A colleague recently shared a "war story" with me. "One of our most important clients requested that my team’s technical report be adjusted," Carla told me (name changed). "He stated that his company’s review board had not approved it."
Apparently, the client’s eight- to 10-person review board thought, in a nutshell, that: a) the report sections and labels should be reorganized and renamed; b) the number of pages covering the project’s background should be proportional to the time periods under discussion; and c) the conclusions should not include potential technical limitations.
The client requested a new report from Carla’s team with his review board’s changes incorporated (note: not addressed, but incorporated). He sent her a marked-up report to "ease" the process. When Carla approached her team’s scientists and engineers regarding the "requests," not surprisingly, they did not agree with several of the client’s comments. This was in large part because: a) the wording did not convey, in their judgment, the technical meaning appropriately; b) the requests would alter the portrayal of the work, particularly not including some limitations that the team observed or deemed important; and c) the team opined that as experts hired to provide a technical report, they are professionally bound to express their findings as best they can. The team was willing to explain and adjust wording for clarification, but apparently this was not what the client wanted.
A flurry of questions come to mind: What should Carla’s strategy be to defend her work to her superiors? To the client? Or, should she as project manager just rewrite the report without her team’s input? Should she consult her firm’s legal eagles before resubmitting a report that incorporates most of the client’s requests? Do ethics "trump" business only where there are potential legal repercussions?
Who "owns" a technical report? The client as financer? The scientist/engineer as technical experts? Or, perhaps, other parties that have input or may be affected such as regulators, the public, government officials, review board, etc.?
The answers may be project specific and I agree that there generally is room to improve technical writing. However, I wonder if technical reports are now being significantly guided by what the client wants, or at times, almost demands, versus what there actually is to find/establish/report. Ivy League schools have a parallel dilemma with some students who practically demand good grades for the tuition costs. Can clients demand a "good" report from technical experts? It seems to me that client requests to modify a technical report have gained, or perhaps maintained, momentum because of the legal aspects of the written word. Is that another variable that engineers need constantly to be aware of as part of report writing?
As technical experts, engineers and scientists are bound to uphold their findings and the incorporation of the same as our work is presented to others-whether legal repercussions loom or not. In my opinion, conceding to a client’s requests on technical presentation projects an image of commodity for our profession. This raises another question: Is that where our profession’s image keeps heading, with outsourcing, cost-based bids, and more frequent technical report "requests" by clients?
Carla decided to re-submit the report with her team’s input and let her superiors know of the potential client dissatisfaction. I wonder how the final chapter on that project will be written.
Who do you think "owns" a technical report? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.