Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Reading :: Wicked, Incomplete, and Uncertain

Wicked, Incomplete, and Uncertain: User Support in the Wild and the Role of Technical Communication
By Jason Swarts

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, technical communication programs grew precipitously across the US. In part, that's because of the PC Revolution. People were suddenly buying computers and software, and they needed to know how to run them. Software interfaces were not yet standardized. And (don't underestimate this factor) people were not yet used to paying hundreds of dollars for digital media—and software manuals made the boxes heavier.

Yet, as John Carroll noted in 1990, computer documentation was inherently limited, because writers simply could not cover every use case. He advocated the "minimal manual," focused on exercises that could help readers apply general skills to their specific problems.

Fast forward to the late 2010s, and writers really can cover every use case. But these are not necessarily trained writers: They're other users, communicating with each other on forums and via social media. As Swarts says, "We still need help, but increasingly we are ignoring manuals because our purposes have grown beyond what manuals are capable of addressing" (p.3).

Swarts methodically makes his case throughout the book, drawing on his (meticulously planned and executed) published studies as well as those of others. Through this work, he demonstrates how the object of technical documentation has shifted; how tasks related to stabilized situations have given way to "wicked problems" in unstable situations; how expertise has been decentered across different users (and here he uses stasis theory to demonstrate how users in tech forums collaboratively define and attack a problem); and how new genres of help have emerged to address these problems.

And yet, he argues in the last chapter, there is still a place for technical communication as a field:
technical communicators need to be a different kind of expert, less a 'throw-it-over-the-wall' expert and more like a facilitator or network maker, someone who is skilled at finding the right information and making the right connections and creating the right protocols and formats to meet the user's needs. (p.150)
Although the skills of traditional technical communication—clear style, strong organization, chunking, signaling, etc.—are still useful and important, for technology documentation, this facilitation/curation role is much more important. Swarts (as usual) nails it here. If you're interested in technical documentation, definitely pick this book up.

Reading :: Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today
By Ilana Gershon

Work has changed considerably over the last few decades (as you may have read). Lifelong employment is all but dead, and individuals find themselves thinking through how their career path might lead to the next job. As Ilana Gershon argues, this shift—among others—means that we have begun to think about employment and job-seeking in very different ways.

When employment was more stable, Gershon argues, we used to use the metaphor of self-as-property: I will give up a bit of my freedom for the security that comes from employment. But as lifelong employment has become more rare, this metaphor made less sense. Instead, she says, we use the implicit metaphor of self-as-business (p.8)—"a bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences, and relationships" (p.9). Rather than emphasizing our properties, we emphasize our personal brands. Rather than feeling loyalty to the employer, we feel passion toward our pursuits (p.8). The resume, rather than being a historical document of your employment, becomes a marketing tool for your business-of-one, demonstrating the problems that you have solved rather than the positions you have occupied (p.9). The employee becomes a business solution, i.e., a company (and brand) to ally with (p.11).

In this case, what happens to the genre repertoire of employment? As Gershon demonstrates, it changes considerably, incorporating branding genres, language, and orientations. Yet, Gershon notes, much of the personal branding advice given to job-seekers seems ineffective. Resumes are scanned for keywords, and the keywords that convey personal branding often turn out to be quite generic.

In all, this book was readable, compelling, and interesting. It certainly made me rethink the employment process and how our seniors are approaching their first jobs out of college. If you're interested in how people are hired—and certainly if you are about to hit the job market—take a look.

Reading :: Words Matter

Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office
By Elizabeth Keating and Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa

Elizabeth Keating is a linguistic anthropologist who teaches in the Human Dimensions of Organizations MA program at the University of Texas. When she mentioned her recent research, it was intriguing enough that I had to pick up this 2016 book and read more about it.

Keating and Jarvenpaa collaborated on this research program, which involved observing and interviewing engineers involved in international teams. These engineers—from the US, India, Brazil, and Romania—worked on shared projects across language and culture barriers, usually via teleconferencing and email. And although they were all engineers and all spoke English, they had to deal with frequent miscommunications and the resulting hurt feelings and suspicion that can result.

Through stories about these teams, Keating and Jarvenpaa identify several assumptions that cause trouble in such teams:

  • the purpose of communication is to convey new information
  • all hearers can be treated alike
  • information is always the same, no matter where it originates
  • if people speak the same language, they should understand each other
  • communication is based on clear, rational rules
  • good communicators know how much information to convey
  • the right language can neutralize the effects of culture
  • good communication is direct and clear (pp.18-19)
They suggest that cross-cultural teams will communicate more successfully if they take on new assumptions:
  • "Language is action, not information" 
  • "The hearer is the most important player"
  • People must "build common ground to interact successfully
  • "Language is social (and cultural)"
  • "Technology is a handicap" (that is, communicating in ways other than face-to-face) (pp.19-20)
The authors offer the "Communication Plus" model for helping such teams to communicate more effectively.

Importantly, this book is written for a general readership, not scholars. I could easily see it being used by business professionals or others who do not specialize in communication theory. For those readers, I recommend it highly. Language specialists will get less out of it, but it will still be useful to them. Definitely pick it up!

Reading :: Moneyball

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis

Yes, I finally got around to reading Moneyball. It's a good story, compellingly told, and Michael Lewis does a good job of talking through the basics of what statistical analysis brought to baseball recruiting and how it disrupted pro ball.

That aspect, I think, is what made this book required reading in UT's MS in Technology Commercialization — which in turn is why I read the book in the first place.

On the other hand, I confess that I didn't feel much more informed after reading the book. I mean, I understand baseball a little better, but my real goal was to better understand statistical analysis and how it might apply to problem solving in domains traditionally dominated by lore. Moneyball gave me an extended example, but at such a level of generalization that I would have a hard time applying it elsewhere.

Still, it's a great read, and I recommend it.