(1) what business discourse research telling us about how people in business organizations achieve their organizational and personal goals using language;
(2) how the findings of BD research applied in teaching and training materials;
(3) how to go about doing business discourse research.
The following reading material derives from a chapter included in a book edited by Bargiela-Chiappini, F. (2009). The title of that chapter is "Business communication", whose author is Leena Louhiala-Salminen.
Like business discourse (BD) scholars, business communication (BC) researchers focus on text and talk in the context of business. The two disciplines share a lot, and the concepts overlap to a large extent. However, in the rapidly changing business context --- and for that matter in the academic context as well --- it is worthwhile considering the two notions and the relationship between them.
At present, the discipline of BC seems to be gaining momentum. Today’s complex business environment, with its new technologies, new structures, multiple languages and multiple cultures, has acknowledged the salient role of communication in business activities in general, and international activities in particular; simultaneously, a growing need to know more about communication-related issues sparks new research. There is wide interest in BD and its context.
Whether a research project falls within the framework of BC or that of BD is often a matter for the researchers to decide; they must situate themselves in the research community. In their book Business Discourse Bargiela-Chiappini et al. (2007: 3) write as follows: ‘Business discourse is all about how people communicate using talk or writing in commercial organisations in order to get their work done.
Another aspect in which BC and BD seem to differ is the size of the target in focus. Both disciplines look at text and context, but BC seems to target a wider range of textual and contextual issues, while BD focuses more directly on text and uses context to explain linguistic phenomena. In other words, what is seen as context in BD research may very well be the focal point of a BC study; for example, survey findings about the views of business practitioners may be contextual data for a BD researcher, whereas they may be the actual object of investigation in a BC research project.
This chapter will present a view of BC in the corporate environment of the 2000s and discuss the concept especially from the perspective of current developments in global business. It will also indicate areas where BD and BC scholars share issues and suggest lines of BC research that could contribute to BD research projects. First, some historical developments will be presented, with a review of earlier considerations on the disciplinary status of BC. Then the focus will shift to the specific trends in the corporate environment of the 2000s that seem to be strengthening the discipline. The purpose of the chapter is to show the evolution of BC from a skills-oriented, detail-focused subject to a significant discipline, actively engaged in research on a wide range of topics.
The history of science shows that new disciplines always struggle for status. Achieving coherence in disciplinary objects and theories takes time, and requires a fair amount of argumentation, counter-argumentation, conceptualisation, research activities and applied work. In the field of communication, the discussion of disciplinary status started in the 1930s. Donsbach (2005) refers to a speech made by Ferdinand Tonnies, the president of the German Sociological Association, in 1930, in which he questions the position of communication (then called ‘press research’) as a new discipline: ‘Why would we need press research within sociology? We don’t need a chicken or duck science within biology.’ Communication today enjoys the status of an established academic discipline, yet discussion about its ‘identity’ continues.
Although the scope of BC is more limited than that of communication, the ‘identity crisis’ has been no less serious. This may be partly due to the dyadic nature of the field; on the one hand, BC is a practical, skills-oriented subject taught in university programmes and also supports an extensive consultancy business; on the other hand, it is an object of serious academic inquiry. BC could be regarded as a subdiscipline of communication, i.e. a ‘duck/chicken science’ that has grown out of communication. However, BC can also be seen as one of the business disciplines; it is increasingly researched and taught in business schools and is gaining more attention and importance among business practitioners. It draws from communication studies and theories, but also from rhetoric, discourse analysis, conversational analysis, management, psychology and sociology, to name a few.
The research traditions of BC in the USA stem from rhetoric. (For a vivid metaphorical account of the neglected and lonesome Business Communication and her mother, the former beauty queen Rhetoric, see Reinsch 1996: 27.) In Europe, as argued by Charles (1998: 85), BC studies are deeply rooted in a multicultural and multilingual reality; European research has emerged from the needs of foreign language learning and teaching, and much of BC scholarship has been conducted within such frames as business English (BE) or English for specific purposes (ESP).
Considering the varied base and, indeed, the great variety of lenses that are used to examine BC issues, it is no wonder that the question of identity emerges. Since the early 1990s, the discussion has been lively, and in 1998 the Journal of Business Communication devoted an entire issue to discipline formation. In that issue, Graham and Thralls (1998: 7) argue that the desire to legitimise the work done and to show that BC is a coherent, knowledge-producing field, instead of a mere skills-based approach, has produced intense and sustained self-reflection among BC scholars. The rapidly changing business environment of the 2000s has made self-reflection even more intense, and, as this chapter argues, has also resulted in a wider view of BC as a discipline.
Discussing disciplinarity in general, Mumby and Stohl (1996: 52) refer to a shared set of paradigmatic assumptions as vital; although various and competing theories may emerge, they usually develop out of a common set of epistemological, ontological and methodological assumptions. Graham and Thralls (1998) present more specific disciplinary criteria, such as a shared goal for research and the existence of common journals, associations and institutional sites. As regards a ‘shared goal for research’ for BC, there seems to be a general understanding of the utilitarian goal of developing and disseminating knowledge that increases the effectiveness and efficiency of business operations. The goal of effectiveness is embedded in Reinsch’s 1996 definition of BC, where he conceptualises BC as ‘the scholarly study of the use, adaptation and creation of languages, symbols and signs to conduct activities that satisfy human needs and wants by providing goods and services for private profit’ (Reinsch 1996: 28). Ten years later, Reinsch and Turner (2006) elaborated the scope of the definition further, emphasising the processual nature of communication and referring to the fact that BC is increasingly conducted in cross-cultural and/or virtual environments. They also elaborate the restriction to ‘activities . . . for private profit’ by referring to what they call ‘profit-motivated (efficiency-seeking) exchange of goods and services’. However, the underlying principle of effectiveness and a distinct focus on language remain the same.
BC also meets the criteria of discipline identification that call for the existence of common public sites, i.e. professional organisations and journals where scholarship is legitimised and defined. The Association for Business Communication is currently the best-known internationally active organisation, and its two journals, The Journal of Business Communication (focusing on research) and Business Communication Quarterly (focusing on pedagogy), were ranked as top business and management communication journals by two recent surveys (see Rogers et al. 2007; Lowry et al. 2007). Nevertheless, the existence of only a few institutional sites of its own still make BC an ‘orphaned’ field to some extent, as was argued by Hagge (1986). Although BC is housed in a variety of academic institutions, it now increasingly operates in business schools and thus coexists and more or less co-operates with other business disciplines. In addition, academia has been interested in establishing programmes and professorships in BC, or more specifically, in BC in international contexts. Two European examples are the master’s program in corporate communication at the School of Business of the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and the master’s and doctoral programmes in international BC at the Helsinki School of Economics.
Furthermore, a discipline quite obviously ought to have a shared object of study. Locker (1998: 16) defined the object ‘which we teach, research and attempt to define as communication in the workplace’ (emphasis added). She argued that BC is at least an ‘emerging’ discipline, and stressed the interdisciplinary nature of this scholarship; she (1998: 15) noted that a discipline can emerge in its own right by virtue of the ways in which it selects from and interprets its parent disciplines. Locker’s wide perception of the shared object includes all kinds of organisations. In the present complex operating environment, communication in the workplace might, however, seem a somewhat restricted object; much of today’s communication is in fact distributed across various organisational and national borders rather than literally ‘in’ the workplace. For example, current BC scholarship includes studies that investigate various communication processes such as collaborative writing. (For an extensive account of recent work in this area, see Lowry et al. 2004.)
In addition to BC, there are other domains of communication that can claim the label of ‘communication in the workplace’ as their object of study. Miller (1996) talks about the four subdisciplines at the crossroads between communication and organisational life: (1) management communication, (2) organisational communication, (3) corporate communication and (4) BC. The perceived characteristics of the four ‘neighbours’ have been extensively discussed in earlier work (e.g. Argenti 1996; Kalla 2006; Louhiala-Salminen 1999a; Mumby and Stohl 1996; Reinsch 1996; Rogers 1996, 2001; Shelby 1993, 1996; Smeltzer 1996). However, a brief introduction to the neighbouring domains will follow, since it seems that understanding the relationship between BC and BD also requires knowledge of the main traditional characteristics of management, organisational and corporate communication.
Management communication, as the name suggests, investigates and teaches present and future managers. The goal is to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the communicative activities of managers, or, as Kalla (2006: 128) puts it, to increase ‘the development of the knowledge sharing skills of managers’. Organisational communication seeks to understand how the context of the organisation influences communication processes (Miller 2003: 1) and how people in the organisation ascribe meanings to messages; it is also interested in how meanings are distorted or changed when messages are exchanged in both formal and informal networks (Tourish and Hargie 2004: 10). While in 1996 Mumby and Stohl (1996: 56) explicitly distance themselves from the utilitarian goals of some communication research, and also from their colleagues in business and management who ‘exist in a symbiotic relationship with the corporate world’, in 2004 Tourish and Hargie (p. 10) include the effectiveness of communication among the key issues of their research. The third ‘neighbour’, corporate communication, has evolved from what used to be known as public relations (‘shielding top managers from bullets thrown at them from outside the boundaries of the organisation’; Argenti 1996: 75) to a business function responding to the challenges of the rapidly changing environment. Argenti and Forman (2002: 4) define corporate communication as the corporation’s voice and the images it produces of itself to its various audiences. Today, corporate communication is increasingly seen as a holistic concept, including both company-external and company-internal communication; some scholars would even use the term interchangeably with ‘business communication’.
The domains discussed above have a lot in common. Although the emphasis may differ, I would argue that the four fields seem to converge rather than diverge (see also Rogers 2001) in the research arena of the 2000s. Rogers argues that a single, unified disciplinary identity is in fact of less importance than the richness that is gained from interdisciplinarity. Drawing from various fields, and crossing borders to fields previously foreign to us, are a necessity for today’s researchers, whether they work within the frame of BC or that of BD.
The impact of current business trends on business communication research
The context of BC in the 2000s, i.e. the entire business community, has undergone fundamental change processes at an extremely fast pace. Three trends stand out. First, technology has taken gigantic leaps; second, business structures have changed. The third trend, globalisation, overlapping and intertwined with the other two, is an issue affecting all society but particularly the business world. The impact of globalisation is felt not only in large, multinationally operating companies, but to a great extent in small and mediumsized businesses as well.