STC: Growing in Numbers and Relevance

STC logoIn the runup to the 63rd annual STC Summit, now underway, I posted some thoughts on how the event has shrunk since the late 1990s. The post drew a lot of insightful comments about the Summit and about conferences in general. (I encourage you to read them.)

Two readers — perhaps picking up on my observation that STC membership has declined along with Summit attendance — suggested that STC itself, not just the conference, is struggling to remain relevant.

That’s the issue I’d like to focus on today: How can STC grow in both numbers and relevance?

First I’ll excerpt their comments. Then I’ll add my thoughts. Then I want to hear what you think.

Mark Baker

Author and blogger (Every Page Is Page One)

To me, STC just seems old fashioned. The most striking example of this recently is the spam the society has been sending out listing ten different reasons to join STC. They are all about member benefits (many of them dubious, but that’s not the point). There was nothing about making tech comm better or making the world a better place through tech comm. It was very much a baby-boomer jobs-for-the-boys kind of approach that I just don’t think resonates with people today.

STC is trying to renew itself, of course. But most of that renewal seems to focus on doing the old stuff better. And it is doing the old stuff better. The problem is, it is still the old stuff. It is a preservation society, not a revolutionary society.

Steven Jong

Former STC board member and probably the person most responsible for creating STC’s professional certification program

For more than 15 years now the strategy of STC has boiled down to “providing more value for members.” That’s been the campaign plank of every candidate for the Board (including me, twice). A lot of good presidents and Board members have devoted themselves to wringing more value out of the STC value proposition.
….
What’s the problem with providing value for members? Well, I like value fine; its the “members” part that’s the problem. When STC had, by my estimate, 25% of all practitioners worldwide, it was a great strategy. Today, we have only a quarter the members even as the profession has grown. “Value for members” is now a retention strategy, when a growth strategy is essential.

My take

Readers of this blog know that I treasure my association with STC, that it’s delivered great value to me. Yet I totally get it when Mark and Steve portray STC as old-fashioned.

Is this tension between growth and providing value unique to STC? I don’t think so. Many, probably most, professional societies that were organized with a mid- to late-20th century business model are struggling to bolster membership numbers in a world where their biggest “products” — information and connection — are readily available to everyone at little or no cost.

medium_tent

Does STC need a reboot of its “big tent” approach? If so, how can it avoid repeating past mistakes? (Image source: chicagocircustents.com)

When I was involved in strategic planning for STC in the ’90s and ’00s, the leadership envisioned STC as a “big tent” that invited all kinds of technical communicators and advocated on their behalf. I don’t know if the leadership still feels that way. (I doubt it.) The “big tent” approach, rather than unifying all the disparate strains of technical communication, seems to have led to a lack of focus that proved detrimental.

So should STC narrow its focus? No. As Mark says, the organization atrophies if it tries to zero in on (pick your term) technical writers/communicators/what-have-you rather than on everyone who “talks about technology.”

I chatted with STC Executive Director Chris Lyons after last night’s opening session. He pointed out that the last several Summit keynotes — like David Rose’s this year — have covered material much broader than traditional technical communication. He also mentioned that STC is reaching across to members of other communication-related professional societies to make them aware of what STC has to offer.

It sounds paradoxical: going after a bigger market while staying focused. But it doesn’t have to be. The key is choosing the right things to focus on.

Is there a case study of a professional society that has kept up with the times and figured out a way to grow and provide value? If so, what can STC learn from it?

Your turn. Tell me what you think.

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23 thoughts on “STC: Growing in Numbers and Relevance

  1. Mark Baker

    I don’t think there is a paradox in narrowing focus and broadening appeal. You can have a strategy of doing fewer things for more people. The more things you do, the fewer people see value in the whole package — and the more the whole package costs. People are more likely to look for cheaper ways to get just the items they want — which is so much easier to do these days.

    This is why I found the 10 reasons emails so depressing. Most of them had no relevance to me, but they reminded me that the exorbitant dues I am paying are going to finance these things I don’t need or use.

    This is the age of a la carte.Of buying songs, not albums.

    Now, figuring out what the few things are that will pull in the big tent audience is no small problem. But “how can we stay relevant” is not the right question to be asking. You have to approach it by asking, what needs are not being met?

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark. I think STC was betting that everyone who received the “10 things” emails would relate to a few of them — 4 or 5, maybe 7 or 8 if you were lucky. In this age of highly targeted content marketing, that strategy might not have been the best.

      Reply
  2. Susan Carpenter

    I was an STC member for about 15 years, in the 80s and 90s. At some point, I realized I was no longer getting any return on my membership investment and dropped out. More recently, I served as an STC competition judge for several years as a nonmember. (It’s a lot of fun; if you haven’t done it, I highly recommend it!)

    What I would pay for: networking for jobs / freelance opportunities, access to meaningful continuing-education webinar content. (I’d love to be able to do in-person conferences on a regular basis, but that’s not a realistic expectation.) If STC provides those things today and I just don’t know about them, that’s an indicator in itself of what STC could do to help itself.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Susan. As a nonmember you didn’t receive the “10 things” emails that Mark referred to. If you had, you’d’ve seen that STC does provide a lot of the things you mentioned. I wonder how STC can reach people like you, besides the old-fashioned word-of-mouth methods it’s always used.

      Reply
  3. The UA Colum(n) (@uacolumn)

    The STC, along with other organizations like the ISTC, has a problem. That is, unlike some professions where you HAVE to be a member, Technical Writers do not. The law and medical sectors don’t have that issue. You want to be a lawyer or doctor, you must be a member of the professional body, AND regularly prove you’ve kept your skill set relevant.

    Now having all Technical Writers be members is never going to happen. So what can the STC do? Not a lot more than it is already doing.

    Reply
  4. stevefjong

    Larry, you honor me! I’ve been thinking hard about this problem.

    Every day 10,000 baby boomers retire from the US workforce, while 10,000 millennials replace them. While we focus on retaining the members of our heyday, they’re aging out. The new practitioners have strikingly different needs, interests, and life experience from our current members, and they don’t get our appeal. (Ominously, “providing value to members” actually turns them off.) Worse, while we lean toward a narrow segment of the profession, other segment, such as UX, have developed and drifted away.

    We are inward looking. It would be very revealing to know if STC’s membership went through a boom and bust, or if it grew steadily and then began to decline. (I have 20 years of membership data; do you have anything earlier?) My belief is that the membership boomed because of trends outside its control, and is declining for the same reason. But the way to tell is to look around at other organizations. I’ve looked around and found some with the same issue. But others have found the answer. STC is no longer the world’s largest techcomm organization, tekom is. We no longer have the largest conference—several groups have surpassed us. IEEE is growing, and has a recruitment outreach program. (Their presentation is 67 slides; I suspect the STC effort is not so extensive.)

    The key to attracting new members is to recognize the significant differences between older, established members and younger, not-yet members. We need to ask around. STC is looking at the needs of student members, which is a good start, but notice the filter we apply: we’re looking inward at students who have become members, not outward at those who *haven’t* become members. What will get them to join us? We need more of that.

    Association experts tell us that the organizations which will thrive in the future include those that offer certification (so we have that going for us now, anyway), and those that have a story to tell—not what value they provide to members, but how they’re making the world a better place. Note the language Anindita used in her comment on your previous blog post: “the excitement of how to make the world bigger, better, stronger.” Ironically, STC has a great story to tell! We make the complex clear; we help people use their products successfully and effectively; we help people do what they’re trying to do. “Telling our powerful story” was actually a subordinate strategy at one time. We need more of that, too.

    Finally, I agree with you about focus. I have always been a believer in the big tent too. The trick is to attract new members without driving away existing members, which we can’t afford to do. What do other organizations do? We need to get around. We need to find out, learn lessons, and apply them before it’s too late.

    Reply
    1. Mark Baker

      I agree very much with Steven’s diagnosis. I disagree with his prescription.

      That’s very much the problem with these things, of course. Even if everyone agrees that the organization is doing the wrong things, they disagree on what the right thing is. And since it takes more energy to change than to keep doing the same thing, the disagreements about direction effectively keep the organization on its old course.

      Meanwhile, of course, if there are needs that are not being met, then other organizations — like MeetTheDocs — will rise to meet them. This is classic innovator’s dilemma stuff. The disruptive change comes from the outside because the established organization is resistant to disruption of this current business model.

      Frankly, I care that the needs get met, not which organization meets them. I have no stake in organizational preservation. I think that focus leads us into looking for things for the organization we have to do, rather than looking for things that need doing and trying to create the right organization to do them.

      We should not be pushing certification because association experts tell us that organizations that offer certification do better. Rather, organizations that offer certification should arise because there is a social good to be served by it. My view, as I argue in this post (http://everypageispageone.com/2016/05/16/can-content-be-engineered-can-writers-be-certified/), is that certification is an appropriate response in a profession that has reached a certain stage in the developement of its methodology based on proven algorithms and known-good data, but that the content arts are not there yet, and may never get there.

      Reply
      1. Larry Kunz Post author

        Thanks, Mark. In your earlier comments you mentioned things like “making the world better” and “revolutionary.” Yet, for the professional society to survive, it still needs to compete with grassroots movements like WriteTheDocs to “meet needs” in the here and now. I guess we (I say we because all STC members have a stake in this) have a tall order ahead of us.

      2. stevefjong

        I’m not interested in relitigating certification. There’s no point in arguing that the methodological underpinnings don’t exist after we’ve found and used them. (And if there’s really no basis for certification, you might ask how tekom is doing it.) Too, the fact that a certification agency has accepted STC as a client validates the program and its business model. Finally, I agree that social good is a reason to do it, but only one of three, along with organizational benefits and member benefits. The benefits to STC are clear. To members? It doesn’t do much for practitioners near the end of their careers, like you and me. But it does a lot for practitioners nearer the beginning, which the current design targets. There are more of them than there are of us, and that’s where I came in.

        You are welcome not to care if STC survives or not. Our host cares, and frankly, so do I. That’s where I’ve devoting my energy.

      3. Mark Baker

        Steve, you can certainly put together a certification program for any body of knowledge. But it is the provenance of the body of knowledge that give the certification weight. The less provenance the body of knowledge has, the less weight the certification has. Imagine saying that being a member of the bar does not matter much to a lawyer near the end of their career or that being board certified does not matter much to the surgeon near the end of their career. They have no career without them. As you say, any real benefit is to STC, not society and not most practitioners.

        That does not mean it is not a certification or that it does not follow the methodology for creating certifications, it just means that it isn’t a certification in any necessary or verified body of knowledge and therefore is of little social or professional weight. You could put together a body of knowledge on story (there is quite a lot of it) and put together a certification program for novelists following all the processes for creating certifications. But it would not follow that certified novelists wrote better novels than non-certified ones. Mere process does not convey weight on anything.

      4. Mark Baker

        Larry, I have to ask why you think it is so important that the STC survive per se? Is it because it performs some vital function that will cease to exist if STC folds? Or is it sentimental attachment based on time sunk into it, long time association, and long standing friendships? If the latter, that is entirely understandable, but not really a reason for new people to join or for those who don’t feel that way to remain.

        I am a member of STC, but I really don’t feel I have a stake in it. I dropped my membership when the Eastern Ontario chapter folded and started attending the Read Pen meetup instead. Either way I got to hang out with tech writers and talk about tech writing. When I moved to Kitchener-Waterloo I rejoined and joined both the Southwestern Ontario and Toronto branches because I get to hang out with tech writers and talk about tech writing. If those branches folded, I would find other ways to hang out with techwriters.

        My point is, I have a stake in technical communication. I’m neither pro STC nor anti. If it lets me talk to people who care about technical communication and helps move tech comm forward, I’m all for it. It not, I’ll find something else that does.

        I do know several people, though, who are passionately pro the organization in its own right, and I have to say I just don’t get it. Or rather, I suppose I do. They have put a lot of time and effort into the organization over the years and maybe they feel it would be wasted if the organization were to fold.

        But they shouldn’t feel that way. The organization did what it did in its day. The work that was put into it was of value at the time. The organization does not have to continue in perpetuity for it to have had value in the past. But I think we have to look at why we put the effort in to the organization in the past, and it was to build the profession, not the organization. Not only was the work valuable in its time (which is enough) but it carries forward as long as the profession continues, whether the society continues or not.

        My worry (and the reason I bother to engage this question at such length) is that the energies of those people who have put in so much over the years may now be misdirected into trying to preserve the STC for its own sake rather than being focussed on other things that might better serve the profession and the world.

        Again, I have no stake in either its continuance or it demise, but shouldn’t we be more focused on what needs doing in technical communication (in all its forms and varieties) than on finding something for STC to do? I suspect the STC would actually have a better chance of survival if people worried more about its aims and less about its survival.

      5. stevefjongSteven Jong

        Mark, don’t put words in my mouth. I did not say “any real benefit is to STC, not society and not most practitioners,” I said the opposite.

        Perhaps one of these points was too subtly expressed for you, so I will put it more plainly: Someone near the end of his working life, like you, can establish credibility through a work history and portfolio. If you got certified, it probably wouldn’t improve your prospects in the time you have left. But the median age in the US is 35, so most practitioners will benefit much more.

        Finally, I should point out that having a body of knowledge makes certifying against it much easier, but it’s not required and we didn’t base certification on it. Instead, we based it on first principles: a study of knowledge, skills, and abilities of technical communicators. Again, though, it’s a moot point, both because certification exists and because the STC Body of Knowledge exists. The BOK is not my thing, but if you think it can be more firmly verified, I invite you to work with that team to improve it. (That’s a cheeky objection to raise, seeing as how the BOK undoubtedly contains more than a little of your own work…!)

      6. Mark Baker

        Steve,

        But my point is that a certification the might add credibility to some people early in their careers is a very different thing, a very much lighter weight thing, than a certification that is required to legally practice, such as lawyers, doctors, and civil engineers are required to have. You can do it if you like. It just does not have a lot of weight, and therefore not much social value. It is a value for members argument, which you yourself point out has not been working. (It also alienates a number of members, so there is that to consider.)

        I’m fascinated that the STC has both a BOK and a certification program any yet does not base on on the other. That seems to make my point for me, loud and clear. If there was a coherent and well validated BOK for tech comm, it would be impossible not to base its certification program on it.

        There is a BOK for the certification program, of course. The “first principles: a study of knowledge, skills, and abilities of technical communicators” that you cite has to be codified in some way to base certification on it, so that is the BOK for the certification. But what provenance does that BOK have, other than the opinion of the people who compiled it?

        As for those parts of my work that the STC has included in what it calls its BOK, and what I would simply call a list of resources, I would never claim that anything that I have written rises to the level of provenance of an engineering or medical BOK. In fact, I am appalled by the flimsy evidence on which much tech comm research is based. It is frustrating to see business cases being made based on research claims that are based on nothing more than a survey monkey survey publicised on a bunch of LinkedIn tech comm groups. As I argue in the post I linked to, proving anything in this space is just too difficult.

        My Every Page is Page One principles are based on an observation and interpretation of successful patterns, in which success is judged by high ranking content on the web. I try to make that clear, and to make it clear that that is all the provenance I claim. I don’t for a minute think that everybody who wants to write about technology should be required to be certified in Every Page is Page One principles.

    2. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Steve. Well said. I remember “telling our powerful story”: I thought — and still think — that it was a good basis for marketing STC. I wish I knew why it never caught on.

      Reply
  5. Tom Johnson (@tomjohnson)

    This is a great discussion. I’ve wondered about the potential for groups like Write the Docs to overtake the STC in popularity, and I think it’s going to happen.

    Re certification and value, only about a dozen people attended the certification course at this year’s summit. One person did so only b/c it was a way to get her company to sponsor her Summit trip. Half way through the course, she actually skipped out to attend my session on REST API documentation.

    I’m not really sure that certification is going to take off without industry backing. There’s no requirement for continuing education in our profession, and a certificate doesn’t mean a whole lot without a convincing portfolio to back it up.

    Really, I think the STC has veered off its initial purpose. Everything the STC does is too expensive, from the membership dues to publications, webinars, and conferences. I know it’s a not-for-profit organization, but it seems more bent on generating its own revenue to thrive rather than on educating and empowering its members.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Tom. I appreciate your thoughts. For me, the question is if groups like Write the Docs overtake STC in popularity, will something of value be lost? In my head I’m composing a new blog post on that very question. Not sure yet what it’ll say — as you know, the blog-writing process sometimes takes surprising turns.

      Reply
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  7. Mike Nelson

    In my experience, the annual Competition has been the single biggest benefit of the STC. What I’ve learned from entering, and more so from judging, has helped me improve my work more than any webinar, conference, class, etc. It is a shame that many chapters have stopped running local competitions, and the STC has done very little to promote this great program. Where else can you submit a work product to a group of three tech comm practitioners who conduct a thorough review on all aspects of quality and usability? It’s an incredible value, and I’m hoping it doesn’t disappear.

    Reply
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