Our “Life in Docs”: building and sustaining a community

Logo for the Life in Docs survey

Image source: David Ryan

David Ryan, cofounder of a company called Corilla, has garnered responses from 333 technical communicators for a “Life in Docs 2018” survey. The respondents answered questions about how we do our work and what we like and dislike about it.

Ryan posted the results in two articles on Medium: first the data, then his interpretations of the data (or insights, to use his term).

I’d include a link to Corilla’s website, but at this writing the site is down.

Overall, the results don’t surprise. We technical writers are happy at our work, we use a variety of tools and processes, and we want to collaborate more effectively.

Today I want to zero in on a section in Ryan’s “insights” post, titled Communities of practice are the cultural engine room.

The survey didn’t have questions about associations or affiliations, so I don’t know how Ryan arrived at this “insight.” Perhaps he tripped over his own bias toward looser-knit, informal communities and against established societies.

That said, it’s a point worth discussing.

Here’s what Ryan wrote:

The role of the community organisation has never been more important for content teams. And never more popular. In the last decade we’ve seen mailing lists give way to LinkedIn groups, and societies giving ground to communities….

The decline of the society format is in part due to value and agility. Membership fees and lengthy campaigning for elections provide little resolution to the problems technical writers express (as evidenced in detail in these survey results).

OK, I guess that’s the connection to the survey. Respondents said that their contributions are “undervalued and misunderstood.” A few felt isolated and wanted more affiliation with each other.

For Ryan, traditional associations can’t help with those things. He went on to say:

Communities will continue to emerge and reshape as their needs require. The complex structure of societies exhibit a fragility that leans towards a self preservation bias.

Fragility? Self preservation bias? Mr. Ryan, your bias is showing!

But I hesitate to judge you too harshly because I’m aware of my own bias — which is that associations, like STC and tekom Europe, still play a vital role in:

  • Networking and information exchange
  • Advocating for practitioners
  • Defining and compiling a body of knowledge (a prerequisite for certification)
  • Connecting academics with practitioners
  • Bringing new people into the profession

While I’m all for loose-knit alliances like Write the Docs and even LinkedIn lists, they’e not by themselves enough to build and nurture a professional community. We still need traditional associations, and reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

Even David Ryan, in the end, seems to understand that. He finishes the Communities of practice section by observing:

Maintaining a brand may prove difficult as technical writing evolves from a singular function with specific certification and training (all revenue streams societies rely on) and into a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles. Given their importance in political and commercial advocacy, it’s ostensibly a good thing that they encounter these force functions for change — but it would be a shame to lose them entirely.

It would be more than a shame. It would be a big loss for the profession: for the practitioners, the students, and the teachers who depend on it and help define it.

Professional associations, of all stripes, face lots of challenges — one of which, certainly, is the fragmentation of the profession into (quoting Ryan) “a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles.”

To counter these challenges, let’s concentrate on what we share in common, not on our differences. And let’s support associations that help keep the profession strong.

What say you? Leave a comment.

4 thoughts on “Our “Life in Docs”: building and sustaining a community

  1. Ed

    I disagree that Write the Docs is a “loose-knit alliance”, and I say this as a senior member of the STC. The WTD community is organizing conferences and frequent meetups around the US, and are far more nimble than STC. Their Slack channel is overwhelmingly active, where the STC has no presence. Their community also (anecdotally) skews much younger than traditional societies like STC, and seem much more engergized. We as a society can learn much from them.

    I followed the Corilla story, and David as well. I tested Corilla, and felt it was very half-baked (and perhaps why is closed down). It showed in their documentation – which ironically was incomplete despite being created ‘by tech writers for tech writers’. But, I agree with many of David’s arguments that you quoted, especially that things like certification are not terribly important in this age and little more than revenue-enhancers.

    What disturbs me is the ‘positive aspects of the job’ word cloud overwhelmingly geared towards writing, but little on the technical. I strongly believe this is what’s holding our profession back, and why so many feel they’re undervalued. Technology has moved far more quickly than the techcomm profession, and I believe this is confirmed by little more than a ‘legacy’ paragraph in Adobe’s 10K.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thank you, Ed, for those great comments. I admit that I didn’t do justice to Write the Docs — and I sheepishly admit I didn’t know that WTD has a Slack channel. Still, WTD seems disinclined to take on other roles, like defining standards and a body of knowledge, that associations have traditionally filled. How important is that? That’s a question for another day.

      I love your point about the technical side of our profession. We are technical communicators, emphasis on both words.

  2. Bob

    I think your post highlights a couple of things.

    First: Technical Communication surveys. These come out every now and then and they almost always refer to “Technical writers|communicators” as one big group and as though their survey represents that group. Then other technical writers|communicators read, cite, and act (or at least comment) on those findings as though they applied to the entirety of technical communication. In fact, most of the tech comm surveys I see published on blogs have a minuscule sample size and it’s invariably a convenience sample as opposed to a random sample, meaning, at best, the results can only safely be said to apply to those responding to the survey. (As an example, the Corilla survey reports 333 respondents while the USBLS https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/technical-writers.htm reports 52,400 technical writers alone in 2016).

    When I worked at Microsoft, we had, IIRC, about 1,600 technical writers and they spanned quite a range of skills, topics, working environments, and tools. And, that was just in one [albeit large] company. So, to generalize any Tech-comm survey beyond the people who responded to it is risky business and certainly requires some sort of qualification. This isn’t to say there’s nothing to be learned from these surveys, but we should all be critical consumers of survey data and extra careful to not generalize the findings beyond the limits of the survey methodology.

    Second: Technical Communication societies/clubs/associations trying to represent the 52,400 Technical Writers as well as all the other disciplines included in Technical Communication is a formidable task. The diversity of the field and where/how the writers work makes me doubt that there will ever be a one-size-fits-all organization for tech writers, which is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing that there is room for STC-like orgs (formal, long-standing, recognized) as well as WTD-like orgs (informal, pragmatic, flexible). At the same time, it’s curse for Technical Writers who have so little bandwidth and even less disposable conference/organization budget to try and organize and advocate for what they think is right. The net result of this makes membership and support of an organization very competitive. That is, each individual must choose carefully which group to support if they can only afford to support one (or none).

    I think orgs like STC are structured to define standards and maintain a body of knowledge, but I also agree that they need to work in collaboration (and not in competition) with the ad-hoc groups that arise to address the many niches that come and go in tech comm. Finding what each type of group does best and then playing to their respective strengths would seem to be the most constructive approach. Has that happened? e.g. Is there an STC ambassador to WTD or vice versa? (there could be, I don’t know, If not, it seems like it might be worth a try,)

    Thanks for the provocative topic!

  3. Pingback: Our “Life in Docs”: building and sustaining a community – Technical Writing World

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