Approaches to Professionalism-a codified Body of Knowledge

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Approaches to Professionalism—A Codified Body of Knowledge

Kenneth T. Rainey

Southern Polytechnic State University

Published as “Approaches to Professionalism—A Codified Body of Knowledge.” Proceedings of the International Professional Communication Conference, Limerick, Ireland, 2005


Professionalism is a recurrent topic of discussion—formally and informally—among technical communication scholars and practitioners. In the diversity among our programs and approaches to technical communication, the difficult issues surrounding certification in technical communication is a professional goal that major stakeholders have typically considered too complex to be addressed. Increasingly, however, many of these stakeholders agree that we can no longer continue to ignore these complex issues. In any earlier article, I have described twelve issues that must be addressed and tasks that must be undertaken to move the profession towards meaningful certification. In that discussion, I also suggest approaches to begin the work on each of these steps. In this present discussion, I address the first of these steps—codification of the bodies of knowledge through the development of an encyclopedia of technical and professional communication. In order to accomplish this, I describe the categories of knowledge in the field and the editorial and organizational structure of the project.

Keywords: certification, body of knowledge, discipline, profession

1. Introduction

A number of colleagues have called in varying ways and degrees for the professionalization of technical communication. Spilka, for example, issues a clarion call for a national consortium of stakeholders, democratically elected, who would address the issues surrounding professionalism [1]. Hayhoe [2], Giammona [3], Whitelock [4], and Davis [5], among others, have issued calls for addressing some of the issues surrounding professional status of the profession.

In the diversity among our programs and approaches to technical communication, the difficult issues surrounding certification in technical communication is a professional goal that major stakeholders have typically considered too complex to be addressed. Increasingly, however, many of these stakeholders agree that we can no longer continue to ignore these complex issues.

If technical communication is a profession, it must have some mechanism for identifying and validating the work that its professionals do. This mechanism must provide a clear entry into and exit from the profession and a clear career path for advancement. In other articles and presentations, Turner and I have defined the terms that I will use in this discussion [6, 7]. We have also discussed the reasons that the proposition for certification is a valid one [7]. And, last year at the IEEE PCS Conference in Minneapolis, I described twelve issues that must be addressed and tasks that must be undertaken to move the profession towards meaningful certification [8]. These step/tasks are

    1. Codify the bodies of knowledge

    2. Identify professional and ethical responsibilities

    3. Assess the likely impact of standards and certification on the quality of the work, on career paths, and on job stability

    4. Decide how to address different needs of entry-level and more experienced communicators

    5. Decide how to assess standards for diverse job clusters

    6. Identify the negative impact of the absence of standards or certification

    7. Delineate the characteristics that make up technical communication

    8. Decide how best to assess standards

    9. Decide how to avoid reductionism and to assess higher order competencies

    10. Decide how to make any summative assessment legally defensible

    11. Decide how to make any standards assessment cost effective

    12. Decide how to administer any summative assessment creditably and competently.

In that discussion, I also suggest approaches to begin the work on each of these steps. In this discussion, I want to address the first of these steps—codification of the bodies of knowledge—and provide an outline through which it could be accomplished. This first step is a major one, without which the other tasks would falter, so it is vital that it be addressed immediately.

One approach to codifying the bodies of knowledge that comprise technical and professional communication is to establish a quality panel of experts from academe and industry and from major countries to produce an encyclopedia of technical communication. At first mention, many of you will think that this is a preposterous idea. But consider that the major professions—the struggle for whose recognition in many instances has been tortuous (see Davis [5]). All have one or more scholarly reference encyclopedias that describe the accepted knowledge in those fields—the kinds of knowledge that we teach our freshmen and that does not need citation in research papers.

But before we look at the usefulness of an encyclopedia, we need to examine briefly the nature of discipline and of profession, for an encyclopedia plays an important role in disciplines and professions.

2. The Discipline and the Profession

The debate about the professional status of technical communication revolves around two central questions:

  • Is technical communication a profession?

  • Is technical communication a discipline?

Those who have doubts about the professional and disciplinary status of technical communication usually consider technical communication to be a collection of somewhat related but disparate fields of study. Such a collection of disciplines, is more akin to the allied health professions than to any definable discipline. And, if the discipline cannot be defined, then technical communication cannot be a profession. If this is so, the discussion ends here.

But if there is a core of knowledge and skills that seems to be common to all of those who engage in the practice (and instruction) of technical communication, then we can identify that body (or bodies) of knowledge. Upon that basis, therefore, we can assert that technical communication is, in fact, a definable discipline of study and, as well, a profession that can be described—even if in general terms.

Thus, we need to understand what makes a discipline and what makes a profession.

Toulmin defined these two concepts more than thirty years ago [9]. E.O. Smith used Toulmin’s work in her study of the forums, profession, and discipline of technical communication [10]. To use Smith’s words, based on Toulmin, a discipline is “a communal tradition of procedures and techniques for dealing with theoretical or practical problems” [10]. A profession is “the organized set of institutions, roles, and men [and women] whose business it is to apply or improve those procedures and techniques” [10]. “A discipline is the set of collectively agreed upon concepts, or ideals, for a given time and context” [11].

Discipline refers to the concepts and procedures used by professionals to solve problems [11]. How, then, does discipline differ from profession?Profession represents the authority and judgment of the discipline” [12]. “Profession refers to the forums for discussing the concepts, and professionals are the individuals who create and use the knowledge for problem solving” [11]. A discipline is built upon and produces a “body of knowledge.”

3. Approaches to Codifying the Bodies of Knowledge

In order to accomplish the monumental task of codifying the bodies of knowledge that comprise technical communication, we must first identify the subject categories comprising the bodies of knowledge. Technical communication has a good beginning towards such a codified body of knowledge, for we have an impressive list of technical communication curricula; textbooks, anthologies, research studies; bibliographies; and dissertations. Taken together these sources have carved out the dimensions of our profession with some precision.

A second step would be to describe the scope of knowledge that each category covers, Finally, we must organize those categories into coherent chunks. In this presentation, I will provide the results of an initial foray into this process and describe the editorial organization for the publication of an encyclopedia.

The bodies of knowledge that comprise “technical communication” are broad and various. The profession already has a working draft of the subject categories of a codified body of knowledge contained within three areas of our work.

First, the curricula of technical communication academic programs focuses on the range of knowledge considered essential for entry and development within the field. A survey of technical communication curricula conducted by Turner [13] yields the following categories of competencies taught in those curricula:

  • Collaborative Skills: The ability to collaborate with subject-matter experts

  • Writing Skills: The ability to write clearly for a specific audience directed by clearly defined purposes

  • Technical Skills: The ability to assess and to learn to use technology

  • Self-Activation/Evaluation Skills: The ability for self motivation and evaluation

Second, the range of superb technical communication textbooks provides an initial draft of these subject categories. A survey of the section and chapter headings in a widely used technical communication textbook yields a list of subject categories that can be very useful (see Appendix A).

Third, the annual bibliography in Technical Communication Quarterly expands the dimensions of these categories in areas of research and scholarly inquiry (although some of the bibliography’s categories focus on non-subject-specific labels). A survey of the subject categories in a recent ATTW Annual Bibliography [14] provides a useful list of subject categories. Such a list of subject categories emerging from these sources is too complex, cumbersome, and tedious to present within the text but see Appendix B.

Fourth, in two articles that I have been involved with [15 16] yield a meaningful list of categories based on doctoral research in technical, scientific, and business communication (see Appendix C).

In addition to these sources, a useful description of core competencies for technical communicators emerged from the Report of the Core Competencies Committee of the Society for Technical Communication [17]. These core competencies were based on research results generated through 17 focus groups held in Arizona, California, Washington state, and Canada in 1994-1995 (see Appendix D).

4. Editorial Organization and Production

With the resources described above already available to us, we have the basic content and subject categories for an encyclopedia. But for such an undertaking to be successful, several organizational and editorial requirements must be met:

  • First, the editorial board of the encyclopedia must be comprised of a large number of internationally recognized researchers, academics, practitioners, and representatives of all professional organizations, both nationally and internationally.

  • Second, the major professional organizations—the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, the Society for Technical Communication, the IEEE Professional Communication Society, and the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication, and others—must support the effort.

  • Third, a major publisher must be enlisted to invest in the development of this project.

  • Fourth, sufficient time, resources, and financial support must be secured to underwrite the initial phases of the project.

In short, all of the major stakeholders must buy into the project.

5. Conclusion

If we are serious about professionalism in technical communication, we must be willing to face some of the difficult issues in the struggle towards professionalism. Davis [5] pleaded for this willingness a number of years ago. Others [1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 14.] have joined in the plea. It is now time for the calls to cease and the work to begin.

I will close by pointing to what I believe to be the importance of this process. No profession is such by virtue of desire or plea or wishful thinking. Professions have achieved their status because some group saw the critical necessity of professional status and began to implement their calls for professionalism by taking significant, if small, steps towards achievement.

But the importance of professionalism goes beyond mere reputation; it goes to the heart of vocation, or calling, to the twin desires of personal satisfaction and pride in one’s work and commitment to contributing to the welfare of society. We pride ourselves on being advocates for users, and rightly so. We can take greater pride when our advocacy achieves the professional status it deserves—which will bring with it the rewards, security, and safeguards and obligations of a profession.

But there is more. Giammona [3], Ames [18], and Hayhoe [19], and others whom they quote are now pointing out that technical communication professionals can no longer remain on the sidelines of product production and user advocacy but must enter fully into the business processes that comprise the real work of product production and user advocacy.

This means, among other things, that professionals in technical communication must become business professionals as well as communication professionals. Not only does our professionalism depend on this transformation, but our survival depends upon it as well.


[1] R. Spilka, “Becoming a Profession,” in Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century. Ed. R. Spilka; B. Mirel. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, vol. 1, pp. 97-111, 2002.

[2] G. Hayhoe, “Who Speaks for Our Profession?” Technical Communication, vol. 50, no. 3, pp.: 1-2, 2003.

[3] B. Giammona, “The Future of Technical Communication: How Innovation, Technology, Information Management, and Other Forces Are Shaping the Future of the Profession,” Technical Communication, 51, no. 4, no. 4, pp. 349-366, 2004.

[4] A. L. Whiteside, “The Skills That Technical Communicators Need: An Investigation of Technical Communication Graduates, Managers, and Curricula,” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 303-318, 2003.

[5] M. T. Davis, “Shaping the Future of Our Profession,” Technical Communication, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 139-144, 2003.

[6] K T. Rainey, “Debate: Do We Need Certification?” Proc. FORUM Conference, London, 2000.

[7] R.K. Turner, and K.T. Rainey, “Certification in Technical Communication,” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 211-234, 2004.

[8] K. T. Rainey, “Qualification or Certification Recognition for Technical Communicators: It’s Time!” Proc. Annual IEEE Professional Communication Conference, Minneapolis, MN, pp. 70-76, 2004.

[9] S.. Toulmin, Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Clarendon P., Oxford, 1972. Cited in E. O. Smith, “The Forums, Profession, and Discipline of Technical Communication, 1971-1992.” Ph.D. diss. Lubbock, TX, Texas Tech University, p. 10, 1994.

[10] Smith, p. 11.

[11] Smith, p. 13.

[12] Smith, p. 12.

[13] R K. Turner, “Technical Communication: “The Case for Professionalization.” M.S. thesis. Marietta, GA, Southern Polytechnic State University, 2004.

[14] E.O. Smith et al., “2002 ATTW Bibliography” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 460-480, 2003.

[15] R. Kelly, and K.T. Rainey, “Doctoral Research in Technical and Scientific Communication,” Technical Communication, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 552-570, 1990.

[16] K. T. Rainey, “Doctoral Research in Technical, Scientific, and Business Communication, Technical Communication, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 501-531. 1999.

[17] Report of the Job-Competencies Committee. Arlington, VA, Society for Technical Communication, 1996 (summarized in [7] and [14], above).

[18] A. Ames,. “Communicating Value: Transforming Our Ind19ustry,” Intercom, vol., 52, no. 2, p. 2.

[19] G. Hayhoe, “What’s in Store for 2004—and Beyond?” Technical Communication, vol.51, no. 1, pp. 1-2.

[20] Pfeiffer, W. S. Technical Writing: A Practical Approach. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2002.

About the Author

Kenneth T. Rainey, Professor of Information Design and Communication and Chair of Humanities and Technical Communication Department, teaches technical writing and editing and multimedia and has presented at national and international conferences. He holds the Ph.D. degree from Ohio State University, where he studied rhetoric with E.P.J Corbett. Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, he also received the J. R. Gould Award for excellence in teaching technical communication from STC in 1999. Rainey served as President of the STC Atlanta Chapter and received the Chapter Distinguished Service Award in 2000. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2004. He has been guest professor in Germany from 1997 and 1999-2005. He retires as chair of the department in August 2006.

Appendix A

Major categories in Pfeiffer’s Technical Writing: A Practical Approach [20]:

      • Process in Technical Writing: Collaboration, Purpose, Audience Analysis, Gathering Information

      • Ethics and Globalism: Corporate Culture, Global Workplace, Types of Projects, Ethics

      • Organizing Information: Principles of Organization

      • Page Design: Computers, Guidelines, Fonts and Color

      • Patterns of Organization: Argument, Definition, Description, Classification and Division, Comparison and Contrast

      • Process Descriptions and Instructions: Guidelines

      • Letters, Memo, and Electronic Communication: Guidelines, Email

      • Informal Reports: Guidelines, Five Informal Report

      • Formal Reports: Strategy for Organizing, Guideline

      • Proposals and Feasibility Studies: Guidelines for Informal Proposals, Guidelines for Formal Proposals, Guidelines for Feasibility Studies

      • Graphics: Fonts, Color, Guidelines, Eight Graphics, Misuse of Graphic

      • Oral Communication: Preparation and Delivery, Guidelines for Presentation Graphics, Overcoming Nervousness, Running Effective Meeting

      • Technical Research: Library Research, Web Research, Questionnaires and Interviews, Documentation, Abstract

      • The Job Search: Correspondence, Interviews, Negotiation

      • Style in Technical Writing: Clear Sentences, Concision, Accuracy, Active Voice, Nonsexist Language

      • Appendices: Online Technical Documents, Web-Site Design

Appendix B

Categories in the ATTW Bibliography for 2002; non subject-matter specific categories have been eliminated [14]:

      • Collaborative, Group, and Organizational Processes Related to Writing

      • Computers, Desktop and Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Web Design

      • Document Design, Graphics, Layout

      • Environmental and Risk Communication

      • Multimedia Technical Communication

      • Oral Communication

      • Professional Trends and Issues; History, The Profession, Pedagogy

      • Reading and Writing Processes

      • Specialized Discourse

      • Technical Communication Practice

      • Technology and Culture

      • Computer Documentation

      • Pedagogy

      • Assessment

      • Collaborative Writing Assignments

      • Computers, Desktop and Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Web Design

      • Document Design and Graphics

      • Editing Assignments

      • Ethics

      • In-house Courses, Workshops, Seminars

      • Instructional Issues, Improving Assignments

      • International Communication

      • Oral Communication, Listening Competence

      • Programs, Courses, Internships

      • Social Issues: Gender, Disability, Ethnicity

      • Research

      • Assessment

      • Collaborative, Group, and Organizational Processes Relating to Writing

      • Computers, Desktop and Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Web Design

      • Document Design and Graphics

      • Environmental and Risk Communication

      • Historical Studies

      • Human Factors

      • Knowledge Management

      • Legal Writing, Legal Issues

      • Methods of Research

      • Oral Communication

      • Pedagogical Research

      • Professional Trends and Issues: History of the Profession

      • Reading and Writing Processes

      • Revising and Editing

      • Rhetoric of Science

      • Scientific and Medical Writing and Health Communication

      • Social Issues: Gender, Disability, Ethnicity

      • Technical Communication Practice (Research)

      • Technology and Culture: International Issues, Ethics

      • Theory and Philosophy

      • Technical Communication Practice

      • Computer, Desktop and Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Web Design

      • Consulting

      • Document Design and Graphics

      • Editing, Editorial Practice, Publications, Translation

      • Graphics and Layout

      • Oral Communication’

      • Process, Strategies, Usability

      • Project Design and Management

      • Videos, Presentation Technology, Teleconferencing, Photographic Technology

Appendix C

Supplementing these subject category lists are the subject categories that Rebecca Kelly and I created for two articles on doctoral dissertations in technical and professional communication [15, 16]. Our surveys of dissertations written in technical communication between 1965 and 1998 (n=348) reveal an array of topics that demonstrate the variety of the knowledge that relates to technical communication:

      • The Profession—History and Theory, Organization, Education and Training, Ethics, Publishing

      • Business Orientation—Business Acumen, Project Management, User Advocacy

      • Information and Document Design—Innovation, Development, Execution, Usability

      • Communications Production—Print and Other Media Skills, Support Tools

      • The Technical Communication Profession

      • History

      • Rhetoric and theory

      • Composition studies

      • Collaborative writing

      • Writing and gender

      • Document Design and Instructional Design

      • Usability

      • Software documentation

      • Style

      • Forms of Professional Communication

      • Business, managerial, and organizational communication

      • Theory and history

      • Gender and communication studies

      • Workplace writing

      • Processes and problems

      • Acculturation to workplace writing

      • Uses of workplace writing

      • Graphics in business communication

      • Collaboration

      • Crisis and risk communication

      • Training in the workplace

      • Oral presentation in business communication

      • Instructional technology and business communication

      • Curriculum, instruction, and career development

      • Science communication

      • Theory and history

      • Rhetoric of science

      • Gender and science communication

      • Processes and uses of science communication

      • Style in science writing

      • Medical communication

      • Rhetoric and history

      • Patient information

      • Forms, processes and uses

      • Legal writing

      • Proposal writing

      • Dimensions of Professional Communication

      • Curriculum and instruction

      • Rhetoric, theory, and history

      • Writing pedagogy and processes

      • Revision

      • Visual Communication

      • Design, gender, and distortion

      • Typography and color

      • Teaching and learning

      • Computer-mediated communication

      • Research dimensions

      • Design and authoring

      • Social and cultural dimensions

      • International and Intercultural Communication

      • Disciplines Represented in Technical Communication

      • Sociology

      • Psychology

      • Business

      • Literature

      • Anthropology

      • Philosophy

      • Graphic design

      • Rhetoric and composition

      • Cognitive and social psychology

      • Human and computer interaction

      • Reading comprehension

      • Human factors

      • Typography and graphic design

      • Psycholinguistics

      • Instructional design

      • Computer technologies

      • Discourse analysis

      • Cultural studies

Appendix D

Competencies derived by the STC Job Competencies Committee in 1996 [17].

Professional Core Competencies




Ability and willingness to be an advocate for the user.


Knowledge of information design, presentation of data, language conventions, communication principles and theory.


Ability and willingness to apply information design, language, and communication models, theories, rules, and standards.


Ability and willingness to be open to new ideas without sacrificing usability or accuracy.

Use of Media

Ability and willingness to understand the requirements and uses of different media and to apply them appropriately.

Research Skills

Ability and willingness to gather relevant and accurate information and analyze it for appropriateness.

Use of Support Tools

Ability and willingness to use appropriate support tools, including computer application software.


Understanding of usability, skill in user and task analysis, and the ability and willingness to provide value to the user of the information.
Enabling Competency: Analytical and Conceptual Competencies




Ability to recognize patterns and relationships.


Ability to identify logical fallacies.

Editorial Memory

Ability to remember the use of words and visual symbols and their meanings and to identify inconsistencies in their use.


Ability to ascertain relevance and usefulness.


Ability to integrate relevant discrete pieces of data to form concepts and extract procedures and rules.
Enabling Competency: Interpersonal Competencies



Interpersonal Communication

Ability and willingness to establish collaborative relationships with people of different backgrounds, status, education, and expectations.

Team Work

Skill in working with groups and willingness to be a contributing member of a team.

Enabling Competency: Information Product Development and Management Competencies



Project Management

Ability to coordinate and schedule activities, control resources, and manage and mitigate risk.

Process Management

Ability to define or design the processes required to manage and measure the life cycle of an information product.

Enabling Competency: Self Management Competencies



Detail Orientation

Appreciation of the importance of details in affecting quality, timeliness, and goal achievement.

Organizational Ability

Ability and willingness to be efficient, not waste time or resources.

Priority Setting

Ability and willingness to set priorities that are more likely to meet goals.


Ability and willingness to produce consistently.

Time Management

Ability and willingness to focus attention on tasks that are more likely to meet goals.

Enabling Competency: Career Management Competencies



Staying Current

Willingness to stay up-to-date with tools, media, subject areas, content; willingness to invest in continuous learning.

Goal Setting

Willingness to set career goals and manage personal risk.


Willingness to invest time and other resources in their careers.

Technical Knowledge

Ability and willingness to understand the technical content and user’s context for applying the content.


Willingness to provide leadership about professional issues, promote the profession, as well as the skill to be politically astute.

Professional Involvement

Willingness to stay involved in professional issues and contribute to the promotion and development of the profession.

Page numbers will be added.


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