Note to Students: Companies Can Have Ideologies as Well as Cultures

One of our graduate students and I have been busily researching corporate social responsibility (CSR) and related topics in preparation for a presentation we’re going to give at the ABC meeting in Dublin. Our reading has confirmed something that is becoming increasingly obvious: When companies become social actors and put their clout behind various social stands, their ideological dimension grows. This is a trend our students need to be aware of as they learn how to scope out the organizational contexts of their communications.

This past week, it was big news that Google fired an employee whose “anti-diversity manifesto” went public. Among the various conclusions one could draw from this news, one is that it is sometimes–maybe often?–unsafe for an employee to voice an opinion that departs from the social values of his/her company. For one thing, the opinion can go public, which can then embroil the company in a PR firestorm. But even becoming known as someone who isn’t pulling in the same direction as the company’s leadership can put one at risk professionally.

Millennials are particularly likely to support certain social causes and agitate for their employers to do likewise. According to a Deloitte study, 70% say that a company’s commitment to CSR “would influence their decision to work there,” and another study found that 73% “believe that businesses should not only take a stand about important issues, but also influence others to get involved in those issues.” They join a growing body of “social intrapreneurs,” who work for social change within and through their organizations. There’s a lot to be said in favor of social intrapreneurship–but expecting every company to welcome such values and behavior would be naive, and dangerous.

As Philip Kotler and Christian Sarkar point out, any given company’s involvement in social issues can fall anywhere on a continuum from regressive to progressive. Companies who participate in CSR are not the only social actors; many companies push back against various dimensions of CSR and promote more conservative, traditional business values. It’s imperative for a young employee, or job applicant, to be sensitive to a company’s social politics and realistic about how to communicate in that workplace. The engineer who was fired from Google accused the company of being an “ideological echo chamber.” One could argue that, to some extent, many companies can now be described this way.

We’ll be inviting those who attend our presentation to share their ideas for how to incorporate this topic into their classes. If you have some thoughts, please share them.

Can Your Students Interpret Numbers?

A popular saying in business is that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” While more businesses these days are relying on intuition and core values as well, it’s true that businesses have to have reliable numbers to be able to stay in business.

This makes it a good idea to give our students at least one assignment in which they need to present and interpret numerical data. I’ve been surprise lately, though, by how poorly my business writing students do this. Perhaps I’m getting a bit of a false read because most of the students in our Writing for Business classes are marketing, IT, and management majors (the students in the more numbers-based majors aren’t required to take this course). If my sample is skewed, I hope you’ll still find the following tips useful.

But first, here’s the situation that prompted me to write this post. The class had been assigned a report-writing task that involved interpreting data from a customer-satisfaction survey for a health clinic. One of the questions on the survey asked the respondents to rate the accuracy the bills they received from the billing office. The answers are shown in this graph:

UN 11.6 billing graph

To my consternation, all but about three of the students interpreted these results as positive! They looked at the columns, saw that the biggest ones were to the left, and thus deduced that the results were pretty good. So we had a discussion about context. Sixty people said their bills were never right? And another 140 said almost never? And another 319 said sometimes? I asked the class how many times they’d need to get an erroneous bill before seriously considering changing healthcare providers. Or how many phone calls to the billing office were probably being generated by this problem. Then they began to get it.

I see what happened as part of a larger issue: Our students are hesitant to think. They’re terrified of making mistakes, and they don’t realize that, to do well on their jobs, they have to problem solve, use their judgment, and put their ideas out there. This is especially the case when they’re asked to interpret information.

For the benefit of future classes, I drew up this list of tips for interpreting and commenting on numbers:

  • Consider the context. Findings that are positive in some situations could be alarmingly bad in others. Figure out what the numbers mean in terms of the problem you’re investigating.
  • Calculate percentages. Often it’s easier for readers to wrap their minds around percentages rather than raw numbers. So, instead of saying “245 strongly agreed” (out of 400), say “61.2% (245) strongly agreed.” (Formula: Divide the number of responses by the total number of participants.)
  • Combine categories of responses when that will be helpful. For example, if you’ve asked respondents to choose an answer on a five-point scale, with the two positive answers at one end of the scale and the negative ones at the other end, it may be more helpful to compare the total number of positive responses to the total number of negative ones than to call attention to just the most positive and most negative answers.
  • Use “majority” correctly. It means “more than half.” It doesn’t mean “those who chose the most popular response” (unless those who voted for the most popular response account for more than half of the respondents). Better yet, try to use more specific wording, such as “just over half” or “the large majority.”
  • Use “average” accurately. “Average” means the median response. (Formula: Add all the responses or ratings and then divide them by the total number.) You cannot say “the average response was ‘sometimes'” when what you really mean is that it was the most common response (the mode).
  • Use the word “most” with care. “Most” doesn’t really have a uniform meaning, but it needs to refer to quite a high percentage of the responses. You would not be justified in saying that “most” respondents chose an answer if only 61% of the respondents chose it. If 85% or more chose it, your use of this word would probably be acceptable.

I realize that this isn’t a very ambitious list. But I hope its overall effect will be to make my students more thoughtful and accurate when reporting numerical data, and I hope it will be of some use to your students as well. If you have tips to add to this list, or have a different way altogether of helping students interpret numbers, please share them.


How Long Should Your Social-Media Post Be?

My colleague Lisa Meloncon, who teaches an infographics course in our professional writing program, recently sent me the link to an awesome blog post. It was published by the social-media scheduling and analytics firm Buffer, and it contains a cool infographic designed by SumAll, another social-media analytics firm. The post tells you not only how long the parts of different electronic messages should be but also why, in terms of user data.

Did you know, for example, that . . .

  • The ideal length for a tweet is 71-100 characters?
  • The average time that podcast listeners stay connected is 22 minutes? And that this time is shorter for students?
  • The optimal length for the title of a blog post is 6 words?
  • A LinkedIn post should be about 25 words?

Click  here to check out this post and share it with your students. And then discuss with them when it might be appropriate to stray from these guidelines, depending on audience and purpose.

You can also use Buffer’s post as the basis of an assignment–for example, having students boil down the data for a short email/memo report, or create their own infographics based on these or other data.



Get Inspiration and Ideas for 2014 by Attending an ABC Conference

Greetings in the new year, bcomm teachers! May it be a good one for all of us and our students.

As you plan to face the challenge of teaching bcomm effectively this year, don’t forget to include a trip to one of the Association for Business Communication’s conferences. It will be well worth the effort (ask anybody who’s ever attended one)—and compared to other organizations, ABC has very reasonable conference registration fees.

But first, a note about registering: Non-ABC members are enthusiastically encouraged to attend any of these meetings, but for the domestic ones, all registrants need to have created an account on the ABC website. (Just choose “non-member” from the list of dropdown options in the “Create an account” area; no fee is required.) But consider joining! Members not only get a break on conference registration fees but also have free access to the International Journal of Business Communication, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, and other benefits. Best of all, they belong to a stimulating community of professionals who understand and support each other’s work

So here’s what coming up in the U.S. in 2014:

Combined ABC-Southwest/FBD Conference, March 12-14, Sheraton Downtown, Dallas. This annual regional ABC conference is a “twofer”: It’s held in conjunction with the annual meeting of Federated Business Disciplines. In addition to offering presentations on all facets of business communication, the conference has sessions and workshops in nine other business areas, as well as on topics related to “health care administration, strategic management, environmental management, public administration, legal studies, human resource management, information systems, administration and management, political science, and public and private management” (FBD website).

Technology Trends in Teaching & Communication Conference, March 27-29, Embassy Suites, Orlando-Lake Buena Vista South. Hosted by ABC-Southeast, this conference will enable you to share “ideas and best practices related to technology trends, such as (but not limited to) instructional technology, digital communication, social media, global communication technologies, legal and ethical issues related to technology, and technology’s impact on crisis communication” (registration will open soon on the ABC website).

ABC-Midwest Conference, April 3-4, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis (attendees receive a price break at nearby hotels).With the theme “Into the Wilds of Business: Understanding Organizational Voices and Practices,” this conference will offer presentations on all facets of business communication but have a special emphasis on “niches that are not formally part of the organization’s communication, the adoption of social media for corporate intranets, media to speak with internal and external audiences, and cultures that evolve around formal and informal channels of communication” (registration will open soon on the ABC website).

The 79th Annual  International Conference, October 22-25, Hyatt Regency at Penn’s Landing, PhiladelphiaThe major meeting of the Association, this conference will feature seven concurrent sessions, poster sessions, workshops, and roundtables on all topics related to bcomm. It also includes extensive publisher exhibits, complimentary breakfasts and receptions, plenary addresses, and such yearly favorites as the “My Favorite Assignment” session. The annual conference is also the most international of ABC’s meetings; over 20 countries were represented at the 2013 conference. Registration will open soon.

And internationally, . . .

ABC International Symposium on the Ins and Outs of Professional Discourse Research, March 6 – 7, Modena, Italy. This conference, hosted by ABC Europe, is a two-day symposium focusing on business discourse research. Day 1 will focus on the “ins”: gaining access to research sites and collecting data; day 2 will focus on “outs”: turning data into publications and other media for sharing results. Registration is open on the conference’s website.

The 13th ABC Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27 – 29, Shanghai, China. Hosted by the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, this conference will bring together bcomm teachers and scholars from all over Asia and beyond. Topics include the art of business communication and Daoism, changing concepts of business communication in the 21st Century, intercultural issues in multinational companies, and many more relating to international business communication (registration will open soon).

Do You Deserve to Go?

Absolutely. Business communication is at least as complex and dynamic as any other field in business—or English or communication, for that matter.  It requires ongoing professional development. Make a good argument to your chair or dean, get some travel money, and get yourself to an ABC meeting this year!

ABC 2013 in New Orleans: A Jazzed-up Conference

After every annual Association for Business Communication conference, I say, “Wow! That was the best one yet!” But the one that was held in New Orleans this past week was truly exceptional.  Program chairs Jennifer Veltsos and Sandy French and ABC Executive Director Jim Dubinsky pushed the annual conference up to a whole new level.

Here’s why:

–Over 300 presenters shared their expertise in business communication research and teaching.

–The attendees represented 20 different countries from all around the world.

–For the first time ever, presenters could elect to have their proposals peer reviewed. Eighty-nine people took advantage of this option, and 54 reviewers gave them feedback.

–For the first time ever, there were poster sessions in addition to panel presentations. At designated times, attendees could visit the poster area and discuss the presented research with the researcher. The posters were on view during the whole conference for everyone’s benefit.

–Attendees could download a conference app that enabled them to view the program, plan which sessions they would attend, see a map of the hotel, and more.

–The conference featured a strong “give back” component. The keynote speakers, affiliated with, donated their honoraria to the recovery efforts in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. The proceeds of a silent auction, a scavenger hunt, and a photo booth also generated over $3,000 for the nonprofit.

–There were bcomm payoffs galore. A panel of Outstanding Teacher Award winners shared their worst teaching mistakes (and the lessons learned). Other teachers shared advice about using all manner of educational technologies and social media, from PowerPoint to Twitter to free tools you’ve never heard of. Researchers shared their discoveries about cross-cultural communication, about companies’ use of social media, about visual design, and much more.

–The social events were lively, and the food was outstanding. Jazz and zydeco bands accompanied the attendees as we ate shrimp and grits, crawfish étoufée, king cakes, and other New Orleans delectables.

ABC has got momentum, and you need to be part of it. Check out the organization (a new website is coming in December)—and plan to come to Philadelphia next October!

Is Images of Organization on Your Bookshelf (or e-Reader)?

I had occasion to reread Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization a couple of weeks ago and was struck again by how brilliant and useful this book is. Though the latest edition was published in 2006, it seems dated in only a few minor ways. It still offers, in my view, more insightful observations about organizational life than any other book out there.

Morgan’s thesis is that “all organization and management theory and practice is based on images, or metaphors, that lead us to understand organizations in powerful yet partial ways” (Morgan’s emphasis). He supports this thesis by explaining how organizations look when viewed through eight metaphorical lenses:

The organization as machine. An organization based on this way of seeing will be hierarchical and bureaucratic—strong on control but poor at adaptation.

The organization as organism. This type of organization understands itself as a living organism that must pay attention to its various environments as well as foster healthy development internally.

The organization as a brain. Here the emphasis is on enabling quick adaptability through “organizational intelligence,” which is achieved by establishing a minimal set of rules and then allowing employees at all levels to gather, share, and act on information.

The organization as a culture. This vantage point enables us to see organizations as meaning-making systems, with rituals, myths, heroes, values, and shared frames of reference that sustain an interpretive world, much like that of a tribe.

The organization as a political system. All organizations are “intrinsically political” because the people who work there will have diverse and conflicting interests. But conflict, coalition building, and the use of power will be more pronounced in some organizations than in others.

The organization as a psychic prison. “Organization always has unconscious significance,” Morgan asserts: People bring their egos, anxieties, repressions, and many other psychic elements to the workplace, and the organization as a whole can develop tunnel vision or neuroses. These can block positive change and even threaten organizational survival.

The organization as flux and transformation. Organizations that embrace change (and understand that change is inevitable) are more willing than others to redefine the business they’re in, question the traditional boundaries between themselves and other organizations, and let their identities continually evolve.

The organization as an instrument of domination. Organizations can and often do have a dark side, with the will to compete and expand taking precedence over regard for individuals, society, and the well-being of other countries.

As Morgan points out, his list of metaphors is not exhaustive; an organization could be like a sports team, for example, or a family. Also, several different metaphors could be operating forcefully within the same company. But Morgan’s approach enables us to see how complex organizations can be and to have useful ways of getting a grip on them.

So what’s the connection to bcomm?

I would recommend mining this book for insights into how an organization’s structure and ways of operating are likely to shape its communication practices, thereby making some communication decisions better than others. Use the book to get students to talk about the organizations they’re familiar with and to appreciate the importance of interpreting where they work. Then ask them how they’d handle a communication task, such as recommending a change in operations, within different types of organizations, or what communication channels they’d be likely to use depending on what type of company they were in.

We hope to send our students into the work world with communication skills that will help them become successful professionals. Being able to understand what kind of organization they’ve landed in may be the most foundational communication skill of all.


Kathy and I just returned from the 2012 Association for Business Communication’s 77th Annual International Convention in Honolulu. If you were there, you know what a fantastic opportunity it was to network, make new friends, visit with old friends, and learn what the best teachers and researchers in business communication are doing. Approximately 250 people from 20 countries attended, providing a rich and exciting experience. Program chairs Roger Conaway and Oliver Laasch did a great job in scheduling the sessions, arranging technical support, and offering wonderful dinners and social events.

Next year’s conference is in New Orleans, but why wait? If you want to share your expertise or learn from others, you can attend one of these regional ABC meetings: Midwest and Southeast regions, Louisville, March 6 – 9; Southwest region/Federation of Business Disciplines, March 12 – 16, Albuquerque; and Asia-Pacific region, March 13 – 15, Kyoto, Japan. Not an ABC member? Check out the Association for Business Communication’s Web site to join or to learn more about the ABC.