The Culture of No

It’s a brand new day, so it must be time for another STC debacle.

For those of you just catching up, read these:

The comments about this situation on Twitter are also…edifying.

Lots of not-very-friendly responses

I’ve already done my share of piling on. STC has not distinguished itself in the category of public relations in the last 24 hours.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a series of missteps. Some of you may remember the messy business with the STC UK chapter. I’ll spare you the gory details.

Let’s look at a smaller example of poor strategic thinking, communication, and general leadership; a post last week on STC’s blog about the disaster in Japan and how STC cannot help:

For many of us who belong to a professional community such as STC, the line can be blurred between the mission of the organization—to advance the profession and help members advance their careers—and the reason many of us belong to STC—for the personal and professional relationships. At times of crisis in locations around the world, we want to reach out and help. But STC cannot be the mechanism for that help. While STC is a charitable organization, the IRS granted this tax-exempt status only for the specific purposes of the “promotion of the profession of technical communication.” STC is not a charitable organization for humanitarian disaster relief. Therefore STC (and STC communities) cannot collect funds on behalf of another group and funnel them. In fact, to do so could jeopardize STC’s tax-exempt status.

Earthquake, tsunami, disaster…”tax-exempt status.” Please. Is this really the most important thing that the STC president had to say that week? There is, in fact, a tech comm organization in Japan, the Japan Technical Communication Assocation. Would it be possible to reach out to that organization? How about just giving individual STC members some ways to reach out to individuals in Japan?

Another example of the dysfunctional organizational culture is the user feedback site implemented on top of the new web site. Back in November 2010, we have a guest post on the STC blog from Mikah Sellers, a Project Phonix team member:

As the new websites come online, it will be essential to implement a process and suite of tools that enable the Society to continuously capture member feedback on the user experience to learn what features and functionality are providing the most value, and what needs to be improved in order to deliver the desired value.

Sounds harmless enough. Actually, it sounds good. And, in fact, STC rolled out a link to a feedback site called GetSatisfaction. Members promptly went there and provided detailed feedback on the web site. But that feedback is not being implemented or even, in many cases, acknowledged. As a result, there is now a sense among contributors that providing feedback is pointless.

I believe that STC, institutionally, has a culture of No. “No” is the first and often only answer to member questions and problems. (A nonanswer of dead silence is perhaps even more common.) Communication with the membership is broken. The irony of an organization devoted to advancing technical communication that is notably terrible at business communication is hard to miss.

STC must change the organizational culture, and it must do it fast. The organization needs the following:

  • A pattern of making and meeting commitments
  • An improved relationship with the members
  • A willingness to admit mistakes

None of this will be easy or fun. I hope that the current leadership has what it takes. The signs over the last day are not promising.

STC’s mission is to advance technical communication. Here’s what I want:

  • A vibrant online community where technical communicators can exchange information and learn from each other
  • A job board that allows employers to post tech comm jobs and employees to find tech comm jobs
  • A database of tech comm service providers that allows potential customers to find tech comm specialists
  • A public relations/media effort to increase the general public’s understanding of technical communication
  • A well-executed strategy for outreach to non-U.S. technical communicators. For examples of how to do this, see tekom.

Currently, I’d grade STC on these as follows:

  • Online community: F or maybe Incomplete. Promised for the past two years but not not yet in existence.
  • Job board: D-. Exists but is not useful.
  • Tech comm service providers: D-. Exists but is not useful.
  • Public relations: F. Not happening.
  • Strategy for non-U.S. tech comm: D. Recognized as a priority but I don’t see much happening.

Seriously, people. If STC were a college student, he would be sent home to take a semester off. We do not have that luxury. Instead, the organization is making ridiculous excuses for missing deadlines.

The culture of No must go.

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20 Responses to “The Culture of No”

  1. Steven Says:

    …cannot collect funds on behalf of another group and funnel them. In fact, to do so could jeopardize STC’s tax-exempt status…

    interesting. I wonder if all the thousands of churches and other tax-exempt organizations who are collecting money and sending it to relief agencies know that.

  2. Steven Says:

    (the comment engine ate my pseudo-html; that was done with great eye-rolling and slapping of palm to forehead)

  3. Bill Says:

    It certainly is a culture of No. I can’t count how many times I’ve offered assistance and been turned away, and I know of many others who’ve experienced the same. But perhaps more prevailing than the culture of No is the wall surrounding the STC Board and Office. They seem to want to operate in isolation, almost in a momma-knows-best kind of way with regard to the membership. It’s funny, that hit me smack in the face yesterday as Pink Floyd’s “Mother” came up on my Pandora station.

    The things you ask for are certainly not new though. They’ve been echoed before, for years. Things haven’t changed, not with any of the big rebirth efforts STC has launched over the past five years. It’s still very much an organization with an insulated leadership and a community of members loosely held together thanks to the hard work of a few driven community leaders. That’s it. If you look at the feedback members have given over the years, the single most common response is “if it weren’t for my chapter/SIG I’d be gone”.

    As noted in my blog, I’m closing the loop on a few things I’ve been working on with STC and then I’m bowing out. I’m a member through 2011, but that will be the end of it. It’s a pity, because I was really looking forward to MySTC and working with STC to harness the capabilities of the platform to channel community energy and information in support of the Society’s mission, but looking at the situation now I can’t help but see this as a sharp upward battle with STC all the way.

    It’s sad that the members seem to have more drive and ability than the Leadership does to steer true to the mission, and yet instead of harnessing this to its fullest potential, the membership is continually shown the hand while the Leadership makes its own plans. Whether the plans are right or wrong, the approach is 100% wrong.

  4. Bill Says:

    By the way, in that same post about the tsunami, The STC President incorrectly stated: “the mission of the organization—to advance the profession and help members advance their careers”. While it seems to be a simple misstatement, it’s a major error as it had the potential to undermine or otherwise revoke STC’s 501(c)(3) status. I made sure to call attention to it and allow the President to clarify and correct the statement. You’re welcome, STC.

  5. rick Says:

    Well said Sarah… unfortunately none of it is new. We’ve been saying the same thing (over and over) for years.

    I truly apologize to everyone for “…cost[ing] the Society additional expenses and delays, including lost testing time and staff and developer hours analyzing and rectifying the situation.”

    However, I will *NOT* apologize for being vocal and forthcoming with my ideas and views. To paraphrase Rabbi Hillel: If not me, who? If not now, when?

    Oh, and just to be safe, you probably should “unfollow” me on Twitter…

    • Sarah Says:

      Speaking of Twitter, I seem to be picking up a lot of followers over the last few days, so I’d like to thank you and Bill for helping me with my follower count.

      Or something.

  6. Ben M Says:

    I think the fundamental problem STC has had is that while we’ve had new, great-looking initiatives, the culture at headquarters hasn’t changed. Among other things, it’s still a slow-moving, top-down structure and culture. In his first comment, Bill addressed other aspects of the culture I’m concerned about. STC has got to change the culture if they want to change how people see the organization and respond to it.

    • Sarah Says:

      Hi Ben,

      I’m not sure where the culture issue falls, but I agree that it’s a problem. It’s frustrating because I know STC staff and Board members personally, and I just don’t understand the disconnect between the people I know and respect and the results we’re seeing.

  7. Andrea Wenger Says:

    I see two root causes to this problem:

    1. Severe lack of resources
    Technical communicators have a ravenous appetite when it comes to technology and communication. It would be cost-prohibitive for paid staff to meet the demands. That leaves volunteers. As a member of the admin council of a chapter and a SIG, there are days when I’m overwhelmed by the competing demands of STC, a full-time job, and my personal life. Sometimes it’s difficult to be civil to a well-meaning member who’s taking up my time over a matter that seems trivial to me. I imagine that the STC board members have more of those days than I do. So if the membership is providing more feedback than the organization can process given their existing resources, what’s the solution? They’ve got to come up with a better answer than “shoot the messenger.”
    2. The STC staff’s combined expertise in technology and communication will never match the combined expertise of the membership.
    Even if the staff were all experts in the field of technical communication (which they’re not, nor should they be), there are simply more of us than there are of them. I feel sorry for them every day for having to deal with us. Some member will find fault with every technological solution they implement, and some member will find fault with every communication they put out. But to say that members were “unauthorized” when they logged in using their passwords, and to claim that they “compromised the security of our controlled environment” when clearly the environment was neither secure nor controlled, is absurd.

    STC needs to do a better job at defining and communicating its scope to members. They need to manage expectations better. But STC is changing. They’re asking for feedback, even if they haven’t figured out yet how to properly respond to it. I expect growing pains, and I’m willing to be patient. I just ask the leadership to remember that those who are loudest in their complaints are probably the most passionate about excellence, and the most willing to help fix the problems they identify or perceive.

  8. Jeremy H. Griffith Says:

    Sounds like it’s time to start a new org. I’ve been in tech writing for over 50 years, checked out STC more than once, and never wanted to join. (I did join other orgs like ACM and IEEE.) How about “Technical Writers International Guild”, or TWIG? 😉

  9. Anna Parker-Richards Says:

    I’d like to echo Andrew Wenger’s comments: I agree with her analysis of the two root causes to the problem:

    1. Severe lack of resources
    2. The STC staff’s combined expertise in technology and communication will never match the combined expertise of the membership.

    And here’s my opinion…

    As technology AND social media continue to take off at an exponential rate, the humans just… can’t… keep… up. We are emotional beings. It’s not just about bridging the gap betweeen technology and information needs to support people who need to complete tasks anymore. There are many more dimensions that have been added to the mix with the way communications have changed.

    The technical side is easy because it’s logical. The communications side is very hard right now because standards are morphing daily.

    My advice is to go back to basics:

  10. Anna Parker-Richards Says:

    … perfect example of humans not keeping up with technology. Pressed Enter by accident and now my unedited work is out there…

    My advice is to go back to basics:
    1. Keep communications professional
    2. Separate the behaviour from the person
    3. Take a deep breath… this too shall (I really hope) pass

    Change and growth is very difficult. Add emotion to that mix… not a good cocktail.

  11. Social Media is not an option | Managing Writers Says:

    […] For those who haven’t followed the story, check out Sarah O’Keefe’s excellent blog post, and if you want more, search for #stcorg on […]

  12. Scott Prentice Says:

    The bottom line is .. *stuff* happens .. you deal with it and move on. The fact that the STC (not sure who exactly) would publicly blame “two unauthorized STC members” for any extra work incurred because of the incompetence of the website development team, is just plain wrong and inappropriate.

    I would assume that it was a mistake that this development/staging website was publicly available (if that was intentional, the person responsible should quit or be fired). It is clear that these people were just following links and not hacking into the system. Mistakes do happen in development (believe me, I’ve made plenty), but when you make a mistake, you own up to it and accept the ramifications and move on. It seems that the STC owes these two people a public apology.


  13. Richard Mateosian Says:

    If I’m smoothing the concrete on a sidewalk I just poured and someone innocently steps in it, I really have no grounds for complaint. It was my fault for not blocking it better.

    But I think that any of us in that situation might feel a surge of anger. Depending on our degree of maturity, we might suppress it rather than expressing it, but we all have stresses in our lives and bad days, so it might get out.

    The problem with social media is that they encourage a thousand people who weren’t there to jump in with their opinions, roil the waters, and make it hard for the people who were there to settle the matter between themselves. An emotional outburst that could have been discussed between the parties and forgotten becomes a BIG DEAL — until the next one comes along.

    • Sarah Says:

      You had me until the social media part. This issue could have been handled privately, but that ship sailed with an official STC page discussing the INTRUSION by the Bad People.

  14. Robert Armstrong Says:


    I understand your point, but it is the world we live in now. This could have been settled rather quickly with open and honest public communication. To ignore it like they have is the absolute worst thing you can do. I am amazed that they continue with this history of ignoring problems.

    As has been the case for many companies and organizations, the reputation harm doesn’t come in the initial incident, it comes in how the company or organization responds. In this case, their silence after such a negative comment speaks volumes in how they value their members.

  15. rick Says:

    If has a lack of resources, then they need to accept the volunteer help that many members have offered… just look through the GetSatisfaction forum!

  16. Andrea Wenger Says:

    @Richard, I totally agree that a person having a bad day might feel a surge of anger. I also agree that if they were having a REALLY bad day, they might post an angry news item about it on their website. But by the next day, their head should have cleared enough for them to see that perhaps they misjudged, especially when their customers are telling them so. Frankly, I think we all need to adapt to the fact that we live in a time of instantaneous world-wide communication. You don’t get second chances — although you might get forgiveness if you’re nice (and contrite) to your customers

    @Rick, I agree that should make better use of their volunteer resources. But that, in itself, will require volunteers to organize the volunteer efforts. It’s a logistical challenge that the organization may not feel up to right now — but the short term pain would provide tremendous long term gain.

  17. Tony Chung Says:

    @Andrea: When the whole initiative was underway, a group of us were willing volunteers to spearhead the entire project from three corners of North America, with additional insight from a couple of folks in Europe. Sadly, this type of initiative is not regarded highly by “the powers that be”.

    Were it not for the vibrancy of our local Canada West Coast chapter, I don’t think I would bother with the organization at all. There are several other means for connecting with the professional contacts we have met through this “society”.

    @Sarah: Thank you for providing this open forum. You do so much for the community at large. Cheers.

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