ASTC-NSW 2010 day 1: Towards a unified communication profession
Today I attended the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Dr Neil James. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Neil. Any mistakes are mine!
Neil started by explaining that our profession, technical communication, is divided into different roles that are doing more or less the same thing. He proposed the idea that we may at some time move towards a single, unified communication profession.
Problem: No single communication industry
Neil introduced an imaginary test subject. Let’s call him “Fred”. Fred has a number of problems, including illness, a big tax bill for which is about to be prosecuted, and a business report to write on a tight deadline.
For each of these problems except the last, everyone knows of the professional who can help: doctor, tax professional, lawyer. But what about the report writing: Who can help Fred with this task?
Fred does some research on the Internet, and becomes more confused than ever. He finds a number of practitioners, such as technical communicators, editors, information designers, Plain English practitioners, corporate communicators, and so on.
Neil tested his question out on the taxi driver on the way to the conference, with the same result:
“Who would you approach to help you write a report?”
“Oh, dunno mate.”
The relationship between the technical communication fields
In this session, Neil classified communication into four fields:
- Technical writing
- Plain language
- Information design
He examined the relationship between these fields, and how we can move towards a single, unified profession.
He started by giving us examples of how people from the different, related fields tend to criticise each other. For example, technical writers may pull apart the Plain English discipline, simplifying it’s aims to make it seem silly. Neil then showed us some definitions of Plain English and proved that the aims are more or less the same as what technical writers strive for. He broadened this discussion, showing how different sub-disciplines may define a “rival” sub-discipline and then attempt to show that their own field encompasses the narrow aims of that discipline and a broader set of aims too.
Interesting fact: The first published job advertisement for a technical writer appeared in 1951.
Overcoming the rivalry and moving towards a unified discipline
How can we overcome the sibling rivalry in communications practices?
Robert Craig identified 7 traditions of communication theory:
Looking at the way Craig discusses these traditions, and then considering our own field, Neil says he realised how closely our sub-disciplines are related to each other. What’s more, he says we fall into the “rhetorical” tradition: Communication as practical discourse.
Neil took us through the history of rhetoric, starting with ancient Greece. He then examined the techniques that the rhetoric practitioners used, and mapped them to what we do in technical communication.
Neil explained that this intellectual tradition offers an underlying theory that we can all work from and has the potential to unite us.
The impact of technology
Technology is another factor that is overriding the split into different sub-disciplines.
Until recently, technology and tools tended to divide us into groups. Specialisations in technology and subject matter tended to separate us. Increasingly those barriers are dissolving. The tools and technology are bringing commonality to our disciplines. Technology makes it possible for a single person to find the information, write the document, design the output and publish it. The software that allows this is now much easier to use.
The technical communication practice of the future will need the strengths of all the sub-disciplines. We should and probably will merge into a single profession. He guesses it will be called information design, or perhaps technical communication.
In the end, it’s all about making the product work for the people. Our product is the technical communication.
Neil says that he has to admit there is also the possibility that we will split into even more, smaller units, confusing Fred even more, and never becoming a single profession. But he argues strongly that we should work towards becoming a single profession. He says that none of the disciplines at the moment has the level of professionalism required to call itself a profession.
Requirements for a profession
Neil has done some research and offers the following requirements for any discipline being able to call itself a profession:
- Must offer full-time occupation.
- Work must be based on an extensive theoretical framework. (This is why a mechanic is not a professional, but and engineer is.)
- Field must have a presence in the universities.
- Must require an extensive and specific education.
- Must have a professional association or institute.
Must test and certify the competence of its practitioners.
- Must have a code of ethics or code of conduct.
- Must offer paid work to individual clients.
- Status of a practitioner must be recognised to improve with growing experience and learning.
- Must be recognised for the social benefits of the occupation.
- Must be recognised via governemet regulation and statute.
He then showed a table mapping four technical communication disciplines (technical writing, plain language, information design, usability) against the above criteria, showing that none of the disciplines could claim to satisfy all these requirements.
The final factor
In a world increasing dominated by information, there is a great social benefit in continuing to offer clear and quality communication.
During question time after the session, there was a good question from the audience: With so many different skills in the technical communication field, how can people know what to expect of us if we define ourselves as a uniform profession? Neil’s answer was to compare the legal profession. There are specialists within the field of law. We would be able to retain our specialisation, but also offer a unified framework through some kind of professionalisation process.
Neil is a good and engaging speaker. I enjoyed his presentation, which set me thinking about what we do and how we can work together. Thank you Neil!