Becoming InfoWranglers: New Career Ladders and Competencies for Technical Communicators

by Saul Carliner

Home / Archives / Back Issues 1994-2000 /

Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted with permission from "Future Travels of the InfoWrangler," which appeared in the November 1998 issue of Intercom, the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication.

The emergence of the web has accelerated the convergence of marketing communications, training, and technical communication. Marketing communicators are increasingly producing users' guides, trainers are producing wizards and marketing materials. Technical communicators are producing tutorials and pre-sales literature.

Whatever our discipline, communicators can no longer define ourselves by the products we produce. That is, we no longer define ourselves as trainers, marketing communicators, and technical communicators.

New Roles, New Career Ladders

Instead, in the future, regardless of our backgrounds, people who have worked in these disciplines will skillfully produce a variety of communication products, and we will define ourselves by our roles in the communication process. The process of moving into these roles is already happening within organizations; it will accelerate in the coming years.

Project manager whose primary job is making sure that communication products are developed according to plan, on time, within budget, and at an acceptable level of quality to the "sender" and to the user. Project managers set schedules and budgets, choose and manage members of project teams, enforce product plans and quality guidelines, and act as a go-between among senders, the InfoWrangling team, and users.

Information designer who acts as an architect of a project, solving the complex communication problems presented by senders and developing the blueprints of the solution that will be acceptable to the "senders" and effective with users. The blueprints are more complex than the outlines that have paraded in the past as project plans. As building architects often specify details like faucets and doorknobs, so information designers will specify details like drawings and metaphors for a given section of a communication product. We can no longer rely on project managers to serve a dual role as information designers. As informal research is indicating, information projects can have only one information designer. Furthermore, the skills that make someone a good information designer are not the same as those that make someone a good project manager or information developer.

Information developer who acts as a subcontractor on a project, creating the individual components according to the designer's information plans and the manager's project plans. Skilled information developers will be comfortable writing a variety of information products for a variety of media and will specialize, instead, in subject matter, such as computer software, telecommunications, or biotechnology.

Underlying this new definition of roles is a new career ladder, as indicated in the following figure.

New Roles, Broader Competencies

Whichever role we serve--project managers, information designers, or information developers--organizations will expect us to have a portfolio of competencies (skills) in these four areas.

Information design and development refers to the basic communication competencies of writing, editing, visual communication, and speaking, although strengths will vary among these capabilities. But communication competencies go beyond these: InfoWranglers must be familiar with a variety of analysis, design, evaluation, and production skills, such as needs analysis, setting objectives, developing evaluations (such as usability tests), conducting evaluations, performing user-centered design, choosing media, choosing among types of communication products, preparing camera-ready copy, producing video, preparing code, and properly using copyrighted material. The level of skill will vary, depending on the role that the InfoWrangler plays.

Technology refers to the subjects that we write about, not the technology of communication such as help authoring tools or animation software (unless these are the subjects of the communication products). Technology is changing in a variety of areas, from the well-publicized developments in computers, telecommunications, and biotechnology, to the lesser-known developments in fields such as agriculture and manufacturing.

In the past, technical communicators have primarily emphasized their competencies in information design and development, and technology, but as businesses attempt to better target their products and address the ongoing pressures to keep costs competitive, technical communicators will also need to develop competencies in these areas.

Industry refers to the application of technology to work in a particular industry. For example, computers have changed the way that guests reserve hotel rooms and front desk personnel check in guests at hotels. New canning technology ultimately affects the way that bottlers package and ship soft drinks. To effectively write about technology, then, we need to understand not only the technology itself, but the way it affects the daily work of people in a given industry. Generally, we need to be aware of the way one or two industries work. We can then use that knowledge to write better targeted material.

Business refers to explaining what we do in business terms and understanding how business conditions affect the demand for our services. Specifically, we all need to be competent in budgeting and scheduling, identifying and addressing the financial and competitive constraints affecting our projects, and versed in finance and strategic planning.

Although the four categories of skills are likely to remain constant for many years, the given skills within a category are likely to change as technology and business conditions change. We therefore need to regularly assess our skills, adding new ones and brushing up on other key skills as the market changes.

New Roles, New Attitude

More than new roles and broader competencies, these changes bring technical communicators a new outlook--not as writers or editors or managers, but as infowranglers, people who harness the power of information for the benefit of our users and sponsors.

Saul Carliner is an assistant professor of information design at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is a fellow and past international president of the STC. Contact: .

© 2000 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published May/June 2000 in the Boston Broadside