An agile STC?

How well does the Society for Technical Communication (STC) provide value for its members? For others who are studying or working in tech comm?

STC logoWe had a lively conversation a few weeks ago on this blog. I’d like to move that conversation forward.

Today’s news stream brings an article by an Australian technical writer, Swapnil Ogale, titled The ASTC is failing us. In it, Swapnil shares an idea that might breathe new life into STC.

First, by way of background: ASTC is the Australian Society for Technical Communication. Despite the name it’s not part of STC. Like STC, however, it’s a membership organization that seeks to advance the profession through published articles, events and activities, and community building.

In his article, Swapnil airs some complaints about ASTC that might sound familiar to STC members:

  • Not enough effort to attract and retain members
  • Not enough communication from the society to the members
  • Not enough workshops and events, especially for people who aren’t located near major cities
agile_dog

Hey, if a dog can be agile so can we.

Then he makes a suggestion: Instead of relying on the traditional committee structure — a structure he calls “outdated and archaic” — the organization should adopt an agile methodology like software development teams use.

Agile, or “just-in-time development,” is a set of processes designed to make software teams more flexible and able to respond quickly to the needs of their customers. Agile teams produce frequent, small software updates rather than big roll-outs.

Here’s how agile could help STC.

Part of STC’s challenge is (and has always been) that it’s run by volunteers. Volunteers who are smart, dedicated, and hardworking — but who are often pressed for time and limited in their knowledge and abilities.

STC’s health derives from the health of its communities — its special interest groups (SIGs) and local chapters. Yet even the most vibrant communities contend with issues like burnout and volunteer shortages.

Using agile methods, individual volunteers could sign on for small, short-term projects, like organizing a meetup or an unconference. They could do so without making a huge time commitment and with little risk of burnout.

Using agile methods, community leaders could plan those smaller projects on short notice — in response to perceived needs in the community (user requirements in agile parlance) or to opportunities as they arise (example: a tech comm celebrity is passing through town and is willing to give a workshop).

I’m not suggesting that STC disband its board of directors or dismantle its current leadership structure. In fact, STC has a Community Affairs committee that would be perfect for advising community leaders in agile best practices and for sharing success stories.

I’m suggesting that agile methods might revitalize communities and benefit members who right now feel like they’re being underserved.

What say you? Should STC go agile? Are any STC communities already using agile methods — overtly or otherwise — to ease the work of volunteers and to respond better to members’ needs?

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “An agile STC?

  1. Mark Baker

    “I’m not suggesting that STC disband its board of directors or dismantle its current leadership structure.”

    This is why so many agile project fail. Agile sounds like a great idea, but of course we cannot dismantle our current management structure. So we import a few tricks and buzzwords from agile, like stand-up meetings and kanban boards, but we don’t really change who we are or how we do things. It doesn’t work.

    Over on Ray Gallon’s blog I described the attempt to recruit younger members to the STC as like opening up membership of the Elk’s Lodge to beat poets. It’s just not a good fit. It’s not about the programs and services. It is about the nature of the organization and the way we relate to each other.

    The STC is facing the classic dilemma of trying to change without really changing, of trying to change as a means of staying the same. In the process, it is doing what institutions who go through this always go through, alienating the old members without actually attracting anyone new. It is why institutions are far more likely to be made redundant and replaced than to actually transform themselves.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Mark, for starting the conversation. Maybe you’re right: maybe STC should step back and examine its whole management structure. I’d like to hear what others think.

      I love your Elks Lodge analogy. Whether STC totally reinvents itself or just makes a few tweaks, it’s definitely time to take the animal heads off the wall.

      Reply
  2. martinedic2016

    If the STC isn’t having discussions of agile at the top level they are doing a disservice to their members who are likely already trying to understand how their work fits into the agile model. We found that kanban boards worked better for the writers on our team than the agile sprint/scrum methodology. But we go further and incorporate the same testing procedures for our documentation that our software devs use. This aligns docs and product releases so nothing is held up because documentation is trailing development. The use of agile in tech communications is not a gimmick, it is the next step, not unlike moving to structured content.

    Reply
  3. Fanny Bischoff

    I agree with Mark because Agile is not about adding a few processes here and a couple of values there. It’s bigger than that, and an organization that wants to benefit from it must embrace it as a mindset, and adapt to it rather than the opposite.
    I agree with Martin, because my only tech writing experience is in an agile team, and I can’t imagine documenting software in a waterfall project. I believe that our field is becoming more and more interesting when we work in an agile environment, thanks to the very close cross-functional collaboration it provides. And documentation is looking more and more like software features, with webapps, embedded help, and interactive tutorials for example. So we should keep an eye on processes that benefit development, because if they use it, we’ll get to use it too at some point, or at least align with it.
    I also agree with your presentation, Larry, and I would add that all the opportunities that we have in an agile team benefit everyone:
    – technical writers get to learn more, and more quickly, about many things (and they are usually curious, so it’s a good thing)
    – the team benefits more from some of our skills (clear communication, organizational skills…)
    – users can benefit from features that are easier to use (we have a thing for knowing the level of complexity of a feature from imagining how complex it’s going to be to document)

    I think using the agile approach for an organization like STC could work. If it’s run by volunteers, I see two necessary first steps:
    – create teams from the group of volunteers. Team with members who know and trust each other.
    – make sure each team *owns* one or more small goals. Ownership is important to empower team members and establish trust. The size of the goals is important because teams need to see that they are making progress and achieving something that brings value to their community.

    Reply
  4. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Fanny. You certainly are the agreeable sort. 🙂

    It’s great to get the perspective of a technical communicator who’s always worked in agile, never in waterfall. I like pretty much everything you said here — especially your suggestions about forming volunteer teams and giving them goals.

    Reply
  5. Liz Pohland

    I’d like to make an important clarification between STC’s staff/management and volunteers. When you say that “STC is run by volunteers,” this is only partially true. As Steve Jong has noted recently on his blog (http://stevenjong.net/WordPress26/?p=622), staff and volunteers offer their own unique contributions to the Society.

    Like technical communication, association management is a well-established profession, and it is a distinct field of management because of the unique environment of associations. Managers within association environments are responsible for many of the same tasks that are found in other organizational and business contexts (human resource management, financial management, meeting management, IT management, project management), while other aspects are unique for association managers (membership recruitment and retention, tax-exempt accounting and financial management, development of non-dues revenue, certification development). Association managers must also be familiar with laws and regulations that pertain only to associations. All of these things are part of the business of running an association and generally not left to volunteers. And as Mark suggests, they are required functions that are not likely to go away.

    Is STC practicing “agile association management?” You bet! We might not use the formal terms from the agile manifesto, but we do almost everything recommended in this article on agile nonprofits (http://aimconsulting.com/agile-methodologies-helped-transform-nonprofits-entire-practice/) and in this article on responsive member engagement (www.bostrom.com/responsive-member-engagement-an-agile-approach). We have moved very far from the “us vs. them” traditional association relationship with members to one that embraces collaboration and values volunteers.

    I believe the focus of your post, Larry, is not really on the staff management, the board, or any of the benefits and services that STC provides, but specifically on one part—STC’s communities and its committee. It is true that STC’s communities are run by volunteers with support from the staff and the Community Affairs Committee. On the committee website (www.stc.org/about-stc/leadership/committees/item/community-affairs-cac), you can see the way the committee is currently structured. You may notice there are more roles for volunteer teams than before. I’d suggest this is already a move toward agility.

    As a staff person interested in bettering STC, I’d like to hear specifics about how you and others think agile, or a more flexible mindset/structure, could work with the communities. I don’t see the current committee as waterfall, but maybe the term “committee” implies it? Do you think the structure of communities with admin councils is problematic? What specifically would you suggest? I like Fanny’s suggestions of small goals and ownership.

    In addition to communities, I think the BOK would benefit as well from an agile approach. As Fanny suggests, teams could own topic areas with small goals for gathering content contributions from communities, especially SIGs. I will bring the idea to the BOK committee. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Liz, thanks for clarifying. Yes, I intended my suggestions for the volunteers in STC, not the staff, and especially for the volunteers in communities.

      Waterfall might not be the best word to describe the way most of our communities work today; traditional is closer to the mark. It’s encouraging to see (in Ben’s comment below) that at least one community has already embraced an agile mindset. It’s also encouraging to learn from you that agile principles have taken hold in the field of association management, and that STC’s staff is fully on board.

      Reply
  6. Ben Woelk

    Larry,
    Smaller focused activities might provide a viable path forward for many communities, especially given the challenge in recruiting volunteers for long term roles. (There’s a CAC webinar on recruiting volunteers on July 22nd. Alice Brzovic and I are speaking.)

    When I look at STC Rochester’s ability to continue to provide service to our community, sprints play a key role. Along with ongoing programming, there are a large number of shorter sprints associated with our annual Spectrum conference. These sprints provide a relatively short high-impact volunteer engagement period that I believe has really helped hold the chapter together (along with some outstanding leadership.)

    Next week we are engaging our Buffalo-area members and their colleagues in a networking dinner–our first engagement with them in well over a decade. This wasn’t part of our planned programming, but connections were made, an idea floated through LinkedIn messaging, and several people have put an event together very quickly.

    Given our changing demographics, it’s important that we examine new models and embrace those that are effective. I agree that the Community Affairs Committee is well positioned to play a mentoring role here.

    I’m not sure, but I don’t think that the ASTC committee structure really mirrors how STC functions. However, there are some points that apply to us as well.

    We absolutely have to innovate and attract members who become active volunteers.

    Mark–I hear whar you’re saying, but STC at the society level and chapters are structured very differently. There’s ample opportunity for innovation at the chapter level. I’m not disagreeing that some structural changes at the higher level would be beneficial. Alienating long term members is somewhat of a concern. However, the baby boomers who built professional organizations are retiring in droves, and the structure and programming has to work for succeeding generations. Although I dont agree with all of her points, Sladek, The End of Membership as We Know It, has good discussions around the need for organizations to transform. Post-baby boomers generations are looking for meaningful engagement for shorter periods and not necessarily a lifelong commitment.
    Ben Woelk
    Former Director and CAC Chair, STC
    Chair, STC Scholarship Committee
    VP, STC Rochester

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Ben, thanks for telling us about what the STC Rochester community is doing. These are exactly the sorts of things I was thinking about when I wrote the blog post. (You were too modest to mention that STC Rochester won Community of the Year for 2016, so I will.) I’m also very glad that you agree about the mentoring role the Community Affairs Committee can play.

      Reply
    2. Mark Baker

      Ben, I agree that things are very different at the Society and Chapter level. What I can’t for the life of me understand is what benefits the Society brings to the Chapters. Twenty years ago, yes. Chapters benefitted from the communication infrastructure of the Society. Today? Meetup will do more in a week to bring people in than the Society can do in ten years. What can a local group not achieve today without belonging to the Society, other than members hanging on to more of their money?

      Reply
      1. Ben Woelk

        Mark,
        I don’t have up-to-date numbers, but roughly 50% of STC members are currently in geographic communities/chapters. The other 50% are not involved locally. That means there are two different membership experiences. When I stepped into the presidency of STC Rochester in 2010, we were very insular and had no information about what was happening at the society level. One of my goals was to reestablish that connectivity. I blogged extensively about determining our local value proposition at that time (benwoelk.com), primarily about the local level and we’ve worked hard (and successfully) to provide value to the community. I also wrote about the value of volunteering. (http://benwoelk.com/why-i-value-stc-rochester/). I didn’t gain a full picture of what STC itself provides until I had the opportunity to serve at the Society level.

        In terms of tangible benefits, STC put together a value calculator (http://www.stc.org/membership/join-or-renew-now/1408-value-calculator).

        However, for me, the value is in the intangibles–the things not displayed by the calculator. I’ve always argued that what you gain from an organization can often be directly correlated with what you put into it. I have had so many leadership growth opportunities because I chose to be involved and step forward (and even create new initiatives such as the CAC Outreach Team to directly support community leaders) that the value to me personally has been enormous. Coupled with the professional network and friendships I’ve established, the cost to me has been minimal compared to what I’ve gained.

        My experience, both at the local level and the international level, has absolutely transformed me professionally, in skill sets and in developing leadership skills. I attribute much of my growth in leadership skills to “iron sharpening iron”–working with other leaders towards shared goals, mentoring new and emerging leaders, developing a peer network of very smart practitioners who I can go to when I have questions or whom I can assist with answers from time to time.

        My question has often been, what do people who are not actively involved as volunteers, at the local or international level, get from their membership?

        Some may just want to support a professional organization that represents their profession. Don’t forget that the STC works at the national and international levels to better the perception and value of techcomm. It was through efforts by STC that the Bureau of Labor Statistics now lists Technical Writer separately from other writers. At face value, that may not appear to have a direct impact on an individual member, but when HR departments benchmark salaries, that new category of Technical Writer makes a difference. STC has also supported Plain Language initiatives. (A good way to get a look at Society-level initiatives is by reviewing http://www.stc.org/images/stories/pdf/stc2015yearinreview3.pdf)

        Others may value the access to continuing education opportunities.

        When I was on the Board, we revised the strategy and mission of STC (http://www.stc.org/about-stc/the-society/mission-vision). We refocused on proving economic value (BLS info above, for example), but also on providing continuing education opportunities that equip our members to be successful in many fields. A techcomm mindset and the skills we develop around audience analysis and contextualization, much less actual technical skills, serves us well in multiple job roles.

        And I just realized I didn’t answer your question directly. Here are a few of the things STC offers to communities:
        1. The Community Affairs Committee provides direct support to chapters, including mentoring of chapter leaders,
        2. STC has offers some webinars that are free to chapter/SIG members.
        3. STC provides umbrella liability insurance for chapter events when a certificate of insurance is needed.
        4. STC provides access to other community leaders.
        5. STC provides a number of webinars, both live and recorded, that address leadership-related subjects.
        6. STC provides a shared hosting platform that saves chapters the cost of having their own hosting.

        Forgive my lengthy response. I think I have a couple of blog posts here that I need to publish as well!
        Ben

      2. Mark Baker

        Ben, thanks for the comprehensive list. The problem is, while all that may appeal to the Elks, it does not seem to have much appeal to the beat poets. The issue is not, does the Society do a lot of stuff, but, do people value the set of stuff that the society does.

        Those who argue passionately for the value of STC all seem to be people who have held leadership positions. I get the whole thing about developing leadership skill and contacts if that is what you are interested in, but you can do that in any organization.

        And it is hard to justify an organization based on what it does for its leaders. It ought to exist to do something for its followers and for the community at large. But there seem to be few in it followers and fewer still in the community at large who value the things the society thinks they should value. The entire certification program, for instance, seems to have been driven by the leadership in the face of widespread opposition from the membership and almost complete indifference from the community at large.

        I valued STC when it provided a communication infrastructure that was not available elsewhere. But with meetup and LinkedIn (not to mention TechWhirl) we have all the communication infrastructure we could possibly want or need.

        In the end, the past does not matter much. What we have to ask ourselves today is, if we were to set up a organization today to improve technical communication and help technical communicators in their careers, what would it look like? We have at least one answer to that question: Write the Docs.

        What the STC needs to ask itself is why anybody felt there was a gap that had to be filled by Write the Docs? Consider this quote from the Write the Docs manifesto (2014):

        “There exists a tribe of documentarians in the world. Up until this point, they haven’t had a central place to meet each other, and coalesce into a community.”

        How does STC account for that, exactly?

      3. Steven Jong

        Mark, you wrote: “The entire certification program … seems to have been driven by the leadership in the face of widespread opposition from the membership and almost complete indifference from the community at large.” This is a misperception. While there were always people opposed to certification (and still are), every survey the Board conducted, over a period of decades, showed that a majority of members wanted it, with one exception: a survey of Fellows and Associate Fellows. (One can readily see why they wouldn’t want anyone else granted distinction, especially when they discovered that they might not be grandfathered in.) Actually, the Board was reluctant to get into certification for a long time, only to be prodded, again and again, by members.

        I don’t know what you mean by “the community at large,” but if you’re attuned to the issue (as I am 8^) you’ll see the steady stream of questions in all forums from practitioners about how and where they can get certified. Now we have an answer for them…! You’ll see that now the two largest organizations in the profession, STC and tekom, offer certifications. You might not see it, but we spoke to large employers about their needs, and they have them. And LinkedIn now prompts you to add your certifications to your profile.That’s not a driver of demand, it’s a response.

    3. Steven Jong

      There’s that argument again: the ladder isn’t long enough to reach the roof because THIS rung isn’t big enough, nor THIS rung, nor THIS one…

      With respect to Write The Docs, someone was trying to organize a meetup in Boston, and eventually found a venue. The turnout was smaller than one of our chapter meetings, but it’s a start. I’ll let you know if they have a second meeting.

      Reply
  7. Pingback: Continued Thoughts on an Agile STC - BenWoelk.com

  8. Steven Jong

    Thanks for another interesting and important topic, Larry! No expert, I’m just learning to apply Agile principles on a project at work. To speak to your point, if we want to become more Agile, the community structure of STC is a perfect environment for Agile projects, if the STC Board can tolerate the idea of communities doing things on their own and in their own way.

    For example, Ben Woelk shares how the Rochester Chapter is applying Agile ideas to their annual Spectrum regional conference. (I’ve seen the term “micro-volunteering” for what Rochester is doing.) The tension arises from maintaining an annual regional conference. We want to try new ideas, but toward defined and continued results.

    But back to that outer loop… Many high-tech software organizations are grappling with Agile. The motivation is the undeniably dismal failures of software projects using waterfall methodology to come in on time, on budget, and on quality. But it’s not obvious that a software development methodology is applicable to a professional association. And even if it is, there have been enough Agile projects to measure their success, and Agile has not proven a panacea. Agile projects have generally better results than waterfall projects, but only marginally so; some have failed just as badly as waterfall projects. Some of the original authors of the Agle Manifesto have even taken to proclaiming that Agile itself has failed, at least in implementation (http://blog.toolshed.com/2015/05/the-failure-of-agile.html). Mark Baker rightly points out that Agile projects can fail through half-hearted management.

    Some of the larger questions interest me, and I’ll put down my thoughts on my own blog. No need to grind my axes here 8^)

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Steve, I’m glad you took the time to share your perspective. I’ll look forward to seeing what you have to say on your blog.

      I know that in the software world the efficacy of agile has come into question. Nevertheless I’d like to see what would happen if volunteer organizations like STC were to adopt parts of the agile methodology. I don’t think “100 percent” agile is necessary or desirable; I think we have the option of picking and choosing as we see fit. The only essential element is, as you and Mark have noted, a wholehearted commitment to the new way.

      Reply
  9. Christoph

    Hi,
    as far as I understand, the discussion here focuses on doing the classical conference organization project, but agile.
    Why not change the conference structure and take in elements from the conference format of barcamps? Participants could vote who should present what – at least for some sessions….

    Reply
  10. Larry Kunz Post author

    Hi, Christoph. Thanks for your comment. Yes, a bar camp or unconference is a good example of planning events using leaner, more agile approaches. Events might lend themselves especially well to these approaches, but perhaps other chapter/SIG activities — like newsletters — could be done this way as well.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: What Value Does STC Provide to Its Communities? - BenWoelk.com

Tell me what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s