Dear readers, I have just completed two terms as a director at large of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). I think those of you who are STC members deserve a review of what those four years have – and have not – accomplished.
When I first ran, I had a long list of issues that I wanted dealt with. I was going to insist that they be taken seriously, my intention was to be a real pain until the board looked at all of them. Much to my amazement, all the issues on my list got raised within the first six months of my board tenure, without my having to insist on anything! This despite the fact that from my first day, we were faced with the need to find a new Executive Director. Life on the STC board has been a series of surprises, obstacles, successes, and disappointments.
While all my issues were raised, they weren’t all completely dealt with. And new ones have come up.
The Board Never Listens, Right?
OK, let’s dispense with this one right away. Every member of every board that I have had the privilege to serve with over the last four years has been vitally interested in the good of the society – and the good of the society is the good of the members. Members are our lifeblood. So if you’re a member, and you think you’ve been ignored, I urge you to communicate that – politely, please – to the board. They really do care.
It is important, also, to mention that sometimes the assumptions – need I say presumptions – of some members, about what the board’s function is, or what they should do, is often very mistaken. And members’ communication with the board has very often been aggressive, nasty, or even downright insulting. It’s our job to take it, but it ain’t much fun.
STC is not, and never has been, a democracy
This is one of the biggest misconceptions members have about our association. The board has a legally defined fiduciary responsibility that it cannot delegate, and each member of the board is individually responsible for due diligence. Board members do not represent constituencies, they must work for the greater good of the entire organization. This is why the director/sponsor system of previous years was abandoned – it wasn’t a conspiracy on the part of a power-grabbing board, it was a requirement under law.
Members elect the board – well, about 16% of them do, the rest don’t bother to vote. But that’s as far as it goes. The board has the same status as the board of directors of any company, with the same responsibilities – and a lot fewer privileges. The board is also held to a standard of unity and solidarity. Discussions around issues can get hot and heavy inside the board, but once a vote is taken, the position voted is, and must be, the position of the entire board of directors. The only public dissent possible for board members is to resign, if they feel strongly enough about an issue that didn’t go their way. This is why incumbent board members running for re-election are often more subdued than those running for the first time – including their own first-time campaigns.
Are We Dead or Obsolete?
Let’s be honest. STC has been losing members over the years. Our membership is ageing – myself chief among them. Whatever value we do or do not provide to members, our value proposition is not speaking loudly enough to the younger generations of practitioners. Our organizational structure, the benefits we offer, our general ethos is oriented towards a generation that is retiring and will eventually die off. Cruel words, but I’m applying them to myself.
A big problem we need to face is, how can we, the old farts, create a society that will be attractive to young folks? We’re not in that generation, and we’ll never think like them, no matter how much we might like them, and seek them out. I have been honoured by two nominating committees who proposed the idea of running for Vice President to me. I turned them both down, not because I wouldn’t like doing it, but because I am convinced that I’m the wrong person to lead the society into the 21st century – even though I may be more in the vanguard of thinking than a lot of younger folks.
There is no law that says an institution must survive no matter what. If STC should become irrelevant, it would deserve to die.
Problem: Gatekeeper mentality
Until the advent of the World Wide Web, STC was almost the only place to get information about our discipline. We were the key to professional education. Today, there are a myriad of university programmes that did not exist 30 years ago, and the Web is full of useful information, free webinars, MOOCs, etc.
STC has only one thing to offer that provides an advantage over alternative educational offerings: STC’s information is verified. You don’t have to check out its accuracy, because a committee of experts has already done that. I am referring, of course, to the Body of Knowledge (BOK) that STC has been building for years. In my view, this is perhaps the biggest asset STC has to attract people, and to me, it is not enough in front of people.
My friend Larry Kunz, in a recent post, asked some probing questions about STC’s certification programme and its relationship to the BOK. As pointed out by STC’s Liz Pohland in the comments on Larry’s post, the BOK is not yet complete in all areas that are required for certification. BOK leaders, including STC board member Craig Baehr, and former board member Deanne Levander, are proactively filling in the gaps so that STC certification can use the BOK as its basis.
Certification, however, is not something that there has been a major demand for. It’s considered to be an important part of the offer of a professional association – but it still represents a form of gate keeping. Will the mobile-always-connected-always-on-everywhere generation see a need? Or will they just go around the gate?
STC needs to practice its own discipline a bit better, and become part of the nimble, “agile,” flexible, fluid information delivery that people now expect, and that many of us are producing in our jobs. That means lots of free information (webinars, for example) that acts as a calling-card for more advanced, more formalized courses that people can take on an ad-hoc basis to fill the holes in their own personal learning environments. We can’t provide one-size-fits-all training or certification and expect that everyone will flock to it – but we can take that same, highly useful, highly valuable material, and present it in ways that people really need – it’s not a great leap to do that.
Problem: Time frames
It is fashionable for my generation to criticize so-called “millennials” as entitled, selfish brats. Besides being a generalization with all the inherent weaknesses thereof, this doesn’t jive with research. Most research shows the millennial generation is vitally interested in doing good, in service, and in ethical principles, in addition to earning a good living doing something they love. The only problem for we baby-boomers is, their horizon is a lot shorter: they can’t wait years to have results, they want it in a few weeks. They form communities of interest around an issue, work for a quick result, then disband, only to form new communities of interest around new issues.
STC’s SIG structure was revised this past year via a new policy voted by the board, to facilitate this kind of process. The only problem is, our members – the ones who might want to join a SIG – are not millennials, and some of them don’t like it.
What If We Give Members What They Want – and They Disappear?
Here’s a real dilemma: we should be giving our paying members what they want. But our paying members are ageing out of the association, and we’re not attracting younger ones. If we do things that attract younger members, we risk antagonizing our existing members – you know, the ones that are keeping the lights on.
What’s a board member to do?
One day, all the members we’re pleasing so well will be gone, and so will STC. Unless we are willing to upset the apple-cart.
We’ve created a post of student/new TC liaison with the board, to try and understand better the needs of our younger members or potential members, and how to attract and retain them.
Our new executive committee is younger than we’ve had for some time, and that is also a good sign.
Can they ignite the right degree of creative disruption to change the curve? Will they? Are you, my fellow STC members, prepared to accept that this will happen?
Mind you, creative disruption doesn’t mean being cavalier, either with our members or with their money. We need to be transparent. In my four years on the board, we’ve made great strides towards more transparency. The Year In Review that STC CEO Chris Lyons produces with help from the staff each year is an example.
We’ve been good with the financial stuff, but we’re not communicating our motivations very well.
The danger of a relatively closed group like a board is that we forget that others, outside the board, haven’t been in on our discussions, and sometimes we forget to explain what we’ve done and why, or we only do it reactively, when someone’s got ticked off about something. We’ve had communications screw-ups that have turned assets into problems. And we’ve also had members who didn’t want to hear the explanations but just wanted to complain and accuse.
Following the dictum, “physician, heal thyself,” STC, as an organization, has to learn to both communicate, and to listen, with more sensitivity. That goes for board, staff, and members all around.
Things to be Proud Of
In my four years on the board, much has happened that I am proud of. Here are a few of them:
- We changed our vision statement to treat technical communication as a discipline, rather than trying to define it as a profession.
- With the help of CEO Chris Lyons, we have brought STC closer to financial health than it has been since the 2008 crisis, thanks to serious financial controls, cost cutting, and streamlining of processes and procurement.
- We have institutionalized the Community Affairs Committee (CAC), which acts as intermediary between communities, staff, and board, to facilitate communication and promote healthy communities in a difficult environment.
- We’ve revised the STC Summit in ways that have found favour with the public, democratizing the awards ceremonies, and providing a few highly prized new features such as speed networking.
- In the behind-the-scenes department, we have vastly improved the IT infrastructure, making it more reliable, and have been regularly updating our association management software – and cleaning it of broken customizations – so that service will be more robust. In the process, costs have also been brought down. Most members haven’t seen the results of this yet, but you will.
- We’ve migrated SIG web sites and the BOK to WordPress. Despite some technical glitches and some unfortunate miscommunication problems, maintaining these sites is now greatly simplified.
- The BOK is again being actively developed and will soon become the basis for the STC certification programme.
- We’ve created a student/new TC liaison with the board, as mentioned above.
- The board has reaffirmed STC as an international organization, with plans to develop more flexible relationships outside North America.
The International nature of STC
For many years, I have heard some voices proclaiming that STC should stick to North America and forget about maintaining communities overseas. As a long-time European resident and citizen, and a long-time STC member, including past presidency of the France chapter, I find such a view short sighted at best, suicidal at worst.
Even if your company only has offices in the United States, you are probably selling into other countries, and need to be aware of the standards, regulations, and practices of those companies in order to sell there. The fastest growing economies today are all outside North America and Europe, and we’d all be nuts to not engage with them.
I am therefore pleased that one of my last acts as a board member was to introduce a motion reaffirming our international proactive stance, a motion that was passed by the board. It reads, in part,
The STC board adopts the following policy statement on activities outside North America, and instructs the STC Chief Executive Officer and Staff to implement it.
a. STC members, wherever they live and work, currently work on products destined for countries in South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania, and must meet the requirements of those countries. Some of our members are also located in these parts of the world.
b. In order to serve all our members who work in a global context, STC focuses on two important areas related to technical communication outside North America:
i. STC follows initiatives for legislation and regulation relative to documentation of technological products and other types of technical communication. Whenever possible, STC shall call on members on the ground in those regions for assistance and guidance in making representations to government and regulatory agencies, standards bodies, and supra-national institutions, to defend technical communications best practices and the careers of technical communicators.
ii. STC actively encourages practitioners to become members of STC, and local organisations to become affiliated with STC, wherever they might be found.
The motion goes on to develop the idea that outside North America, we develop affiliations with existing groups, or new groups formed with the intent of affiliating with STC. The idea is to reduce international bureaucracy, and to reduce staff overhead while encouraging STC activity outside the North American continent in a proactive manner.
I urge all of you to hold the board, of which I am no longer a member, accountable for this, and for other actions that will bring STC into renewed growth, energy, and creativity.