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June 19, 2009

Whither STC?

As you may have heard, STC is in a financial crisis. According to the board of directors meeting minutes from May 5, 2009 (PDF, page 2), STC must retain membership “for the next year or STC will be out of business in two years.” There’s a lively discussion on Twitter under the #stcorg hashtag.

For example, Bill Swallow (@techcommdood) wrote: “From STC I want innovation, education, and communication. Right now I get advertising, magazines, and frustration. #stcorg”

STC itself has requested feedback via private email, on Twitter with the #stcorg tag, and on a “private online forum.” I appreciate the idea, but I prefer to share my thoughts here, where anyone can read and comment on them.

According to the June 18 email message from Cindy Currie (STC president), the “unprecedented financial shortfall” is being caused by “the recession’s negative impact on our traditional sources of revenue.” Although it’s certainly true that the recession has caused a decline in membership along with a decline in conference attendance (the biggest two sources of income for STC), the recession is not the root cause of the problem.

The root cause is that STC is not perceived as sufficiently important by its membership. After all, a member could pay $200 for a membership by dropping cable television for a couple of months. Getting rid of cable for a year would come close to paying for conference attendance. It is true, of course, that a few members are in serious financial trouble due to layoffs or reduced income. In most cases, however, I think the member (or the sponsoring employer) has simply decided that STC (or the conference) does not offer enough value to justify the cost.

I have been an STC member for many years, and am an associate fellow. I participate in the annual conference both as a speaker and as an exhibitor. My company is a member of the Corporate Value Program. I have served on a couple of society-level committees and initiatives. This doesn’t make me a typical member, but I think it does give me a fairly broad perspective on the organization as a whole.

I believe that STC needs to make some significant changes in the following areas.

Industry developments are fast and furious, and STC has not kept pace. For the STC conference, generally held in May, proposals are due the preceding summer. I turned in an article for Intercom on June 16, which will appear in the September issue. Chris Hester (@chris_oh) said it best on twitter: “Why pay for a pub when it uses content that was on blogs months earlier?”

STC needs to increase what the military calls operational tempo. Intercom, as many others have said, probably needs to evolve into an online publication to cut down the publication time. This has some significant advantages:

  • Faster publishing
  • Cheaper publishing by eliminating print production, paper, and distribution costs
  • Ability to publish more often

There is concern that putting Intercom online (and, by the way, I do not mean in PDF format) would put a dent in advertising revenue. It will. However, my company does not currently advertise in Intercom because we think the rates are too high and the value is not there. I would greatly prefer advertising in an online Intercom. I would also expect those rates to be significantly lower than the equivalent print ad. Providing Intercom online would open up advertising to many smaller companies. Would it be more profitable? I don’t know, but it would be a better, more relevant, publication, so that’s a start.

Similarly, the proposal process for the annual conference needs to be compressed significantly. With nine months of lead time, it’s impossible to provide relevant content. And please don’t tell me “it can’t be done.” Joe Welinske of WritersUA usually evaluates proposals in September/October for a March conference. Germany’s tekom, which is significantly larger than the STC conference, generally requires proposals in May for a November event. Six months is still a long time, but it’s one-third shorter than STC’s process.

STC’s main value is in providing a sense of community for technical writers/communicators. In the past, the organization delivered community through printed magazines mailed to the membership, through local chapter meetings, and through regional and national conferences. As email lists became popular, STC has provided discussion lists for various SIGs, local chapters, and other groups (for example, there is a chapter presidents’ list. Or so I hear).

Today, however, communities of interest are meeting through various social media, and STC has not kept pace. STC should be providing a platform that encourages discussion and collaboration. The obvious template for this is what Scott Abel has done with the Content Wrangler network. STC serves writers; give the writers a place to write blogs, collaborate on a wiki, and the like.

Incidentally, STC Body of Knowledge effort is an excellent example of open collaboration. However, it’s quite difficult to find it from the main STC web site. These and other initiatives should all be under the umbrella. It’s not particularly difficult to set up subdomains so that, for example points to the Body of Knowledge and points to the forums. And so on.

Finally, STC needs to embrace a culture of openness. That means:

  • Provide open access to Intercom and other publications online. Increase the readership, make the publications more relevant, and therefore increase their appeal to advertisers.
  • Provide open access to forums and other collaboration areas. Do not limit them to members only. The STC Single Sourcing SIG recently launched a Ning network (here), but access is restricted not just to STC members but actually to SIG members only. This balkanization reduces the value of the community. Instead, open up participation and build a valuable, must-have resource.
  • Improve member communications and especially focus on giving people a way of letting their voices be heard. The virtual town halls now in progress are a good idea, but the process of getting access is too difficult. I finally resorted to begging for help on twitter and got the information I needed in less than five minutes. Unless there is a compelling reason to lock up information, it should be publicly available.

Change is hard. Transformational change is painful.
I have worked with many of the people in the STC office and in STC leadership, and it’s important to recognize that they are hard-working, smart people. I like them. (One of them is particularly entertaining in a hotel bar at 1 a.m. You Know Who You Are.)

They see the icebergs ahead and are trying hard to navigate through them. The problem is that turning a cruise ship takes time and effort. And, if you’ll pardon the tortured analogy, the larger problem is navigating through the ice field is impossible with a huge cruise ship. The correct answer is to step outside today’s constraints and rethink the problem. Perhaps we should morph into a submarine and go under the icebergs. At this point, we are still discussing whether to make a 5-degree or a 10-degree turn.

The financial problem that STC faces is a symptom, not the disease. Let’s treat the symptom and get through this crisis, but please do not forget about the underlying disease. STC needs more velocity, more community, and more openness.

Update (6/23/2009): Since I published this post, several other bloggers have added their perspectives. Here they are, in no particular order. If I missed your post, please add it in the comments so that readers of this article can find you.