technical platforms have become an integral part of their TPC work. Political savvy, social media skills, print design, and Web design ranked the bottom of the list, with only two participants selecting each as a top-five skill.
Table 8. Five skills most important in the field
In addition to the items from the list, four users selected “other” and wrote in skills that were not listed. Those included “the ability to articulate exceptionally well to a specific audience,” “communication,” “creativity,” and “will to learn.”
Changes in TPC
Similar to Giammona’s (2004) findings about the United States, Indian practitioners in this study observed that technology is the most rapidly changing part of the field, with 23 respondents indicating that technology has changed more than anything else. Fifteen respondents reported seeing their value as professionals increase in the last five years. Nine suggested that they had observed writing styles change more than anything else.
The six individuals who selected “expanding job responsibilities” entered additional explanations about the roles their jobs had filled. One observed that “anything related to content gets done by technical communicators.” Another explained, “Today, technical communicators double up and [have] subject matter expertise.” Others named an expanding list of tasks now included in TPC, including visual design, media creation, conducting training, scripting and programming, video creation, user testing, writing for blogs, graphic design, and search engine optimization.
Table 9. Most changed in the past five years
The Future of TPC in India
Participants were asked, “What do you see as ‘the next big innovation’ in technical communication?” in an effort to understand changes that might impact TPC. This open-ended question yielded a wide range of responses.
Sixteen participants observed that automated technologies, such as chatbots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, seemed to be the future of TPC. Most offered this information without further comment as to how they thought their work might be impacted by these innovations. One participant anticipated that writing for technologies rather than humans might become relevant. Another anticipated the need to compete with technologies for jobs, stating, “AI will take our jobs. Give it ten years.”
Ten people anticipated that content “other than regular writing” would become the norm in ways that will require users to “read less.” Participants used words such as “interactive,” “dynamic,” “animated,” “personalized,” and “intelligent” to describe the ways they anticipated content changing. Two other participants suggested that content would become increasingly presented via video.
Six respondents mentioned innovations related to the way TPC practitioners might take responsibility for improved user experience, possibly to reflect the innovative content delivery methods mentioned above. One participant anticipated that technical communicators will be “part of [a] UX team (content strategy) so that they can plan content for a holistic customer experience and brand experience for common goals.”
Individuals predicted innovations in areas such as analytics, content management systems, cloud-based content, “tool tips,” conversational authoring, self-publishing, digitization, intuitive technologies, performance driven help, and other new technology integrations. Other individuals mentioned, as anticipated innovations, changes in style or priority, such as writers “avoiding unnecessary information,” “collaboration with engineering,” “customer centricity,” and “customizing content in publication.”
These predictions represent significant changes, as no one mentioned working with automated technologies in the most relevant skills for technical communicators in 2017 (yet they see such automations as the future of their work) and user experience was fourth on the list. However, if these predictions are true, the participant who observed that technical writers might need to become “‘Super Writers’ who can unlearn and relearn to meet the competitive world” might be onto something. We are not quite sure how to define a Super Writer, as the participant did not do so in detail, but there is room for scholars and practitioners to embrace this term and find ways to meaningfully define it in theory and practice based on the changing needs and advances of TPC.
Indian practitioners are highly aware of changing workplaces and expectations in TPC. Their insights demonstrate their savvy and dedication to the constantly changing field. Although their responses lacked a central theme in predictions about exactly which technologies will prevail, overall participants suggest that being nimble and flexible in the face of change is the most important job skill for practitioners.
Participants were also asked, “What do you think technical communicators will be doing 5 to 10 years from now?” in an effort to understand what tasks and skills they see as relevant to the future of the field. The majority of responses to this question suggested that they anticipate the basic goals of TPC remaining the same. Fourteen respondents imagined that practitioners will still be involved in same tasks of developing content, writing, and communicating; however, they might do so using different tools and media. Respondents suggested that instead of written texts, they might write more often for video, audio, or chat bots, saying that TPC “may not be as lengthy and verbose as it is today.” Instead, they imagined it might be “more interactive” and presented in different formats more appropriate for mobile. They also imagined that the content they create might be more specifically targeted to individual users. Three participants named video specifically as a main medium for future TPC, expecting technical communicators to eventually be “creating more videos than write ups.”
Nine respondents wrote in tasks related to user experience and user interface, “advocating for the customer.” Some expected that they might be “engaging closely with user experience professionals” while others suggested they might be “merged with” or “double[d] up” as user experience professionals. One even suggested that technical communicators might take on a leadership role in the future of user experience.
Four participants thought that the future of TPC would emphasize working with automated systems such as chat bots or artificial intelligence in ways that would protect, not replace, their jobs. They imagined that TPC professionals might be involved with “creating inputs” or “user stories” for these technologies to provide to customers. Lastly, three admitted that they did not know where the field was going.
When asked what technical communicators can do to ensure their role in workplaces continues to be important and valuable, eight practitioners recommended that they “learn, learn, learn.” They recommended that practitioners stay abreast of trends, “upskill continuously,” and “learn and unlearn” quickly to stay current. They explained that this learning might focus on the latest technology or on becoming a domain expert. Similarly, five others suggested that practitioners must adapt and evolve, learning “new ways of presenting content” and “learning new technical skills.” Six other respondents thought innovation was key to moving forward, again mentioning new tools and technology. Additionally, they indicated that technical communicators should initiate new ideas and “think outside the box.”
Eight respondents predicted that technical communicators will need to contribute more to other functions within their organizations. They offered a range of suggestions about how this greater contribution might look, including integrating themselves with product, sales, or support teams; getting more involved in “product and innovation” by being a valuable part of the product development process; aligning content with the functions of other teams; and volunteering to help other teams with the knowledge they acquire in their research processes. Additionally, five others explained that technical communicators must show the value of TPC to the company. They imagined that this effort might require them to increase their measurable profitability by improving the sales of a product, being able to measure ROI, and gaining respect from other teams.
Six participants thought that quality content is vital to staying relevant. They observed that technical communicators will one day need to present information in ways that are “visually interesting” and “crisp and creative.” Becoming more customer focused was suggested by five additional participants. They recommended that technical communicators “be a customer advocate,” become “flexible around customer needs,” and “provide [a] personalized approach to audience.” Two others indicated that they must work harder to improve user experience.
Globalization and TPC
The state of cross-cultural collaboration among participants seems to represent a give-and-take relationship. Participants were asked about the way that they collaborate with overseas colleagues and how they have taught colleagues in other countries. Participants saw themselves as able to share writing skills, with seven respondents reporting that they had helped overseas colleagues. They cited specifics, such as writing in plain and simple language, editing, organizing data, designing templates, implementing scripts, performing quality assurance, and conducting research.
Practitioners also described helping colleagues to understand how to work across cultures. Seven different participants described sharing India-specific knowledge and teaching colleagues to bridge cultural differences. They also described sharing awareness, such as respecting time zones and teaching processes that facilitated long-distance work. Others related teaching colleagues abroad “how to work with Indians” as well as fighting to prove that practitioners in India “can write and contribute.” One practitioner recounted teaching colleagues abroad “about our work ethic, and dedication, and [that] broadened their perspective about [us].” Although some participants were clearly doing such work in an effort to bolster their professional status among coworkers, one participant also clarified that overseas colleagues “are very kind, professional.”
Six participants mentioned coaching colleagues on specific tools or tricks of the trade. They cited tools such as Javadoc/Appledoc, Data Dictionary Dc, System Design Doc, and tools for media creation. Five participants reported mentoring overseas coworkers on technology, and three described teaching about technical aspects of the product. Four of the respondents explained that they have helped colleagues develop soft skills, such as hard work, teamwork, adaptability, having fun at work, and workplace communication. One described teaching others how to be “patient with a colleague who has little to no knowledge about technical aspects regarding the company’s products.”
Three respondents explained that they teach overseas colleagues collaboration skills for working together on creating and editing documentation. Three said that they helped colleagues in other countries keep abreast of trends in the field, and one described showing the “role and value of technical communication [in] big picture goals.” Four participants reported that they help overseas colleagues manage time, with two explaining that they mentor other colleagues in managing deadlines, timelines, and priorities, and two others saying that they have taught others to be more flexible.
Despite the range of responses given to this question, four participants observed that this question was not applicable to their situation, and one explained that questions about globalization were not relevant because their organization has a “technical writ[ing] team in India only.”
Participants were also asked, “What have you learned from colleagues in other countries?” and were prompted to choose as many as applied from a list. Similar to the way Indian participants explained teaching others to collaborate, 38 participants observed they had learned collaboration skills from overseas colleagues. Participants also reported learning technologies/software (32 responses), writing techniques (26 responses), and trends in technical communication (21 responses). At the bottom of the list were participants who did not find this question relevant, those who selected “other” but did not specify, and project management.
Table 10. Skills learned from colleagues abroad
Part of a global work environment is using technology to communicate and collaborate with colleagues worldwide. Participants were asked, “How do you work with technical communicators from other countries?” and they were encouraged to select as many answers as applied. Email was the most commonly used tool, with 66 respondents selecting it, and instant messaging was selected 55 times. Video messaging was also popular, selected by 37 participants. Fewer respondents communicated in person or via a manager, with 11 selections each. Five participants wrote in phone calls as their preferred method of communicating overseas.
Table 11. Tools used to collaborate globally
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
TPC in India includes individuals whose experience has spanned and shaped the field for over two decades. The experience and leadership of practitioners during the development of the profession and the establishment of STC India offers critical insight into the profession. Our findings offer some early implications about the state of TPC in India in 2017 and invite further research in order to more deeply understand the relevance of the Indian TPC community to other TPC communities worldwide.
The data reveal that these Indian practitioners view their most significant role as writing. While the profession has certainly changed due to technological advances and transnational corporate work, writing remains the key skill for TPC workers in India. Further, practitioners saw their primary identity at work as writers, even when they participated in other tasks, such as designing user interfaces, developing video, or contributing to product development. They observed, going forward, that their ability to do research and work with new technology is nearly as important as the ability to write.
These practitioners have high levels of content knowledge and are often highly educated in the technical and scientific fields for which they write. Savage (2003) observed that education can be a key mechanism for increasing professional value; however, educational options in India make obtaining TPC training a challenge, meaning that on-the-job experience and the abilities of writers to be flexible in their learning are key. Although many TPC training options exist in India, the country has a lack of formal university programs in TPC, which would make it easier for practitioners to obtain training during their university years (Matheson, 2018). Writers who are inclined to study English often complete literature degrees, which do not necessarily serve them well in the TPC workplace, as they do not receive training specific to rhetoric and writing (Matheson, 2018). Scientific and engineering degrees are also common and provide some important technical skills. However, practitioners with technical degrees commented that they would benefit from additional training in basic writing tasks. In addition, some participants obtained the bulk of their TPC training through certificates offered at private institutes, which have been praised as a useful way of obtaining hands-on experience with some supervision from experts in TPC. However, many of those participants observed that these certificates did not offer the same kind of long-term classroom instruction in basic TPC skills that university programs can offer. In addition, many individuals may obtain training on the job both locally in India and by working in the United States and Europe, which can serve as valuable forms of education as well (Matheson, 2018). More study is needed to understand the ways that non-traditional forms of education serve Indian practitioners.
Certainly, other educational programs in India, both in universities and in private institutions, may be teaching skills relevant to TPC, but these organizations fell beyond the scope of this project and were not mentioned by any participants. However, it is likely that some of the educational work in TPC is being done by business schools at various universities and through courses such as business communication or mass communication. These educational paths may lead practitioners to do TPC work without contact or connections to the STC India organization, which may explain the absence of this data in this study. More research is needed to understand the scope and reach of such educational opportunities and the professionals who utilize them.
Despite the lack of formal TPC degree availability, practitioners in this study display an impressively high level of education in relevant or adjacent fields. The education levels found in this questionnaire can serve as a way of calling attention to the skilled work of practitioners in India. Although a rise of outsourcing in the early 2000s seemed to challenge the field’s sense of relevance within a global marketplace, these practitioners represent a highly educated workforce with formalized training in technical fields that add to the credibility of the field as a whole.
Based on responses, the content knowledge of an engineering degree proved useful to some practitioners. This finding indicates that although there are no formal TPC university degree programs in India (Matheson, 2018), practitioners feel that their engineering degrees are useful in preparing them for the work. Further, they find training afforded by STC India to be beneficial as well. Despite these positive experiences, some still cited a need for basic writing training. Technical writers would like more training in rhetoric and writing from an academic foundation. Given the expectations of parents in India for their children to pursue higher education, especially in the sciences or engineering, the presence of a university-level TPC program would fill the need for educational training and perhaps satisfy the ambitions of engineering-minded students who are interested in communication and writing. Because participants have skills in both engineering/science and writing/communication, any TPC university programs might best be paired within the colleges or departments of engineering or science.
Moreover, any such program would be wise to provide some technological training opportunities. Needs for that instruction might be filled by existing online courses via LinkedIn Learning or other platforms. In addition, academics in the United States, especially those interested in social justice research and teaching, may be inclined to create open-access courses for STC India or individual practitioners. This easily available and affordable training would ultimately benefit the entire field and meet writers’ needs for their expertise and education to be recognized across country lines.
Along the lines of training, participants expressed awareness that the future of TPC was likely based in automation and multimedia. Such information reflects an awareness of the constantly changing nature of the economy and workplaces, and practitioners are fully aware of how their work is affected by such changes. Their observations signal experience with change and also prompt instructors and current practitioners to continue to stay up-to-date with technological advances, the relationship between technology and rhetoric, and new ways of designing communication. Given that content may increasingly be delivered via video and other interactive mechanisms, practitioners can pivot and apply current expertise to becoming responsible for managing the user experience of these technologies.
Collaborations are increasingly dependent on digital and internet-based communication, meaning that we must continue to embrace new and possibly unfamiliar ways of communicating. Further, the advancing nature of globalization and participant insights of these environments highlight the importance of collaboration strategies. Colleagues who collaborate with each other from transnational locations (or even different areas of a country) are participating in dependent workplace associations; they must continue to be able to give and take in such relationships, being patient and willing to teach each other. The act of learning about updated TPC techniques, cultural awareness, and improved workflow processes is networked between and among workers in various locations. International workplaces mean that teachable attitudes and humility are necessary for successful collaboration.
For all TPC practitioners, these findings have a few implications. First, practitioners in India deserve a high degree of respect, and Euro-western practitioners should develop an increased awareness of the skills and educational backgrounds of colleagues located in India. Second, practitioners can play a vital role in training opportunities for overseas colleagues. They can make them aware of or include them in such opportunities. Third, practitioners must continue to be aware of changes in technology and how it will affect the future of the profession. There is room for practitioners to pivot existing skills around such changes and lead conversations about the relationship between technology and rhetoric. Fourth, good collaboration skills through cultural awareness and humility are necessary for connecting with practitioners around the world.
We reiterate that this study population and the findings are important because scholarship in TPC has privileged Euro-Western narratives (Haas, 2008; Petersen, 2017a). The social justice research turn in the field demands that we work to understand marginalized peoples, broaden our awareness to global concerns and workers, and understand the experiences of others (Petersen & Walton, 2018). We see information about Indian practitioners as significant to understanding local practices within a global field and community. Further, India has the only chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) outside of the United States and Canada (Communities, 2018). It seems prudent and necessary to understand the similarities and differences of workers in the same occupation and within the same professional organization across the globe. This article represents one attempt at doing so and calls for more efforts to do so in the future.
The TPC practitioners in this study represent a highly educated and technically savvy workforce who are experts at working in cross-cultural environments. Although writing skills represent their central tasks, Indian practitioners are aware of the need to adapt to technological developments. As such, they are actively engaged in working to obtain and practice diverse skills across a broad number of technologies to preserve their market demand and their professional relevance in a global marketplace. Although these practitioners lack access to TPC-specific training at universities, they are able to leverage particularly high educational accomplishment in technical fields and certificate-level TPC training.
Ultimately, practitioners worldwide should find insights useful to their own work and professional development based on the experiences and knowledge of TPC practitioners in India. This study was limited in scope, and our findings suggest that much additional work is needed to understand TPC work in India. This may include conducting research beyond the STC India, within other professional organizations, and among practitioners who are not affiliated with professional organizations. Further study is also warranted about the ways that formal and informal education serve Indian practitioners. Further, similar studies to understand the state of the field should be conducted in other communities of technical communicators around the globe.
This project was made possible by funding from the Utah State University Research and Graduate Studies Dissertation Enhancement Award.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Breeanne Matheson is an assistant professor at Utah Valley University. She holds a Ph.D. from Utah State University in Technical Communication and Rhetoric. She has extensive experience conducting international field research in the Global South and has also conducted local action-research aiming to reduce impacts of domestic violence by strengthening volunteer training. In addition to writing and teaching, her years of industry employment developing content and digital strategy give her work a pragmatic approach to theory and practice. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily January Petersen is an assistant professor and director of professional and technical writing at Weber State University. Her research focuses on professional identities from a feminist perspective, examining how women locally and globally engage in technical communication institutionally, through social media, and historically, both in public spheres and in the workplace of the home. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including the Journal of Business and Technical Communication and Technical Communication Quarterly. She is available at email@example.com.
Appendix 1: Questionnaire Details
Section 1: Background
1. What is your current primary role in technical communication?
h. Other: enter answer
2. How long have you been working in the field?
a. 1-5 years
b. 6-10 years
c. 11-20 years
d. More than 20 years
3. Which professional organizations do you belong to? (Check all that apply)
a. Society for Technical Communication (STC)
b. Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC)
c. International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)
d. Association for Business Communication (ABC)
e. IEEE Professional Communication Society (IEEE PCS)
f. ACM Special Interest Group for the Design of Communication (SIGDOC)
g. User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA)
h. Association for Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW)
i. National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
j. ACES: The Society for Editing
k. Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
l. Others; please list
m. I do not belong to any professional organizations
4. What is the primary way you stay informed of changes in the technical communication industry?
a. Professional society meetings/conferences
b. Professional society publications
c. Professional society listservs
d. Networking with peers
e. Technical books and periodicals
f. Online publications/internet sites
g. Social media
h. Other: enter response here
5. What aspects of your identity impact your workplace experience in technical communication (choose as many as apply to your situation)?
c. Skin tone
f. Socioeconomic status
k. Family background
l. Family responsibilities
m. Marital status
n. Geographic origins
6. Explain how these aspects of your identity impact your workplace experience? What advantages or disadvantages do you face because of the identity markers you identified?
a. Open ended question
7. What is your educational background?
a. Bachelor’s degree in Engineering
b. Master’s degree in Engineering
c. Bachelor’s degree in Science
d. Master’s degree in Science
e. Bachelor’s degree in Literature
f. Master’s degree in Literature
h. Other: enter response here
8. How did you become a technical communicator?
a. Open ended question
Section 2: State of the Field
9. Rank in order five of the following skills that you think are most important to the success of a technical communicator?
d. Organizing information
e. Project management
f. Publishing tools
g. Social media
h. Web design
i. Video creation
j. Print document design
l. User experience
m. Information architecture
o. Political savvy
p. Data visualizations
r. Technical skills/knowledge
t. Other: enter response here
10. How significant a role does technical communication play in your company/industry?
a. Vital to the success of company/industry
b. Important to the success of company/industry
c. Somewhat important to the success of company/industry
d. Not important to the success of company/industry
e. Technical communicators are expendable
11. How have online social networking platforms changed the way you perform your work?
a. Open ended question
12. What has changed most in technical communication in the last five years?
a. Open ended question
13. How do you work with technical communicators from other countries?
b. video messaging
c. Instant messaging
d. In person
e. Through a manager
f. Other: answer here
g. Not applicable to me
14. What have you learned from colleagues in other countries?
a. Open ended question
15. What have you taught colleagues in other countries?
a. Open ended question
16. How much authority do you have in your organization?
b. My suggestions are sometimes listened to and implemented
c. My suggestions are often listened to and implemented
d. My suggestions are always listened to and implemented
e. Other: please explain
Section 3: Future of Technical Communication
17. What do you see as “the next big innovation” in technical communication?
a. Open ended question
18. What do you think technical communicators will be doing 5 to 10 years from now?
a. Open ended
19. What can technical communicators do to ensure that their role in workplaces continues to be important and valuable in the future?
a. Open ended question
20. How do you and other technical communication professionals innovate in your workplace?
a. Open ended question
21. What is the most innovative thing you and your team are currently working on?
a. Open ended question
22. How important are localization and translation to your work?
a. Open ended question
23. How have alternative working arrangements (e.g. work from home, contract labor, shorter hours) impacted your work?
a. Open ended question
Section 4: Management Issues
24. Are you a manager of a technical communication team?
25. If yes, they get the rest of these questions: What is one of the current challenges you face as a manager?
a. Open ended question
26. How do you develop your staff’s competencies?
b. Tools training
c. Professional skills training
d. Project management training
e. Technology training
f. Industry training
g. Design skills training
h. Other: enter response here
27. How is this training given?
a. Online modules/videos
b. Meetings led by me or another colleague
c. Guest lecturers/teachers
d. Other: please explain
Section 5: Education
28. What kind of education/training do technical communication professionals entering the field need to have before starting a career (choose as many as apply)?
a. Certificate or degree in technical communication
b. Degree in any field
c. Experience working in a technical field
d. Experience working in editing or writing
e. Design training
f. Software and tools training
g. Mentorship from other professionals
h. Training from an online source
i. Training from professional conferences and meetings
j. Other: enter response
29. What academic training has been most helpful to you?
a. Open ended question
30. How should the training of technical communicators change to fit the innovations and changes of the industry?
a. Open ended question
31. What is the hardest skill to teach/learn in technical communication?
a. Open ended question
32. What kind of training do you wish was available to you?
a. Open ended question