Lifelines to the STC

Last week I wrote a post about avoiding extinction as a technical communicator. The basic idea was that you have to keep up with the learning styles, preferences, and behaviors of your users to survive. That often means avoiding the long manual and incorporating more interactive, collaborative, or audiovisual means of instruction.

Almost the exact same argument could be made about the STC and its financial trouble. In case you haven’t heard, the STC’s finances are facing crisis proportions. Unless membership stabilizes, it could go out of business in a couple of years.

Sarah O’Keefe wrote an insightful post about the need for the STC to increase its velocity, community, and openness. Keith Anderson also wrote about the STC issue, pointing out that the problem started long ago, not just with the recession. Both posts got me thinking about the issue tonight.

I agree with Sarah and Keith’s analyses. I don’t necessarily have a solution to the financial problems of the STC. They do seem to be a bit behind the times. For example, two years ago I was excited to learn the website was going to be redesigned. If I remember correctly, it was announced at a conference. But the only difference I can see now is the big blue buttons and the redesigned logo.

News & Notes is still delivered in an email, without the ability to comment. In fact, when the president asks for suggestions to the financial crisis, I would have loved to see an open, blog-like format for discussion. The Twitter hashtag #stcorg was at least a good idea, though.

Intercom, one of the most valued benefits of membership, is still not online in an interactive way. You can’t comment below articles. To see the articles, first you have to log in. After logging in, you see a screen that gives you options to either “manage” or “pay,” and you realize the navigation bar is completely different. After retracing your steps back to the main site and navigating to Intercom, the site template looks different again (which is fine), but when you click Search Articles, you get a blank screen. Fortunately, there is a little search box in the upper-right corner, if you can find it. It’s just a kludgey type of experience.

The live web seminars would be a good service if they were free. I have to admit, I dislike webinars. Registration is cumbersome, the scheduled hour is never convenient, I loathe staring at a Powerpoint on a screen for an hour, the audio is poor, and they cost too much.

I have more than 120 podcasts available for free on my site, touching on practically every topic of interest to technical communicators. The STC seems to have never caught on to the idea of podcasting. Instead, they view the web seminars as a revenue tool rather than a learning tool. If the true purpose were to help educate technical communicators, they would dedicate a podcasting resource to create engaging, regular podcasts similar to the podcasts available from the New York Times (such as Tech Talk, one of my favorites).

I don’t mean to sound like a complainer. I like belonging to an organization, a professional society. In fact, when I made the switch from copywriting to technical writing and discovered the STC for the first time—my local Suncoast chapter—I loved the group. I learned so much from the interactions with my colleagues. It was a solid support network that helped push me further into the industry and see the best direction to go. Without the organization of the STC, I’m fairly certain that close-knit group that gathered regularly would have never existed.

But if the STC were to dissolve, although it would be a tremendous blow to the communities across the globe, the hundreds of tech comm. bloggers would still create engaging content to read. Academics and other authors would still publish books and articles. Vendors would still continue to develop and innovate products. Listservs would continue to flourish. Conferences (though smaller) would still be held. The profession would continue to thrive.

I’ve rambled a bit here. To be a bit more practical, here are a few recommendations to help solve the problems of the STC:

  1. Move to more of a virtual office model, with an office in a less expensive area. Rely on more member volunteers to get the work done.
  2. Convert Intercom to a blog-like format rather than a print magazine. Same with the Tech Comm Journal.
  3. Make the Intercom the centerpiece of the STC site, with a more robust search engine and easy navigation.
  4. Hire a professional podcaster (not me) to create several podcasts a week, made available on the site for free.
  5. Convert News & Notes into an interactive feature of the STC site.
  6. Redesign the STC site using a more interactive, web 2.0 platform. For example, provide more of a social network experience (kind of like the Content Wrangler’s Ning, but better) that appears when you log in to the STC site.
  7. Keep recording the annual conference sessions, but make them available online for free to all STC members. To reduce costs, forget the screen recording and instead buy high-end digital recorders and train the conference staff on how to use them.
  8. Create sophisticated Yahoo pipes or other mashup filters that aggregate online content written by tech comm. bloggers and other authors around the world.
  9. Help members stay updated by holding regular tool training sessions using a service such as Adobe Connect.
  10. Create an stc.tv site modeled after wordpress.tv, where chapters can share recordings of their presenters. Provide training on how to record chapter presentations (either audio or video or both).
  11. Allow members to join all SIG listservs for free as part of their membership rather than restricting it to just one.
  12. Provide a more comprehensive job database, with people actively incorporating jobs from a variety of sites. Allow recruiters to post jobs for free.
  13. Provide more guided learning tracks for the different paths people can take in the profession.
  14. Rather than ignoring it, leverage Geoff Sauer’s tc.eserver.org–the most visited tech comm resource in the world.
  15. Provide resume evaluation services for job seekers.

Overall, I think most of these services should either be free to members or highly reduced (for example, the $79 webinar fee should be more like $5). The idea that information on the web should be available for free is a constant theme that’s hard to fight against. Closing off and restricting access to information, with the assumption that doing so increases member value, seems to run contrary to directions the web is heading.

For example, the New York Times previously tried charging for access to the op-ed columns. Eventually they let go of that model and opened them up for free. The SXSW conference records their sessions and distributes them online for free. Rather than hurt attendance, it seems to increase it. Free is the information economy of the web. Overall, more people would join the STC if they saw the value that it provides. But even when you join the STC, the value you feel isn’t apparent.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

28 thoughts on “Lifelines to the STC

  1. Pingback: In Which I Comment on the STC Issue — MK Anderson

  2. Scott

    Tom,

    Good post. While I don’t have much time for the STC I know a number of technical communicators do. The organization can probably do more, but it’s too rigid to make any meaningful change. In fact, I see the parent organization being moribund, many of the chapters are quite vibrant. They get all of the things that STC.org doesn’t.

    It’s a matter of dinosaurs and gazelles (to borrow an idea from Robert Fripp). The parent organization can’t move quickly enough (as Sarah O’Keefe pointed out), but the chapters can.

    I think that if the STC is to survive, you need to eliminate the parent organization all together and (again, borrowing from Robert Fripp) let the chapters fractalize into small, mobile and self-contained units. Chapters in a region can, when need be, combine into some interesting configurations — regional conferences, pooling of expertise, and the like.

    But I doubt that, or any of the suggestions being made, will happen. What we’re seeing is just another twist in the organization’s long, slow death spiral. I won’t miss the STC if it goes, but I know quite a few people who will. And I kind of feel bad for them.

    1. Tom

      Scott, good comment. I think you’re right about the vibrancy of the chapters, and how they could thrive even without a parent organization. I’m sensing that not many people feel a strong urgency to save the parent organization by contributing more money without seeing significant returns in new value. If the STC increases fees and reduces chapter funds without providing any more value, it will only increase the spiral downward.

  3. Sir Winston Thriller

    I would do away with the annual meetings. Yes, it is nice to see people face to face, but the time and expense just don’t seem to be worth it. Presentations are, as a rule, either elementary or too specialized. The STC needs a new mission, one beside providing secondary employment to members giving the same webinars to the same members.

    1. Tom

      Sir Winston Thriller, thanks for the note. You have a good point about the difficulty of presentations meeting the needs of members. I’m not sure there’s a solution for that. Members will always have differing skill levels, purposes, goals, and needs. With books, at least people can scan for information they need, or choose a book among dozens that best meets their needs.

  4. Andrea Wenger

    I have to disagree with the idea of eliminating the annual conference. The opportunity to network face-to-face with technical communicators from around the world stimulates discussions and ideas that couldn’t be arrived at any other way. Certainly, the presentations could be more relevant (and the abstracts more complete, to give attendees a better idea of what they’re signing up for). But the presentations are only half the value of the conference.

    One of the biggest reasons the conference presentations aren’t as relevant as they could be is that the organizers don’t know what members want (because they don’t ask). They offer several presentation on whatever topics are hot that year, and largely ignore everything else.

    1. Tom

      Andrea, thanks for the comment. I agree that half the value of the annual conference is the networking, not the educational content. But as far as the sessions not meeting the learning goals of the audience, I have to disagree a bit. There are 10 concurrent sessions every hour. Surely one of them approximates what you’re trying to learn, right? Still, I think everyone of us has been in a session we regret. This is why I like that the conference was recorded, so I can listen to the other sessions I missed that may have been more relevant to me but because of poor descriptions and titles, I failed to recognize.

      1. Andrea Wenger

        At this year’s conference, there were some time periods when none of the sessions were relevant to my job or to my learning goals. I don’t work in the software industry, and the conference this year seemed heavily skewed in that direction (even more than in previous years). Anything that related to “design” or “usability” turned out to be about web design or web usability. Yet many of my customers are electrical contractors who may be working on a job site without access to a computer. They need printed instruction materials. Paper hasn’t gone away, and if STC wants to serve all of its members, they need to keep that in mind.

      2. Tony Chung

        This reply is to Andrea, but for some reason the reply link didn’t appear below her comment.

        At any rate, the STC DID ask members what they would like to see in terms of workshops and presentations. Alan Houser posted a topic in the STC Forum to solicit feedback on the 2008 conference, in anticipation of the the 2009 summit. While the question wasn’t asked specifically, there are always ways to ask for what you want.

        I just don’t think enough of us are asking.

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  7. Geoff Sauer

    Good post.

    I’d also suggest that the STC Board consider offering to host STC Chapter/Community websites within domain names such as chaptername.stc.org, on STC’s servers, for an annual fee. At present, each community has to find and pay its own hosting provider, paying quite varied fees (from what I hear), and I can see wildly divergent designs, features, and capabilities from community to community. Some communities don’t have the CMS expertise to host websites with all the features that a vibrant STC International office could provide in a ‘standard’ configuration for communities who wish to pay STC for this service (instead of paying different for-profit ISPs all across the country). And if STC offered the hosting, they might provide common or shared facilities, such as a login for up-to-date STC members, which might enable members of different communities to interact, in ways that are technically quite difficult for local communities to manage today.

    I’m not suggesting that we do this as the STC has (in my opinion, too often) in the past — to have one tech-savvy person choose their personal favorite wiki software and then propose it as the software everyone should use. But if chosen carefully and wisely, STC could offer a valuable CMS hosting service to its active, interesting and useful local communities around the world, and begin to model itself as a service-oriented professional organization for practitioner members. It should not be mandatory — I know of some chapters who’ve built very nice online communities on their own, which I’m sure they’d be loathe to abandon. But it could be one revenue-generating service offered to communities who’d like it.

    Oh, and I suppose I could also second your motion for #14. :)

    1. Tony Chung

      Geoff, technically, there is nothing stopping stc.org from providing subdomains of stc.org to other chapters, regardless of where they are hosted. It’s just a simple matter of adding settings for the different records, or just forwarding the subdomain request to the new domains.

      1. Geoff Sauer

        I’m sorry, Tony — I was unclear. I was not proposing solely offering domain names under stc.org — though, I should say, when my chapter asked for this in 2006 we were told ‘no’.

        I had thought the STC might deploy a CMS on the STC servers which permits hosting of multiple sites with independent administration — such as a Plone or a Drupal. Then each subdomain would actually point to a local instance of the CMS administered by a local chapter or SIG, hosted by STC, with some capabilities then for local chapters to use central STC APIs (for things such as validation of current membership or conversations among/between chapters). This would permit as much or as little connection between chapters as desired, but theoretically far more than we see today. It would permit more ambitious functionality (as any new features would potentially be available to far more STC members than new modules/products installed solely on one chapter’s site would). And it would permit chapters to keep their funds inside the organization, rather than use them to pay for-profit ISPs.

        This would be a value provided by central STC to the chapters, one which scales nicely (needing a smaller cost-per-member the more chapters use the service), and might employ our members’ expertise in content management to permit the whole STC to benefit smaller chapters, which may not have that sort of expertise locally. My thought was that this sort of service might be able to reaffirm the value of a strong central STC to local chapters, and to members.

  8. tommyspoon

    The problem with the conference is the quality of the sessions. There doesn’t seem to be a very good vetting process for ensuring quality presentations. There should be a way for individual presenters to “audition” for the opportunity to present at a conference. Or at the very least the presentations must have been given at least once (perhaps at a local chapter meeting) before the conference.

  9. Mark in Canada

    I used to be suckered into thinking that by being an STC member, I was part of some larger community. Sure. STC is actually a service that I can pay for or not. I choose not to pay for it because I don’t see the value anymore.

    So many articles in Intercom warn technical communicators about not keeping up with the times while STC is guilty of the same thing. I like all of your recommendations but I think STC is going the way of the dodo bird.

    1. Tom

      Hi Mark, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving some comments. I agree that there is some irony in it all. It now almost seems too late to try to introduce a new technology at the last minute to dig out of the ditch.

  10. Curt Hunter

    I have found myself only paying for membership when working for someone who will reimburse it. I never saw the value. No discounts for most pieces, webinars way too expensive, the only useful piece of the web site is the job board, etc. Put all that together and asll of a sudden membership fees = very expensive magazine subscriptions.

    I think when they restructured they focused on restructuring the types of memberships and making the site pretty. It looks OK, but it is not a site I want to visit every day. I think it should be. There should be a reason to visit the STC site every day.

    I want to lik eit and I think until you get more for your money, people won’t saee the value in retaing their memberships.

    Very discouraging and disappointing when the group that you look to for leadership simply comes off as a group that cares more about your money than they care about you or the entire field of choice.

  11. Tony Chung

    Tom,

    Head office sent out an RFP for a company to develop a community platform to integrate with our membership database, and create a virtual facebook, but the members of the technology committee (including me) balked at the estimated cost of developing a MS solution and lobbied to push the open source market to create something similar to sitepoint.com .

    The sad fact is that while we want to use our volunteers to manage these resources, all of us have other jobs that are not being done in order to do the work of our chapters, SIGs, or the overall organization. If head office had a more tech-savvy project manager who understood remote collaboration tools and took a more leadership role in building our virtual teams to keep the different projects on target, then we’d experience less frustration, move forward more quickly, and have less cluttered email boxes.

    For now, the best options we have available for online community building are the STC Forum at http://stcforum.org , the wiki (request an account on one of the forum topics), and now the new Ning groups set up for the Single Sourcing SIG and STC Ideas. These are invitation-only SIGs for which most STC members have already received the private URL.

    1. Tom

      Tony, thanks for the comment. I agree that volunteers only have so much time. I think ultimately, in order for people to devote/sacrifice any of their time, they have to believe in the cause, so to speak. Without that connection and devotion, volunteers will never have any time for any task. Also, the head organization really needs to provide the tools for the people to use.

  12. Glenn Lea

    Good post Tom. I hadn’t realized STC is in trouble. I almost didn’t renew this year due to sticker shock! But the STC conference in Vienna renewed my interest in STC. And this is the point you made above. This distant board in Washington seems out of touch with membership (based on your posting, technically as well), but the chapters are very much in touch. Has STC grown too big? Maybe it needs to be chopped up and have an industry association be the ties that bind. An STC Canada that runs itself. An STC US-East, South, West, etc. An STC Europe-ME-A, and so on. Tekom is already at 6500 members and growing here in central Europe. And its board seems lean. I also agree that STC.org leaves me…well…just leaves me wondering for what my hard earned cash pays? I rarely go there. I agree with your last line:

    Overall, more people would join the STC if they saw the value that it provides. But even when you join the STC, the value you feel isn’t apparent.

    Couldn’t have said it better. I hope the STC board has read this blog posting….for its own good…

    1. Paul A. Bernstein

      In response to Glenn Lea’s posting (June 30, 2009) – I have just posted (11/08/09) the link to Tom’s BLOG (specifically pointing the link out to the STC Board / Staff).

      [Before posting the link and commentary to an STC Ning closed list - I hadn't read any of the 25 comments to Tom's original blog-posting. I now see that a number of "bloggers" that frequent the "I'd rather be writing" BLOG will also pick up on this, my first posting to this list.]

      In my posting (to the STC Ning Ideas List), I took the liberty (I hope you don’t mind-Tom!) of quoting from Tom’s original post i.e. ” ….if the STC were to dissolve, although it would be a tremendous blow to the communities across the globe, the hundreds of tech comm. bloggers would still create engaging content to read. Academics and other authors would still publish books and articles. Vendors would still continue to develop and innovate products. Listservs would continue to flourish. Conferences (though smaller) would still be held. The profession would continue to thrive…..

      The STC Chapters in Europe (and Israel) do collaborate, and personally I’ve been involved, for example, in being part of the Team organizing a Convention in London (2006), and have attended Anniversary celebrations and smaller conventions in Paris (France Chapter) & Munich (TransAlpine Chapter). STC now also has a EUROPE SIG (Special Interest Group) to which I belong.

      The STC as an umbrella organization can offer more value to its members outside the USA, but in order to do so, it has to be more cognizant of the needs of its International Members. A number of significant changes need to be introduced to prove that there is added value in being a member of an International Professional association, as opposed to belonging to and supporting more “local-cohesive” self run entities.

      Maybe an STC Canada, STC US-East, South, West, etc. Europe-ME-A – or maybe even returning to a more refined Regional Director-Sponsor management approach – which seemed to have worked well for the STC in the past?

      In any event, I suppose we’ll just have to see how the current STC crisis plays out and is either resolved or………

  13. Glenn Lea

    ..one more point. The membership and activities of the STC are a repository of a vast amount of information. Yet none of that is available on the STC website, even in the membership area. The magazines are stuck in a very unfriendly portal so I can’t be bothered even to read a magazine I am paying for in my subscription. If every member took an account of where they obtained their professional skills and knowledge, how much of it would actually be from the STC.

  14. Dave

    A few must have adavanced their career or got jobs in the name of STC. Now, all this hoopla seems to be over.

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