Situational knowledge and the technical communicator

Knowledge. It’s one of those things that’s indispensable for a technical communicator. In fact, without a certain amount of knowledge we can’t do our jobs properly. But how much knowledge is enough? Or too much? Or too little?

I’ve been thinking about that on and off for the last little while. In my case, the right amount of knowledge will vary from gig to gig and assignment to assignment.

What I find useful is gaining situational knowledge. Interested? Well, read on.

Situational knowledge?

I define situational knowledge as the knowledge you have for the duration of a project or release, but which you’ll probably let fade after six months (or less). Maybe it won’t fade, but it won’t be as far to the front of your brain as newer knowledge you pick up.

Whether comes to concepts or tools, I’ve based a large portion of my career on situational knowledge. And that’s regardless of whether I’ve been a full-time employee or a contractor. To paraphrase one of my favourite musicians, Bill Bruford, I rarely acquire knowledge for sake of acquiring it. Instead I acquire knowledge to solve a problem or to be able to write about something more effectively. Luckily, my years in journalism school helped me develop solid research skills.

Someone once described this as an A-B-C … N-O-P … approach. In fact, I think I have what Bruford calls classic amateur’s technique: I know some basics, and have some more advanced knowledge of certain topics. But there are also large holes in what I know.

But I don’t see that as a disadvantage. In fact, this approach can be a major advantage, especially as a consultant: it makes me more flexible and adaptable. I can quickly learn what need to know to effectively do a job.

Other routes

Obviously, this isn’t the only route to take. There are areas where you need more in-depth, A-Z knowledge. Like what? Like when you’re documenting and/or maintaining operational procedures, troubleshooting guides, disaster management/recovery documentation, documenting APIs, and the like.

I don’t advocate one route. The situational route has worked for me throughout my life, and not just in TC. I also realize that many people aren’t comfortable taking that route. They need more structure and more depth.

Thoughts? As always, feel free to leave a comment.

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  • Marie-Louise Flacke

    Perfectly explained. Thanks a lot for this article!
    .-= Marie-Louise Flacke´s last blog ..New to proposal writing? =-.

  • Techquestioner

    A lot of college courses taken to meet elective requirements gave us situational knowlege. We acquired and used the knowledge until we passed the courses, and then forgot most of it. However, some of the knowledge that we acquired in our major courses, that became the groundwork for succeeding courses, and came up for discussion long after we were initially introduced to it, became a more integral part of our technical knowlede and skills.

    If you have held several jobs in the same industry, like healthcare or telecommunications, your situational knowledge of that industry makes your skills more attractive to employers in that industry, because they assume that your situational industry knowledge will enable you to apply your skills to meet their needs with less orientation and explanation of their industry than another person with the same skills without the industry knowledge.

    So don’t overlook that situational knowledge when you’re adapting your resume to apply for a new position.

  • Fabrice Talbot

    Whatever makes us more flexible is much appreciated! Even if in this particular case we’re talking about “big holes in our knowledge”.

    I agree with the point you’re making. There is no purpose in trying to learn everything. We are more agile if we develop and evolve as we go.

    • Scott


      We are more agile if we develop and evolve as we go.

      I will be definitely quoting that (with attribution, of course) in future blog posts and presentations!

  • Marc Achtelig

    Thank you for sharing this interesting idea. I think “temporary” or “situational” knowledge also is what most users gain from reading technical documentation. When I think about how many different programs I have used over the past two decades, how much of the application knowledge that I have acquired can I still use today? Maybe 3% or less. With the domain knowledge, however, it is very different. For example, the basics that I leaned about programming languages 20 years ago are still valid today. So, it all depends…
    .-= Marc Achtelig´s last blog ..Help authoring tool descriptions revised =-.

    • Scott

      @Marc, thanks for the comment. What you need to know, and what you retain, definitely depends on the information and your need for it. It’s interesting how some knowledge becomes ingrained and some slips away like sand through your fingers. The human mind is a strange, wonderful thing.

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