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Technical documentation in Canada

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J.S. 2005. Technical documentation in Canada. p. 219–232 in: J. Hennig and M. Tjarks-Sobhani (eds.), Technical communication—international. Today and in the future. Schmidt-Römhild, Lübeck, Germany. Tekom-Schriften zur Technischen Kommunikation Bd. 9. 264 p. ISBN 3-7950-7020-1

[A German translation appeared as: Technische Dokumentation in Kanada. p. 236–251 in J. Hennig and M. Tjarks-Sobhani (eds.), Technische Kommunikation—international. Stand und Perspektiven. Schmidt-Römhild, Lübeck, Germany. Tekom-Schriften zur Technischen Kommunikation Bd. 8. 284 p.]

General and historical

Meaning and image of technical documentation

In Canada, as in the United States, "technical communication" has traditionally been taken to mean technical writing, which itself has referred primarily to the production of user and reference manuals for computer hardware, computer software, and a variety of other "technical" products developed by engineers. In the past few years, however, both working professionals and academics have begun to recognize that our field has a far broader scope than this limited traditional definition acknowledges. For example, some technical communicators work with lawyers to ensure clearer communication of complex legal concepts, whereas others develop instruction sheets to help medical patients understand surgical procedures or medication regimes.

In fact, it could be argued that any field that has a recognized body of practice and a language of its own (a jargon) could be considered "technical". Rather than limiting the scope of my discussion, I've chosen a broader definition of "technical" based on the word's Greek roots: techne refers to an "art" that represents a specific body of practice and comprises its own language and skills. (This etymology lies at the origin of the phrase "standards of the art" used in engineering.) Similarly, I've chosen to interpret the "communication" part of the phrase as any exchange that transfers information from its originator's head into the minds of an audience that must transform that information into knowledge or action. The medium of that change can be graphical or textual or auditory, and it can be online or on-paper or even oral. ("Oral" media include the work of those who perform technical training in the workplace, as well as the work of teachers at all levels in the educational system.)

As is true elsewhere in the world, technical communicators are not well known to the Canadian public. Most Canadians only recognize our role when they grudgingly use the documentation that accompanies technologies such as computers, software, and consumer products, or when they must deal with the complexity of legislation or the data sheet for a particular medication. Because the situations in which our audiences use technical information and sometimes even the act of consulting a product's documentation are often stressful, these audiences are rarely in the best frame of mind to judge our efforts. As a result, technical communication doesn't have a particularly favorable image to those few who actually know that our profession exists. Canadian technical communicators have considerable work ahead of us to publicize what we do, and explain why it's an improvement over what came before.

Historical information

Based on my broader definition of technical communication, it's clear that our profession's roots in Canada date back at least as far as the first maps of the eastern Canadian coastline by French explorers. Jacques Cartier, who visited our shores in 1534, 1535, and 1541, produced some of the first of these maps (www.sunysb.edu/libmap/cap1.htm). In the following century, other maps were created, including those of Samuel de Champlain around 100 year later (e.g., www.sunysb.edu/libmap/img2cap.htm). Older maps of "Vinland" created by the Vikings and European fishing fleets undoubtedly exist, and it's likely that Native Americans had their own maps, but these European maps are the ones that have been left to us in good condition and with documented pedigrees. Such maps clearly qualify as technical communication because they were intended as visual aids to guide navigators through the complex process of navigation: reaching our shores safely without running aground on the reefs and other obstacles that could bring the journey from overseas to an abrupt halt. Within a couple of centuries after Champlain, French and British mapmakers had surveyed most of Canada. The Public Archives of Canada includes collections of maps dating back to 1719 in its collection (www.collectionscanada.ca/02/020154_e.html).

Even the journals of explorers from this early era might be considered to be a form of technical communication, as many of them provide important technical information on how to reach important areas of the continent, and even how to communicate with the inhabitants. These latter aspects of the journals foreshadow some of the problems modern translators face. For example, one of the more widely accepted origins for the name Canada is that those Europeans who first used the term mistook the word kanata, a Huron–Iroquois word meaning village, for the country as a whole. By the late 20th century, technical writing in Canada fell into several broad categories that resemble the categories used elsewhere in the world, such as the laws of the land and treaties with other nations, aerospace and heavy-equipment, financial and insurance, research, computers, or high-tech.

Professional associations

The main professional association for Canadian technical communicators is currently the Society for Technical Communication (STC, www.stc.org), which dates back to 1957, when the Society of Technical Writers and Editors was founded from a merger of the Society of Technical Writers and the Association of Technical Writers and Editors, both of which were founded around 1953. STC took on its current name in 1971. Although primarily an American institution, STC has always had a strong international presence. Based on the statistics for 2003, there are more than 2000 members in Canada, divided among 8 of the society's 150 worldwide chapters. In 1997, STC held its 44th annual conference in Toronto.

Several other international organizations dedicated to professional communication are active in Canada, of which the largest is probably the Professional Communication Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-PCS, www.ieeepcs.org); IEEE-PCS has held three of its conferences in Canada (1984 in Winnipeg, 1994 in Banff, and 1998 in Quebec), all chaired by Ron Blicq. Other well-known organizations also have a presence in Canada; these include the International Association of Business Communicators (www.iabc.com), the Usability Professionals Association (www.upassoc.org), the International Society for Performance Improvement (www.ispi.org), the American Medical Writers Association (www.amwa.org), and the Council of Science Editors (www.cbe.org).

Homegrown organizations devoted to technical communication are generally smaller, but quite active. The Editors' Association of Canada (www.editors.ca) is perhaps the best-known of these organizations, but translation associations are also quite active; these include the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (www.cttic.org) on a national scale, and provincial organizations such as Quebec's Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés (www.ottiaq.org). Quebec also has its own French-language society devoted to professional writing, the Société québécoise de la rédaction professionnelle (www.sqrp.org/eng/societe_raison.htm). The Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (http://io.uwinnipeg.ca/~agoldric/CATTW-ACPRTS/CATTW.html) is active at the university and college level, and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Other resources of interest related to technical communication in Canada can be found at the Eserver Library (http://tc.eserver.org/dir/Canada).

Specialist magazines and conferences

No one specialist magazine is published for Canadian professional communicators, though STC and IEEE-PCS publish both peer-reviewed journals and a range of magazines and newsletters for their members. For example, STC's journal Technical Communication (www.techcomm-online.com) is published four times per year, their magazine Intercom (www.stc.org/intercom/) is published 10 times per year, and the society's many special interest groups (www.stc.org/sig_links.asp) all publish their own newsletters, as do individual Canadian chapters. Similarly, there is no one specialist conference that is held for technical communicators, though most professional communications organizations hold annual meetings, several of which have been held in Canada. STC's annual conference is probably the largest and best-known of these meetings, but it is by no means alone.

Legal aspects

Technical communication has no specific legal status in Canada. Because Canada is officially a bilingual (English and French) nation, the federal government is legally required to make much of the information it produces available bilingually, particularly in larger cities, in Quebec (whose population is primarily French), and in regions such as New Brunswick and northern Ontario where there are substantial French communities. A description of the relevant legislation, which first became prominent in the early 1970s, can be found on the Web site of the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages (www.ocol-clo.gc.ca/legislation.asp?Lang=English).

Quebec's own language laws, which were developed in the latter half of the 20th century, were designed to protect and enhance the use of the French language within a North American community in which more than 97% of the population claims English as their first (and often only) language. These laws place considerable constraints on the use of English in the province; for example, the English version of technical information such as software documentation cannot be released before a French version is available to Quebecers. Unfortunately, in its efforts to redress the historical neglect of French rights in Canada, the legislation goes too far in the opposite direction in many cases. Moreover, unlike in Europe, where multilingualism is considered an asset, Quebec has not opted to emphasize and embrace the benefits of bilingualism. This will inevitably change as Quebec's economy becomes increasingly international and pragmatism begins to outweigh domestic political considerations. Already, the strong translation and localization industry focused on meeting the needs of French Canadians is looking abroad for other markets in which to apply its expertise. More information on Quebec's language laws can be found on the Web site of the Office Québecois de la Langue Française (www.olf.gouv.qc.ca/english/charter/index.html).

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), implemented in 1994, has supposedly made it easier for Canadians to work in the United States. The U.S. Department of State's Web page (http://travel.state.gov/visa/visa_1750.html) provides details. Although the application process is relatively straightforward, there's anecdotal evidence from several Canadian technical communicators that obtaining the necessary TN visa isn't nearly as simple as it should be under the treaty. Moreover, the visa must be renewed regularly, which is inconvenient at best. Most technical writers planning to offer their services in the United States find it easier to do so through an employer willing to handle the paperwork for them, or choose to work with American companies over the Internet, thereby avoiding the necessity to travel and deal with immigration requirements. I'm not aware of any strong trend towards Canadian communicators working in Mexico, and thus haven't investigated this aspect of NAFTA.

Although Canada is not a litigious nation, particularly when compared with the United States, some employers are beginning to demand that their technical communication contractors, whether independent or incorporated, acquire liability or "errors and omissions" insurance before they can bid on contracts. This is particularly true for governments and large organizations, which often award all contracts through a central purchasing agency that requires such insurance as part of the standard wording in their contracts. Because most of the work performed by technical writers must be reviewed and approved by their employer's or client's subject-matter experts, the risk of professional liability is relatively low, and it's often possible to persuade a client to waive the requirement for this insurance. But this may not continue to be possible for much longer.

Research and training

Research into technical communication is being carried out in Canada, and research results are being published in peer-reviewed journals such as STC's Technical Communication and IEEE-PCS's Transactions on Professional Communication. Although undergraduate and post-graduate programs in technical communications are not nearly as common as in the United States, many Canadian universities and colleges currently have or are in the process of developing programs in or related to technical communication. These include Algonquin College, Capilano College, Concordia University, Durham College, École Nationale d'Aerotechnique, Fanshawe College, George Brown College, Grant MacEwan College, Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology, Malaspina University-College, McGill University, Mount Royal College, Red River College, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University, St. Lawrence College, Université de Sherbrooke, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and York University. Formal technical communication courses date back at least as far as Algonquin College's course, which began in 1974.

Because there are no formal certification requirements, Canadian technical writers require no formal academic credentials, though as is the case elsewhere in the world, "credentialism" is increasingly common. Canadians can still embark on a career in technical communication from a variety of other fields, such as journalism, English literature, engineering, and scientific research, but this will gradually become more difficult as more degree programs in technical communication become fully developed and become better known in the workplace.

Tools

Canadian technical communicators overwhelmingly use some version of Microsoft Windows as their main operating system, though small but vocal groups continue to use the Macintosh and Unix platforms. The choice of operating system constrains the communicator's choice of software to some extent, though certain key productivity software (e.g., Web and desktop publishing tools) is available on both the Windows and Macintosh (and sometimes Unix) platforms. The following software currently accounts for the majority of the demand for tools:

Although single-sourcing (the production of multiple communications products from a single source) is a hot topic of discussion, few technical communicators actually use this approach in their daily work. SGML is very important in some industries such as aerospace, but XML is probably more common outside those niches and will become increasingly important because the investment in tools and training is much lower than for a full implementation of SGML. Moreover, the inclusion of XML capabilities in the latest version of Microsoft Office will undoubtedly speed the adoption of XML technologies in Canada, as elsewhere.

The market situation

Companies that hire technical communicators range in size from small, local firms with fewer than a dozen employees to huge multinationals such as IBM, with thousands of employees. Federal and provincial governments also hire large numbers of technical communicators, particularly in departments that perform scientific or other forms of research. There is also a thriving community of people who work as self-employed independent contractors ("freelancers"), either because this is their preferred form of employment or from necessity (as is the case for the hundreds of communicators who were laid off when the telecommunications industry experienced massive economic problems at the turn of the century). Many companies employ a mix of full-time employees and contract workers.

Technical communicators may be assigned to any of a range of departments. Larger employers and employers whose primary product is information (e.g., scientific research institutes, technical trainers) may have dedicated technical communication departments, but other companies integrate their writers and editors within other departments such as software or hardware development. Because technical communication in North America is still maturing as a profession, there is no standard approach to determining where communicators fit within an organization's hierarchy. This seems to be more a matter of personal preference among managers or the result of bureaucratic habits ("it's always been done this way") rather than a decision based on a knowledge of the "best practices" in a given industry.

Organization of work and specialization

One of the more nonsensical debates that affects the Canadian technical communication community mirrors a similar debate in the United States: whether a technical communicator should primarily have advanced skills in the tools used to produce documentation and other information, or whether writing skills are more important. This particular debate arises because employers who are ignorant of our profession look first to the tool skills and only second to the communication skills; communicators who face this kind of job market naturally enough begin to focus on tool skills. It's obvious to anyone who works as a technical communicator that advanced communication skills are crucial to success in this profession, but in today's highly computerized workplace, the ability to master the tools of the trade is also very important. The ideal candidate has mastered both communication skills and the tools used to achieve that communication, but in my experience, this kind of dual expertise is relatively uncommon. The result is that the profession is somewhat divided among those who are expert tool users and those who are expert communicators.

Another debate involves whether specialization or generalization is more important and useful to communicators and their clients. There are clear advantages to specialization, because mastery of any skill requires considerable time and practice to achieve. There is also a perception—which has considerable justification—that those who claim to possess many skills will not be expert in any one skill, as evidenced by the saying "jack of all trades, master of none". Larger organizations and those that recognize the value of technical communication often hire a range of specialists (e.g., both writers and editors), whereas smaller organizations or those that cannot afford specialists are more likely to hire generalists (e.g., a writer who also works as an editor). The latter organizations are more common, and Canadian technical communicators often become generalists who "wear many hats" (play many different roles for their employer).

A third debate involves the amount of industry or genre knowledge that is required, versus the benefits of a certain naiveté concerning the genre of communication. (This can be rephrased as the following question: Is it easier to train a subject-matter expert to write, or a writer to become an expert?) Again, this is a false dichotomy. A thorough understanding of the industry in which the communication will take place and of the product being documented is essential to success: the communicator must understand their topic at least as well as those for whom they're writing, and must understand the needs of that audience. But at the same time, technical communicators may succeed best when they're able to forget the depth of their knowledge long enough to empathize with the needs of those who possess less knowledge.

Costs of technical communication

The costs of technical communication fall into three broad categories: the cost of employing a professional communicator, and the cost of producing and distributing the documentation and other communications products that they produce. A third category, the cost of not using a professional communicator, is not broadly recognized by employers, but is perhaps the most important cost of all.

Salaries account for a large portion of the cost of technical communication. Those who employ professional technical communicators generally recognize the value of such professionals by paying them high salaries. On top of these salaries, benefits packages such as pensions and health insurance can easily add an additional 30% to the cost of hiring a professional communicator. These costs are sufficiently high that many American firms have begun investigating the possibility of outsourcing their technical communication activities to countries with much lower wages. India is one such country, and although many Indian technical communicators are unskilled and professionally naïve compared with their North American counterparts, India has a long experience with using English and many Indian writers I've corresponded with are every bit as good as their North American counterparts. This particular kind of outsourcing has not yet become a major trend in Canada, but it is worrisome to many Canadian professional communicators because Canada frequently follows American trends, though with a delay of several years.

Paper costs fluctuate dramatically from year to year, but in recent years, have risen substantially. This has led to equally substantial increases in the cost of producing printed documentation, particularly in industries such as computer software where short product-development cycles and rapid product obsolescence generate a requirement to update the documentation frequently—perhaps as often as every 6 months in some industries. The costs of updating and printing the documentation with each new product release quickly grow prohibitive, and the cost of errors (e.g., reprinting a manual or printing error notes to accompany the documentation) can be high. Moreover, postage costs have risen continuously over the years, and where 10 years ago the diskettes in a package weighed nearly as much as the software's manual, the ubiquity of CD-ROMs has made the manual the single most expensive contributor to postage costs.

These issues are far less significant for durable consumer products such as refrigerators and microwave ovens, which can be expected to last for many years. But for other products, such as software, these costs have driven many companies to move an increasing proportion of their product documentation online, in the form of online help systems and technical support Web sites. This form of documentation eliminates the production and distribution costs that make printed documentation so expensive, but don't affect the portion of the cost created by the salaries of those who write and review the documentation.

The third type of cost arises from not using a professional. As is the case elsewhere in the world, there are few compelling studies that demonstrate the value-added by technical communication, and thus, our profession (like technical support departments) is largely regarded as a cost center because it has easily assessed costs but benefits that are harder to quantify. The contribution of communication to a company's profits can nonetheless be quantified: it comes in terms of such easily measured parameters as reduced calls to technical support departments, increased customer satisfaction, and sometimes even increased sales. (For example, PC Magazine awarded it's "editor's choice" designation to the Zone Alarm firewall software rather than its competitors in large part because of the product's superior documentation.) Yet this value is not broadly recognized or well quantified, in part because few managers have the time to conduct a formal benefits analysis of the value of technical communication in their specific workplace. Thus, we have much work to do to convince Canadian employers of the value of our work.

Income

The Society for Technical Communication has been surveying its members to determine various salary statistics for more than a decade. The oldest Canadian data I was able to obtain were for 1995; the most recent were for 2003. In Table 1, I've presented summary data for all levels of responsibility (from beginning writers to the managers of departments), all levels of experience, and all industries combined. This obviously conceals many of the interesting details, but nonetheless presents a useful overview of the trends. As Table 1 indicates, mean salaries have grown significantly (by an average of C$1700 per year) over the past 8 years, and although the mean wage gap between male and female communicators has, on average, decreased only slightly during this period, wages at the highest end of the scale are now roughly equal for men and women.

Table 1. Salaries of Canadian technical communicators from 1995 to 2003 (values not adjusted for inflation).

Mean salary (Canadian $)

1995

2003

Mean

44 322 (55 950)

58 190 (75 900)

Women

43 354 (54 960)

57 590 (75 700)

Men

46 278 (59 000)

59 460 (75 200)

In addition to their salaries, salaried technical communicators receive a range of benefits. More than 90% receive health and dental benefits; in addition, 90% receive disability benefits, 77% receive life insurance, and lesser percentages (to a minimum of 50%) are reimbursed for memberships in professional societies, for tuition, and for attendance at professional conferences. On the whole, these benefits have remained stable or have improved over the period covered by the surveys. It's important to note that unlike the situation in the United States, Canada uses the model of "socialized medicine", in which most medical expenses are paid for by the provincial governments. This means that the health benefits primarily represent supplementary coverage for medications and services such as dentistry that are not covered by provincial health plans.

Given the relatively low cost of living in most parts of Canada, these figures suggest that many technical communicators are treated by employers as a valued resource and are well compensated for their work. However, it's important to note that the data that support this conclusion don't present a complete picture: they were gathered exclusively from STC members, and are primarily for employees rather than for contract workers or sole proprietors. They may thus represent an overly optimistic picture compared with the overall community of writers, editors, and other communicators.

Prospects

Much of Canada's high-tech sector was decimated by the economic meltdown that struck the Internet and telecommunications sectors during the early part of the 21st century, and this sector is only slowly recovering. Fortunately, this part of the technical communications economy is only the most visible aspect of our profession. Scientific communication remains strong at the federal and provincial levels and at universities, and the government sector continues to employ many skilled communicators. Given that Canada has a highly educated population and a knowledge-based economy that is gradually overtaking the country's traditional resource-based economy, it seems likely that technical communication has a promising future in Canada. However, to achieve this future, Canadian technical communicators will have to work hard to promote our profession as one that requires considerable skill and expertise. This effort must be accompanied by efforts to improve knowledge of our profession among potential employers, many of whom still believe that our skills are limited to the ability to type fast and format text.

Now that technical communication is a formally recognized academic discipline in the United States, undergraduate and post-graduate degree programs are becoming common across Canada, and employers will increasingly seek out employees who have attained a formal education in our field. Although it's still easy to find work in technical communication based purely upon one's skills and previous work experience, it's quite likely that the presence of an academic degree will become a checklist item for employers. As this process accelerates, many of the certificate programs currently offered will mature into more rigorous undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

Other future developments will likely mirror those in the United States, but with a slight delay before the American trends become equally prominent in Canada. For example, the ongoing debate over the value of certification may eventually lead to the development of unofficial bodies that provide certification for those who seek it; freelancers and other self-employed workers may be particularly eager to promote certification as a means of making themselves more marketable, as is already the case with translators. It's doubtful that this certification will achieve formal legal recognition similar to that afforded to accountants (CPA), foresters (RPF), doctors (MD), and engineers (P.Eng.) any time soon. Nonetheless, the certification program offered by the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council provides a good model for what may come to pass: this certification is still optional for translators, but is recognized by an increasing number of potential clients, who treat the certification as a measure of professional competence.

There is an ever-expanding need for skilled communicators, particularly in the context of the steadily increasing complexity of Canada's social, technological, and work environments. The profession is increasingly recognized as important to the success of many endeavors, from the sale of technology to the implementation of government policy, wages are increasing, and job opportunities are expanding. Moreover, as Canada's economy becomes increasingly international, there will be opportunities for communicators who are already skilled at working in a bilingual environment such as Quebec to apply these skills in the multilingual global environment. Closer to home, our experience dealing with American culture and technology makes Canadian technical communicators well suited to help international companies penetrate the American market. Our profession clearly faces a bright future in Canada.


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