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We're communicators, not just tool users

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2007. We're communicators, not just tool users. Intercom June 2007:22–23.

I've often thought that half the trouble STC members face in the workplace arises from pride in our tool skills. It's natural to be proud, just as any skilled artisan takes pride in their ability to use the tools of their trade, and most of us have quite a bit to be proud about. But even if that pride doesn't quite achieve the status of hubris, we still spend an inordinate amount of time mastering our word processors and HTML editors and graphics software, debating the relative merits of the various available tools, and helping each other solve problems related to the use of the tools.

And what's wrong with that? you might be asking. Quite a lot, actually. As soon as we define ourselves by how we do our work—by the tools we use rather than the results we produce—we become a commodity. As soon as that happens, we become vulnerable to the commodity syndrome: employers look for the lowest-cost provider of a service (i.e., anyone with tool skills), not someone who can provide superior results. Evidence of this problem can be seen in most Web sites, and more of concern to most of us, in most advertisements for technical writing positions: increasingly, the ads I see specify a certain minimum number of years of experience with FrameMaker or Word or WebWorks, and anyone lacking these credentials need not apply.

Correcting misperceptions

On the one hand, this is just a case of wishful thinking on the part of employers. If you can hire two equally promising candidates, but one has many more years of experience with the software you're using at work, then obviously that candidate is the better choice. In an employer's market, where there are more communicators than there are jobs available, this is a reasonable strategy for Human Resources departments to adopt: ask for the sky, and accept less only if necessary. But on the other hand, this phenomenon is symptomatic of a subconscious thought pattern we have collectively absorbed unquestioningly, and that we have somehow transmitted to hiring managers. That way of thinking biases our thought processes even when we believe we're being practical and logical.

Most of us learned the tools of our trade on the job, sometimes supported by formal training, so the modern technical communicator is typically someone who can learn the key features of a new tool, usually without much formal training, in no more than a few days. This is because of several factors. First and most obviously, most modern software uses a relatively limited and consistent set of features and a similarly consistent approach to using the features as a result of standardization of the Windows and Macintosh user interfaces; as a result, we know that the keyboard commands for cutting and pasting text and the menu commands for opening, saving, and creating files are the same in all programs we're likely to use. Then there's that standard keyboard thing we use—which is our primary tool in much the way a piano keyboard is the pianist's primary tool.

The second and more important factor is Pareto optimization; see the WikiPedia article on Pareto optimization for more than you ever wanted to know about this topic. In the work world, we only use a very small proportion of the features of software to perform a very high proportion of our work. You'll often see this referred to as the 80–20 rule: 80% of the work is accomplished using only 20% of the features. The actual numbers aren't important, but the concept is: as communicators, we spend (for example) 80% of our time writing, and use only 20% of the software's tools to accomplish this task. Those few times we need to accomplish something different (such as automatically creating a table of comments or exporting XML files), it's a matter of a few moments research in the manual or online help to figure out how to proceed.

But even those two factors pale into insignificance if you think about what we really do. As the mythical "million monkeys with typewriters" meme tells us, equipping a million of our hairy cousins with typewriters and teaching them how to type won't create any Shakespeare plays, pretty much irrespective of how much time you give the monkeys. People hire us because we write, and write well, which is something of a vanishing skill in this increasingly post-literate age. Train those monkeys to use FrameMaker, and all you've got at the end of the process is a bunch of highly skilled monkeys who still can't communicate. Communicating is our job.

A sometimes subtle problem

The problem with excessive reliance on tools becomes obvious once you've been alerted to it and shown where to look. Consider, for example, Tom Johnson's interesting and highly practical article, Corporate Blogging, in the September/October 2006 issue of Intercom. Blogging is a technology with old roots, but has not yet matured technologically. As a result, we've only begun to see some of its potential, and we'll see more as Johnson and others begin to explore how the technology can be used in our daily work and as the tools evolve and mature in response to the needs of bloggers.

But a closer look at the article reveals some interesting unquestioned assumptions. Consider, for example, the following: "If your manager blogged... wouldn't it be one of the first things you read each morning? ... You can comment on your manager's thoughts, and other workers can comment on your comments, and that way, according to Scott Anderson, you build camaraderie." This is unquestionably true so far as it goes, particularly for managers of distributed work teams who may never have a chance to see each other in person. But most of us still work in the same office as our managers and colleagues, and can accomplish the same result much more quickly and effectively with no tools other than the ability to talk. As Isaac Asimov demonstrated so eloquently in his novels Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, human contact is fundamental to who we are, and we are diminished as humans when we sacrifice that contact.

Anderson's error is to mistake the tools (blogging) for the results (communication). I've worked for several bosses who accomplished the same goals Anderson attributes to the manager's blog by regular in-person team meetings and "management by walking around", mostly in the form of occasional visits to re-establish a personal contact with me and see how my work was going. Blogging is cool and shows promise for certain situations, but it's only a tool, not the truly important thing: communication is what's important, and the blog is just a means to that end, and not a particularly good one at that.

Tool skills or communication skills?

Technical communicators soon learn that pretty much any modern tool can accomplish the job of writing, creating Web pages, compiling online help, and so on. Many people still create their Web pages in primitive text editors such as Windows Notepad, eschewing more sophisticated tools such as Dreamweaver. But Web surfers soon learn that not every Web designer creates usable Web sites despite clear mastery of all the bells and whistles provided by Dreamweaver, and readers soon discover that not every technical writer can create write intelligible, clear, concise information. Which of the two is more important?

Nobody goes to a doctor because the doctor uses CAT scanners and other high-tech tools, or spent far too many years in a university training program: we go to doctors because they can diagnose and solve our health problems. As communications professionals, it's long past time we stopped promoting the cool tools we use and focused on what really sets us apart: our ability to communicate. Portraying ourselves as knowledge workers who can solve communication problems, not as computer experts, is what will begin to gain us the respect we require to obtain satisfying, secure jobs. In contrast, failure to communicate the relative importance of our tool and communication skills is a recipe for low-paying work that is vulnerable to outsourcing to the lowest-cost provider.

Let's conclude this essay by returning to the aforementioned pianist for a suitable analogy. Anyone can learn to pound the keys on a piano to create music, witness the number of non-musicians who learn to play "chopsticks" on a child's toy piano. A smaller but still large number of amateurs eventually learn to play more challenging and occasionally even interesting music. But it takes more than just this level of technical skill to know what music to play and how to play it. Truly great musicians are certainly superb tool users, performing feats of keyboard virtuosity that elude even the most gifted amateur, and they demand the best tools available; those tools may be a million-dollar piano and the finest "software" available (whether classical music or your favorite rock opera), but those tool skills aren't the reason they take our breath away. The greatest are first and foremost skilled communicators, and without that ability, they couldn't transport us beyond the ordinary. Clearly, there's a lesson there for us to learn.

[A look back from several months after I wrote this: When I was starting out in this profession, it was still common for intellectual superstars, such as some of the senior scientists I worked with, to handwrite all their manuscripts and turn them over to a typing pool for endless bouts of revision and retyping. At the time, computer tool skills were sufficiently rare among such knowledge workers that employers could afford to hire typists rather than teaching the scientists to use a computer. Amazingly, that's only about 20 years ago now!

Nowadays, that attitude seems quaint and vaguely incomprehensible: a knowledge professional who can't use a computer won't find employment unless they offer truly unique skills that nobody else can provide, and in the modern globalized environment, that kind of uniqueness is growing rare indeed. In the technical communication profession, it's become increasingly true that it's no longer a black and white tool skills versus communication skills choice; to get and hold a job, you increasingly need both. It's also true that for some jobs, you need to be able to hit the ground running, on very short notice, with no time to learn an unfamiliar tool. Contractors and freelancers will nod knowingly at this statement.

I consciously wrote this article to adopt an extreme position and dramatize my point. A more nuanced position, such as the one we entertainingly reached during an open panel discussion at the 2007 STC annual conference in Minneapolis, would recognize that both forms of skill are important. That doesn't change my underlying thesis in this article one bit—tool skills only outweigh communication skills when the context is tool use rather than communication—but you should be aware that in writing it, I wasn't in any way ignorant of the importance of tool skills in the modern workplace.--GH]


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