Technical Communication-international: Today and in the Future

The editors of this book requested that colleagues around the world respond to a questionnaire about the status of technical communication in each country. They received information from seventeen countries. The effort was supported by tekom, the German professional association for technical communicators. Unfortunately, as the editors mention in the introduction, they were unable to obtain responses from South America, Africa and Japan. However, the information provided does give one a clear picture of the status of technical communication in much of the world.

While the organization of each chapter was the same, the information available and the level of detail provided for each country varied widely, making it a bit difficult to discern trends and similarities. It would have been helpful if the editors had created a matrix that listed each country and the data provided, such as level of education, salary, availability of professional organizations and so on, to make comparisons a bit easier for the reader. In addition, some context would have been helpful for the statistics. For example, if €2,200 is an average salary in some places, is that high or low for a professional salary in that country? How does it compare to an engineer or teacher with similar levels of training?

Nonetheless, this compilation is extremely valuable to anyone who wants to understand the professional milieu in a particular country or region. It would be useful to academic researchers, businesses looking for opportunities to expand, as well as professionals interested in living and working in another country.

Key points

Several interesting themes arose as I perused each chapter:

  • The definition of technical communication varies by country and region, but the struggle to define the profession and to cogently explain what we do is ubiquitous.
  • The maturity and status of the profession vary significantly by country and appear to be significantly correlated to the availability and maturity of academic and professional training courses.
  • The role of technical communicators tends to be defined more narrowly in Europe and China than it is in North America or Israel.
  • Not surprisingly, the translation and localization profession is significantly more mature in Europe and Asia than it is in the United States, and the technical communication jobs are often commingled with localization/translation positions.
  • The concern about legal requirements and the dearth of consistent, formal standards is ubiquitous.
  • Professional certification appears to be more important and significant in other parts of the world than it is in North America.

Definition of technical communication

Some authors resorted to listing examples as a way of defining technical communication:

“. . . This has traditionally been made by owner’s manuals, service instructions, and other types of technical documentation printed on paper. In addition to that, the technical communicator often participates in the production of educational material, sales information folders, and advertising.” (Sweden)

Others limited the definition to instructions or user documentation, for example, “any instructions for use of a product or service.” (United Kingdom)

My personal definition of technical communication is this: “Technical communicators take complex data and information, then distill it down to its essential elements and present it in such a way that people can make use of it.” But, when trying to explain the profession to outsiders, a glazed look often appears in their eyes when I give them the definition. So, I then end up saying, “I’m a writer,” even though that is only a small part of what I do.

Authors expressed similar frustrations, saying, for example, “In general, people tend to confuse the profession of technical editor with that of a translator, a documentalist, or even an archivist. This confusion is also apparent in the definition of the profession given in the APEC.” (France)

This lack of a cohesive, comprehensive (yet concise) definition of the profession may be at the root of some of the difficulties expressed regarding status and governmental recognition. After all, if we can’t explain what we do among ourselves, how can we expect others to understand it?

Maturity of the profession

In the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Israel and the Scandinavian countries, technical communicators are recognized as professionals, have access to university-level programs that teach technical communication as a specialty, have at least one professional association available, and seem to earn salaries on par with other professionals who have similar educational backgrounds and work experience. However, the lack of standards and uniform certification requirements causes issues in some industries. These indicators show that the profession is moderately mature in these regions.

While Russia doesn’t have a specific category of employment for technical communication, it has a long history of developing and regulating scientific and technical information under the auspices of the State System of Scientific-Technical Information. University programs primarily emphasize journalism.

India is emerging rapidly as a mature market for technical communication, with highly educated professionals entering the market, particularly around the industrial centers, such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. Several universities have begun offering technical communication programs, and the Society for Technical Communication (STC) chapter there is active and strong.

For other countries, the profession appears less mature. Spain, for example, has no university-level program specifically for technical communication, and technical communication is typically done by people without formal training and then only when it’s absolutely necessary. In addition, the Spanish author seemed unaware that most standard software applications and associated documentation are available in Spanish versions.

China is just starting to develop technical communication as a profession. While the Chinese chapter’s author did not mention it, there are several universities that now offer at least one course in technical communication — in English.

Status of the profession

Maturity of profession, recognition by the government as an employment category, availability of training programs and professional associations seem to directly correlate with the status of the profession in a particular country. The exception seems to be Denmark, which despite having the above characteristics, considers technical communication to be a low status profession.

The only way to raise the status of the profession is to increase awareness of the value we bring to the business; to maintain a positive, even enthusiastic, attitude about our work; and to ensure that we ourselves behave like professionals.

It’s interesting that a significant percentage of technical communication professionals feel undervalued. I guess I’ve been lucky because I have not personally experienced this phenomenon, have always been treated with respect and have generally been compensated fairly.

Role of technical communicators

In many countries, the role of technical communicator appears to be limited to writing, editing and sometimes desktop publishing. However, in North America and much of Scandinavia, technical communicators also participate in product design, usability, information architecture, customer service and so on.

Translation and localization

Not surprisingly, the translation and localization profession is better defined and more mature in most countries, except the United States. The reasons for this are several-fold:

  • Translation and localization tasks are more easily defined and typically narrower in scope than technical communication tasks.
  • Europe, in particular, contains a plethora of cultures and languages in a small geographic area. This situation has necessitated a multilingual approach to product design and information dissemination.
  • Most international offices for US-based companies use the English source documentation provided by the parent company and localize it for their market.
  • In the United States, most companies outsource the localization effort to various vendors, and a surprisingly high number of companies are relatively new to localizing their products.

Legal requirements and standards

Increasing legal requirements, particularly in the European Union, are driving the need and demand for cohesive and comprehensive standards. In addition, highly regulated industries, such as the medical and financial industries, require a standardized and consistent approach to documentation. While ISO standards do currently exist, they are all over the place, outdated and often in conflict. Phil Cohen is currently heading an effort, known as Project 11, to update and consolidate these standards (

Professional certification seems more important and conveys more prestige in Europe and Asia than in North America. ISTC, the UK’s primary professional association, and tekom have such programs for their members. The STC has attempted several times during its history to implement certification, but has met significant resistance to the effort.


Technical Communication-international provides a snapshot of the technical communication profession in seventeen countries. This information has the following uses:

  • Assisting academic researchers to identify areas needing further study
  • Informing INTECOM (the umbrella organization for professional associations in the profession) and its member organizations which areas need attention (for example, a clear definition of our profession and recognition by governmental bodies)
  • Providing technical communicators with a greater understanding of the professional milieu in which their colleagues work and live
  • Improving cross-cultural understanding
  • Assisting individuals who want to live and work in another country to understand what they are getting into. M

Kit Brown is the principal for Comgenesis LLC, a technical communication services and consulting company. She has 16 years of experience writing and consulting for the medical, biotechnology, environmental and computer industries, as well as several years of experience working as a consultant in the localization industry. Questions or comments? E-mail

This article reprinted from #78 Volume 17 Issue 2 of MultiLingual published by MultiLingual Computing, Inc., 319 North First Ave., Sandpoint, Idaho, USA, 208-263-8178, Fax: 208-263-6310. Subscribe