Relocating the Value of Work

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Relocating the Value of Work /


Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Purdue University
This article analyzes the location of “value” in technical communication contexts, arguing that current models of technical communication embrace an outdated, self-deprecating, industrial approach subordinating information to concrete technological products. By rethinking technical communication in terms of Reich’s (1991) “symbolic-analytic work,” technical communicators and educators can move into a post-industrial model of work that prioritizes information and communication, with benefits to both technical communicators and users.

As we enter the post-industrial age, we enter a time of great potential for revising the relationship between technology and communication. Fifty years ago, at the tail end of the industrial age, technological products generated income. Factories produced concrete goods—washers, automobiles, clothing, televisions—that consumers purchased. In that climate, information was subordinate to industry. Information may have supported products, but the highest value was typically in the industrial product. Today, however, we live and work in an increasingly post-industrial age, where information is fast becoming the more valuable product. Products are still manufactured and purchased, but in a growing number of markets, primary value is located in information itself.

In this essay, I argue that rearticulating technical communication in post-industrial terms provides a common ground between academic and corporate models of technical communication, which are notoriously disparate (Scanlon and Coon; Carliner). Robert B. Reich’s definition of “symbolic-analytic work" offers a way to relocate value in technical communication contexts, from an industrial to post-industrial relationships. Symbolic-analytic workers rely on skills in abstraction, experimentation, collaboration, and system thinking to work with information across a variety of disciplines and markets. Importantly, symbolic-analytic work mediates between the functional necessities of usability and efficiency while not losing sight of the larger rhetorical and social contexts in which users work and live.
This essay begins by exploring some of the problems of technical communication’s current service orientation as it affects professional and users and, recursively, educators and students. Next, I describe other disciplines that have been able to define their work in post-industrial ways. The second half of the essay starts by defining symbolic-analytic work in relation to other occupational classes. In the midst of this definitional work, I provide a more productive framework for technical communication by positioning current research and practice in technical communication within specific aspects of symbolic-analytic work. Finally, I describe five key educational projects that educators might begin better educating students for new occupational positions.

Technical Communication as Service

Technical communication has traditionally occupied a support position in both academic and corporate spheres. In general, this model encourages communicators to focus on either technologies or on the limited aspects of a user’s overall project that require technologies. Although the tendencies are present in varying degrees in most areas of technical communication, they are most visible in documentation, the primary genre discussed below. By relocating the value of documentation into a post-industrial relationship, we can work to rearticulate technical communication as a post-industrial discipline, with documentation blurring into other areas of our work.
Currently, most technical communication projects enhance other process and products: well-written software documentation allows users to complete their primary work (writing a report on a word processor, compiling a business productivity chart in a spreadsheet). Technical communication, as support, occupies a secondary position to the user’s main objective, their “real work” (see, e.g., Carroll; Horton; Bowie; Weiss, “Retreat”). The difficulty here is that real work easily becomes defined in reductive, context-independent ways: small, decontextualized functional tasks rather than large, messy, “real world” projects. Telling a user the menu command for placing a graphic on a page is typically much easier than teaching the user both that functional task and the broader, more complicated basics of rhetoric and page design. Although in one sense the general “task” orientation of technical manuals appears to be a movement away from technology and toward the user’s context, that movement is a deceptive one, because the user’s tasks are defined almost completely in relation to the technology: the user’s contexts are typically invisible.
This service orientation is multiplied, fractal-like, in academia, where technical communication educators frequently find themselves called upon to fulfill wish-lists of skills to industry. This position is readily apparent in a recent issue of Technical Communication on education. “The role of industry” in academic/industry collaboration, argue three technical communicators, “is to lend the structure and services of the institution to a design and content shaped by industry” (Krestas, Fisher, and Hackos). Another author cites a 1969 textbook in technical communication (his only bibliographic source) to argue for technical communication as “the presentation of verifiable data” and a renewed emphasis on providing hands-on, skills-based learning in “the latest automated word processing applications” (Merola). I’ve frequently found myself on the pointy end of such arguments, in virulent disagreements over whether I should be teaching basic rhetorical, usability, and visual design techniques or if I should be concentrating on teaching students application-specific skills in programs such as FrameMaker 4.0 or Doc2Help. I even see typing speed listed as a job qualification in want ads for technical writers. These things, as you might expect, trouble me greatly.
Focusing primarily on teaching skills places technical communication in a relatively powerless position: technical trainers rather than educators. Responding to the demands of industry, almost by definition, disempowers technical communicators, relegating them to secondary roles in education, industry, and larger social spheres of importance (see laments in Kreppel 603; Zimmerman and Muraski; Jones; Steve and Bigelo). A number of theorists have suggested the need to move beyond our current, limited status by methods such as integrating technical writing earlier into the design process (Doheny-Farina; Conklin; Horton) or by broadening our goals beyond simple skills (Selber; Southard and Reaves). These calls are useful but they do not go far enough. Although there are obvious (and financial) benefits to describing education in terms of what employees will need to do, there are also values—extremely important values—in taking a broader view, and talking about what technical communication should be.
If we truly wish to effect change in our positions, we need to rethink our mission in more fundamental ways than how to make our current practices more efficient. As I argue in the second half of this essay, symbolic-analytic work provides a systematic framework for re-understanding the value of technical communication (both current and potential value). This framework is doubly valuable because it can help connect research and practice in useful ways. Prior to exploring this possibility, however, I want to lay out in more detail some of the negative consequences of our current service orientation.

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