I just finished reading an article in the February 2012 issue of Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication. The article was written by Jack Molisani and Scott Abel, and is entitled, “Tech Comm 2.0: Reinventing Our Relevance in the 2000s.” The authors use the common structure of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis to evaluate the skills and opportunities possessed by most people in the technical writing field. They make many points, including the following:

  • Technical communicators need to stop calling themselves technical writers, because technical writing has been commoditized and is not seen as offering value to a business organization.
  • Technical communicators possess a large number of skills that can be repurposed to solve business problems, if only they’d stop calling themselves technical writers.
  • Core competencies of technical communicators include critical thinking, problem solving, project management, collaboration, and communication.
  • Technical communicators have many of the skills needed to build a product.
  • Technical communicators do a poor job of educating others in their organizations as to all of the skills they have and value they can provide.

Now, I don’t disagree with Jack and Scott. I agree with many of the points that they make in the article. It is my experience that technical writing has become largely commoditized and that communicators who have specialties are in high-demand. I also agree that there are technical communicators who possess the skills they describe. But not all.

Just because you are a technical communicator doesn’t mean that you have applied yourself to the life-long learning that you need to stay current. Just because you know how to create procedures, software developer kits, or XML style sheets, does not mean that you have automagically, via osmosis, gained many of the skills that Jack and Scott describe.

At the risk of getting a number of people annoyed, I am going to state what I’ve seen over the past 20 years in the technical communication industry. Most people do not expend the energy and take the time necessary to educate themselves. Most technical writers I know are just that – technical writers. They are great at creating a documentation set or writing a manual. But, mention new technologies to them, or suggest they write a script or create a storyboard, and they look at you like you’re nuts. It’s simply not in their skillset.

So, what’s a technical communicator to do? Well, there are many things that you can do to stay a step ahead. Here are some suggestions:

  • Read. Read a lot. Every single day. And no, I don’t mean romance novels or the latest science fiction book to hit the virtual shelves. You need to read about all kinds of real-life things:
    • New technologies – eBooks, enhanced eBooks, interactive eBooks, iBooks, advances in structured authoring, content management systems, machine translation tools, and more. There are all sorts of game-changing technologies that are coming out every day. To stay current, you must keep up.
    • Business trends – what are business leaders saying about what they are seeing in the marketplace? What are they predicting for the future? How is the manufacturing segment doing? What’s happening with offshore development? Are CFOs spending money or hoarding cash? What are the trends in mergers and acquisitions? Initial public offerings? If you don’t think that business trends have anything to do with your future, think again. People at the highest levels are making decisions that will impact you. Just look at what’s happened to the commoditization of technical writing. That didn’t happen in a vacuum.
    • Current events – How are the world markets doing? What country is getting a bailout this week? What about the price of gas? And all of those wars? You must learn to read the world in order to understand your place in it and to have a grasp on how these events will affect your professional life.
    • Biographies – Who do you admire? Steve Jobs? Warren Buffett? Read their biographies; understand how they think and how they became the people whom you look up to. Who do you dislike or disagree with? You might want to understand where they are coming from, too.
    • Business books – No list would be complete without requisite business books. Sure, there are always new business books hitting the shelves. How about going back to the basics? Have you ever read a textbook on economics? You’d be surprised at how much there is to learn and how much it can affect your career. Do you truly understand what it means to provide value? Do you understand what it means if you are merely an expense to the organization? Read and learn about how you can make your company money, rather than be an expense.
  • Listen. Put yourself in situations where you can hear what others have to say. For example:
    • Listen to webinars that have new and useful information. Make the time in your calendar, or get the link and listen on Sunday morning.
    • Attend a pertinent event from time-to-time. I know that your company won’t pay for you to attend conferences anymore. Well, perhaps you need to pay for them yourself. Go to a conference. Go to a networking event. You’ll meet interesting people and they will meet you. You’ll hear about what your competitors and colleagues are doing in the marketplace. You’ll learn all sorts of things. It will be well worth your time and money.
    • Peruse the internet. Do you have any idea how many TED talks you can find online?
  • Speak. Yes, you. Speak up. Once you have made it a daily habit to read and listen, you need to formulate your own viewpoints and opinions, and speak up. Make sure that you have facts and information to backup what you have to say. Then, speak your truth. Talk about the value you bring to the organization. Talk about the things that you can do to improve the corporate bottom line, improve customer satisfaction, and collaborate across the enterprise. No one is going to guess at your knowledge and value. You must speak it yourself.

Will doing all of these things guarantee your success? Well, no. But not doing these things will definitely guarantee that the rest of the world will keep moving at lightening-fast speed. All the while you will be sitting in your office typing your latest command-line reference guide into your Microsoft Word template. And maybe you can keep doing that for the next 20 years and continue to pay your mortgage.

I, for one, am not willing to bet on it.

Val Swisher
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