Article Review: “The Textualizing Functions of Writing for Organizational Change”

Anderson, Donald L. 2004. “The Textualizing Functions of Writing for Organizational Change.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 18 (2) (April 1): 141–164.

Contents:
Logic, organization, and argumentation strategies
Are the claims logical interpretations of the data?
Significance to the field of technical communication

This research paper combines a literature review with an ethnographic study to examine “how change is accomplished through language” (Anderson 2004, 142).

Anderson introduces his two research questions at the end of the introduction and literature review and immediately preceding the methodology section. The rest of the paper is the presentation of the study results along with concurrent analysis.

The Anderson’s conclusion (and theoretical perspective) is that an idea, or series of ideas—whether it’s from meetings, voicemails, IMs, etc.—can’t effect change unless they are “textualized”, written down or otherwise transformed into an “object”; this object is the agent that allows change to occur.

Logic, organization, and argumentation strategies

Anderson presents several claims but his two central research questions are the following:

  1. What is the relationship of speaking and writing during a project team’s discussions about organizational change?
  2. How does the practice of writing help organizational members to achieve change?

The second research question is addressed throughout the paper but the first one is only cursorily examined.

First, it is important to understand how the author defines “textualization” because his claim is dependent on his broad definition that it is “the translation of a spoken conversation into a new form” (Anderson 2004, 142). Anderson relies on this definition as the context for many of his claims.

The logical flow of the argument is not apparent from the structure of the paper and his claims, arguments, and premises are presented separately throughout. However, this is common for qualitative studies such as this one. Initially, Anderson establishes the knowledge gap that this study claims to fill; specifically, that “Studies of organizational change have left unexamined… the significant role that writing plays in organizational life” (Anderson 2004, 142). He continues with the purpose of the study and builds the argument for “organizational change as discourse” with literature references that build on traditional models of organizational thought.

First, Anderson positions his research within the framework of existing research—this is an excellent approach as it establishes a familiar baseline from which to begin his argument. He then broadens the scope of the current theory by introducing his research that claims writing is important to organizational change. This is where he begins to make a claim. The reader now has the choice to believe his premise that “writing and conversation are both significant practices which organizational life is constructed and conducted” (Anderson 2004, 145) and then follow the rest of his argument through to his conclusion. The crux of his argument relies on accepting his premise that there is a connection between writing and conversation.

Another claim Anderson makes is that “writing” is the sole method—once transmuted into an object—that allows change to happen. However, he may need to address a shared understanding (tacit) between organizational members that could be what is causing the change, and the writing may be a formality or only a part (small or large) of that change.

Are the claims logical interpretations of the data?

The observational data that Anderson collects and interprets supports his claims. For example, he uses a participant’s statement to support his claim that a communicative process is “gelled” once it is documented. He offers another example of this gelling process that he appropriately warrants as an implication rather than a finding:

“Jay’s use of “bona fide” as a modifier of “process on paper” implies that he interprets processes on paper to be more serious or real” (Anderson 2004, 158).

This reasoning is sound because it does seem that most people, after discussing an idea, would not approach the decision-makers without a textual-version of a proposal for a major organizational change: some documentation will be required.

The major claims Anderson presents are supported by the writings compiled during the study—emails, presentations, meeting notes, and the transcriptions—and from two of the meetings in particular where Anderson claims that “the heart of the change process” occurred. However, he does lay a claim that is unsubstantiated by the data—he states that defining the strengths and weaknesses in the current organizational process allowed the participants in the study to define and construct the mode of change. I did not see an analysis of the data that reported this opinion of the participants—the study did not include survey or interview data and so I think this claim is inferred.

Another limitation of the study is acknowledged by Anderson when he states that “this analysis is only suggestive” of how writing can effect change. For instance, other methods could be an impetus to change and are worth study as well, such as the role technology has in organizational life (Anderson 2004, 160).

Significance to the field of technical communication

Whether a reader agrees with Anderson’s argument within the framework of existing organizational theory, his final analysis is one that seems reasonable. Furthermore, if more research contributes evidence to support Anderson’s claims, writing will take a more prominent role as the object of change within organizations. This has implications for technical communicators not only because of our job functions as writers but also for our propensity to transcend traditional organizational boundaries and to be the ones to “textualize conversations.” This magnifies the significance of the writing we produce and should compel us to examine not only what our writing conveys but also how it can be used by organizations to effect change.

He summarizes the flow of his argument well in the “Conclusion” section:

“If conversation is the media through which constant change is enabled and made visible… then on the basis of this analysis, I would conclude that writing is a media that helps to stabilize organization, which in turn enables change to occur” (Anderson 2004, 160).

However well this statement encapsulates his central argument, it does not help a reader to visualize his individual claims that support it. For this reason, I have created a flowchart to illustrate his claims and major argument.

A flowchart that shows the argument that writing stabilizes organization, which in turn enables change to occur

A flowchart that shows the argument that writing stabilizes organization, which in turn enables change to occur

Creswell, John W. 2012. Educational research : planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. 4th ed.

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Filed under Article Reviews, Rhetoric, Technical Writing

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