Converging within Divergence: Overcoming the Disciplinary Fragmentation in Business Communication, Organizational Communication, and Public Relations

By Zorn, Theodore E. | Business Communication Quarterly, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Converging within Divergence: Overcoming the Disciplinary Fragmentation in Business Communication, Organizational Communication, and Public Relations


Zorn, Theodore E., Business Communication Quarterly


As researchers, we often overstate the distinction between our own specialties and those fields that are clearly related, thus dismissing or ignoring research outside our specialties. Similarly, we too often fragment our teaching to focus on particular communication processes and competencies that fit our notions of what is appropriate for our chosen subdisciplines. Such fragmentation, however, diminishes our teaching and research. To overcome this problem, we should work toward structural realignments in our universities to encourage cross-disciplinary work; design majors around competencies, not departments; encourage coteaching to focus different perspectives on one case or example; encourage interdepartmental "communication dialogues"; read a broad range of literature and work toward expertise in a topic, not just a discipline; attend other than just the usual conferences; and invite students to use a wide range of resources in solving problems.

Keywords: Disciplines, organizational communication, business communication, public relations

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CONSIDER THIS: an annual meeting in which an executive announces and seeks support for a major change in organizational direction, a common communication event in contemporary organizations. Take a more specific example: Roger France, newly appointed Executive Director of Air New Zealand announced at the company's December 2001 annual meeting that the company was intending "to gain financial flexibility through cost reductions, asset sales, and debt reduction" including fairly extensive downsizing of staff (Air New Zealand, 2001). The audience for the event was largely shareholders in the company; however, representatives from the business media were also present.

Examples such as this can be used to illustrate processes such as leadership communication, organizational culture management, and change-oriented communication. This example could also be used as a case study in research on these same processes. From an organizational communication perspective, we see an leader communicating to organizational members in an effort to shape the culture of the organization and change stakeholder's perspectives on the organization's priorities.

There is nothing inherent in this example, however, that limits its applicability to organizational communication. Colleagues who teach business communication could use the same communication event to teach and research particular features of business presentations (in other words, the Executive Director's speech) and business writing (in other words, the documentation that accompanied the event). Furthermore, public relations scholars could use the event to teach and research the processes of corporate identity management and stakeholder relations. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using the case in these different ways. In fact, our research and teaching can be enriched by seeing the multiple perspectives on the same event and by the more comprehensive analysis of the event that could be attained from these different perspectives. The problem is that we too seldom see such events from other than our own subdisciplinary lenses.

Because of this, it is important for educators to be less dismissive and more truly integrative of other subdisciplines; doing so will enhance our teaching and research. While others have made similar arguments (e.g., Cheney & Christensen, 2001), my goal is to identify specific implications of the fragmentation we too often reify, starting with organizational communication, and suggest some potential solutions

What Is and Is Not Organizational Communication

What we call organizational communication, business communication, and PR are social constructions (Deetz, 2001). For example, while teaching and research in organizational communication has evolved in the 30 plus years since the term has been used to describe a subdiscipline of communication studies, for most of its history, organizational communication has been taken to mean communication in organizations (Cheney & Christensen, 2001).

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Converging within Divergence: Overcoming the Disciplinary Fragmentation in Business Communication, Organizational Communication, and Public Relations
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