Technical Communication is Not a Commodity

The latest attempt by the STC to promote a certification program for technical communications prompts the thought that technical communication is not a commodity.

What does it mean to say that a profession is, or is not, a commodity? A commodity is any good which will provide the same quality and performance no matter which supplier you buy it from. Gasoline is a commodity. Sugar is a commodity. No matter which brand you buy, your car will run just as well and your tea will taste just as sweet.

A profession is a commodity if you will receive substantially the same service no matter which member of the profession you use. Accounting is a commodity. Your books should be substantially the same no matter which accountant prepares them. Technical writing is not like that. Ask two technical writers to write something on the same topic, and the results are apt to be substantially different.

So the question is, should technical communication be a commodity? And if it should be, can it be?

Let me make it clear that I regard commoditization of professions as a good thing. If I am scheduled for brain surgery, and my surgeon breaks his hand on the way to the hospital, I want to be assured that the second surgeon that steps in to perform the operation is going to snip the same bits of my brain as the original surgeon.

It is good that I can use gas from any station in my car, sugar from any brand in my tea, and a good thing that I can get my books done by any accountant and my brain snipped by any brain surgeon. It is a fundamental social and economic good when products and services become commodities.

But not all goods can be commoditized; nor can all professions. Actors, for instance, are not a commodity. Robert Di Nero may be a great actor, but he could not play the Macaulay Culkin role in Home Alone. Rowan Atkinson cannot substitute for Daniel Craig; Johnny English is not James Bond.

Similarly with novelists: you can’t get Margaret Atwood to ghost write the next Tom Clancy novel. Dickens is not Hemingway; Jack London is not Dorothy Parker.

One profession that authorities have tried to commoditize is teaching. The reasons for wanting to assure that one teacher is as good as another — will teach the same government-mandated curriculum with the same efficacy as any other teacher, are obvious enough. But it is also obvious that despite all attempts to commoditize teaching, being taught by Miss Smith is not the same as being taught by Mr Jones. We all of us have that special teacher in our past who meant more to us, who taught us more, who did more to shape our minds and our futures, than another twenty teachers put together.

It is not always the same teacher for everyone, either. While some teachers are clearly inspirational to many, and some are inspirational to none, the one teacher who really connects with Johnny may not be the same one who really connects with Susie.

Whether it is socially or economically desirable or not, therefore, some professions just cannot be made into commodities.

To make any good or service a commodity, you must set standards and you must test products and service providers to make sure they meet those standards. But that is not enough. You must also ensure that the standards correlate very highly to real world performance. If certified gas from one station makes my car run well, and certified gas from another station makes the engine explode, then the standard has failed to make gasoline a commodity. If two standardized accountants prepare my taxes in radically different ways, then the standard has failed to make accounting a commodity.

In short, goods and services do not become commodities merely by having standards applied to them. They become commodities when the standards applied to them ensure that one can be substituted for another without a significant difference in performance. This is why teachers are not a commodity, despite all efforts to make them one: there is simply no guarantee that Susie is going to learn as much from Miss Smith as she did from Mr Jones.

So the question is, could we develop reliably testable standards for technical communication such that one certified technical writer could be substituted for another without a significant difference in the content produced? I believe the answer is no, and the reason is that technical communication is one of those professions that is at its heart about relationships.

You cannot make a commodity of a profession that depends primarily on the ability to build relationships. To be sure, relationships are important to professionals in every field. I would rather my brain surgeon had a good bedside manner. But a surgeon can have a lousy bedside manner and still snip the right part of my brain.

A sales person, on the other hand, lives or dies by their ability to form relationships with customers. That ability is not quantifiable or testable and it is not necessarily transferable from one product to another or one market to another. I don’t need a commodity sales person, I need the unique sales person who can connect with my customers in my market.

Politics is a good example of the non-transferability of relationship building. Both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have succeeded in building relationships with parts of the American electorate, but you won’t see one standing in for the other any time soon.

Technical communication is about relationship building on multiple levels. First, there is the ability to build the relationship with the reader. This ability comprises many different elements, from domain knowledge, to the ability to build trust, to the simple yet undefinable knack for finding the right word, the right example, the right image, to light the spark of understanding. Structured writing can provide guidance and ensure consistency but does not fundamentally change this: no matter how small you make the box, it still requires a knack to know what to write in it.

But technical communication is also about relationships within the development organization. Without access to what the developers know, what product management knows, what the field organization knows, what the support organization knows, you can’t do the job. If you cannot establish trust and confidence in these other parts of your organization, you are sunk. A member of the accounting staff can be despised by everyone in the company and still keep the accounts correctly. A technical writer cannot be despised by everybody in the company and still get the docs done correctly.

And these relationships are not merely about niceness, and cannot be forged with muffins and compliments. Your colleagues have to actually respect you and what you do. They will not respect you on your terms; they will respect you, or not, on their terms. I was once introduced at a developer’s conference by the president of the company (an engineer) who said of me, “He’s a writer, but he actually understands this stuff.” That’s the kind of respect you need. There is no technique for this: its is in who you are.

These were the characteristics I always looked for when I was hiring. Did this person have the ability to form a connection and forge respect with the particular audience we were addressing, and were the developers, the field staff, the marketing staff, and the sales staff going to respect them. These are not commodity attributes. You can’t even take a tech writer who has displayed these traits in one organization and confidently expect them to display them in a new organization. Still less can you come up with a standardized test that will certify these abilities exist and are transferable across companies and industries.

Make no mistake, I am not writing an apologia for the lone artist/artisan model of technical communication. I am the first to say that technical communication must be viewed as a business process, and that it should be organized and conducted on an industrial, not cottage industry, model.  Standardization, in the right place, is a great and powerful thing.

But making a process standardized, industrialized, and business-focused, does not automatically make it one in which the various crafts involved can be commoditized. In many ways, it is those crafts that cannot be commoditized that stand in the most need of standardized, industrialized, business-focused processes.

It would be a great thing, in many ways, if technical communication could be made into a commodity, but it can’t, and wishing will not make it so.

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10 Responses to Technical Communication is Not a Commodity

  1. Patrice Fanning 2011/10/21 at 05:34 #

    I agree with you Mark that technical communication is not, and cannot be, a commodity. While having defined standards and guidelines in place helps to set expectations and improve quality and consistency, they can never go far enough to govern exactly what is communicated and how. However, I see that as a positive as it enables good technical communicators to stand out from the crowd. They are the people who, among other things, invest in building relationships with their subject matter experts and audience, and are committed to acting as a bidge between the two.

    • Mark Baker 2011/11/06 at 16:05 #

      Hi Patrice,

      Thanks for the comment. I think it can certainly help some technical communicators who are good at what they do and also good at developing a reputation and leveraging that reputation to increase their income and their ability to choose the most interesting projects. On the other hand, I can certainly understand those who wish that education and certification counted for more in the professional respect that a tech writer receives. Not everyone feels comfortable selling themselves, and would like to get more credit for objective qualifications. However, wishing will not make it so.

  2. Pablo Varela 2011/10/21 at 09:34 #

    Mark, I really like your view of (technical) writers as relationship-construction workers. As a technical writer I can certainly feel walking those shoes.

    I believe, though, that there are further reasons for having an STC certification other than professional “commoditization”.
    Allow me to give you other reasons why an STC certification is desirable:

    1. In my country (Argentina) there is now formal instruction to be had for technical writing, nor industry-related communication management. The only available curricula on similar topics are courses on graphic design, media content development and management, or old-fashioned librarianship. (Old-fashion as in “we do not need computers to manage a library.”) A certification from a forum as STC would give us folks with the right set of skills but no formal curricula at hand a solid proof of our expertise.

    2. A thoughtful certification (I do not know if STC’s proposal is the case) would also specify the set of activities that technical communicators can provide, as well as the necessary inputs and deliverables for those activities. This would allow for uniform quotation among the community. It also clarifies what are technical communication providers and consumers responsibilities and items of ownership. On example are ISO standard proposals for this. A certification that builds on such a set of standards would be a useful tool to provide and consume technical communication.

    On the other hand, I certainly agree that a certification by no means “commoditizes” the profession. In fact, I believe that what consumers need for their communication is exactly what goes beyond any measuring rod.

    Keep, blogging. Im a fan. =)

    Pablo

    PS: Awsome tips on selecting technical writer candidates! Thanks!

    • Pablo Varela 2011/10/21 at 09:39 #

      Some typos here and there.
      I’m on a bus. Sorry. =)

    • Mark Baker 2011/11/06 at 16:22 #

      Hi Pablo,

      Thanks for the comment. Most of the technical writers I have worked with in Canada and the US have no formal training in technical communication, and there is a great deal of debate about the value of such qualifications. Increasingly, hiring managers seem to be more interested in experience or education in the field you are writing about rather that tech writing qualifications. So I would not assume you need any kind of formal certification in order to compete. things may be different in you market, of course.

      You make a good point about using certification as a means to standardize practices. However, we are in a period in which tech pubs standards and practices are in greater flux than at any time in my experience. (When I started in the tech writing, I wrote manuals for telephone installers. I was told the installers drove around with bookshelves in the back of the van to contain all the printed manuals they needed. Not sure if any still do that, but I am sure it is no longer a current best practice.) One would need to be vigilant to make sure that a certification program was not out of date by the time it was ready to release.

  3. pamela clark 2011/10/21 at 12:39 #

    Hi, Mark,

    Great article. I love reading your blog posts. Keep it up! I think some standards are a good idea, but I agree it is about relationships. As I know from my last technical writing position, even if you have the respect and trust of your product development team, if the company’s development process does not really support the creation of quality documentation, you can not succeed in the long run. I would love to see a post on your observations and thoughts about what product development organizations, processes, and structures best support great user-oriented documentation.

  4. Melanie Blank 2011/10/24 at 16:34 #

    Mark,

    This is really interesting and thought-provoking — like all your posts and comments to others’ posts. :))

    I have to ponder this one for a while, and I hope to remember to comment again later. I have very mixed feelings about STC’s certification program — mostly it doesn’t appeal to me – probably for many of the reasons that you discuss.

    Regards,
    Melanie

    • Mark Baker 2011/11/06 at 16:35 #

      Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for the comment. I too have my doubts about the STC certification. The field is so diverse that I can’t imagine a general certification being a significant factor across the board. In all my career, I have never been asked if I have technical communication training, let alone certification. Nor, as far as I know, have I ever hired or worked with anyone who had such training. So certification does not seem like is is going to be a significant issue in my corner of the universe.

      On the other hand, the field is so diverse that there may well be some parts of the tech comm universe where certification will turn out the be important. We will just have to wait and see.

  5. Robert Desprez 2011/10/29 at 20:20 #

    Hi Mark,

    Interesting post! No, I don’t think technical writing is a commodity. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. With outsourcing happening, we should all focus on demonstrating our value.

    Keep up the good work.

    Robert

    • Mark Baker 2011/11/06 at 16:54 #

      HI Robert,

      Thanks for the comment. You raise an interesting point. Certainly when something becomes a commodity it is easier to outsource it and offshore it. You can see that even in fields like medicine, where people are going off shore to get procedures at lower cost.

      We also see cases where on-shore tech writers end up working with off-shore software developers. You would think it would make more sense to offshore the writing and the development together, though perhaps this is not practical because the off-shored development work is often maintenance or supplementary programming aspects of product’s whose main development remains on-shore.