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Ecological diversity: a parable for the independent technical communicator

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2007. Ecological diversity: a parable for the independent technical communicator. Consulting and Independent Contracting SIG Web site, May 2007. <http://www.stcsig.org/cic/pdfs/Ecological%20diversity%20and%20technical%20communication.doc>

While attending STC India's 2006 annual convention, I found myself discussing the technical communication job market during an interview with a local journalist. His questions about whether our profession exhibited a boom and bust cycle, combined with the richly unfamiliar Indian environment, set me to thinking. As my original academic training was in ecology and ecosystem function, the area I now work in professionally, that inspired me to commit an ecological metaphor: I remarked to the journalist that there are many parallels between real-world ecosystems and more metaphorical ones such as the technical communication job market. In this article, I'll discuss how this ecological metaphor provides a parable technical communicators can learn from, and the implications for our community.

An ecology primer

During the interview, I pointed at the manicured lawn, fringed by palm trees, and wondered aloud: "If you didn't know much about ecosystems, you might think there were only two species out there—grass and palm trees. What would happen if a severe windstorm uprooted all those trees?" Clearly, what appears at first glance to be half the ecosystem would be severely damaged, since only the grass would remain. We were sitting within the manicured grounds of a conference hotel, with no nearby natural source of seed to replace those trees, so restoration of the ecosystem to its former state would require heroic artificial inputs, such as planting new trees. There would be no natural recovery any time soon.

However, that simplistic view cannot adequately describe even relatively simple real-world ecosystems. Closer examination of an ecosystem, even those that superficially appear to contain only one or two dominant species, reveals a bewildering variety of organisms, each occupying a unique "niche" that overlaps relatively little with the niches occupied by other organisms. For example, looking closely enough at the palm trees and grass would reveal hundreds of species of bacteria and fungi, each occupying a different part of the soil, the tree bark, and the tree leaves and grass blades—not to mention scores of insect species in various habitats, plus birds, squirrels, and lizards. In reality, even seemingly simple ecosystems are surprisingly complex. That's the first key lesson from ecology that I want you to keep in mind.

The second lesson arises from the observation that some of these organisms are habitat specialists, and can only survive within a narrow range of habitats, whereas others ("generalists") can survive under a much wider range of conditions. After a severe disturbance, specialists may find themselves with no home because their niche has been eliminated, possibly permanently. As a result, they must either move elsewhere or stay and perish. Generalists, on the other hand, often adapt to the changed conditions with little fuss; if their primary niche is eliminated, odds are good they can continue to thrive in a secondary or tertiary niche.

A severe disturbance, such as removal of the palm trees by a storm, can eliminate the organisms that inhabited that niche, particularly specialists that can only live in the missing trees. But if the ecosystem is more realistically complex, many other niches remain that are capable of sustaining organisms capable of moving into the remaining niches. As a result, few disturbances ever completely depopulate an ecosystem.

The technical communication ecosystem

We must always be careful not to overextend a metaphor, particularly one such as the simplistic description of ecosystems I've just presented. Nonetheless, if you think about that description for a moment, the parallel with our profession is clear: if we think of technical communication only in terms of the computer and software industries, we're seeing only the palm trees and grass. If we become so specialized that these two niches comprise the entire ecosystem available to us, then we are highly vulnerable to the least disturbance in our ecosystem: one severe windstorm, such as an industry-wide recession or outsourcing of our jobs to another country, could eliminate us from the ecosystem.

But if you consider the ecological principles I've just described, you'll see that no ecosystem is ever as simple as it appears on the surface, and even a major blow to one niche and the organisms that prefer to inhabit it may not affect other niches. As professionals, we find ourselves facing the same problem as the specialist organisms I've just described: if we lose one niche in our professional ecosystem, such as software documentation, many other niches remain that are capable of sustaining us until our original niche is restored. But to take advantage of those niches, we must be as flexible as ecological generalists rather than becoming so specialized we have no alternatives.

The two ecological lessons I've just described suggest a major revision in how we should think about our profession: we must understand that there are many more niches than the obvious, easily visible ones, and we must understand that overspecialization can prevent us from taking advantage of those niches when doing so is necessary for our survival or even when it is merely convenient.

Implications for technical communicators

What other niches exist? Consider my example. Although I've worked in a great many different genres of technical communication over the years, from software documentation to marketing and instructional design, I've chosen to return to my roots and embrace a career in scientific editing. In particular, I've chosen a specialized niche in which I work primarily for scientist-authors for whom English is a second or even a third language. But because I'm keenly aware that no line of work is ever immune to severe disturbances, I've tried to keep my skills in other areas sufficiently sharp that I could move to a new niche—such as software documentation—if necessary. By specializing, I've mastered the tools that make me perfectly adapted to my current niche; by simultaneously remaining something of a generalist, I've provided myself with considerable insurance should my current niche ever disappear.

The parable of ecological diversity tells us that any ecosystem, including that occupied by the technical communication profession, offers far more niches than the obvious ones. Those niches may take some work to uncover, but they're present and easy enough to find once you know to look for them. (For advice on finding those niches, see my article Finding work in tough times in the December 2006 issue of Intercom.) Should one niche disappear or no longer be able to support us, many other niches remain for us to inhabit. The lesson of overspecialization is that we won't be able to exploit those niches if we lack the skills they require. Because our key skills are the ability to master a new subject and understand a new audience so we can communicate clearly about that subject, we must keep those skills sharp even as we master the narrower, more specialized skills that make us experts in our current niche. That approach changes us from highly vulnerable specialists into generalists who can land on our feet after any disturbance and quickly build a new life in a new niche.

At last count, STC supported 20 special interest groups called "communities" (www.stc.org/membership/sigLinks01.asp), and these give a good idea of the range of options available to us. Irrespective of the community you currently focus on in your day job, I urge you to make time to explore at least one of the other communities and ask how your ability to communicate could be applied within that new niche. Even if you don't anticipate a major ecosystem disturbance, such as the complete elimination of software documentation jobs in the developed world, you'll find that you've opened your eyes to new opportunities to apply your talents in your current career. At worst, that will make your work more interesting; at best, it'll provide important insurance against unexpected disturbances that leave you desperately seeking a new niche.


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