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.

What Was Your Best Teaching Insight of the Summer?

Before we go any further, I just want to make clear that I’m really asking! So please take a few moments to share your response to the question in this post’s title.

My best teaching insight this summer came when I was doing research on the generation that comprises most of our students—which is to say Gen Y, Millennials, twenty-somethings, typical college-age students, or whatever you want to call them.

I’m pretty sure I browsed every book that has been written on managing this cohort, as well as numerous articles and blog posts. But in only one of these sources did I see an extended emphasis on a trait that distinguishes this group from the Boomer generation (less so from Gen Xers): these folks grew up playing video games.

I know—not exactly a news flash. But have you really thought about how hours of gaming may have shaped their views of themselves, the workplace, and reality in general?

Management consultants John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade have. In fact, to gauge the extent to which gaming may have influenced young businesspeople’s attitudes and problem-solving strategies, they conducted a study involving a survey of over 2,000 businesspeople and interviews with over 200 people (young adults, parents, psychologists, and others, in addition to business people). The results were published in 2006 in The Kids Are Alright: How the Gamer Generation Is Changing the Workplace.

Here are some of the main gamer attitudes discussed by Beck and Wade, along with my thoughts about how we might adapt our teaching accordingly:

“Everyone can succeed.” If you’re able to play long and hard enough, you can beat almost any game. The rules are clear, the boundaries are definite, and the “hero” can eventually win (otherwise, the game won’t sell). There are even maps and strategy guides to consult. How unlike the workplace this is! Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a young man who complained that his bcomm teacher gave him a B+ when he’d made As in all his hard finance courses. We really need to explain to our students why effective business communication is a whole different “game” from their other courses, which tend to focus on concepts or puzzle-solving rather than on complex, ill-defined problem solving (the kind that involves people).

“You gotta play the odds.” If gamers experience serious setbacks and/or decide they don’t like a game, they just look for another game. Life is not like this, and neither is the workplace! Some serious setbacks actually have lasting consequences, and one cannot always just go find another job (especially if no one in the workplace you just left can be counted on to put in a good word for you). If we can help our students appreciate this, we will boost their professionalism, and they may understand better what is at stake when they communicate on the job.

“Kill bosses, trust strategy guides.” I laughed out loud when I read this one. My son, a Gen Yer, has been beating bosses his whole life in the gaming world . . . but I never actually put this together with the fact that one’s superiors on the job are called “bosses.” According to the literature, Gen Yers tend to treat bosses too much as substitute parents—but they also have a tendency to view bosses (and sometimes their teachers?) as obstacles to be passed on the way to greater success. We need to give our students explicit advice about what bosses are likely to expect and why, and about how to communicate successfully with them.

“Watch the map.” Many video games have on-screen maps that show you where you can go, where you now are, and who’s ahead or behind you. Games also often have meters (colored bars) that indicate how much power you have left, how much power your enemy has left, and so forth. The lesson for us: Our twenty-something students LOVE to know where they stand, and they want a clear path to success. While teaching bcom requires that we give our students decision-making room when they are solving a communication problem, we can try to make the goals and guidelines as clear as possible. Explaining how an assignment builds on the previous ones and providing grading rubrics will also appeal to these students.

“Can’t see it? Ignore it.” In games, there are no completely surprising enemies. And even if they come out at surprising times, they’re beatable. As Beck and Wade say, “That’s quite a contrast to human organizations, whether families, companies, or communities, where you may be weakened or frustrated by decisions from people you can’t confront” (p. xvi). Our students need to be encouraged to do all they can to see the big picture and to try to anticipate all the possible effects of any act of communication.

The book has many, many more insights. I encourage you to browse through it and see if relatively simple changes in your teaching will enhance your younger students’ learning and attitudes.

Now it’s your turn. What new insight are you taking advantage of in this new school year?

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.