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Leadership and change in technical communication

Sixty years ago, Captain Grace Hopper of the United States Navy had just invented the compiler, which was a software package that enabled computers to understand natural programming languages like COBOL. Given the impact of this invention, you could say she was the foremost computer scientist of her time. Now machines and human beings could communicate with each other. Even so, no one in 1953 would have known that twenty-five years later, the beginnings of the Internet would take shape, nor would anyone in the 1970s predict the marriage of broadband Internet and mobile devices that we have now.

That’s the technical side of change: technology moves so fast that we’re modest about predicting five to ten years out, let alone sixty years. Now let’s look at the human side. Grace Hopper was trained as a mathematician. She joined the WAVES as a reservist in World War II, and over forty years later, in her eighties, she was still an active leader and mentor in her field. Meantime, in the 1970s, Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College to start Apple, and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft. They each became technology leaders, as Grace Hopper had been. No matter what the pace of technological discovery, you don’t see change that affects people without technology leaders.

So why, in light of supercharged technical evolution, do the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose”? The historians translate that as, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We’ve all seen that at companies where we work: the company’s managers want to embrace the latest new thing because it’ll make the company a better place to work, because it’ll increase profits, or because it’ll make the company more competitive, whatever that means. There’s a rollout, lots of talk about how the new technology is going to solve our problems, make it easy to communicate, help us do our jobs. Getting people excited replaces real work.

Yet  we know that real change in human organizations happens on a smaller scale: people improvise, they make small improvements with what’s in front of them. The pace of organizational change looks incremental for each individual, and most individuals like it that way. On the good side, those small steps build up fast, with positive effects for companies that recognize the value of incremental change out in the trenches. For companies that don’t manage change well, huge changes can occur in the marketplace that catch companies unawares, or stepping off the wrong foot. Ask people who worked at Digital Equipment Corporation, Polaroid, Kodak, or Research in Motion about how hard it is to make organizations change.

So let’s take a look at how these processes of technological and organizational change affect our profession:

  • First, we know that the tools we use to create content, and to publish content, will continue to evolve, rapidly.
  • Second, we know that some organizations will adapt to these changes, and profit from them, more successfully than others.
  • Third, we know that leadership is a key factor in both types of changes – technological and organizational.

If you have people like Grace Hopper, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates around, you will see things happen. If you have leaders who, at bottom, don’t want things to change, you will see frustration and trouble. Leaders who, at bottom, don’t want things to change often see themselves as managers, not leaders. And they’re right, they are managers. Grace Hopper said, “You lead people, you manage things.” She added that if we could clear the administrators out of Washington, we’d be much better off.

Where does that leave us then? We know that to be a good leader, you have to know what you are doing. You have to be good at what you do. We, the people in this room, know the capabilities of our writing and publishing tools better than anyone else. Moroever, we know what processes work best with these tools. We’ve all felt some frustration when we see that organizational processes lag behind the tools technology has given us. We want to take full advantage of the technology, to become as effective and productive as possible. But organizations can be stubborn, sometimes stubbornly static. They may think they are changing. Nevertheless, we know we can ignore the truth, if the truth is too elusive or unpleasant. Organizations can do that, too. They may think they are changing right along, until they find it’s hard to make money, and they have to go out of business.

In the end, we’re the best leaders of change in our own field. We can’t know with certainty what the tech comm world will be like in sixty years, because we don’t know what leaders will emerge, or what they’ll do. When a leader shows us something is possible, we run with it. When we discover we can communicate with machines in a language both machines and people can understand, a revolution begins. A similar revolution is underway in the way we publish information. The designers and leaders among us ought to push for breakthroughs – breakthroughs that might have as much impact for communication as the compiler, the Internet, or the iPhone. We should think of ourselves as those leaders: wise, skillful people who can marry vision, people, and technology.