Re: Certification/Degrees, now Professio

Subject: Re: Certification/Degrees, now Professio
From: Ruess Kevin <Ruess -dot- Kevin -at- PBGC -dot- GOV>
Date: Tue, 17 Dec 1996 09:51:44 -0500

I'm glad the certification/degrees thread has evolved to professionalism: it is by identifying what professionalism is to our work that we can advance our cause.

The metaphor of the auto mechanic or doctor is not quite applicable to our
situation. Both of those professions serve consumer markets where end users vote with their pocket books; they directly serve their end users, and the way they work and structure their professions must react to rapidly shifting market forces. Mechanics and doctors are also likely to serve several (or more) clients on any given day. They get clients by referral and advertising, but also get drop-ins. Think about how you chose your last mechanic or doctor--I'm betting the process was very different than the way
you were chosen by your current client. In over eight years of technical communication I've prepared materials (directly or indirectly) for less than thirty clients, and the vast majority of those materials for only five. In
order to learn more about our profession by comparing it to others, we must choose those comparisons carefully.

The nature of our professional-client relationship, and the number of relationships a technical communicator has, makes me think that engineering, accounting, and management/industry consulting offer better analogies. Engineers have available the P.E. and C.P.E. designations (though few seem to bother with them, mostly the independents) and accountants have C.P.A.. Management and industry consultants are on shakier ground, and their situation may be instructive to our own. A management consultant requires a historical perspective on business management; an ongoing familiarity with current trends (even if they are only fads); skills in research, analysis, and presentation; self-marketing skills; etc. More and more, the consulting marketplace requires a specific degree (MBA or even a Ph.D. for most management consulting), but it values experience highly and pardons "certification" for those with established and verifiable reputations. I think this is true for technical communicators as well.

These consultants tend to specialize either in a methodology (say TQM or BPR) or in an industry (say insurance or manufacturing). This is, simply put, how they offer maximum value to their clients while retaining agility in a rapidly changing marketplace. As our profession matures (and it *is* maturing), we must realize that our posture in the workplace is that of the
consultant--even when we are employees in relatively long-term positions. We must all develop and sustain *fluency* with the tools of our trade, not
just effective use of the languages we write in, but also with the basic suite of computer tools (word processors, databases, spreadsheets, graphics, and networks) we use to build our products. I use the word *fluency* intentionally. Just like language skills, our professional skills must be continually used and updated to be useful to us or valuable to others we interact with.

Over the long run, those of us in the profession who actually do writing (as opposed to strict DTP/ layout for example) tend to develop subject matter expertise and focus our work within one portion of the whole market. My opportunities and background have steered me toward financial services, insurance, and pensions. Within those fields I write everything from application design documents and software end-user manuals to policy manuals and operating procedures. I not only document these, I have tremendous impact on their content: this allows me to offer tremendous value to my clients. This de facto specialization doesn't mean I can't move to another
specialty area, but it allows me to leverage my content knowledge as a way to get opportunities and earn more money. My clients perceive me as an industry expert and consultant as often as they think of me as a professional writer.

Our field is big enough now that we're going to have to become content/industry specialists in addition to being competent writers/editors who are versed in layout and design principles. There will still be room for narrow specialists, say those involved in one aspect of the document finishing process, but their relationship to the industry will be more as service providers--sort of like mechanics. The rest of us will be selling our fluency with methods or industries, ideally a strategic combination of both.

This is an exciting time for technical communicators. In many settings we
play fundamental roles in product development, marketing, and other core business functions. We have the tremendous advantage of playing a pan-functional role, and we tend to know more about organizations and industries than most other people in them. Who else is in a position to easily know about everything from design goals to production constraints and market forces?

One thing I haven't seen in this thread, or on this listserv, is the idea that becoming an excellent technical communicator may be more than just an end in itself. A few years of solid experience as a technical communicator in an industry is an excellent background for broader leadership positions in that industry. We need to embrace and market the idea that the component skills of a good technical communicator have a big overlap with the skills required for leadership in general. Once we take ourselves that
seriously, and establish that the road we're on leads to places and not just to more road, we will be more valued, have brighter futures, and make technical communication a more desired and respected career choice. I'm betting we'll make more money as well.

Kevin C. Ruess
Ruess -dot- Kevin -at- PBGC -dot- gov (preferred)
kruess -at- gmu -dot- edu

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