By Rebecca BUKALA, Master’s student 2022-23
Technical communicators are constantly learning to acquire skills and knowledge in new fields. But, what do you do when the field in which you are trying to gain knowledge is so foreign to you that you barely comprehend the fundamentals?
The main difficulty I encountered -and still do- in my company is understanding payroll. Payroll is an entanglement of law, business, and HR, and I don’t understand most of it. I started my apprenticeship almost nine months ago, and I still feel lost when it comes to payroll vocabulary, concepts, and processes.
The problem is that payroll is the core of the company I work at. This company develops and sells payroll software, and, as a technical communicator, my mission is to pass the knowledge from R&D to Operations, that is, from the employees who create knowledge to the employees who use it. Without a good knowledge of payroll, it’s challenging to make sure the documents I review and rewrite are correct.
When I started working, I thought the knowledge I would gain on the job would be enough for me to understand payroll. However, I quickly realized that I needed to plan and seek out other resources.
Acquiring knowledge in a new field can be broken down into 3 main steps:
- Set clear learning goals.
- Find the tools.
- Take the time to learn and practice.
My learning goal was easy to define: I wanted to gain enough knowledge on payroll to understand the documents I was reading, and the conversations I was hearing.
Regarding the tools, fortunately for me, every new employee in the company follows online training to get into payroll and learn how to use the company’s software. Even the employees who won’t be using the software in their everyday tasks have to participate in the classes. But, because of the apprenticeship rhythm (two weeks in university – two weeks at work), I couldn’t follow the first part of the training before October, and the second part before November.
In the meantime, when I didn’t understand a payroll concept or term, I would either go on the Internet or ask my colleagues. I also noted the explanations they gave me in a notebook. Once I was able to follow the training, I took notes because I knew that, considering the amount of information I received, I would forget everything. Through the training, I studied the fundamentals of payroll and learned how to use the company’s software. This training provided me with both declarative and procedural knowledge, that is: I learned what things are (declarative) and how to do them (procedural). I was mainly seeking declarative knowledge, but the procedural knowledge I gained proved useful for a project I was assigned a few weeks later.
At the end of the training, the participants can take a test to evaluate their level. This test wasn’t obligatory for me, but my tutor encouraged me to take it nonetheless. I passed and received the certification. I was on top of the world because I thought the training had solved all my problems and that I had reached my learning goal. However, as the weeks passed, I realized the training wasn’t enough. I was still struggling with payroll concepts and processes, and I became discouraged at my lack of progress.
This constant change in the state of mind of learners is well-known and even has a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the Dunning-Kruger effect as a “cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain”.
To explain it briefly, at the beginning of your learning journey your confidence explodes at your first signs of progress, you feel like a genius. Then you are confronted with the gap between you and your peers, and your confidence crushes; what this curve doesn’t show is that many people end their learning journey there. For those who continue, their confidence will slowly rise again as they gain competency, and that’s how they become experts in their field.
Besides the correlation between competency and confidence, this curve also shows that gaining competency is a journey, and this journey always begins at zero. Nobody comes out of the womb an expert in payroll. The article The Making of an expert written by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely in 2007 has reminded me of that. After analyzing copious amounts of studies to determine what makes an expert, the authors have gathered enough scientific evidence to declare: “Experts are always made, not born”. Specifically, they are made through deliberate practice, which the authors define as “considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all”. This is something we always have to remember as technical communicators, gaining knowledge takes time, and the experts we are turning to for help used to be beginners before.
But it is also important to remember that there is a reason why technical communicators have to work hand in hand with experts. My tutor has been working in the company for more than a decade. When I asked her how she felt regarding payroll concepts and terms, she revealed to me that she was still very confused at times, even though, from my point of view, she seemed to be an expert. It reminded me that we don’t need to become experts in the field we are working in. We just need to gain enough knowledge to fake expertise in our writing.
In conclusion, to gain knowledge in a field as abstruse as payroll, the first step is to set a learning goal. Gaining expertise takes time, so it’s important that technical communicators remind themselves of their goals to avoid getting too discouraged. As for me, I know that I will not come out of my apprenticeship as an expert in payroll, but it isn’t my goal, and writing this article has reminded me of it.
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Indeed Editorial Team. (2022). How To Acquire New Skills in 10 Steps. Indeed Career Guide. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/acquire-skills
Tktcambridge. (2019, July 28). Declarative Knowledge Vs. Procedural Knowledge – TKT Cambridge. TKT Cambridge. https://www.tktcambridge.com/declarative-knowledge-vs-procedural-knowledge/
Bakken, R., & Dobbs, J. (2016). The relevance of four types of knowledge for leader preparation in radically different settings: Reflections on data from a case study in Qatar and teaching at a United States military academy. Creighton Journal of Interdisciplinary Leadership, 2(2), 17–23. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1152204.pdf
Duignan, B. (2023, March 27). Dunning-Kruger effect | Definition, Examples, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica.