Lecture: Solving Problems in TC: Ch. 3

[Note: This was supposed to publish during Week 3 on Feb. 1.]

“How Can Technical Communicators Fit into Contemporary Organizations?”

In ch. 3 of Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Jim Henry offers us a look at the role technical communicators can play in the workplace through the lens of analyzing and understanding an organization’s workplace culture, ostensibly to find one’s place within that culture in order to achieve “equilibrium” (93). 1) Henry’s use of equilibrium here, as you might recall, comes from the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest, coined by Herbert Spencer, which doesn’t mean “the strongest,” but “being most nearly in equilibrium” with one’s environment. While the focus of the chapter is on how you, as a technical communicator, can find your place within an organization, the techniques Henry discusses in this chapter can just as readily be used to study and analyze a workplace for other purposes including a communications audit, which may be done internally or by an outside consultant.

In the literature review (pp. 77-80), Harvey offers a definition of organizational culture and offers three methods for studying it.

Organizational Culture

While, as Henry notes, there is enough debate over how to define culture that there’s at least one book that examines the competing definitions, he does give us a working definition in this chapter, which he draws from Edgar Schein’s article “Organizational Culture” to offer us one definition of culture: “Culture can now be defined as (a) a pattern of basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, (c) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore (e) is to be taught to new members as the (f) correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems” (111, qtd. in Henry 78). As Henry notes, the goal of fitting in is to be socialized into the (dynamic) culture of an organization (77), to position oneself within equilibrium with the organizational environment.

Methodologies for Analyzing Workplace Culture

After defining organizational culture, Henry discusses the two major methodologies for studying workplace culture: ethnography and autoethnography. As practices, both ethnography and autoethnography emerged out of the fieldwork practices of anthropologists and folklorists. (Auto)ethnography, he explains, involves participant observation, interviews, artifact analysis, all governed by a set of ethical practices (79). The major difference between ethnography and autoethnograpy, is the role of the researcher and the culture being analyzed.

In ethnography, the researcher is an outsider looking in, although the process of conducting ethnography often requires researchers to immerse themselves within the culture. Anthropologists, for instance, might live and participate as fully as possible in the day-to-day living of the culture they are studying. Autoethnography, on the other hand, seeks to make use the practice of ethnography by someone already within the culture in question. Both come with their own challenges in how one positions oneself in terms of one’s subjectivity — that is, how one seeks to be aware of and compensate for one’s inherent subjective biases rooted in such factors as “gender, age, ethnicity, and many other influences” (79). Both practices rely heavily upon taking good fieldnotes, and Harvey gives us an example of some fieldnotes and how to format them (both handwritten and later typed up) created during the chapter’s case study in Figure 3.1 (76), Figure 3.3 (84), and Figure 3.4 (90).

In terms of seeing how you might fit in within an organization, if you’re new to that organization you would be practicing ethnography — you may now belong to that organization but you’ve not yet be socialized to its culture. On the other hand, someone who has been with an organization for some time would need to practice autoethnography.

Putting It into Practice

Having offered a definition of culture and described the standard methodologies for analyzing a culture, Henry offers a five-part heuristic for analyzing how you, as a technical communicator, can find your equilibrium within an organization. At the heart of this heuristic is participant observation that involves and is further informed by taking field notes, interviews, collecting and analyzing artifacts, and writing (80-88). Henry stresses that this is an iterative process, with each element not only building upon each other but informing each other bidirectionally (see Figure 3.2). While you may use writing to help you understand and analyze throughout any part of the process, Henry notes that the end of a study of this sort generally ends with a written product, which can be as formal as a report given to your supervisor or the organization’s CEO, or as informal asa collection of organized notes in which you’ve traced out your place as a technical writer within the organization’s culture.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Henry’s use of equilibrium here, as you might recall, comes from the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest, coined by Herbert Spencer, which doesn’t mean “the strongest,” but “being most nearly in equilibrium” with one’s environment.