Dr. Tammy Rice-Bailey on Working with Subject Matter Experts

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and I’m glad you’re joining us today for my interview with Dr. Tammy Rice-Bailey, an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Milwaukee School of Engineering. I’ve invited her on the show to talk about her recent article published in Technical Communication Quarterly called “The Role and Value of Technical Communicators: Technical Communicators and Subject Matter Experts Weight In.” In her research she interviewed technical communicators and subject matter experts to find out how they perceive the role of the technical communicator. Long time listeners of the show will remember that we already did a podcast about working with subject matter experts, but I get so many questions on this topic and people seem to struggle with it so continuously that I thought it was worth doing a second episode. I hope you feel the same way.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Alright, well welcome to the podcast Tammy. We really appreciate you joining us today and I’m excited to talk about your new research on working with subject matter experts. And I guess to get started I imagine a lot of our listeners know from experience, but can you talk a little bit about why SME’s and technical communicators might have trouble working together and communicating well?

[Tammy Rice-Bailey] Sure, yeah, and Ryan thanks for inviting me. I think there are few sort of basic reasons that relationship has sometimes fraught with a little bit of, oh I don’t know, maybe it’s very difficult and first one is, that basically we have two different specializations, right? With their own vocabulary, jargons, acronyms, and when you put these people together, there’s going to be at least on some level a bit of a disconnect and the thing that I think really kind of compose that is that there is this issue of roles. So, for the SME or the subject matter expert, it’s really about role expectations, whereas with the technical communicator, it has to do with maybe some role ambiguity. For the SME’s, what happens is I’ve never encountered a SME whose full-time job it was to be a SME. I mean they are-they obviously are professionals who have another day job.

[Weber] Doing the technical thing for which they have expertise.

[Rice-Bailey] Exactly, exactly, and so then working with the technical communicator, is a lot of times, it’s something that’s added onto their day. They don’t necessarily have a lot of time, so they’ve got the time piece, and they may have, again they may just have other conflicting responsibilities or that they’re responsible for. With the technical communicator, sometimes the issue is more about role ambiguity, so the SME doesn’t’ necessarily know why this technical communicator is there and you know what is this person here to do? Are they here to write documentation for me? Are they here to correct my flinging grammar?

[Weber] Why is this person keep showing up at my office? Who are they? What is their purpose right? Some confusion about that role. Well in your research, you looked at that. You’ve got a new article out and it looks at how SME’s and technical communicators perceive their role. So, on the SME end, what did you find? What do they think is the role of the technical communicator?

[Rice-Bailey] They both see the technical communicator as having as hard of, his or her role, this task of seeking information. So finding information, the SME’s also see that part of the role of the technical communicator is actually educating the SME on the role of the TC. So, in other words, “Tell us what it is that you can do for us,” and then adding to that is a lot of the SME’s in my recent study really see the TC as someone who is responsible for building relationship.

[Weber] Okay so and so they are looking for the technical communicator to kind of take the lead, is that what you’re saying? As far as developing the subject matter expert-technical communicator relationship?

[Rice-Bailey] Right, so not only, “Tell me what it is you can do for me or how we can work together or maybe use some of your soft skills so that this relationship can get off on the right foot and that we can continue having a growing relationship.”

[Weber] Okay, okay, so the ball is in the technical communicators court a little bit to-to reach out and develop this relationship, is that-that kind of the finding there?

[Rice-Bailey] Yes that was the finding I had. I think of the initial group of eight SME’s, seven of them said that they say the TC as someone who is responsible for building that relationship, yes.

[Weber] Okay, interesting, anything else? Any other roles or values that they saw in the technical communicator?

[Rice-Bailey] Primarily it was a bunch of writing tasks and yes they have the end user or the reader in mind for the documentation.

[Weber] And then shifting to the technical communicator end, how do technical communicators describe their role and value?

[Rice-Bailey] Well in some ways Ryan they were very similar. So in the sense that the SME’s saw the TC’s as information gatherers, the TC’ s also saw their role as gathering information. The TC’ s though went on to sort of elaborate on that and say that they also saw themselves as translators of highly technical information into something that whatever audience they were writing for. Technical communicators saw themselves, at least many of them, saw one of their primary roles as being an advocate for the audience. What they did not mention as often was this role that the SME’s saw of them, of the TC’ s building relationship with the SME or educating the SME, so that I thought was kind of fascinating that they did not necessarily articulate that.

[Weber] You now that’s interesting. So there appeared to be a disconnect there where the SME’s were expecting something form the technical communicators that the technical communicators didn’t envision necessarily as their role.

[Rice-Bailey] Right, right.

[Weber] So what do you think? What does this research suggest then about how TC’s can work better with SME’s?

[Rice-Bailey] Well I think the primary finding here is that TC’s would really be well-served to go into these relationships. Being able to number one, articulate what it is that they do, what it is they can do, how they can collaborate with the SME’s, but also having a knowledge that there is an expectation on the part of SME’s that they will, that the TC’s will be open to build relationships.

[Weber] Okay, okay, and what are some ways that you could, as a technical communicator, sort of take the first steps in developing that relationship successfully?

[Rice-Bailey] One suggestion that I have, and I’ve actually done it with my students, have them think about what technical communicators do, you know in general. Then think more of how they can help SME’s in their collaborations. So, I have them often times write an elevator speech, which is yeah just simply a thirty second kind of quick intro to what it is I do, and this way they can be prepared when they are in this situation to have to explain what they do

[Weber] That’s great, so it’s sort of outlines, “This is why I’m here. This is what value I add to the company. This is what role I play,” and it helps sort of clarify those roles between the technical communicator and the SME and also starts to build the relationship of, “This is why I’m here. This is what I can do for you,” sort of thing. Is that right?

[Rice-Bailey] Yes, exactly. So, it helps the class clarify that role just as you’ve said. And the other thing that it does do is it starts this dialogue that is really critical in any type of relationship.

[Weber] Great, well that’s a good suggestion. I had not thought of that idea before, but I think that it’s a good idea. I think it’s always important to kind of figure out where SME’s and technical communicators might not be connecting and ways that they could connect better. So, I really appreciate it. I think your research is important and useful for a lot of folks. So, do you have anything else you want to add or anything that you wish we would cover?

[Rice-Bailey] You know there is one thing. I didn’t actually put in this article, but we’ve always heard that a good TC is somebody who has an aptitude for technologies, and in fact the SME’s that I interviewed did mention this, but more importantly than this aptitude was interest in technology.

[Weber] Yeah, yeah, so it’s more important that they care and are interested and excited and willing to learn than the technical communicator already happens to know all the technologies, is that right?

[Rice-Bailey] Absolutely, yes.

[Weber] That’s great too because that is something that any technical communicator can do regardless of their current technological skill, is show more interest and enthusiasm for what they’re writing about and what they’re learning about. Right, so it’s a manageable demand. Alright well thanks so much Tammy. I really appreciate you joining us today and congratulations on the new piece.

[Rice-Bailey] Alright, hey thank you.

[End of Interview]

[Weber] That’s my interview with Tammy Rice-Bailey. I really enjoyed talking with her, but as I was editing the episode, I realized that I should have asked her for sample elevator pitches that her students wrote that they could give subject matter experts to explain the role of the technical communicator. She was nice enough to record some of those pitches and I hope you find them helpful

[Rice-Bailey] Let me give you a couple of examples of elevator speeches written by my technical communications students.

Example 1: I am a technical communicator who works on webpages. I write the content and assist with page layout and design. I also perform usability testing to ensure our page navigation provides a positive experience for visitors to our site.

Example 2: As a technical communicator, I create the online help for computer applications. I spend time reading existing product specifications, becoming familiar with the program itself, and interviewing subject matter experts. Whenever possible I also like to talk with end users to understand their current level of knowledge and specific needs.

[Weber] Thank you for listening to another episode of 10-Minute Tech Comm. I hope you enjoyed it. Please send me comments, feedback, suggestions, or anything else at rw0019@uah.edu, and we’ll be back soon with another episode.

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Episode 28