Identifying Legitimate Voices

We get into interesting discussions in my disciplines. I feel like a native in both content strategy and information architecture, yet the two very interrelated disciplines are quite different in some ways.

Content strategy is born from two directions:
* Web content creation, editing and management
* Technical communication, which is even older, but now has a significant web presence

Information architecture has roots in library science, but also very clearly in actual architecture, like buildings. Both of these roots make IA the more academically tied of my disciplines.

My journey began in 1995, when I was lucky enough to work for someone who found this whole internet thing interesting, and who was sure there were going to be good ways for organizations to communicate with their customers/members/patients online. We were building client websites by early 1996, and we ran smack into all the issues that pushed the development of these two disciplines.

So my original calling was as a practitioner of these disciplines. And as an early-years practitioner, it was clear that there were no experts. In fact, working for a small, custom publishing firm in Nashville, as soon as I started going to web conferences and talking to other professionals, I quickly realized that I knew just as much as anyone working for a big brand or agency — which is to say, not much.

But we all learned, and over the years and lots of mistakes, these two disciplines emerged. And I grew to be an expert on a number of things related to my work. Hard-earned, sweat-blood-and-tears expertise.

We call these fields “disciplines,” which is interesting in itself, to me. I wouldn’t say that they are “professions,” which to me implies that you get a degree [MD, JD, RN, etc.] or a certification by some authorizing body [CPA, law license, medical license, etc.], or both. While lots of trade associations like to promote certifications, and plenty of perfectly legitimate folks stick letters after their last name, to me, there’s still a big difference between a discipline and a profession.

We also have another interesting distinction, particularly in IA, and that’s between practitioner and academic. I’m in a master’s program in information science at the University of Tennessee [Lord willing I'll finish in 2014!], and after practicing in my field and related ones for nearly 20 years after my undergraduate degree, I found it very interesting to plunge back into academia.

When you’re a practitioner, you can take any value you like out of academia, and I’d argue the good practitioners do, but you’re most motivated by practical results — thus the title practitioner. Someone who’s practicing. And is practical. [If they aren't, they won't be practicing very long.]

When you’re an academic, you don’t have the same pressure to be practical. In fact, you’re judged on an entirely different set of criteria. Did you publish enough this year? In what journals? How many books have you written? What press? Who reviewed your book? What conferences accepted your papers?

I don’t mean to sneeze on these things as a whole — but it’s awfully easy to get entirely divorced from the practical there. So I would also say, the best academics are motivated not just by the surface trappings of their profession, but by the long-term applicability of their work. The best academics stay in close touch with anyone who can use their insights in a practical way, in a symbiotic relationship that grows the discipline as a whole.

Here’s something else that happens when you don’t have a true certification or degree to practice in a field, however: We don’t have any external criteria to identify experts.

And I see a lot of us looking for ways to identify experts….who has standing to speak for us? To us? What is required of someone to stand up and say, “Listen to me!”

I’ve been weighing these things in my mind lately. I’ve done a lot of speaking the last couple of years, and it looks like I’ll do even more in 2013. And since before I started speaking regularly, I thought a lot about whether I was qualified.

My work is very deep in some parts of my disciplines, and barely surface-skimming in others. I have a hybrid of the kind of experience you’d get working at a large agency and what you’d get working for a large corporation, since my entire career has been spent at two small agencies with long-term customers, and one startup. Who’d be interested in what I had to say? Had I worked for enough major brands? Did my work still have value to the larger community? I didn’t have a master’s or doctorate in communication, information sciences, or human-computer interaction.

But I come down on the side that not only does my practical experience have value, so do my ideas that are borne out of that practice. I’ve given different kinds of talks: Some are how-to, some are motivational, some are what-ifs. A couple have been identifying a problem and demanding a solution that I don’t personally have figured out myself.

So in that light, I’m delighted to have helped with a couple of Cranky Talk workshops, the brainchild of Dan Willis and some other experienced speakers. I participated in a Cranky Talk workshop in Chicago in 2011, and “life-changing” would be an understatement. The idea is that new voices matter and have value, and we all ought to be pushing to be our best when we’re sharing ideas.

And then…Boom. There was a little Twitter chat related to this topic between Dan Klyn and Daniel Eizans yesterday, post IA Summit, [two guys I wouldn't hesitate to call experts], and Dan shared this transcript of Richard Saul Wurman’s keynote at the 2010 IA Summit, which considers the idea of expertise…and stomps it pretty flat. [The transcript is long, but please read it. Really, really valuable.] Wurman says we’re in a world and a discipline that are changing very, very fast, so the idea that we can be “expert” is laughable.

Wow, do I love that.

At the same time, I don’t spit on those who call themselves experts [hey, I've done it!], or those of us who look for experts to help guide us. We’re all the blind men feeling the elephant, and it’s going to take all of us to figure it out. Part of the fun is to hear divergent voices and argue the particulars. None of us can own the discipline alone, but we each have important things to offer.

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