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.

Evaluating Websites: Helpful Advice from Journalists

A friend recently lent me the book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, by journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It opens with what turns out to be an imaginative account of how news about the Three Mile Island nuclear accident would spread if the event were to occur in today’s media environment. Rather than being reported by the TV news anchors of yesteryear, whose broadcasts were not expected to make money and who were not encouraged to overdramatize, speculate, or leap to conclusions, the news today would be “fragmentary and often contradictory,” and blogs by those with a stake in the event would spring up pronouncing the event to be everything from a government hoax to a catastrophe.

The point of the parable is that “more of the responsibility for knowing what is true and what is not now rests with each of us as individuals.” Yes, “citizens have more voice,” but “the notion that a network of social gatekeepers will tell us that things have been established or proven is breaking down.”

We know this. That’s why information literacy has become one of the skills we teach, and why a major component of teaching that literacy is the evaluation of websites.

Why do business people need to know if a given website is creditable? The reasons are many. Perhaps the company needs current statistics about a certain demographic’s traits or behaviors; maybe it’s looking for a reputable contractor or vendor; perhaps it would like to measure its own practices against those of other companies; or maybe it needs a well-informed interpretation of local, national, or global events that could affect its operations.

Kovack and Rosenstiel recommend that we follow “the way of skeptical knowing” by asking ourselves the six questions in italics below. I’ve followed each with questions that can help students apply the questions to websites in particular.

1) What kind of information am I encountering? Is the information clear? Is it current? Is the content more fact based or assertion based? Who is the sponsor of the site? Does there appear to be any special motive behind the type of information that’s here and the way it’s presented?

2) Is the information complete, and if not, what is missing? What facts are here, and which seem to have been left out? Are there other important angles on this topic that have not been explored?

3) Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them? What are the authors’ or guest experts’ credentials? Is their language objective? Might they have any reason to be biased one way or another?

4) What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted? What kind of study or source does the information come from? What kind of evidence is here, and is there really enough of it to support the claims being made?

5) What might be an alternative explanation or understanding? Is there evidence that the author has maintained the necessary degree of objectivity? What other conclusions might one draw from the data than the ones the author has drawn?

6) Am I learning what I need to? Does the information provide sufficient answers to my questions? Does it seem to take into account larger issues and contexts? Are there links to other sources, and are those sources relevant, helpful, and trustworthy? Where else should I look to verify or expand this information?

Our students are capable of being skeptical, but their impatience works against them. If we can make them slow down long enough to assess the information they find on the Web, we can help them defend against the “blur” and make the information they pass on to others more reliable.

Calling All Bloggers! Share Your Comments at ABC

Are you a blogger? Want to be a blogger? Here’s your chance to use your blogging skills to report from the Association for Business Communication conference in Chicago October 28 – 30.

What’s the plan? If you are willing to blog about what you learn in a session or sessions at ABC, post your comments here. We’ll start the blog topic. All you need to do is add a comment summarizing what you learned at the sessions you attended.

As those of us who have attended ABC conferences know, there are many excellent sessions on teaching, research, rhetoric, technology, and much more—so many that attending them all is impossible. And with so many schools facing financial crises and slashed travel budgets, some of our colleagues may not be able to attend ABC at all. This is a great opportunity to share our wonderful experiences with our colleagues.

So what do you say? Are you in? We look forward to hearing from you.

~Kathy & Paula

Companies’ Top Communication Methods

According to a recent news release by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and Buck Consultants, “The most common communication vehicles organizations use to engage employees and foster productivity are e-mail (83 percent) and an organization’s intranet (75 percent).”

The survey of 900 communication professionals also reveals that even though social media is increasingly used by companies to communicate internally and externally, most top executives do not use social media for either purpose. Most companies in the study also do not have policies for workplace use of social media nor do they measure the success of its use. Of those who do use social networking, Facebook, instant messaging, and Twitter are the preferred channels.

Interestingly, though companies identify listening as “essential to employee engagement and retention,” a third report that little training is provided to develop listening skills among employees.

Research such as this provides several opportunities for the business communication classroom:

  • This article can be introduced in a unit on listening skills. Students can write to a hypothetical manager, providing recommendations for developing listening skills that promote productivity, engagement, and retention.
  • When discussing communication channels, this survey can be used as an illustration that being able to write effective emails is essential—even when it seems as though everyone is texting or tweeting instead. 
  • While most companies in this study do not have policies for social networking in the workplace, many companies do. Students can discuss why companies may or may not have these policies, whether such policies are necessary, and what these policies might look like. Social Media Governance  provides a database of several organizations’ social networking and Internet use policies to use as examples.
  • To prepare for their own research reports, students can view the report and evaluate the soundness of the research questions, methodology, conclusions, and the survey itself.
  • The survey can be used as the impetus for more research:
    • Students can research communication trends in their fields and write individual reports.
    • Students can work in groups, where each person in the group represents a different field or major. Students can research trends in their individual fields and then synthesize the information in one report.

Sometimes students (and business professionals, too!) prefer communication channels for their expediency rather than their appropriateness; however, students’ ability to choose the most effective channel is essential to their success. If you have tips or strategies for teaching students the importance of choosing an appropriate communication channel, please share them with us.