Posted by: communicationcloud | October 29, 2009

Is it time to take the “technical” out of technical communication?

Do you know what “technical communication” is? Have you ever tried to define it?

I’m not generally particularly interested in the debate about what we technical communicators call ourselves. But as someone who is involved in trying to take the ISTC and TCUK conference to a broader market I’ve had to start taking a bit more notice of this, and I’m beginning to think that if we took the “technical” out of “technical communication” we’d find all kinds of exciting new opportunities opening up – using exactly the skills we already have.

Getting the definition right

Defining “technical communication” is something we had to do in some of the marketing materials for TCUK09, and it was quite a tricky job. Just when we thought we’d got it pinned down, we realized we’d forgotten the illustrators, or the tools specialists, internal business procedure writers, or localization specialists.

So we tried to use more general wording, which led us to a definition that included all kinds of roles that don’t normally “fit” under technical communication – copywriters, project managers, UI designers… But not all copywriters or project managers are technical communicators.

It was really difficult to come up with a definition that was both exhaustive and exclusive: too general and it includes all kinds of roles that probably don’t sit under this role; too specific and you exclude someone.

Tricky.

Some new technical communication roles

Things got more complicated as we put together our programme. We deliberately went out to find speakers who work in related fields – psychology, e-learning, training – to bring the expertise from these fields to technical communicators … But as we spoke to these people, we found that they considered themselves to be very close to technical communication already. As Chris Atherton told me in an interview: as a psychology lecturer, she communicates complex information to her students every day – and that has a lot in common with the core of what technical communicators do. And, for tools vendors such as Adobe, e-learning is already closely linked to technical communication in that the two areas tend to need very similar toolsets.

And then we had the conference. The talks by these people from outside the mainstream technical communications roles were extremely well received, and the experiences of delegates from these roles also suggested a much closer link than we’d previously understood: Chris Atherton seems to have found a new spiritual home amongst technical communicators; Nick Tompkins – an e-learning specialist – felt that e-learning and technical communications have a lot more in common than most people assume.

So should we be expanding the definition of “technical communication” to include these roles? Maybe.

Some new roles for technical communicators

But outside of the conference, back in the office at Red Gate and many other places that employ technical communicators, there seems to be something else going on: technical communicators are getting involved in a much more diverse range of roles. Amongst other things:

  • writing or editing marketing copy
  • advising on how to format content to maximise readability
  • representing the business in forums, blogs and twitter
  • designing and managing content for all departments across the business

When we’re doing these things, are we taking off our “technical communicator” hats for a while, or are we actually employing our technical communication skills in new areas? I think it’s the latter. I think it’s the skills that make us good technical communicators that also make us exactly the right people to call in for all these other jobs too: understanding how people relate to information, being able to get to the bottom of what people need to know, seeing things from an outsider’s point of view…

What’s so technical about technical communication?

But hang on a minute, though. There’s nothing technical about doing any of these things; it’s all about communication expertise!

Well, yes.  We’re still keeping our eagle-eyes fixed on consistency and precision of language. We’re still “translating” from internal company-specific language and knowledge to a level of language and pre-existing knowledge that suit the reader. We’re still cutting through the crap to get to the message the reader needs to understand – whether that’s in words, pictures or video. And we’re still thinking about how to structure sets of content so that people an access what they need to know, when they need to know it.

So, what would happen if we were to drop the “technical”, and just call ourselves “communication experts” or maybe “communication geeks” instead?

Just a thought.

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Responses

  1. I think some employers see the technical documentation department as a burning pile of money and so seek to expand our scope to other forms of communication to aid £fficiency. You then come to loggerheads with, for example, the marketing department because your highly usable design puts their precious logo too close to the border or on top of a background image…

    Seriously though, I think we technical communicators/authors/writers/whatever *are* technical – we know how to use a lot of specialist software and I don’t know about anybody else but as a result of my career as a technical author I have learnt and understood more about highly technical stuff than is healthy for someone who is considering dropping the word technical from their job title 🙂

  2. A thought provoking post and with a lot of sensible points. As I will be writing in an article for the ISTCs Communicator magazine (note the lack of “Technical” in its title BTW) we have already started doing exactly what you suggest Technical Communicators should be doing.

    Am I technical? Hell yes! Like Haitham I am able to understand highly technical topics and then go away and write documentation that ordinary people can understand. However I could easily listen to an engineer tell me how they had designed the latest child’s push chair and then go away and produce an instruction guide for it.

    For me, the word “Technical” in our job title is misleading. People immediately jump to the presumption that I am a wizz kid geek. Whilst I fully admit to being passionate about my job, which can appear geekish, I would not put myself in the same bracket of technical expertise as some of our Oracle DBAs. Those guys leave me standing.

    But maybe that is the real issue here. Maybe we are to hung up on the “Technical” tag. Are we good communicators? I’d like to think so, and judging by the number of people that come to us at my company asking for advice on English usage and the like, we are. At the end of the day our skill is being able to take information and rewrite it for a specific audience. Whether the subject or audience is technical is immaterial.

  3. […] Is it time to take the “technical” out of technical communication? « communication cloud communicationcloud.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/is-it-time-to-take-the-technical-out-of-technical-communication – view page – cached Do you know what “technical communication” is? Have you ever tried to define — From the page […]

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by rachel potts: [new blog post] Do we really need the “technical” in “technical communication”? http://tiny.cc/blog_techcomm #techcomm…

  5. The “Technical” part I always assume refers to the type of industry that you are working in.

    I’m actually considering the job title “Information Developers” to focus it more on machinations of WHAT we do, rather than the output itself.

    I don’t think this will ever be something that is agreed on though, and in that respect, “Technical Communications” seems generic enough and reasonably well accepted.

    After all I work with “Systems Engineers” who write software code, and “architects” who wouldn’t know a brick from a slab! 🙂

  6. Our profession loves a discussion about terminology 🙂

    IBM has used the term “information developers” for years. That’s how the role is advertised by IBM, SAP, Compuware, Lionbridge, HP and others.

    If you look for “information developer”, Wikipedia reroutes you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_writer

  7. Interesting article Rachel, and raises a point that covers a number of different ‘job titles’. Within these I’m thinking of plain language writers and information designers.

    I class myself as an information designer (partly historically) but often when talking to people from other industries they often say “like a technical author” and in a sense they are right. There are a number of core skills the various disciplines share (which, as you rightly say, have applications outside our typical areas of work) and it’s the additional skills that mark the differences.

    From a slightly outside point of view, I think the use of the term “technical’ in a description of what you do suggests that you work on communications about technical items, mainly instructions. To be honest, your comments above have opened my eyes to some of the other areas technical communicators work on.

  8. Thanks for all your comments. What a shame we’ve just launched a new conference called “Technical Communication UK”. Perhaps we should have called it “Information Development UK” … or would that not have captured its focus properly?

  9. […] So it's, umm, communications, then. And there's a much, much more sensible discussion of that on Rachel Potts' blog […]

  10. Just to toss a spanner into the works, how about this term: “Information Communicator”

    We think of ways to communicate complex information.


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