2012 austin stc how non-writers write


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A presentation to the Austin STC, 4/24/12.

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  • I ’ m an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas, Austin. My research involves conducting workplace studies: going into a workplace, observing people as they work and interact, interviewing them, gathering copies of the texts and tools they use, and building a comprehensive picture of how they circulate information. I ’ ve written two books (above) and several articles about these studies. Currently, I ’ m interested in how changes in technology and in organizations have been changing how people produce and circulate knowledge in loose organizations. I ’ ve been examining nimble organizations in Austin.
  • This presentation is based in part on an article I published two years ago. Why am I still flogging an article I wrote two years ago? Because it’s such an interesting case study that I want to tell the world about it. At least I think it’s interesting – and I think you will too.
  • First, let’s get some background. This case study involves some really interesting changes in how we write, work, and organize. Think about the many changes that we have seen in recent history.
  • Let ’ s think in broad strokes. Futurist Alvin Toffler argued in 1980 that we have gone through three “ waves ” of major change in human history. Public domain, Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179136302/ Public domain, Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179077779/ in/photostream/ CC, Rod McLatchy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ rodbotic/2479178443/
  • In the first wave, we became an agricultural society and for millennia most of our work was agricultural. Public domain, Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179136302/
  • In the 18th century, we began the second wave, the Industrial Revolution, and until the mid-1900s industrial work dominated. Public domain, Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179077779/ in/photostream/
  • But, Toffler argued, since the mid-1900s we have been in the third wave: we have become a knowledge society and the most influential work is knowledge work. Remember, these are broad generalizations, but they ’ re still useful for thinking through some of the changes we ’ ve seen. Because we certainly have seen changes. Knowledge work has taken an increasingly large share of the developed world's economy in the last century. By 1980, the information sector grew to 46.6% (Beniger). By 1994, traditional (agricultural and industrial) work has shrunk to only a sixth or an eighth of the workforce - the rest of the workforce is engaged in service and knowledge work (Drucker 1994, p.6). CC, Rod McLatchy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ rodbotic/2479178443/
  • But these changes aren ’ t all. Each form of work has its own logic and form of organization. To get agricultural work done, you have to establish hierarchies that direct labor on a mass scale. To get industrial work done, you have to create and leverage markets. To facilitate knowledge work, it helps to establish networked forms of organization: relatively independent workers in fast-changing, recombinant organizations.
  • Toffler predicted in 1970 that work would be reorganized from departments to projects, attacked by transient teams of specialists: knowledge workers, people whose job was to produce and analyze knowledge rather than to grow or make things. In these loose organizations - these “ adhocracies ” - cross-functional teams change in composition and their leadership shifts during different stages and different projects. Each unique project requires a unique set of specialists.
  • In such adhocracies, knowledge isn ’ t pinned down in a specific field or factory. Although knowledge work affects those too: farmers use GPS and inventory control databases now, while factories are reengineering processes and sharing information electronically. Even in the more traditional kinds of work, they ’ re feeling the ripples of these new capabilities. Public domain, Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179136302/ Public domain, Library of Congress, http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/2179077779/ in/photostream/ CC, Rod McLatchy, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ rodbotic/2479178443/
  • Peter Drucker didn ’ t use the term “ adhocracies, ” but he was familiar with the trend of specialists who focused on knowledge work. He argued in 1993 that if we ’ re to enable those workers to work most effectively, we need to help them apply knowledge to knowledge - that is, to be better able to manage and support their own processes. Examples might include the project management systems and collaborative tools that emerged throughout the first decade of this century. Work is increasingly textualized. It turns out that these changes also impact writing.
  • In technical communication, we’ve noted some significant changes that are related to changes in work organization. For instance, I’ve been working with Eva-Maria Jakobs at the University of Aachen to describe a phenomenon we’ve both noticed in our studies. “Integrated writers”: that is, people who don’ t consider themselves to be professional writers, but who nonetheless have to write quite a bit for their work. They ’ re on the rise: as we shift to knowledge work, more work is textualized, so more of us have to manage textual processes and integrate writing into those processes. Examples include engineers, general managers, accountants, and health technologists.
  • Related, Jakobs and I have both seen many instances of integrated writing, in which products are automated, then customized to create specific value for a given customer. As sociologist Manuel Castells pointed out, increasingly, products are automated and mass-produced, but then customized at the end of the production process to create specific value for a given customer. Think in terms of documentation that is customized for a specific company. Integrated writing is on the rise because of various factors – beyond the fact that writing has become easier to automate. [read]
  • So let’s examine these issues through a case study – the case of “ Semoptco, ” a web marketing company in Austin (not its real name). How does Semoptco work as an adhocracy, and what does it have to do with integrated writers and writing? These questions were not on my mind as I began this study of search engine optimization specialists at a web marketing company. I was interested in how they managed their projects. But it’s all related, as we shall see.
  • What ’ s SEO? The definition is above. When people want information, they increasingly turn to Google and other search engines to get it. “ White hat ” SEO is a way to identify people ’ s queries and use legitimate techniques to make your site rank high in the search results. “ Black hat ” SEO, aka “ snake oil, ” has the same goal but uses improper techniques.
  • For example, say you want to plan a trip to Disneyland, so you Google “ hotels near disneyland ” . You probably won ’ t click through more than a couple of pages of results. So businesses want to promote their sites to the top of the search results. And you, the customer, want the most relevant results. Everyone wins!
  • But SEO is sometimes associated with “ snake oil, ” underhanded tricks such as hiding white text on a white background. These are improper, and for the most egregious tricks, search engines will de-list the site - the death penalty for a website. See the story on this slide. Semoptco doesn ’ t use “ snake oil ” techniques.
  • I began this study by looking at how people managed projects at Semoptco. Here’s a basic idea of what the study involved, as well as my five participants (all pseudonyms).
  • It turned out that project management was relatively thin. Basically, Semoptco has a pool of SEO specialists and a smaller number of account managers. When a new customer comes in, a 2 or 3 person team is assigned. For launch, they follow a four-week set of basic milestones in which they assess the client’s current web presence, compare it to the web presences of the client’s competitors, and develop a set of objectives and a strategy to get there. After the client approves the objectives and strategy, they go into maintenance mode: the SEO specialists work as “ lone wolves ” to improve SEO and to continue setting goals. But here ’ s the thing. In this industry, things literally change every day. Search engines tweak their ranking algorithms, other sites attract links, news items can change the results. And SEO specialists don ’ t get a formal education. There ’ s no college degree in SEO.
  • What’s more, it turns out that these SEO specialists write an astonishing amount of text.
  • Semoptco’s SEO specialists were integrated writers. In fact, they wrote an incredible amount: Up to 10-12 complex 20-page monthly reports in the first ten business days of each month. That works out to approximately 200-240 pages in 10 days. In addition, they also presented to clients monthly, corresponded with clients, corresponded internally, built links, and engaged in many other forms of writing. But none saw themselves as “writers.” Really, they just wrote to maintain the process.
  • The process looked something like this. See all the writing these non-writers do? [discuss] And it changes all the time. That’s because the landscape of SEO changes all the time. It’s always in flux.
  • So let’s take a look at this flux – and how Semoptco remained flexible enough to respond to it.
  • SEO is a customized service within a fast-changing space. Each customer has specific, customized needs. Writing about Internet businesses, Manuel Castells emphasizes these characteristics of innovation, customization, and fast-paced production. And so does Stacy, the account manager quoted here.
  • But beyond the customization aspect, SEO involves a lot of other contingencies. Search engines change their algorithms. Breaking news items can push down results. Competitors are also optimizing pages. New technologies, such as new SEO tools, might change how specialists do things. New SEO techniques might emerge. It’s too much change for any one person to absorb. So Semoptco had to organize adhocratic teams to execute flexibly, to customize, and to innovate. It did that with loosely organized teams - lots of them.
  • Project teams, consisting of an account manager and 1-2 specialists.
  • Apprenticeship teams, in which more experienced people mentored less experienced ones within their departments. These were not about commanding or assigning, these were about showing people the ropes. Halfway through my study, SEO apprenticeship teams were replaced by ...
  • Support teams, which focused on formally coordinating the work of SEO specialists. A senior specialist would coordinate with and mentor junior specialists - but coordination didn ’ t mean control, because the senior specialist did not function as a manager.
  • Then we have Functional teams: all people within each department. Departments maintained contact and shared general knowledge, such as new techniques, challenges, and tools they discovered. They told each other how the landscape of SEO changed.
  • Values teams were teams drawn across all departments to enact three general values of the company. They pulled people out of their specialties and put their general qualities to work on different company-wide challenges.
  • Finally, the Taco club: Otherwise unassociated people from different departments met on Wednesdays to eat breakfast tacos together - and to get to know each other.
  • These many teams or networks formed an aggregate network in which everyone knew everyone else and a little about their specialties or capabilities. They functioned in a nonsupervisory context, overlaying the existing department-based supervisory hierarchy. By enabling workers to form new associations on the fly, the aggregate networks allowed for flexible structures and loose organizations within the company. It ’ s like an incubator for adhocracies.
  • But wait, there ’ s more. Since specialists had to constantly customize their customers ’ websites for different searches, they sometimes had to draw on resources outside the company to generate the best solution. For instance, Daria was working with a team that was trying to optimize a medical site aimed at doctors. What keywords would this kind of customer search for? Daria didn ’ t know, but she knew how to find out: By probing her personal networks OUTSIDE the organization. Similarly, she was always trying to figure out the terminology that customers might know. Carl also looked for specialized search terms – in this case, by examining search analytics originating in England.
  • That brings us to integrated writing, in which products are automated, then customized to create specific value for a given customer. Semoptco’s search specialists had to make sure this happened during their process – and during their innovation cycle.
  • Castells draws a distinction between self-programmable and generic labor. [explain] But self-programmable labor is often turned into generic labor. Once you solve a problem – especially a textual problem – you can often routinize it, then either automate or outsource it. Think in terms of creating a form or survey to gather information that you used to interview people for. It turns out that Semoptco’s specialists turned self-programmable labor into generic labor – constantly.
  • Let’s look at just a few examples. The texts in the left column involve considerable operational discretion: Specialists determine how to construct them and what they involve. They ’ re not rigidly formalized. The ones in the right column are: they ’ re automated, involving no operational discretion after setup. Predictable inputs yield predictable outputs.
  • (Read quote) This is the sort of thing an SEO specialist does when developing a new comparison table or formulating unique recommendations. These operations can ’ t be - or haven ’ t yet been - automated or formalized.
  • In comparison, (read quote). These are tasks that can be formalized and therefore outsourced or automated. Think of the entirely automated report cards - or for that matter, the unskilled interns who were typically tasked with social bookmarking.
  • Semoptco’s specialists worked constantly to make their self-programmable labor generic. They searched for new SEO tools. They developed new tricks and techniques. They developed templates and standards. They innovated constantly – and their innovation was focused on making their work more generic so that they could automate or offload it, and thus open up more time for other hard problems they had to solve. Remember, they were handling 20 clients each! So the reports they wrote were generated through a complex set of generic processes, but then customized to yield unique value.
  • As I mentioned earlier, this is a snapshot of the process, but the process changes constantly. They pile on more innovations, make more work generic, and in doing so, build more capability into the integrated writing that they do. So how do these all fit together?
  • Like this. [read] In Semoptco ’ s contingent, rapidly changing environment, idiosyncratic solutions quickly spread across the specialists ’ networks, becoming shared resources – instantiated in templates and previous reports, programmed into the BRILLIANCE system, worked into the social bookmarking and tools that people use. As we examine professional writing in increasingly automated environments, I expect that we’ll see more and more examples of integrated writers and writing. That is, we’ll see more examples of how “non-writers” write, and more examples of how writing is both automatically generated and customized.
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