The Corporate Communication Culture Project: Studying the Real World of Business
Hayes, James T., Kuseski, Brenda K., Business Communication Quarterly
OUR COMMUNICATION STUDENTS joke anxiously each semester about finding a job "in the real world" after graduation. Their banter assumes that working out there will be different from the experiences they've had in college. And, of course, their intuitions are right. The world of work is different from the classroom.
Two of the most important tasks we face as teachers of business education courses are to help students understand the assumptions and expectations of the business culture they are about to enter and to help them develop the skills they will need to make the transition smoothly and effectively. In this article we describe an assignment that contributes to both these objectives: The Corporate Communication Culture Project.
Discovering the Assumptions and Expectations of Business Culture
Students are assigned to teams of four or five. Each team is instructed to select a local business or a not-for-profit organization and conduct a case study. They are to describe and critique the corporate communication culture of the organization they've chosen, using a mixture of interviews, library, and Internet research. Teams are given five weeks to complete the project.
During the research phase, teams report to the instructor weekly, via e-mail, on the status of their progress. About halfway through the project, each team prepares a formal management briefing for the instructor. When its research is complete, each team prepares a written report and an oral briefing for the class summarizing and critiquing the corporate communication culture of the organization they have studied.
The theoretical underpinnings for the project include the seminal work on corporate cultures by Deal and Kennedy (1982, 1999), Peters and Waterman (1982), and Schein (1999). Our discussions of the ways in which corporate culture is developed and sustained through communication are grounded in the work of Bantz (1993), Meyer (1995), and Pepper (1995). Students who have been introduced to this array of theoretical constructs are often eager to use them to sort out their impressions and data on the firms they've chosen to study.
Working through the project, students discover the reality of class lecture materials and readings. Management theory becomes more meaningful as they find variations or elements of Theory X, Theory Y, Theory Z, or other styles of management in the organizations they're investigating. Interpersonal problem solving takes on new significance as students hear employees talk about how it works (or doesn't work) on the job. Advertising, corporate reports, and other forms of public communication are seen as instrumental messages designed to influence public perceptions and attitudes toward the organization.
Developing the Skills Needed for the World of Work
In addition to engaging students with the content of the course, the Corporate Communication Culture Project provides them with opportunities for skill development in at least four areas:
* Team skills
* Time and project management skills
* Use of technology to research, prepare, and present the project
* Networking with local businesses
The initial stages of teambuilding involve getting acquainted and deciding on a business to study. Brainstorming, leadership, division of labor, and inevitably, problem solving, become real skills to be exercised rather than merely textbook topics to be studied. As the group negotiates busy schedules, levels of commitment, and divergent interests, they find that what we've taught them about functions and roles in groups really does have relevance, and that their success and satisfaction depend on how well they manage their group relationships. They must overcome difficulties--personal differences, interpersonal conflicts, and scheduling problems with their companies--and find ways to make decisions quickly about what to do, how to divide the labor, and how to pull the project together to a successful conclusion.
Midway through their research, each group conducts a formal management briefing for the instructor. This is not a preview of the final presentation; rather, the group is told to assume that the instructor is the supervisor in charge of their project. The group develops an agenda for the briefing, decides what each member of the team will cover, allocates time, answers questions about what has been done, what is yet to be accomplished, and so on. Group members are expected to work together and dress as professionals, and use communication skills appropriate to that setting.
Time and Project Management Skills
From the outset, we also present this assignment as an exercise in project management, encompassing the four basic steps of defining, planning, implementing, and evaluating (Haynes, 1996). Students find that they need to clarify what is expected in their oral and written reports. We deliberately try to steer them away from the student mindset question, "What does the instructor want?" to the more useful business mindset question "What would a truly excellent project include?" Students are encouraged to give a fairly complete description of the areas we've examined in our class discussions of corporate culture, yet to be creative and sensitive to the unique, even quirky, features of the businesses they study. In planning, they find that they need to construct time lines and schedules, decide who will be responsible for which tasks, and stay in frequent communication with the instructor about any problems that arise for the group or individuals. The implementation includes setting up and conducting interviews, gathering data, providing the instructor with appropriate feedback in regular e-mail reports and a management briefing.
The last steps, finalizing the written document and preparing for the oral presentation are usually somewhat stressful, and test the effectiveness of the team's project management up to that point. At the end of the project, each group member completes a formal written evaluation of each of the other team members. Evaluations focus on the criteria of cooperation, motivation, dependability, communication, and contributions to the group effort. (For this first team assignment, points are earned by the evaluator for completing the evaluation. For a later team project, up to 25 points of each student's grade are actually assigned by the other members of the group.)
Use of Technology to Research. Prepare, and Present the Project
The written project is a good example of the need for that shift from classroom mindset to business-ready. Students are instructed to prepare a report that would be appropriate to have in the corporation lobby for visitors to read. They need to use more advanced word processing, creative graphics, design features, organization, and color to create a professional-looking document. This must not look like a term paper. We pass around samples of reports (good and bad), so students can see for themselves how what they say is either enhanced or undermined by how they present it. Grading on this document centers on content, but also includes mechanics, presentation format, graphics, composition, and layout.
Throughout the Corporate Communication Culture project, groups are required to send weekly updates to the instructor via e-mail--to keep in touch with us, ask questions, and get advice about any difficulties that come up. This requirement assures that they are acquainted with this common intra-office tool for communication. (A surprising number of our students are not regular users of e-mail.) The weekly report also serves as a reminder to them to record their activities, and to check progress against the group's time line.
The final element of the project is a 20-minute oral briefing to the class by each team, summarizing the uniqueness of the organization they've studied. Teams organize their material, divide the labor, create an introduction (to themselves, to the project, and to the oral presentation) and rehearse their respective speeches. To assemble an effective briefing, students must consider the differences between the needs of a live audience and of isolated readers. A specific requirement for the briefing is that it must incorporate PowerPoint visuals. Those visuals have to be technically sophisticated (given the expectations of business audiences) but also must support (rather than upstage) the group's presentation. On presentation day, team members must coordinate their presentations, make smooth transitions, and conduct themselves as professionals, while keeping within the time limits and responding to questions.
There are several benefits to including a group report as part of the assignment. Working in teams is an increasingly common expectation in the work place. Sharing the podium with their teammates encourages students who might be intimidated by the prospect of speaking individually. Strong speakers can help their teammates to polish their performance. The need to summarize and evaluate a complex discussion, condensing five weeks of research and conclusions into twenty minutes, provides valuable experience as teams narrow and focus their materials.
The reports also reinforce the value of the theoretical constructs studied in the course. By comparing their findings, students come to appreciate the varieties of corporate culture, and the ways in which their peers chose to carry out the tasks of their projects.
Networking with Local Businesses
We won't claim that every student who completes this project goes on to become an intern with the organization they've studied. However, we encourage students to choose organizations with which someone in the group has a prior connection--sometimes they choose a family business, or know a friend who works there, or one of the members works there. There is a very practical reason for this suggestion. Without some kind of "relationship wedge" it is difficult for students to gain access to individuals within the organization who have the information they need. Knowing someone inside the organization often gives the entire group an opportunity to establish relationships with working professionals and to see firsthand what the norms and expectations are in the world of work.
Adaptations of the Assignment for Other Business Classes
Since we teach communication classes, we are most interested in communication and how it works, or fails to work, in the organization. Students are instructed to pay particular attention to internal and external messages, levels of hierarchy and authority, and other topics. Other particulars could be emphasized, depending on the focus of the class.
The Corporate Communication Culture Project is adaptable to other business education classes--the opportunities are rich for teachers whose subjects are as varied as business ethics, human resources, public relations, marketing, and so on. The combination of specific skills and conceptual insights can be tailored to the students' level and the instructor's pedagogical goals, with more or less emphasis placed on the specifics of corporate culture to be addressed. The project provides added benefits by getting students out of the classroom into a real business environment and, often, introduces them to future networking opportunities as they move from school to work.
Bantz, C. R. (1993). Understanding organizations: Interpreting organizational communication cultures. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Deal, T. E., & Kennedy, A. A. (1982). Corporate cultures: The rites and rituals of corporate life. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Deal, T. E., & Kennedy, A. A. (1999). The new corporate cultures: Revitalizing the workplace after downsizing, mergers, and reengineering. Reading: Persius.
Haynes, M. E. (1996). Project management: From idea to implementation. Menlo Park: Crisp.
Meyer, J. (1995). Tell me a story: Eliciting organizational values from narratives. Communication Quarterly, 43(2), 210-224.
Pepper, G. L. (1995). Communicating in organizations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Peters, T., & Waterman, R. (1982). In search of excellence. New York: Warner.
Schein, E. H. (1999). The corporate culture survival guide: Sense and nonsense about culture change. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Address correspondence to James T. Hayes, Department of Speech Communication, 202 Willard O. Eddy Hall, Colorado State University, Fort Collins CO 80523-1783 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Corporate Communication Culture Project Assignment
Points for this assignment: 275
* Weekly e-mail reports (10 points)
* Management briefing (40 points)
* Final written report (100 points)
* Team oral presentation (100 points)
* Evaluation of individual participation by other group members (25 points)
The purpose of this assignment is to apply theoretical concepts from this course (how is communication supposed to work in organizations?) to an actual organization (how does communication really work in the organization you are studying?)
Working in teams of four or five, you will select a formal organization for analysis and prepare a 5-7 page written report detailing its corporate culture and communication tasks and styles. Using relevant theoretical concepts from class and from the texts to guide your analysis, your team will prepare both a formal written report and a formal oral briefing for the class that summarizes and critiques the corporate communication culture of the organization.
Your report should include discussion of the following topics:
A. Organizational Structure (What they do and how they do it)
(1) the organization's mission
(2) the organization's hierarchy and personnel
(3) the communication tasks and styles required within the organization
(4) the organization's internal and external communication
B. Organizational Culture (Who they are and how they know it)
(5) rites and rituals within the organization
(6) espoused values of the organization
(7) tacit assumptions shared by the employees of the organization
(8) themes in the organization's messages that make it unique
(This is not an exhaustive list. You may find other topics to analyze. Corporate culture, after all, defines what is UNIQUE about an organization, so be on the lookout for cultural differences.)
Gather information about the organization by researching the company in newspapers, magazines, the company website, etc. Material must be current and include information derived from at least one personal interview with a full-time employee of the organization.
Written Report (100 points)
The final written report should adhere to professional standards of presentation--substantively thorough, visually attractive, and consistently formatted throughout. It should be a document that would be appropriate to have in the corporation lobby for visitors to read. Include a bibliography of all documents, websites, and individuals consulted in the preparation of the report.
Management Briefing (50 points)
About halfway through the research phase, each group will schedule a meeting with the instructor to conduct a management briefing on your progress. The group will prepare an agenda, and all members of the group will participate in the briefing.
Team Oral Presentation (100 points)
Each team will prepare a 20-25 minute oral presentation for the rest of the class summarizing the principal findings of its case study. All members of the team will be involved in planning and presenting the briefing. (Be sure to include 2-3 minutes at the end of the briefing for questions from the audience.) The group report must include appropriate visual materials presented using PowerPoint.
Evaluation of Individual Participation by Other Group Members (25 points)
A performance appraisal provides a periodic opportunity for communication between the person who assigns the work and the person who performs it, to discuss what they expect from each other and how well those expectations are being met. After the completion of the team oral presentation, you should write at least two paragraphs of evaluation for each person in your group. Assume that you are the "manager" of your group, and it is time for a review of your co-workers' efforts. Here are some of the possibilities:
The individual's dependability
His or her contribution of ideas
The quality of effort put forth--motivation
Ability to work harmoniously with others
Interpersonal communication skills--listening, getting/giving information
Follow through on commitments
Attitude--about the project, toward others, etc.
Whether you would choose this person to work with on an even bigger project
Suggestions for areas for improvement…
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Publication information: Article title: The Corporate Communication Culture Project: Studying the Real World of Business. Contributors: Hayes, James T. - Author, Kuseski, Brenda K. - Author. Journal title: Business Communication Quarterly. Volume: 64. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2001. Page number: 77. © 1999 Association for Business Communication. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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