The Need for Greater Digital Literacy in Technical Communication

Dicks, S. “The effects of digital literacy on the nature of technical communication work.” Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice (2009): 51-82.

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In this essay, Dicks takes a historical approach to understanding technical writing’s role in the greater context of communication, and analyzes the evolution of technical writing methods as a result of the induction of digital media. The last 15 years have seen seismic social and economic changes motivated by technological innovations. Dicks argues that these changes have dramatically influenced every aspect of technical communication. He argues that as we transition into an era of ubiquitous computing, every aspect of the technical writer’s methodology needs to be revised. By studying the reasons for these changes and the symptoms and  structure of the market as of 2009, Dicks lays out challenges and thinking during the height of the global recession. This reading is one essay in an anthology centered on digital literacy for technical communicators in the 21st century. The anthology focuses on understanding how technology and the current digital writing environment have changed – and continue to change –  the nature of technical communication work.  

The study of the development and practice of the technical communication field fits into the Stories in Play Initiative (SIPI) within the computational creative literacy area of inquiry. In my expanded paper, I argue as to why technical communication is relevant to the study of digital storytelling within digital humanities, when in the past it has been contained fully within the professional communications area of scholarship. The main reasons are: (1) changes to the role of a technical communicator, and in a related sense, (2) transitions of the working environment itself.  

Technical writing as an industry was born out of the need for standardized communication of strategies and advanced technologies during World War II. During the economic boom after the war, technical writers were largely employed to create manuals for mass-produced factory items and functioned as “another cog” of the assembly line process. Dicks argues of the need for a transition of the technical communication industry’s roles, from that of primarily wordsmithing, to more highly skilled work in which knowledge is the main product created. He makes the profound claim that technical writers must move away from seeing themselves as a mediator between end users and developers, but does not provide sufficient evidence to back up this assertion.     

Growth of the technology industry has influenced management philosophy to focus increasingly on the value added. This shift in philosophy has led to the adoption of more flattened organizational structures and agile development methodologies. Dicks maps out this transition of work roles from repetitive and relatively low skilled work, to knowledge based work, where there is a greater emphasis on knowledge over trade skill. However, the technical writing community as a whole continues by their traditional definition where tech writing is expected to fit as part of an assembly line process. Dicks states that the new management models question the value of these activities, and view such workers as easily replaceable. Such valuations of technical writing abilities, he argues, could lead to an increase in outsourcing and downsizing of technical writing roles.

In response to downsizing, outsourcing, and other management philosophy trends, Dicks suggests the necessity for technical communicators to act in a high-skilled capacity in what Robert Reich terms “symbolic-analytic”:  workers that provide organizations with value primarily through the creation of information objects. These would require that tech writers embrace both the digital medium as well as new work models. He characterizes such work as often collaborative with computers being used for the “heavy” analytical components. This can be done by integrating more closely with the product development process and understanding consumer interaction with the product by using analytics and an agile methodology.

This text could be utilized in the classroom context when discussing the recent history of technical writing, or in studying debates as to what the field of technical writing and the roles of tech communicators “must become”. Although Dicks offers some general characteristics of his theorized knowledge and value creation based work, he does not detail what this work shift may look like in practice. The economic time period within which it is written also presents a certain urgency to the work.

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