What is our real area of expertise?

Subject: What is our real area of expertise?
From: "Thomas Quine" <quinet -at- home -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 11 Dec 2000 08:24:49 -0800

I've heard a million discussions of what a technical communicator's
expertise needs to be, and I've learned that it's nice to know a bit of this
and a bit of that, but I need to stay very firmly focused on my real area of
expertise - technical communication.
I've written several dozen manuals myself, some of which won awards, and
have served as project manager or documentation manager on well over 100
projects, many of them on highly technical subjects. I also teach technical
writing at a local university.
I tell my clients I am an expert in information delivery systems. (I think I
can safely tell you all that I am actually no more than a student of
information delivery systems...) I take technical information from documents
and from subject matter experts, work it to make it understandable to my
audience, and build a delivery system (printed manual, online help system,
classroom training, Web solution, etc.) to get that information from where I
decide to store it to the person who needs to use it.
I learned from studying instructional design under some very wise people
that a skilled instructional designer with a sound system can teach anyone
anything - I mean anything - from a starting point of zero. That's because
the instructional designer is not the fount of knowledge, they just build a
conveyor belt to take the knowledge from those who have it to those who need
Just keeping abreast of new technologies in my field (think XML, WBT, new
applications every day, etc.) is more than I can handle. Trying to build
expertise in my client's field is a losing strategy - I don't have the space
in my brain to store it all. So I learn the bare minimum on a project and
rely utterly on the subject matter experts. The minute the project ends, I
erase that knowledge from the little "hard drive" in my brain.
I once spent a year developing a course and a manual on a sophisticated
piece of software, and then when no instructor was available, I taught the
course myself to hundreds of my client's employees. The project was a great
success, and the employees work happily and productively on the tool every
day. But don't ask me a single thing about this software, because I've
happily forgotten everything I learned about it in that year. Gone.
I did learn a lot about business process, about instructional design, about
building and delivering training, about the things that were relevant to my
profession, and I hold that knowledge dear to me. The rest is ephemeral and
has to go.
The client is not hiring you as a subject matter expert - they usually have
the experts on staff. They need your expertise in gathering, sorting,
packaging, and delivering information. I think that's where you have to
focus your studies.
- Thom

Thom Quine

2395 Oak St.
Vancouver, B.C.
V6H 2J8
(604) 733-3363
quinet -at- home -dot- com

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