December 2012
By Kim Yangsook, translated by Danbi Kwak

Image: © narvikk/123rf.com

Kim Yangsook from Suwon, South Korea, is president of Hansem EUG, a one-stop documentation services company with a 22-year history of providing high-qualtiy user guidance for consumer electronics. She is president of the Korea Technical Communicators Association and is currently working to bring TC training and certification to South Korea.


yskim[at]ezuserguide.com
www.hansemeug.com


 

South Korea - fast facts


Capital: Seoul
Official language:
Korean
Population: 50 million
Currency:
South Korean won ()
GDP, PPP (2011 estimate):
US
$1.556 trillion
GDP, nominal (2011 estimate):
US$ 1.163 trillion
Total export trade volume (2010): US$ 884.2 billion
Internet domain: .kr and
.한국

Technical communication in Korea: The challenge of gaining industry awareness

With a rapidly developing economy that thrives on exports, Korea finds itself in need of high-quality technical documentation, but lacks experience and staff.

Korea has a strong export-driven economy composed mainly of manufacturing industries for electric and electronic products, automobiles, ships and machinery. In fact, Korea joined the Trillion dollar club of world economies in 2004 and has since ranked among the world’s 20 largest economies. In the past – mainly from the 1970’s to the 1990's – the competitive advantage of Korean export items was price. The quality of user guides did not receive much attention.

However, Korea has since restructured its export strategy and the market share of Korean products has risen tremendously on global markets, particularly with regards to high-tech products. As a result, the quality of user guides is being emphasized more than ever before. In order to enter global markets, Korean companies need to localize their products and provide user guides in the local languages. The source text for local user guides is generally written in English and improving the quality of this English source text is one of the greatest concerns that Korean technical communicators are facing.

Raising awareness for technical communication

Although the demand for professional technical communication is high, social awareness of the TC industry in Korea is quite low. Even corporations that seek to earn sales profit from overseas often overlook the importance of professional technical communication and make the mistake of simply hiring a translator to perform a technical writer’s job. Instead of hiring a technical writer who can write an English source text from the beginning of the process, corporations write a Korean text and pass it on to an English translator.

A serious problem arises from this kind of practice: Due to linguistic differences between the Korean and English languages, the text given to translators usually lacks critical information. For example, in the Korean language, a text without a clear subject and object is not only comprehensible to readers who know the context, but is also grammatically correct. Thus, a text that is clearly understood in the corporate Korean culture is sent to the translator, who does not have enough information to go by.

The translator now has two options: He can either try to clarify meanings and contexts by asking or he can just make assumptions. The first option is not as feasible as one might think, because it is not easy to find the right person to ask in the corporation that placed the translation order, and quite often the time and cost constraints leave no room for questions. Thus, the translator might be left with no other choice but to figure it out on his own and take a guess. Imagine the accuracy and usability of a technical document that has been translated without sufficient information.

It seems that the best solution to this problem is to have a technical writer who understands what he is writing about and produces a quality source text in English. However, in Korea there are some problems with this approach as well.

The challenges of recruiting suitable candidates

As mentioned earlier, the TC industry in Korea is still in its childhood. There is no professional institution or organization that teaches writers about TC knowledge and techniques. The lack of social and corporate awareness of TC explains why the number of TC industry insiders in Korea is low. One might suggest to simply hire a person with decent English skills. However, simply hiring graduates who studied English literature is of limited help because such graduates are only familiar with writing about literature and academic papers, but not with writing technical documents. Those who completed their undergrad degree overseas have excellent writing and speaking skills and would therefore make perfect candidates for a technical writing positions, however, they are usually not willing to enter an industry that is not yet very respected in the Korean society.

Let’s assume that Korean TC companies have been able to attract the desirable work force. Unfortunately the problems don’t stop there. The more fluent these technical writers are in English, the more difficult they find it to fit into the industry. They want to take an active part in creating English documents and utilizing their English skills as much as possible. However, the reality is that they can’t demonstrate their ability as freely as they wish to, because almost everything – style, structure, operation system, etc. – is already standardized.

Another problem is, that due to their experience overseas, they sometimes have a problem to accustom themselves to the Korean corporate culture. Familiar with Western cultures, some of these professionals have a hard time adapting to the Eastern work environment. In most Eastern cultures, including the Korean one, the organizational structure is very hierarchical and the relationship between service providers and customers is often vertical. Considering that a technical communicator must collaborate with many professionals at different levels, some Westernized English writers find it hard to get used to the Korean TC industry and, consequently, are unlikely to wait long enough to grow into TC professionals. Let’s not forget to mention that the staff turnover rate for the Korean TC workforce is also high on account of the above-stated reasons.

Building a better future for the Korean TC industry

In conclusion, what the Korean TC industry needs to do is to train technical writers to satisfy the special needs of the Korean market. Trainings must deliver professional TC knowledge and experience to future technical writers. Skilled technical writers should be able to perform the followings:

  • Analyze information of a product and its users
  • Author a user guide that is appropriate and accurate
  • Understand pictures and designs and utilize them to deliver information effectively
  • Be able to learn and use publishing tools
  • Appreciate various and complex legal, cultural, and linguistic issues relating to user guides
  • Have an understanding for localization
  • Be sensitive to the needs and demands of users
  • Communicate effectively with co-workers and collaborators
  • Recommend ways to improve the current system/procedures and persuade the persons in charge

In other words, technical writers need more than just good writing skills; they must have sound TC knowledge. In order to learn TC skills and grow into a professional, one must have authoring experience as well. To raise social awareness for the Korean TC industry, technical writers in Korea must first build up their expertise. To ensure better quality and accuracy of user guides, Korean TC companies might need to build a collaborative system with professional technical communicators who are English-natives. After all, collaborating with native technical communicators will lead to an improved quality of English user manuals, which will consequently raise not only the quality of local user manuals but also the awareness for product, brand and country.

To train English technical writers in a non-English speaking country such as Korea, both manufacturing companies as well as TC service providers need to do their homework. In the manufacturing environment, excellent human resources should be attracted and trained in professional TC techniques and counseled for their careers as technical writers. On the service provider level, the Korean TC industry should work hard to raise and promote awareness and expertise of TC in Korea.