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 shapeWhen 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.