Why content jobs are never well defined

By | 2013/10/22

Content jobs are never strictly defined because they are the mortar that holds the bricks of the enterprise together.

I’m attending LavaCon, and here, as everywhere, content people are debating the definition of their roles, the names of those roles, the boundaries and intersects between them, and the responsibilities and qualifications pertinent to them.

Newer fields such as content strategy and information architecture are newer to these debates, but they have been a staple of conversation between technical writers (or is it technical communicators, documentation professionals, or customer information specialists?) for decades.

Why do we think it is so important to settle these matters, and why do we never seem to be able to settle them? I believe the reason is that content jobs are inherently mortar jobs, not brick jobs.

Brick jobs have a predefined shape

Brick pile

Without mortar, bricks fall down. Mortar jobs are essential to hold the organization together.

When you build a brick wall, the bricks come in predefined shapes and sizes. To make the bricks fit together in the shape of the wall you are building, you need mortar to fill in the gaps between the bricks and to hold them in the shape of the wall. Building a company is the same. A company is built out of people and the jobs they do. Some jobs are brick jobs; some are mortar jobs.

A brick job is a job with well defined parameters. It is the kind of job that will be more or less the same no matter which company you work for. Its inputs and outputs are well defined, its practice is standardized, and most people in those jobs don’t usually get asked to do anything outside of the box that defines their job. People with brick jobs have an easy time answering when someone at a party asks them what they do for a living.

Accounting is a brick job. There are Generally Accepted Accounting Principles that apply to all accounting jobs. The company accountants are not generally going to be the ones called on to do odd jobs around the company like organizing training courses or answering the phones. Brick jobs are easy to understand and easy to manage. You know exactly what you are looking for when you hire someone for a brick job. There are generally well-recognized credentials issued by well recognized institutions that you can look at to gauge their qualifications. There is generally little ambiguity about what their job description will be, who they will report to, or how their performance will be assessed and compensated.

Mortar jobs are shaped by circumstances

Mortar jobs are the jobs that tie the brick jobs together and tie them into an effective whole. Mortar jobs do not have a fixed shape. They are shaped by the brick jobs they surround and join, by the spaces between them, and by the overall design of the organization. The roles and responsibilities of people in mortar jobs differ from one company to another, and they are much more likely to be asked to do odd jobs, jobs that fill in the gaps between the brick jobs. People with mortar jobs often dread being asked what they do for a living.

Brick jobs are secure and stable

Which is better, a brick job or a mortar job? A brick job is more secure and more stable. Companies in trouble will most likely hang on to their bricks and stretch the mortar a little thin. A brick job is easier to understand, and easier to prove you are qualified for. It is easier to agree on an appropriate salary and working conditions, and easier to prove that you have met the conditions of employment and that you have earned your bonus. You are less likely to be asked to do odd jobs, and it is easier to say no if you are asked, because the limits of your job description are more clearly defined.

Mortar jobs offer freedom and flexibility

Mortar jobs, on the other hand, offer more freedom and more flexibility. Because the role is less well defined, you have the opportunity to shape your own role. While a mortar job may be harder to define and to recruit for, it can be easier to sell yourself as a candidate despite the lack of some specific qualification. You have a bigger chance to make a difference, and thus to negotiate salary, bonus, and working conditions. You are more likely to be called on to undertake new projects and stretch goals, and it will be easier for you to propose such projects and goals.

Mortar jobs sometimes feel like brick jobs, but they are not

Within one company, mortar jobs can sometimes seem just as defined and regular as brick jobs. Once a wall is built, the shape of the mortar is as fixed as the shape of the bricks. It is when you move from one company to another, or when a company reorganizes, or comes under stress, that you find that new walls are built in which mortar jobs assume different shapes — and have the most capacity to influence the new shape of the organization.

Content jobs are mortar jobs

I would propose that all content jobs are mortar jobs.

There are two principle reasons for this, one practical, and the other founded in the very nature of what content roles are:

Content people are not expressing their own ideas

The practical reason that content jobs are mortar jobs is that people in content jobs are not expressing their own ideas or describing their own projects. They are describing the ideas and the projects of other people, generally labeled SMEs, or Subject Matter Experts. The most natural person to write about an idea or a project is the person who conceived of that idea or built that project. The reason content jobs exist is because the subject matter experts lack the aptitude, interest, or time to write about it themselves. The SMEs are the bricks; the content people are the mortar. Their job is to fill the gap left by the SMEs lack of aptitude, interest, or time to write the content themselves.

Their role, therefore, begins where the SME’s role ends. Their boundaries are shaped not by the demands of their own profession, but, like mortar between bricks, by the space left vacant by the SME’s they serve.

Communications is the glue that holds organizations together

The second and more fundamental reason that all content jobs are mortar jobs is that all content jobs have to do with communications, and communications are the essential mortar that binds an organization together. Take away effective communication, and the organization loses cohesion. Information is the organizing force that makes an organization organized. This is what communication is for. And so it is natural that if communication is the mortar binding an organization, the creation and management of information is a mortar job.

Content jobs are supposed to be mortar jobs

This means that content jobs are naturally and properly mortar jobs. They did not become mortar jobs through neglect or for lack of the right activities or advocacy on the part of their professional organizations or thought leaders. They are mortar jobs because that is what they are supposed to be, because that is the kind of need they serve: to bind the bricks and make the building stand.

Trying to make content jobs into brick jobs

Despite this, many in the content professions want to make their jobs into brick jobs. The content strategy community is talking a lot these days about the need to define roles and responsibilities and job titles for content strategy professionals. Some in tech comm have been trying to make technical communications into a brick job for decades. Thus we debate the perennial question of what the job title should be, what the educational requirement should be, what the limits of the roles and responsibilities should be.

It is easy enough to understand why. The characteristics of brick jobs listed above are all attractive, and people in brick jobs can often get more respect and recognition for their contributions to the organization, and have a easier time getting budgets approved and projects funded. There is a lot to envy about the status of brick jobs in an organization.

Embrace the mortar nature of content jobs

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. Content jobs are mortar jobs and we are not going to change that. Our titles, responsibilities, and qualifications will always be variable and their definitions fluid and fuzzy, allowing us to flow into the nooks and crannies of the organization where we are needed. We may not get respect or funding so easily as our brick job colleagues, but our function is just as vital to the organization. Without the mortar, the organization will fall apart. And the mortar role has rewards of its own which we should learn to appreciate and to fully exploit. And when someone asks you what you do for a living, you can reply, “Without me, the whole place would fall apart,” and you will be right.


18 thoughts on “Why content jobs are never well defined

  1. Suyog Ketkar

    Mortar job. Nice, Mark.

    I recall a job request for creative writing, where the client asked me to “rewrite” the old stuff in better words, keeping the soul. As he saw, it was an everyday job (well-defined job?). However, for me, it was a mortar job, as the guidelines weren’t, well, defined. In response, I rephrased the old stuff into a more structured, grammatically correct, and contextually accurate writing, which I called the “well-defined stuff.” So, for all the while, the transition happened from something that wasn’t “well, defined” to a “creative writing” work that was “well-defined”.

    What comes as the learning for us, is that to be able to define the guidelines or tasks for writers, the clients/customers must themselves be clear about how they expect from the finalized content. And, since the clients aren’t clear in their minds, their inputs too aren’t that transparent.

    And, it all boils down to one thing: The more accurately you interpret your clients’/customers’ thoughts, the more accurate your writing is. In the words of Anaïs Nin, “the role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” I guess that’s that.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Suyog. I guess this illustrates one of the difference between a brick job and a mortar job. If the customer is not clear about what they expect from their accountants, it is the customer who will generally need to adjust to the requirements of accountancy. If a customer is not clear about what they expect from a writer, the writer will have to negotiate a reasonable set of requirements acceptable to the customer.

  2. Larry Kunz

    Another good metaphor, and another persuasive argument. Thanks, Mark.

    While content jobs certainly are mortar jobs, however, I don’t agree that there can’t be roles and responsibilities and job titles — or that there can’t be any Generally Accepted Principles for content workers. They’re just going to be less rigid and less detailed than those of the brick professions, with more room for adapting to circumstances.

    Since reading the summary of Sarah O’Keefe’s Lavacon talk on Monday, I’ve been grappling with the paradox that while our jobs aren’t strictly defined, we still need guiding principles — rubrics like “does this increase the profitability of the business?” See my blog post: Firm yet flexible. I’m kind of thinking that the answer lies in the distinction between strategy (guiding principle) and tactics (actions that depend on circumstances).

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Larry.

      There are certainly roles, responsibilities, and job titles in mortar jobs. What I like about the mortar metaphor is that mortar hardens in place around the bricks, and until the wall gets broken up, the mortar is just as fixed as the bricks. The difference is that the shape of the mortar is fixed by the shape and position of the bricks. Thus the roles, responsibilities, and job titles, though fixed in any one organization, differ from one organization to another.

      I agree that we need guiding principles. Some things are defined by their edges. Some things are defined by their centers. Content jobs, ultimately, are defined by what works as effective communications, and there are certainly principles that help guide and define what works. One of my favorite principles is, “the purpose of all communication is to change behavior“. That, to me, is the principle that ties content effectiveness to business effectiveness.

      Perhaps a metaphor that expresses that would be a bridge. There are principles of bridge building that apply to every bridge, yet all the anchor points of the bridge — the piers and abutments, are shaped by the landscape and unique to each bridge. Every bridge is different, but built on common principles.

  3. Alex Knappe

    Nice explanation of the facts Mark.
    While others may struggle over guidelines and titles, we Krauts have already defined those (we really like to set up definitions for stuff).
    Content guys are called “Technischer Redakteur” (actually it doesn’t matter if you are a simple tech writer, content stragegist, information architect or whatever).
    And the guidelines of what you have to know, were set into concrete:
    1. Regulations and law
    2. Information development
    3. Structure and standards, XML and CMS
    4. Professional German language
    5. Management
    6. Research
    7. Multilingual Documentation and Localization
    8. Terminology
    9. Typography and Layout
    10. Pictography and Digital Imaging
    11. Online Documentation
    12. Multimedia Documentation
    13. Usability Testing
    14. Databases
    15. Quality Management in Tech Comm
    16. Hard- and Software
    17. Document Production
    18. Communication, Communication Techniques and Presentation

    Simple, isn’t it?
    And those are only the mayor topics.
    This list was defined by the European counterpart of the STC, the tekom.
    While I agree, that most of these topics are useful in some way, I think they are only scratching the surface.
    They also do not distinguish between the specializations in tech comm, that are taking place over the last years. Not every type of mortar fits to every type of brick.
    To build a house you not only need different kinds of bricks, you also need different kinds of mortar.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Alex. That’s an amazing list. But as you suggest, it seems both too much and too little. I’m in no position to comment on the difference between European and North American practice, but I do think the very nature of the task makes it difficult to draw a box around it, regardless of cultural preferences for drawing or not drawing boxes.

  4. Sudhir Subudhi

    A software product is a combination of technology and content. Separate the technology from any product, the rest is whole content. Content can be present in many types–text, image, audio, video, animation, etc. So content developers (or forms of technical writers) can be involved in any of these content types.

    Similarly, at any point of time, if you look inside an organization or project, you will find people, files or documents (captured knowledge), data and information (uncaptured knowledge), workflows, multiple forms of communications or interactions–a big chunk of them are content.

    People in the technical writing industry produce and facilitate data, information, or content in general. The industry is vast and spread across. Some able to quantify the delivery, roles, work, etc., while some not. when things are quantified and defined, they are bricks. When things are not quantified and defined, they are mortars.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Subhir. That is an interesting way of looking at a product — a combination of technology and content. I’ll have to ponder that a little, but it is an appealing idea. It does seem to go along with the theme too, in the sense that content is often used to paper over holes in the technology — mortar filling in the gaps between the bricks.

  5. Chris Despopoulos

    100% Mark! I think this is particularly important now (and into the future) as not only the role and product of communications work are evolving, but that evolution is evolving (co-evolution) and constantly accelerating.

    Well, I might differ with you in this sense… I think the bricks themselves are decomposing into malleable goop — they’re starting to look increasingly like mortar, in Software at least.

    In the old days (maybe as far back as 20 years ago) content had a definite “brick” aspect that corresponded directly to the material (paper) of our product and the processes required to move it around. Old-school tech communicators found a certain amount of power in that. I can remember when tech com held the keys to the gate that was called Release to Manufacturing. Together with QA and Support, we formed a triumvirate that kept Marketing and Engineering in check. How many people in the trade today can even remember those days, let alone believe things ever worked that way?

    Today everything is Agile, either formally or just kind of sort of. There are no pallets of paper stock in a ware house hanging over the project manager’s head. Shoot, I rarely see the behavior of a new feature sooner than 2 weeks before ship! And we certainly don’t ship the old-school doc set of:
    * Reference
    * User Guide
    * Quick Start
    * Help

    Also, users have evolved and are evolving. YOU DON’T HAVE TO TELL PEOPLE WHAT A CHECK BOX IS ANY MORE. What you DO have to tell them is what the specific check box MEANS. For software, applications are increasingly implemented as web pages. A web page, by definition, is documentation — it’s a page. We can increasingly put “documentation” directly into the product GUI. The product GUI is increasingly becoming “documentation” — “Documentation” is increasingly becoming product GUI.

    One thing is clear — the landscape is changing. As a “tech writer” you are not alone in this changing landscape. Your project manager, your engineers, your support department, and your users are all one the same shifting sands with you. That means you are in as good a position to find a viable path as anybody else.

    It comes down to a simple principle — make sure you add value. Tech writing in the old-school sense is a commodity. If you are going to escape that trap, you have to define the value you add, and make sure you add it. In that sense I agree 100% that content work is mortar.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. That is an interesting perspective. I think you are probably right that tech comm used to operate more like a brick. It had a defined set of responsibilities, and if those responsibilities were fulfilled, then no one worried too much about what gaps there might be in the customer experience.

      A job that is naturally a mortar job can indeed be made to operate like a brick job, simply be defining a brick shape for it and ignoring the issue of value. But the fluidity of the modern market place forces everyone to focus on value.

      That focus on the creation of value, enforced by the rapidity with which the market can react when value is absent, may be forcing more professions to behave more like mortar and less like bricks.

  6. Ray Gallon

    Yeah, it’s mortar all right – a great metaphor!

    I was at the EuroIA conference in September, and they have a box where you have to deposit a Euro every time you try to define what Information Architecture is. As Eric Reis, the conference chair, says, “We leave that to our American colleagues.” 😉

    There is a fine, also, for saying “it depends.”

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Ray.

      I love that idea. If I could just figure out how to implement such a box in the content strategy community today, I would be able to retire in week.

      While I understand the felt need people have for definition, in the end these efforts are really about trying to make the world simpler, more regular, and more manageable than it really is. If the world were that simple, these jobs would pay a lot less. You can draw lines in the ocean, but the waves still roll where they will.

  7. Pingback: Content strategy lessons from “The Dating Game” | Ben Rubenstein

  8. Pingback: Tech writers: The bard class of the corporate world | Customers and Content

  9. Andrew Clarke

    Thanks Mark. A spot-on analysis of technical communication, information architecture, technical writing or whatever you want to call it.

    When someone goes househunting, often the type of bricks used is a criteria. Rarely would a househunter ask an estate agent about what the type of mortar used. However, when a house falls apart, it is often related to mortar problems.

    Also, when the house of an business metaphorically starts to crumble, a typical reaction of a manager is to cut costs in technical writing instead of other areas (by reducing rates to consultants or making less technical writers do the same work). Ironically, the word mortar comes from the Latin word “mortarium” meaning crushed. Maybe staying on our feet, adapting to environments and taking on pressure was always how it was meant to be for us. But what the hey. It is a fun place to be.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Andrew.

      I like that metaphor. Indeed, it is the failure of the mortar that dooms the house.

      And even though it seems like the bricks get better treatment, I think is is a mistake for tech writers to try to be bricks. In times of austerity, they may end up looking like bricks that are not connected to any vital building. Better to be mortar that holds the vital bricks together than to be surplus bricks.

  10. Pingback: Principles for a profession: technical communication | Leading Technical Communication

  11. Pingback: We Can’t Use “In Tray” Definitions for Content Roles | Every Page is Page One

Leave a Reply