Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?

Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years.

STC remains relevant today because it…

Still provides a solid platform for networking and information exchange. These were the major roles of a professional society in the 20th century. Today, even though it’s far from being the only game in town, STC still succeeds at these roles through its chapters and SIGs (special interest groups).

Curates a body of knowledge — a set of standards and best practices for the profession — and makes it available to both practitioners and educators.

Connects practitioners with educators through the Summit conference, through the Technical Communication journal, and through its various networking platforms. While the practitioner’s world is very different from the educator’s, STC helps bridge the gap by sharing information and by making it possible to engage in dialog.  The profession needs as much of that dialog as it can get.

STC can stay relevant if it…

Reaches across to professionals in other fields who could benefit from associating with STC. Ever since the organization was known as the Society of Technical Writers and Editors in the 1960s, it’s been challenged to define the boundaries of the technical communication profession. Besides writers and editors, it took in graphic artists, training developers, and educators.

Quill penToday the field of “content” is broader — and harder to define — than ever. STC can benefit by cross-pollinating with organizations that support marketers, UX designers, publishers, project managers, and others — and the members of those groups can benefit from affiliating with STC. The trick will be broadening STC’s appeal while staying focused on the things that make it unique.

Makes sure, once the newcomers arrive, that they feel welcome and find their place in the organization. Creating volunteer opportunities and nurturing volunteerism are two ways of doing that.

Keeps finding new ways to attract, train, and energize volunteers. STC’s volunteers have long been the backbone of the organization. My experience as an STC volunteer has made much better at my job and much more attractive to my employers.

Builds its certification program into something that’s valued by practitioners and their employers. In the absence of a legal requirement for practitioners to be licensed, certification programs like CPTC usually take a long time to gain momentum. STC needs to balance patience with the need for steady growth.

Continues to operate as a worldwide society. In Europe, a lot of the energy that used to center around STC is now found under the tekom banner. In both Europe and North America, Write the Docs stages popular regional and local events. I hope that STC will find a way to operate alongside organizations like these, in harmony with them, rather than competing directly with them or ceding the stage to them.

Whatever your connection to STC — or if you have no connection at all — I’d like to hear what you think. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Will you still need me? STC at 64

  1. Mark Baker

    Help me out here Larry. Are you arguing that what the STC need to do to remain relevant is exactly what it has been doing all along? Because aren’t your recommendations exactly that: what the STC has been doing for many years now? Won’t following that course keep it a 20th century organization?

    What I have always liked about the name of the society is that it states that the society is for the activity, not the members. The old name was a more traditional “for these people” name: Society of Technical Writers and Editors. But the current name is a “for this activity” name.

    What I like about this is that communicating about technology is a ubiquitous need today practiced by people in all kinds of fields from startup founders seeing venture capital, to salespeople and sales engineers, to trainers, to marketers, to aid workers and emergency responders, to politicians and policy wonks, to PR people, to users supporting each other on line and in person, to engineers and developers, to (not to forget them) the folks who write docs for end users of products.

    The society’s name says it if for all these people. Its practices say it is only for the last group. This strikes me as a very 20th century way of looking at things. Life is too short and commerce moves too fast to bog ourselves down in job title ghettos. Technical communication is not a profession, it is a job function, and a job function for half the world these days. It is a job function so important that many people do it full time. But many more do it part time, as an essential component of other jobs, and the society should be for them and for what they do as much as it if for the full timers.

    One of the comments that I have seen made over and over again in relation to the last US election is, “People vote their beliefs, not their interests.” STC seems to be defining itself with ever more dubious appeals to ever narrower interests. This is not what excites and motivates people. People want to be for something. Technical communication may be a fairly mundane thing to be for, but it impacts our ability to do almost everything else. Lets be for everyone who needs to communicate about technology, and lets be about doing as well as it can possible be done, no matter what the title on the business card.

    I’d love to see the society start to live up to the generosity of spirit that is implicit in its name.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Hi, Mark. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hope that some of STC’s leaders will respond to it.

      You ask whether I’m saying STC needs to do is what it’s been doing all along. I don’t think I’m saying that. I’m saying that STC needs to reach out more to engage people who don’t think of themselves as technical writers, per se, or who don’t engage in technical writing full-time. I’m saying that its old international model (essentially, we are THE worldwide society for tech comm) is outdated but shouldn’t be scrapped entirely. I too would love to see STC live up to the generosity of spirit that’s implicit in its name — and that I hope reflects the vision its leaders have for it.

      1. Mark Baker

        Good, I am glad to hear it. I did not renew this year, and I won’t be renewing as long as the society continues to push the certification program. I think there is important and useful work that the society could be doing, but as long as it is working to put technical communication in a box, I can’t in good conscience continue to finance that effort with my membership dues. But if the society genuinely does begin to live up to the generous spirit of its name again — and if it stops pestering me with promises of dubious benefits and starts talking about bringing real benefits to society at large, I will be back.

  2. Pingback: Questions from the old year, questions for the new | Leading Technical Communication

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