Mark Baker, commenting on my post about STC and its future, asked me a question:
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?
I’ve pondered that question for a while.
Of course part of the answer, for me, is sentiment. My experience with STC has been extremely rewarding. I don’t keep up with friends from high school or college, but some of my STC friendships are going strong after 20 or 30 years. In STC, I feel an incredibly strong sense of belonging. This is my tribe.
I understand, however, that most people don’t share that sentiment. And I know it’s not a reason for wanting STC to survive per se.
So is there, in Mark’s words, a vital function that STC provides? I think there are several — or at least there can be.
The role of a society
What’s the role of a professional society in a field where credentialling — that is, licensing — isn’t a legal prerequisite to participation?
Start with networking and information exchange. Several of the more recently formed communities, like LavaCon and Write the Docs, provide both of those. It’s because of that, I think, that people are questioning whether STC has become outmoded.
Yet a professional society ought to perform other functions as well:
Advocating for practitioners
A few years ago STC convinced the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to separate technical writers from other writers in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. That might sound like a small thing. But it helped improve the way employers (including, notably, the U.S. government) regard us as practitioners. And it’s the kind of thing I don’t think any other organization is set up to do — with one possible exception, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Defining and compiling a body of knowledge
Whether certification catches on or not, there’s value to having a body of knowledge — a collection of resources that, by consensus, is understood to contain the things every practitioner should know.
Connecting academics with practitioners
Some conferences, journals, and societies exist to serve the academic community. Others are aimed toward practitioners. While far from perfect, STC attempts to attract and serve both academics and practitioners — and, critically, to engage both groups in dialog. The profession needs as much of that dialog as it can get.
Bringing in new people
Many — I’d say most — of the newer communities and events appeal to practitioners who are experienced and well informed. It can be hard for newcomers to break in and find their place. By contrast, STC’s chapters, as well as its Summit conference, provide an easy on-ramp — a way for newcomers to rub elbows with each other as well as with their more experienced colleagues.
One note: I’ve intentionally left tekom out of the discussion. tekom has surpassed STC in Europe, and it’s set up to perform many, if not all, of the functions I’ve ascribed to STC. Perhaps STC no longer has a significant role in Europe. In North America, Asia, and Australia, however, STC is still the primary game in town.
I’m not saying that STC is firing on all cylinders. I am saying that STC has the infrastructure and the institutional know-how to do things that other tech comm societies in most of the world simply aren’t equipped to do.
With effective leadership and with the support of its members, STC can be successful and relevant.
I hope it will be. Partly for sentimental reasons, of course. But also because it would be the best thing for the profession of technical communication.
Do you agree? Disagree? Tell me in the comments. Especially if you’ve held back after reading my last two posts, I’d love to hear what you think.
Thanks for taking the time to provide such a well thought-out answer. First let me say that my reason for remaining a member is that it is where I currently find my tribe. Specifically where I find my tribe locally. This is a reason to join, but not a reason to preserve. Post-STC, the tribe would find each other in other ways.
So let me go through why none of the reasons you give are persuasive to me. (I won’t go so far as to argue that they should not be persuasive to anyone, just state why they are not persuasive to me. I am not trying to tear down. But it may be of use to those trying to build up to know why the bricks they are using don’t appeal to one member.)
Advocating for practitioners. The main problem I have with this is the STC advocates for practitioners in the US. I know of no examples of the STC advocating for technical communicators in Canada, where I live, or any other country. (Examples welcome!) I also note that the BLS example is the only one ever trotted out when this argument is made. Are there other examples? Are there any ongoing advocacy projects? What is STC advocating for right now?
BOK: I was surprised to learn from Stephen that the BOK is entirely separate from certification. Unless a BOK is that which you need to know to be certified to practice, it is really just a library. But in a hypertext world, what does the library do for me that the Web cannot do? The idea seems old fashioned to me. Now if the STC could arrange to set up a Technical Communication community on Stack Exchange (TC is currently lumped in with the Writers community) that would be more interesting and more modern. Even so, though, would it be a reason to join STC? Would it need STC to function?
Connecting academics and practitioners: This is really a communication function again. I don’t see what prevents academics from joining Write the Docs or speaking at LavaCon if they want to.
Bringing in new people: I really do not see this one. In two months the Technical Communication Peer to Peer group we created in Kitchener Waterloo had attracted 79 members of various ages from various fields and is drawing four times as many people to its events as the STC chapter did on its best day. I think my problem with this is that the STC tends to view this through a narrow lense of what I will call the tech pubs ghetto. Technical communication is a very broad activity practiced by people in many occupations as a necessary part of their job. Writing and publishing manuals is a narrow activity practiced by far fewer people as a full time job. The STC is focussed on bringing younger people into the tech pubs ghetto. What I am interested in is bringing together that much wider group of people for whom tech comm is an important job function, not a career.
You are right about STC having infrastructure and institutional knowledge. But those things may turn out to be more liabilities than strengths. Infrastructure costs money, and people resent the high level of fees that they are asked to pay to maintain that infrastructure. The modern web has been exploding infrastructure across the board. Virtual infrastructure is replacing physical and human resource infrastructure in every facet of business.
Institutional knowledge often comes down to how to operate the institutional infrastructure. As such it can often become an impediment to renovating the infrastructure to take advantage of modern conditions. Those steeped in institutional knowledge tend to be those who have the hardest time seeing that the same goals can be accomplished by other methods. They come to value the process over the product.
Infrastructure is really at the heart of this argument. Before the Web, we needed an infrastructure to provide all these services. With the Web, we don’t. (Before the Web, the only place we could have had this discussion was at the STC summit.) So the real question is not, are there services necessary? The real question is, is STC’s expensive infrastructure still necessary to provide these services. Of the functions you list here, only advocacy seems to possibly meet this test. But what is STC advocating for?
So let’s reframe the question: Why is it important that the STC infrastructure survive?
Larry, I have a post that compares WTD to the STC sitting in draft mode in my editor for the past month, because I didn’t want to make any enemies during conference season. I think the days when the STC performed the vital lobbying function for the Bureau of Labor Statistics are long over. The most significant achievements of the Society seem more focused on survival through certification than other efforts. Overall, perhaps the best thing that could happen to the STC is for it to move to a more open, volunteer-run organization. I’ll try to finish up my draft post and link back to your series on this topic.
My experience echoes both the writer and the commenters, but after many years as a “Senior” STC member, I stopped attending meetings and writing checks for the $100+ membership fees.
Compare the role and value of the STC to the world of web developers. In that world–where I spend most of my times these days–professional organizations generally have low value and importance. Instead, web developers get their collaboration, community and social needs met through meetups, conferences, informal gatherings, and online resources. Much of this is free (or sponsored by industry companies), though conferences are a notable exception. Things like “certifications” and other such are largely ignored, and junior people can contribute right away.
I like this model, and it seems to work well, especially in a realm where the industry changes fast all the time. Some people (like Tom Johnson) seem to get that technical writing is like this now–changing fast, adapting, morphing, splitting.
My fundamental complaint about the STC is twofold: (1) it tries to create artificial scarcity so it can charge mightily for it, and (2) it seems stuck on a model of the professional world of technical writing that hasn’t existed in 20 years. In other words, the STC seems the opposite of the web developer world I described, which acknowledges the pace of change and doesn’t try to calcify around a quasi-academic model and set up and control gateways to knowledge and development.
Mark, just curious, instead of the “Technical Communication Peer to Peer group” you created in Waterloo, do you think there’s an advantage in branding it as a Write the Docs group instead, following the same meetup.com tools? Seems like you can plug into this brand recognition fairly easily and get more support.
Tom, here in K-W we have an organization called CommuniTech (https://www.communitech.ca/) which is an incubator and all round business generator for the K-W tech community. They have an enormous audience in this area. They have peer to peer groups for dozens of different subjects (https://www.communitech.ca/how-we-help/career-development/peer2peer-groups/), and they provide free meeting space, free Meetup, free support people, and money for expenses to all their peer to peer groups. It just made sense to partner with them to create the peer to peer so that we would have access to all those resources. And it has really paid off, basically quadrupling our audience overnight.
Secondly, we really wanted to stress the full breadth of technical communication as an activity that is fundamental to almost every aspect of a technology company (and indeed most companies). We wanted everyone who communicates about technology from sales and sales support to field engineering to training to marketing, to tech pubs to PR to product management. Write the Docs has a different model from STC, and a slightly broader focus, since it includes developers documenting code, but it is still focused on documentation, which is still only a subset of technical communication.
My view is that tech pubs is a silo based on the limits of paper as a communication media and that while the publication of manuals will doubtless still continue, the Web is creating a fundamental realignment of technical communication roles and methods. We want to comprehend all of that, and bringing together people from diverse fields seems the best way to do that.
A lot of my disquiet with STC is that, like James Gill says, it seems to be more intent on defending an old model of tech comm careers than in adapting to a new model of the tech comm function.
Larry, thanks for sharing your thoughts! There seem to be two lines of mutually exclusive argument here. One says there are better organizations than STC out there. That seems to be an anti-STC sentiment that I see no point in engaging with. The other is that there’s no need for organizations at all, and that one I’ll speak to.
Here’s a good example of the value of looking around rather than navel-gazing. Associations of many kinds have thought about this existential question since the turn of the century. Here, for example, is a white paper on the subject, from the world of chartered accountancy but still relevant to us: http://ifpsm.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/White-Paper-Sterling-reinventing-professional-associations-for-the-21st-century.pdf
Mark Baker asks: “[I]n a hypertext world, what does the library do for me that the Web cannot do? The idea seems old fashioned to me.” Millennials are said to be very adept at finding answers to questions, but they tend to think the first hit is the best answer. The answer to every question may be on the web, but which one is it? A library is not just a warehouse of documents and individual works; it is organized, and it is curated. The most important part of a library is actually the librarian. And, of course, curation is a function of technical communication. We don’t just copy and paste the spec, we process it.
Continuing education will be crucial for 21st century professionals (so says the white paper I referenced and many more besides). You can find any knowledge you want on the web, but what should you be looking at? Choose wisely–or rely on a credible organization to help curate the information for you.
For a recent presentation on embedded assistance, I looked at principles used by UX designers. They are trying to define their own field; Steve Krug’s _Don’t Make Me Think_ offers ideas. I was most struck by how similar his principles are to technical communication principles. The UX field is casting about for knowledge that we already have. I wish we had not let those folks drift away, but we retain a wide area of common ground, which is a huge opportunity.
I don’t think anyone said there is no need for organizations at all. I didn’t. What I said was that organizations need less infrastructure than they used to. One of the pervasive themes of the modern web is that you can rent infrastructure rather than buying it. This has a huge impact on the capital requirements, and therefore the longevity requirements, of organizations. An organization with no capital invested in infrastructure can form quickly to need a specific need and close up shop when that need is met. (The whole startup culture is predicated on this ability to create low-overhead, low-capital organizations.) This has a profound impact on how people form and use associations. It is nothing to do with whether you need them. It has everything to do with how you constitute them.
Millennials are not the only ones who have recognized and adapted to these new realities. Plenty of us baby boomers have adapted to the Web as well. Those of us who have adapted tend to have a different pattern for finding credible information when we need it. The old model was that you first found an authority and then asked your question. The new model is that you first ask you question of the whole world and then assess the authority of the answer your get (depending, of course, on how much is at stake). The reputation of organizations is certainly still on factor in this. But social proof plays a huge role.
For an answer to rank first on Google is not mere happenstance. Google’s ranking algorithm works very hard, and usually very effectively, to surface good answer. But then there is the social proof aspect as well. Ask a programming question on Google and you are likely to get an answer from Stack Overflow. Stack Overflow has an elaborate social proof mechanism that uses collaborative editing, reputation management, and up/down voting to promote the best answers. This gives Stack Overflow answers a very high degree of credence in the programming community.
This is what curation looks like in the 21st century. If you imagine that the Web is uncurated, you do not understand how the web works. The Web is socially and algorithmically curated in very sophisticated ways. This does not mean that every result is reliable, but no system ensures that. The reader still has a responsibility to assess the validity of the answers they find, and sometimes they fail to meet that responsibility. But the population has voted with their feet. Google is the first place the turn for answers to most questions.
Institutional credibility is still a factor in the web’s credibility equation, but the credibility of the organization has to come from something other than its decision to create a library.
And then there is the problem that, in itself, establishing the institutional credibility of the STC’s BOK is not much of an incentive to pay membership dues every year.
Thanks to all who’ve commented so far. I’ve refrained from posting replies. as I usually do, so that you all can have the floor. I feel like I’ve had my say, and I’m handing the mic to you. (I might ask for it back at any time, of course.)
All of you have raised excellent points. I’m eager to hear what others have to add.
Are there any lessons STC can take from organizations such as PMI or ATD?
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Larry, thanks for the provocative series of posts. It’s important to assess the value of everything we do.
A year or so ago, I responded to a “is STC worth it?” question on TechWhirl that I also later posted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/2018180/2018180-5936250912195514370. Looking at it today, it sounds a lot like a personalized version of the “value for members” argument.
I’m afraid I sit mostly in the camp of questioners today. Too often, STC does seem like a feudal guild, asking for people’s money in hopes that they will seem special. If the networking opportunities and the chance to talk with other technical communicators locally and electronically was all we have to offer, we should just become a Meetup group. Let a university press take over the journal, and XML Press or C:NET put out the magazine.
Perhaps the most important thing a permanent professional organization can do that ad hoc groups can’t is advocate for the profession. But, again, if a BLS redefinition is all we’ve got to show for our advocacy in the 15+ years I’ve been in it, we’re not succeeding in that role.
Let’s not forget, however, that STC is NOT the Society of Technical Communicators (emphasis on the members). This is a group FOR technical communication (the ideas and practices). I have argued from time to time that our leaders should be out and about among the captains of industry touting the value of technical communication. One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my early days was the importance of techcomm-as-user-advocate. This is our story, and yes, I think it’s our most important value. As true for the web era as in any other time when people needed help using tools.
We should become the organization reporters turn to first when new technologies start befuddling the masses. Summit Leadership Day could focus on helping volunteers be effective user advocates outside our companies as well as inside.
Maintaining professional organizations in the 21st century is hard. I’m reluctant to turn to association managers for answers. More than a few of us work with innovators of all types. I hope we can come up with more ideas in our ranks.
I think this gets down to the question of whether technical communication is actually a profession in the strict sense.
But the fact of the matter is that everyone who works with technology communicates about it and technical communication is a necessary part of a wide number of jobs from sales to sales support to field engineering to development to customer support. (Oh, and the people who write the manuals.) It is no less important when it is done as part of these other professions. In some cases, it is more important in these roles.
And it is also true that some of the best technical communicators are long-time field engineers and the like who want to travel less and spend more time at home. Could they benefit from information about technical communication principles and practices? Of course they could. But their field experience is just as valuable, and many of them are fantastic communicators, because communicating has been part of their job all along and they know the task and the audience better than any office-bound tech pubs person ever could.
Tech comm training may be one way into the field, but it is not and never should be the only way. It is possible to be a fantastic communicator without any idea that such training even exists.
It STC would change its focus from the profession of tech comm to the practice of tech comm and try to offer something to everyone who communicates about technology regardless of their job title, I think we might see a very different picture.
But I’m not sure that there is anyone who is willing to put the kind of effort into the society to make that change who is actually interested in taking it in that direction.
I’ve been in the STC since 1986 and I certainly have a strong sentimental attachment to it. But more than that, I recognize the value of what it offers as a networking organization that has momentum of its own. Arbitrarily disbanding the STC just because would lose a considerable amount of momentum, oral tradition (particularly from the senior members), and overall direction.
The value of the STC to me has always been primarily as a networking organization, which is the value of most professional organizations. At this point, I’ve made well over $1,000,000 by being an STC member that I wouldn’t have made without. This came about through finding out about jobs, getting hired by people I met, the skills I picked up through the STC, and so on. This alone is a preemptively good reason for me to continue being an STC member. I feel that this is a value available to everyone who participates. Again, this is not exclusive to the STC but it’s there and there *are* the opportunities with networking with people at all levels of professional expertise, something that some younger organizations (such as Write the Docs, which is VERY cool) may not offer yet because of a much less senior crowd.
A strong secondary value to me is the professional recognition. Becoming an Associate Fellow and then a Fellow were amazing honors and a validation of what I’ve accomplished. It doesn’t necessarily pay me more, but it’s a great fillip in job interviews and I think it’s been a closer on more than one occasion.
I think the STC should consider rebranding to move away from the “Technical Communication” label, which is considered a bit dated by many newer TCers, or merging with another organization to join forces and/or broaden our focus. And there is nothing that the STC does that can’t be done through other possible professional organizations. However, the value of the STC with its history and current visibility in the profession is of significant value and should not be dismissed out of hand.
Great discussion. I’m going to pitch in but quickly, distilling my own thoughts:
–The value of STC lies in content curation, networking, certification (formal and informal), recognition, and breadth of representation.
–STC failed when it de-emphasized international and educational ties.
–STC needs to hone its brand based on data collected from students and young professionals.
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Like most of you, I’ve been pondering this question since the dotcom bust and the subsequent decline of STC. Despite anything we may have on paper, I don’t think STC has a vision or a clear idea of its audience. We seem to be like those middle-aged industrial workers looking to bring their long-gone jobs back.
I think our best course is to figure out who we are, collectively, and which of our needs we can fill most effectively by banding together.
One of the biggest obstacles to STC’s evolution is the overhead of a central office, staff, and corporate structure.. Perhaps we’ll be glad some day that those have survived from the glory days of the 1990s, but at the moment they are a significant ball and chain.
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