Sunday, 21 June 2009

Does the STC deserve to survive?

The Society for Technical Communications (STC) is a membership organisation for technical writers and related professionals. It is more than 50 years old, and has been in decline for some years. The rate of decline has now become precipitous, and the economic situation of the last year has added a financial dimension to the STC's ongoing crisis. The Society's leadership has reacted to the financial crisis by inviting suggestions for action from members.

I have been an active member of the STC for more than a dozen years. I have served on the managing bodies of both the Israel Chapter and the UK and Ireland Chapter, where I have served as President and as Treasurer. I am now Co-Manager of the Europe SIG and serve also on a number of Society-level committees. In the past I have been a loyal supporter, and have advocated STC membership for many reasons:

  • STC membership puts you in touch with an international community of tech comms professionals, most of whose members are in the United States

  • STC membership provides you with a peer-reviewed quarterly academic journal

  • STC membership provides you with a regular magazine of interest to tech comms professionals

  • STC membership gives you heavily discounted access to conferences (mainly in the USA)and Webinars

...and so on. This has been STC's "value proposition" - the things that it provides that its members value enough to pay money for.

Recently, I have begun to feel that there is not much value left in STC as it stands today, and it is in need of a radical overhaul in order to survive. I believe that outside the rarefied atmosphere of the STC Board and Head Office, this view is widely shared.

The elected leadership has now invited suggestions on solving the financial crisis. Most of the member suggestions I have seen are about reviewing or changing the Society's core activities, not about saving costs or generating revenue. To me this is an indication of a dangerous disconnect between the deliberations of the elected Board on the one hand, and the concerns of the membership at large on the other. Do Board members not realise that the financial crisis is just an acute symptom of an underlying chronic condition, which is the decline of the Society? One Board member at least has acknowledged the breadth of the problem. Mike Hughes has written that he probably would not recognise proposals to make STC appealing to a new generation of professionals.

Elsewhere, Sarah O'Keefe has summarised the STC's ills by writing that it lacks "velocity", "community", and "openness". This contrasts with the official statements from the STC Board, which imply that all the Society needs now is more money.

In another blog, Keith Anderson suggests that a core problem of STC is that it tries to cater for too many interests, including those of academics and those of professionals. As a professional who is also a part-time academic, I would have to agree that this is problematic, and the result is that STC fails to serve either community adequately.

Many people are contributing to an open debate on Twitter, sending suggestions with the hashtag #stcorg . I have contributed several myself, some of which are expressions of my frustration as a community leader. Here are the ideas I posted to Twitter:

  • embrace the social media technology we champion as professionals

  • provide affordable branded training courses at all levels of the profession

  • provide pro-active support for volunteer local leadership

  • provide excellent service to individual members and local volunteers when they call the office on any topic

  • remember we are a non-profit membership org that needs business-like management, but we are not a business

The unstoppable Tom Johnson has a more detailed list of even more practical suggestions.

As an active and loyal STC member, I have been saddened by the conclusion I have now reached. If STC fails, I don't believe that anything irreplaceable will be lost. Local groups may or may not continue, meeting in person or on the web. The social media tools available now at low cost or no cost make community-building on the Internet almost childishly simple, and show STC to be behind the times. Techcomm bloggers and pundits will continue to write and self-publish articles, while STC publications recycle blog articles that have been in circulation for months. Some conferences will still take place. Outside the USA, other national techcom societies will certainly continue (and within the USA other societies exist as well).

So to answer my own question, does STC deserve to survive: if it can join the current communications game of blogs and wikis rather than email and print; if it can slash its overheads and extricate itself from damaging contractual commitments; if it can establish the kind of zero-based budgeting that it wants to impose on its local communities, and if above all it can make itself relevant and vital to the profession in the 21st century, then of course it should survive. The articles from Tom and Sarah and Keith mentioned above have plenty of suggestions about what could be done to achieve these goals, and I am more than willing to contribute constructive ideas for a revitalised STC, and to continue to commit my energies to them. What we need from the Board is inspiration to achieve them.

But if all the Board wants is more of my money, then I'm afraid I'll be giving a different answer.


Unknown said...

I agree with all your points. As a semi-detached member I sympathise but have to admit I don't care too much: if the organisation folds I'll be abstractly sorry but happy to repocket the hundred dollars or so they ask for - in my case - no benefit apart from some badly-organised mailing list discussion groups, lots of irritating hustings and calls to vote for people I don't know to do things I don't much care about.

Now, I guess this could become an extremely useful organisation, as in 'the world needs some place where science/tech communicators can help one another, advance their art/profession, and find some sort of collective voice.' Maybe it once was.

For now it needs two things: a bunch of enthusiastic elected people who 'get' post-web organisation, and a secretariat/support staff which is small, dispersed and focused on membership benefits.

The Board is going to have to understand and implement this if they care about the future. If they don't, most of us ordinary members will just wander off without regret.

Larry Kollar said...

I started writing a comment, and it grew… so I ended up writing my own blog post in response.

Gordon said...

It's quite common for organisations like the STC to focus inwardly, worrying about the machinations of how they work rather than WHY they exist (for the members).

And sometimes things need to die to be reborn anew with renewed vigour and purpose.