October 2012
By Tony Self

Tony Self is Director for Training for TCTrainNet. Based in Melbourne in Australia, Tony has extensive experience as a technical communicator and trainer. He holds a PhD in semantic mark-up languages and is the author of The DITA Style Guide.


Certification – a pathway to professionalism

To be truly professional, technical communication needs formalized training, certification of competency, and ongoing professional development opportunities. TCTrainNet, tekom’s international training and certification program for technical communication, has been created to provide such a pathway to professionalism.

In theory, to become a technical communicator, all you need to do is visit your local quick print shop, and order 100 business cards with “Technical Writer” printed under your name. This is not illegal, as far as I know, in any jurisdiction in the world. You don't have to be a member of a professional association or a union, you don't have to do any study, you don't need any government authorization, and you don't have to pass any exams.

My dictionary describes a profession as “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”, but there are other meanings, many of which have a cultural basis. A professional engages mainly in administrative and intellectual labor, while by contrast a tradesperson engages in manual labor. Sometimes, professional may refer to a white collar worker, while tradesperson indicates a blue collar worker. The distinction is to do with social class.

For many professions and trades there are government regulations that help define the occupation. A medical doctor has to be qualified and registered. An electrician has to be qualified and registered. A builder has to be certified. A police officer has to be trained, tested and sworn in. If there are no government rules defining an occupation, employers apply their own standards. Some universities require their lecturers to have higher degrees. Some accounting companies require their accountants to be certified and have their skills updated annually. It tends to be unskilled occupations, such as cleaning, data entry, bar tending, and fruit picking, for which certification is not the norm.

In some countries with established and entrenched university education for technical communicators, such as Finland, the occupation is very professional in most senses of the word. In other countries, the lack of education and training has seen technical communication being treated more like an unskilled occupation than a highly skilled profession.

Interestingly, practicing technical communicators around the world would all like to see themselves as professionals – as members of a recognized profession. Many technical communicators do seek out education and training courses, earn themselves recognized qualifications, and join professional associations. But many do not have access to training, qualification, and certification.

For the professionalism of technical communication to be raised, we need greater access to training, and certification standards. This would not only help individual communicators, but also help employers to employ competent and qualified communicators (and to avoid those who have just visited the quick print shop).

In her book The Rise of Professionalism: a Sociological Analysis, Magali Sarfatti Larson lists the defining characteristics of a profession as having:

"a professional association, cognitive base, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control... (and) code of ethics... and high standards of professional and intellectual excellence."

Larson also suggested that professions have a more extensive group allegiance than other occupational groups.

Applying this to ourselves, to be truly professional, technical communication needs to have:

  • professional associations such as tekom, STC, ISTC, TWIN, FTI, etc.
  • standards and agreed best practices
  • formalized training through universities, training providers, and professional associations
  • certification of competency
  • clear definitions of what technical communicators do
  • a code of ethics
  • ongoing professional development pathways
  • professional pride

To its credit, tekom, the German professional association for technical communicators, has made great progress in working towards greater professionalism. In the English-language domain in particular, there is still much to do. Under the tcworld banner, tekom has developed two extremely important services: formalized training, and certification. These services are being promoted as TCTrainNet.

TCTrainNet offers three levels of certification: first level, advanced level, and trainer level. Training for the first level is all online, with students guided by an experienced online trainer. Training for advanced and trainer level certification is more like coaching, with a trainer helping the student develop skills through self-study, learning activities, tasks, and group work. The tekom certification exams are conducted separately from the training, to assure the integrity of the certification process.

A pilot group of students has already completed the training programs of TCTrainNet, and there are now tekom-certified technical communicators working in many countries, from Poland and Britain to Japan and India. The next development by tcworld will be further low-cost pathways for ongoing professional development that will also help develop the group allegiance and professional excellence identified by Magali Sarfatti Larson.

For more information about TCTrainNet, please visit www.tc-train.net.