The flexible workforce–friend or foe?

While I was perusing Facebook this late afternoon, I saw a post from someone who is an adjunct instructor where I teach. He’s also been an adjunct at other places, and also held more full-time teaching positions at various schools, both at the secondary and higher education levels. He posted something that he saw from LinkedIn that showed that there were a LOT of adjunct instructor positions open in New Jersey (where we are both located). He was puzzled as to why.

My first thought was that the next semester will be starting in about two months, so I’m sure that schools are now scrambling to find instructors for certain courses. But it was my second thought that made me think that either I’m a bit clever or I’m on to something here with the economy.

My second thought directly relates to what’s going on in the tech comm industry, and it seems to be pouring over into higher education, from the looks of it. This is what I mean specifically: right now, a good part of the tech comm industry work availability is based on gigs and a gig-based economy. There are very few full-time, employee jobs for technical communicators these days, unless you hit the employment lottery. I’m sure there are a lot of tech comm’ers who will back me up when I say that most of the time, it’s a matter of us going to consulting contract to consulting contract, anywhere from a few weeks to a couple years, but never as an employee (except perhaps to a recruiting agency). Some people like being able to jump from job to job, but I’m sure there’s a good sized segment of us that don’t feel that way, and wouldn’t mind the security of something longer term and permanent employment (for as much as that’s worth these days). For example, I’m currently in a situation where I work for a recruiter, but they employ almost the entire department that contributes to the work, and each “employee/consultant” is considered a “freelance consultant”, meaning that they will assign you work that is project-based, not X hours per week. The company that employs the recruiter has this as “flexible staffing”, meaning they bring on or drop consultants as they need to do the workload they have. That works great for the company, as they only need to pay for what they need. The recruiter benefits, because they are still getting money in. It only benefits the consultant in that they work the hours they are available. If you are trying to get full-time work, it’s only available if they have that much available for you. It’s good when you have to make doctor’s appointments or take a day off because of a conference, but not so great for job security.

Now look at adjunct instructors. In my mind, universities and colleges are doing the same thing. Instead of trying to bring in more full-time staff, or even true part-time staff, they bring in “consultants”, AKA adjuncts, who can teach the courses, but don’t pay much for the many hours that they put into a course, even if it’s one class. If they don’t need the adjunct for the next semester, they drop them. If they need them, then they hire. I see this possibly happening as more people are not looking into academic careers as they are not well-paying and don’t have the same benefits as using their expertise in the private–or even public sector, depending on the job. It’s flexible staffing on the university level. I’m sure it’s a way for a university to save money, but long-term, just like in the “real world”, I don’t know that it’s a great solution. It doesn’t help the university when it comes to continuity for the curriculum and the strength of a department’s program, just as it can be precarious with many hands and no governance that happens in industry. I feel like I’ve seen this before, and now I’m seeing again.

In either case, the “flexible staff” is doing the same work as someone who’s permanent, but without all the benefits and job security. Again, that might work on a business level, but it doesn’t always work well on a human level.  It’s a precarious position to be in. Why would someone even take these “flexible” staffing jobs if they aren’t so great? Well, it’s the difference of being employed–even if it’s for a short time–and being unemployed. That’s why. Something instead of nothing is sometimes the only choice available. I know it has been for me for a long time.

What do you think? Can you think of any other examples? Am I seeing something that isn’t there, or am I, indeed, onto something that is a reflection of our economy and the way anyone does business anymore? (I don’t think it’s a good trend, by the way, if you can’t tell.) Include your comments below.

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How do we determine the bounds of digital literacy?

Yes, you are seeing this correctly. There’s a blog posting from me. No need to double-blink in disbelief. I am still alive and well. I don’t always get much of a chance to write here because I’m busy! One of these days, I’ll try to catch up with what’s going on with me, but in summary, I’m busy teaching a technical editing class at NJIT, working a part-time gig for BASF, working a “freelance contract” with a pharmaceutical company as a digital content strategist, and working my tail off for the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter as president, conference chair, sponsorship chair, and competition chair.  Not a lot of time to come up for air these days!

But as I do have a short moment right now to put these thoughts down, I thought I’d start this conversation, because it is a frequent topic that comes up again and again in all the things I’m working on these days.

Where are the boundary lines what constitutes digital literacy? Just like a person needing to know how to read and write, we live in an age where almost everything is done digitally these days.  You can’t do a lot of what you used to be able to do on paper or manually. You call a toll-free helpline, and you are most likely to get an automated chatbot responding to you before you can even get to a real person. Credit cards use chips increasingly more than the magnetic strips, or even use Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, or the like. To get help for anything, most people go online to find answers through browser searches.  So where’s the line of what’s considered digitally literate and digitally illiterate?

I bring this up because I often get into discussions about what is acceptable and user-friendly UX, and what’s not. I usually follow the tech comm mantra of “know your audience”, so many of the audiences I have to deal with aren’t necessarily the most digitally savvy bunch. I’ll argue to include something to make interactivity with the site more apparent, whereas others will argue that it’s not necessary.

I also wonder about people who still can’t figure things out like social media, or GMail or Google Drive, or things like that. These have been around for a decade–or more! There are other apps and sites that have also been around for a long time, and people still have no clue how to begin to use them (and it’s more disturbing to me when it’s someone who has to either work with digital on a daily basis, write for digital, or is teaching digital).  Now, some may argue that it’s a generational thing, but I don’t agree. I know people who are my parents’ age (into their 70s) who have a better clue than I do about how to use digital, and are very good at it. And then I know people younger than me who have no idea how to use word processing or a simple spreadsheet. It runs the gamut.  Digital has been a part of society for at least the last 30 years, and there isn’t anybody who isn’t touched by it these days. Those who don’t adapt fall behind. Digital is pretty much everywhere, and it’s even easier to use now than it was in the decades before.

Case in point: I recently had to go for my yearly eye exam. My optometrist is still scheduling in a paper book, does her bookkeeping in a paper book (the receptionist writes out receipts rather than prints them out), and most of the records are still done solely on paper. Additionally, they don’t have an up-to-date database or access to one to look up insurance information. I was told that I didn’t have certain kind of coverage, but when the place that I got my glasses (a different place than my doctor) looked the information up, I did have the coverage. Why? They could access the information online more easily.  While it seems old-fashioned, my doctor is actually severely behind the times, and she’s going to have issues keeping up with more modern practices soon enough. She complains that there’s no software that meets her needs, but she doesn’t know that no software will meet ALL of her needs, and she needs to work with a vendor to customize things as much as possible so that it WILL meet her needs.

I also had to deal with someone for whom I had help them sign onto Google Drive and Gmail. I’ve told this person many times how to do it–in writing, no less–and they still can’t figure it out. I don’t think it’s my instructions, as others have used the same instructions without any issues. I think part of it is a conscientious mental block that person puts up, because they don’t want to learn.

So, this is why I ask…

As a society, we put great emphasis on the basics of learning how to read and write. Same thing for understanding the basics of mathematics. So what’s the functional literacy level for using digital? I will grant you that understanding how to use digital has evolved over time. But there’s a point where, even as technical writers, we need to be promoting better ways to be literate. For example, if you are on a webpage, and you see text that’s in a different color or especially if it’s underlined, wouldn’t that tell you that it’s a hyperlink, and it’s going to take you somewhere else or open another window? Then why do we still have text like, “Click here to view the video” instead of “View the video”–or better yet, if the title of the video is mentioned in the sentence, just hyperlink the video title? This is especially true when it comes to writing for mobile, as you can’t “click” on something, just as you can’t “tap” on a desktop/laptop interface unless you have a touch screen.  This is an example of something that’s incredibly basic, yet there are those who still don’t get it.

So how do we define the parameters of being digitally literate versus being digitally illiterate in this day and age? I know I have my own ideas, but I would like to hear yours.  How would you define these parameters? Include your comments below.


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TaxoDiary – Taxonomies in Information Science

TaxoDiary – Taxonomies in Information Science
— Read on

Thanks to CJ Walker for posting this on LinkedIn.

This is a big part of my job right now, and this is an excellent way to clarify the difference between what a thesaurus is and taxonomy is. Taxonomy really is about the organization of the content so that the hierarchy makes sense.

Another analogy that I’ve used–which I got long ago from Val Swisher of Content Rules is how one can organize a closet. You can put the pants together, the shirts together, and the jackets together, but you could put all the red clothing together, all the blue clothing together, etc. Neither way is wrong, as long as it makes sense and others can follow the flow.

Except with me these days, it’s more about pharmaceutical departments and procedures. Still, even with those topics, we need to scale it back all the way to what are the objectives of the website we’re building, and how do we structure the website so that users can find what they need quickly and easily. Start with the foundational basics, and build from there.

I highly recommended this article if taxonomy isn’t your strength. It shows that it’s not as hard as it seems.


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Good writing always gets you ahead.

Captain Picard has a lot of editing to do with ipads around him everywhere.

Even Picard knows that if you don’t have good writing and editing, things fall behind when you have a lot of editing to do.

I’ve been job searching again, as my last contract ended about a month ago. I’ve had some ups and downs in the last month, to say the least, but finding the next gig is always a priority (even though I said I was going to take the summer off). I’m still doing a few hours here and there of freelancing, but it’s not paying the bills, so the search goes on.

But as I’m working on coming up with a curriculum for the technical editing course I’m slated to teach at NJIT this fall, and following a phone interview with a recruiter for another job, it occurs to me that good writing and editing has always been a mainstay in my career, even before I got involved in technical communications.

The first job I had that involved writing was as a consumer affairs representative for the company that makes Arm & Hammer products. Part of the job was not only taking notes about the consumer calls, but also answering written inquiries. Now remember, this is in the days before the web, so phone calls and letters were all we had, but they kept us busy! My department had several form letters that we could use for the most common correspondence we’d get, but now and then, we’d have to customize one of those form letters, or write a totally new letter. I was often told, as a kid fresh out of college, that I was a good writer, and my letters usually didn’t need as many tweaks as the others in my group.

Fast forward to the job that launched me into looking at technical communications. I was working as an application specialist at a huge philanthropy/non-profit. My department used instructional design techniques and technical editing to review grant application processes, and help those writing the grant applications and review processes to turn those paper processes into digital processes. I’d have to check for grammar, sentence structure, make sure that instructions were clear to elicit the responses that were expected from those using the content management system. I didn’t know the terms “instructional design” or “technical editing” or “content management” at the time, but figured them out later when I got laid off from that position, and decided to go back to school to do…something. I was often praised by my manager that I understood grammar and knew how to make the correct edits better than my predecessor, and we bonded over Oxford commas.

And to think, I wasn’t even an English major! But I always liked learning languages and I always did well with grammar lessons, so it seemed natural to me.

Fast forward again to now. Many of the jobs that I’ve applied to in the past few years or so have involved my ability to write and edit. Some of those jobs were earned, and I had to show that I could write and edit, and I did successfully. I had done very well in graduate school in my technical editing class, and now I’m working on revamping the curriculum for the same class which I’m about to teach this fall.

These days, it seems like good writing and editing is going by the wayside. Digital writers depend too much on spell checker and grammar checker to be caught by their word processing or editing software, when that’s only a tool to help catch the obvious mistakes. I don’t know how many times I’ve checked and double-checked a document and found mistakes that spell checker did not find. Those tools on common software can’t find sentence structure phrases that would be unfamiliar to a machine doing translation to find turns of phrase that aren’t found in other languages.

As I continue my search for the next big thing I’ll be doing, I’m realizing that my attention to grammar and language has been a boon for my career, and if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s something that’s so simple and starts at a very young age while still in elementary school. For those who make arguments about evolving language and grammar, and advocate that emoji are part of written language, I disagree. Straightforward language, but written and spoken, has always helped me in my career, and I suspect that it will continue to help me going forward. Technical writing and technical communication beseeches that we use a solid foundation of good language skills, as it is a requirement for those in the field to do our job properly.

If you usually don’t do much authoring or editing, it would be worth taking a refresher course. I think the STC sometimes provides great ones online. In these days of digital writing when no one is properly checking content, it’s worth the time and effort to make sure that you have the skills to do what software or a machine sometimes can’t do.

What do you think? Include your comments below.

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STC-NEC Interchange 2018’s Keynote Speaker: TechCommGeekMom

Nighttime image of Lowell, MA
Well, this will be a first!  I’ve been invited to be the keynote speaker for the STC-New England Chapter’s conference, Interchange, this coming fall–October 26-27, 2018 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Interchange is one of those regional conferences that I’ve wanted to attend, and to be invited to speak as the keynote? Wow! I’m truly honored.

They first asked me if I was interested actually when I was in the midst of CONDUIT 2018 this past spring. To say the least, I was surprised. Me? Keynote material? Then I thought, hey, why not? I’m sure I can figure out something to talk about in a half hour (I have until October to figure it out now–possibly sooner).  I know that the STC-New England Chapter is hard at work to ensure that this is going to be a really good conference, and worth the trip north in the fall! I’m looking forward to seeing my STC friends from New England, and meeting some new ones.

If you are interesting in checking out this conference, go to the Interchange 2018 website for more details. I hope that I will see you there, and please don’t jeer or heckle me while I speak (although some people I would expect it from. LOL)

In the meantime, plans are already underway for CONDUIT 2019. We haven’t pinned down an exact date yet, but it will be in the first half of April, for sure.  I’m in the midst of seeing if we can find a new venue for our little conference. I’ve visited one place that’s excellent–and most of our board’s first choice–but I have to do due diligence in visiting the other places as well that we’ve chosen as finalists, and then doing some number-crunching to see which is the most economical. There will be some big changes for next year no matter where we go, but we are confident that it will be worth it.

In the meantime, go register for Interchange 2018, and I’ll see you there!

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Why we always need to keep learning…

I saw this video on LinkedIn, and wanted to share. I continually tell my son (who is a day shy of finishing his Junior year of high school at this writing) that tomorrow’s jobs aren’t necessarily today’s jobs, so not to worry. Heck, when I graduated high school, there was no Internet, so any web-related jobs of any kind, like a digital content strategist, was not a job.

Watch this–this is why we have to keep learning and growing to be prepared for the next thing.

When I was looking for the original video to embed here, it turns out that this video came out a year ago. Nonetheless, it’s still applicable.

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Chatbots were the next big thing: what happened?

A great bot can be about as useful as an average app. When it comes to rich, sophisticated, multi-layered apps, there’s no competition. Today’s most successful bot experiences take a hybrid approach, incorporating chat into a broader strategy that encompasses more traditional elements.

Source: Chatbots were the next big thing: what happened?

This is a great article that was originally shared on STC San Diego’s Facebook page.

One of the things that often irritates me is that you go to a conference or attend a webinar, and you hear about the latest and greatest technology, and understandably, one gets mixed feelings about hearing about new technology (at least I do). On one hand, you are excited to hear about the latest innovations, and see how new technology has the potential to change things in great ways. On the other hand, it’s new, and it’s scary, and sometimes it’s complicated or deep. Add to that, the possibility of using that technology, for most of us, is still far away because our place of work is still not even to the standards of what’s available today (Windows 8, anyone?)

This article, while a little long, is worth the read, because it talks about those cycles of how new tech or concepts gets adopted, and also shows some great examples of why we shouldn’t fret, because sometimes the technology isn’t there yet.

As technical communicators, the idea of chat bots and AI has been shoved down our throats for the past year or so, much in the same way that content marketing had been for several years before that.  While technical communicators are definitely the people who should pay attention to chat bots, because they have the skills that can lend to making AI a more useable experience, most companies are not there yet, or are–again–forcing something that isn’t ready or sophisticated yet before its time. This article shows that clearly.

We can most definitely be part of technological advances going forward, but more often than not, where we work is not caught up with yesterday’s tech still. While we can help get things caught up, I don’t think the pressure that the industry is putting is necessary. Yes, we should be ready, but it’s not today. It might not even be tomorrow.  Getting panicked about writing for chatbots and such to create natural language and great user experiences are something we should think about now, but most of us are still trying to get our employers or clients to understand how to use social media (and that’s been out for more than ten years already).  Don’t get me wrong–technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, and we should definitely do our best to try to keep up with it or at least be knowledgeable about it.  But we really aren’t ready for it, and that’s okay. We’ll get there. There’s no rush. Better to do it right than winging it and hoping it will work okay.

What do you think of this article? Do you think the push is too hard, or it’s appropriate? Include your comments below.

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