Date of Award

May 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Rachel Spilka

Committee Members

Dave Clark, R. Stanley Dicks, William Keith, Sarah Freeman


Realtionship, SME, TC, Technical Communicator, Technical Writer, Workplace


The working relationship between Technical Communicators (TCs) and their Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can impact such key TC goals as adding valuable contributions, engaging in successful collaboration, and producing quality documentation. Despite the primacy of this relationship, no systematic, qualitative research study in our field has yet examined the depth or breadth of the TC/SME relationship.

To investigate the nature and impact of the TC/SME relationship, I conducted a two-part, qualitative study to explore how TCs and SMEs define the role, value, and power of the TC; identify the behaviors TCs and SMEs report as helpful and damaging in their counterparts; and examine the strategies and recommendations of TCs and SMEs for creating successful working relationships. I used a combination of theoretical lenses including Actor Network Theory, Community of Practice Theory, and Compliance-Gaining Theory to guide my investigation and analyze my data.

The data I gathered through e-mail surveys and telephone interviews exposed overlapping and diverging perspectives regarding the TC's role. SMEs largely perceived the TCs as information-seekers and educators; while TCs described their role more frequently in terms of information gatherers, translators, and audience advocates. My data also found that while TCs are sometimes uncomfortable talking about the value they add, they consider their value especially central in terms of end-user documentation, the organization, and the department for which they work.

As a result of my analysis, I arrived at new taxonomies for critical skills SMEs want TCs to have and for critical skills TCs want SMEs to have. My analysis also allowed me to devise a four-part categorization (Affiliation, Accommodation, Coercion, and Resourcefulness) of the most-cited TC strategies for working with SMEs. My research provides strategies for TC practitioners to improve their workplace relationships with SMES; proposals for TC educators to prepare their students to gain professional status with SMEs; and ideas for further areas in which this combination of theoretical frameworks can be applied.