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Cultivating Radical Collaboration in Technical Communication

Overview: At the core of design thinking, making, and social innovation is an indispensable spirit of collaboration. This chapter promotes the “radical collaboration” attribute in design thinking to empower multivocality and diverse contributions in user-centered design. Through a self-study of an interdisciplinary research collaborator)' this chapter reveals the challenges and strategies in cultivating collaboration in and outside of the academy. Following the case study, this chapter presents a set of scaffolding exercises for supporting collaborative projects in technical communication courses. Instructors and students can use these inclusive strategies to design collaboration teams and project workflow. For technical communication professionals, this chapter details the ways in which practitioners can harness the power that diverse perspectives bring to social innovation.

Collaboration in Technical Communication

Unlike most of my friends in the professional circles, my discovery of design thinking was not through software development or UX design contexts. I have instead learned about design thinking from my engagement with an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Minnesota. It was through this multi-year collaboration with researchers, designers, and administrators that I realized the true importance of design thinking. In the previous chapters, I have highlighted the ways in which design thinking as an innovation methodology can support active learning, social innovation, and community engagement. However, what has not been given enough attention in design thinking literature is its capacity for organizing teams and facilitating transformative collaborations. Hence, this chapter seeks to uncover how design thinking can afford human-centered collaboration to support social innovation efforts. Through a self-study of “radical collaboration,” I highlight the facets of design thinking that mobilize teams for interdisciplinary research and design. First, I situate collaboration as an ongoing topic of interest in technical communication and show a trajectory in the field’s discussions toward design-centric methodologies.

In reviewing our field’s literature, Isabelle Thompson (2001) observed that “collaboration as a research issue and as practice seems firmly rooted in technical communication as a discipline (p. 167). For decades, collaboration has been formally taught and studied as a qualitative skill of technical communication. The “social turn” of the late 1970s brought about by writing and communication theorists was largely responsible for the increased investment in collaboration studies in technical communication. Writing studies scholars like Kenneth Bruffee (1984), Anne R. Gere (1987), and John Trimbur (1989) have influenced the early research directions for collaboration in academic and professional settings. Of note is Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s definitive body of work (Ede & Lunsford, 1983, 1985; Lunsford & Ede, 1984, 1986), which was synthesized into their magnum opus, Singular Texts/Pluml Authors (1990). Within the domain of technical communication, our field has seen attempts to capture the behavioral, social, and technological phenomena in collaborative activities, resulting in publications like the special issues of Bulletin of the Association for Business Communication (later BPCQ; Beard & Rymer, 1990), Technical Communication (Bosley & Morgan, 1991), and Technical Communication Quarterly (Burnett & Duin, 1993). Mary Lay (Schuster) and William M. Karis’s (1991) edited collection, Collaborative Writing in Industry, provided additional perspectives and strategies learned from workplace collaborators.

As communication technologies evolve, technical communicators have focused on the influence of tools in collaboration and emerged as experts who facilitate team interactions and manage projects with emerging technologies such as content management systems, cloud repositories, open-source applications, and virtual team participation platforms. As evident in books like Computers and Technical Communication (Selber, 1997), Technical Communication and the World Wide Web (Lipson & Day, 2005) and Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (Spilka, 2010), research on collaboration and technical communication in the early 2000s was primarily driven by the atfordances of the internet and the Web. Instructors were curious if and how digital technologies could better facilitate collaborations. For instance, Paul Benjamin Lowry, Aaron Curtis, and Michelle Rene Lowry (2004) studied emergent collaborative writing technologies and stressed that communication software serves as a mediator of successfi.il collaborations. Organized panels and plenary sessions at various academic conventions like the annual meetings of Association for Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) and Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC) frequently featured pedagogical innovations that leveraged the evolving functions of collaboration technologies.

Given the increased complexity that comes with technologized interactions in the work across branches of technical communication and adjacent fields, there are growing interests for new strategic methods for collaboration that can enhance product quality, improve team member experience, and reduce production cost. Approaches like lean and agile team management methodologies have been widely adopted as an integrated design and development process that yields success. In Lean Technical Communication, Meredith Johnson, Michele Simmons, and Patricia Sullivan (2018) presented case studies in technical communication program administration that demonstrated how lean methods can lead to sustainable programmatic design. In her business and technical communication courses, Rebecca Pope-Ruark (2012, 2014) used agile and scrum methodologies to help students communicate team goals and meet project requirements. It goes without saying, these approaches are becoming commonplace in technical communication programs and are certainly popular in industry practices.

UX consultant Jeff Gothelf (2017) took a close look at these methodologies and revealed their common underpinning values. Gothelf found lean and agile approaches to be informed by design thinking principles. After all, both lean and agile methodologies seek to promote a cyclical design process and support continuous improvement. These processes are actualized by solutions-driven design methods that prioritize rapid prototyping, testing, and iteration. Design thinking is a more pertinent framework for collaboration with its emphasis on human- centered design as a governing principle. It augments lean and agile methodologies with a focus on empathy and participator)' design methods where the users’ voice can be represented more prominently in the design outcomes.

Design thinking also confronts conventional ideologies in disciplinary collaboration. In “What Can Design Thinking Offer Writing Studies?”, Jim Purdy (2014) contended that design thinking approaches challenge scholars to consider partnerships with those outside the “written word” tradition, and justify interdisciplinary collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaborations can open doors to new concepts, amended methods, and even new subfields that respond to modern needs. For technical communication, design thinking can take the already interdisciplinary profession to a new level of collaboration. In the following section, I discuss how design thinking provides a mechanism for productive collaboration while empowering collaborators to make meaningful contributions to their projects.

 
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