Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The way we work today

At this year’s conference, Hillary Hart and Jamie Conklin shared insights from their research on "New Models and Images for Technical Communication."

LJ: Thank you for taking time to talk with us about the “Models and Images” project!

The ability to articulate the value of technical communication is important in today’s competitive marketplace. Your research suggests that technical communicators are describing the work they do in new, and sometimes surprising, ways.

HH & JC: We found that as soon as we asked focus-group participants to think about metaphors, models, and images that would accurately describe what they do in the workplace, folks came up with an amazing array of active, performance-based, empowering and empowered descriptors. Words like “director” and “orchestra leader” and “juggler,” all of which came up in every group, speak to a sense of authority and performance that we found surprising. Also, in the dominant category we call Emerging Forms, descriptors such as “evangelist,” “architect,” and “coach” invoke positions of power and huge impact on others.

What happened to all those shy, introverted technical communicators of yore? The groups we spoke with certainly talked about the struggle to be “heard” in their companies and organizations, but they had no doubt about the necessity and importance of being heard - -importance to the core missions of their companies. These technical communicators were focusing their energies on engaging all sorts of people, internal and external to their organizations, in enhancing the flow and quality of information. Developing both the information itself and the uses of it were seen as work that cannot be offshored.

We also found that though technical communicators continue to talk about demonstrating their value, they are now also keen to become more influential within their organizations and on their project teams. Perhaps we are seeing practitioners shift their emphasis from “proving it” to “doing it”—maybe we are no longer so interested in developing a generalized business case for technical communication that we can base on an STC-sponsored study, and are more interested in rolling up our sleeves and taking leadership in our own workplaces?

Of course, communicators are also producing a dizzying array of products, that was clear.

LJ: You find that, increasingly, technical communicators are adopting a process-oriented approach for their work. What can you tell us about the impact of this approach on creativity and innovation?

HH & JC: Our research, which was based on focus groups and a conversational method, did not touch specifically on creativity and innovation. Certainly the technical communicators we met with seemed to be creative and innovative people, but we were not exploring the relationship between work situations and innovation.

However, it certainly was evident that the technical communicators we met with see their value and purpose more in relation to the processes they contribute to than to the deliverables they produce. We wonder if this is evidence that technical communication practice is becoming increasingly social and interactive, and that practitioners are contributing largely through the ways they participate on teams.

LJ: Your research describes “self-actualization” and “transformation of the profession” as important professional objectives for those in technical communication.

HH & JC: It is not so much that we see these as important objectives, as it is that the people we met with tended to talk about these things. When we asked people to tell us about their personal objectives, they most often mentioned significant and potentially transformative goals. For example, more than once people talked about their desire to build community. One academic talked about wanting to develop a more complete or profound understanding of the needs of users. A consultant told us that she had moved her practice from user advocacy to user empowerment. Other people talked about wanting to write plays or novels, and still others spelled out their vision for leadership of the profession.

We wonder if these far-reaching personal objectives, which usually went far beyond the recent concrete achievements that people described, imply that many technical communicators are feeling increasingly confident and ambitious. Imagine a cohort of resilient, determined technical communicators who are intent on bringing the value of their discipline to their organization, come hell or high water. This may be wishful thinking on our part, but we wonder if the profession has matured to the point where we are shifting from the “business case phase,” where we try to describe our value to others, to the “evidence in action” phase, where we individually take concrete steps to bring our value to our teams and organizations.

LJ: Thank you for talking with us about this important topic. We’ll look for a complete report on your research to be published in Technical Communication later this year.

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