Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Genre Systems: Structuring Interaction through Communicative Norms

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Genre Systems: Structuring Interaction through Communicative Norms

Article excerpt

In this paper we demonstrate that teams may use genre systems--sequences of interrelated communicative actions--deliberately or habitually, to structure their collaboration. Using data over a seven-month period from three teams' use of a collaborative electronic technology, Team Room, we illustrate that genre systems are a means of structuring six dimensions of communicative interaction: purpose (why), content (what), participants (who/in), form (how), time (when), and place (where). We suggest that researchers and users may benefit from explicitly recognizing the role genre systems can play in collaboration and from examining changes in these six dimensions accompanying changes in electronic technology.

Keywords: Genre, Genre System. Communication, Collaborative Technology, Electronic Media

In recent years we have seen a proliferation of new ways of organizing work within and across firms, including the use of telecommuters, mobile workers and independent contractors or "eLancers" (Km-land & Bailey, 1999; Malone & Laubacher, 1998); globally distributed (or virtual") teams (Lipnack & Stamps, 1997; Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000); and virtual organizations (Markus et al., 2000). Many firms and individuals have invested in a great deal of information technology to support these new ways of collaborating across time, space, and organizational boundaries. In such an environment it becomes particularly important to understand the influence of new electronic media on communication. A growing body of literature has examined various aspects of this influence (e.g., Constant, et al., 1996; Fulk, 1993; Hinds & Kiesler, 1995; Walther, 1995; Zack & McKenney, 1995). Additional empirical work (both quantitative and qualitative) has focused more specifically on studying social means of facilitating computer-supporte d cooperative work (e.g., Bikson & Eveland, 1996; Markus & Connolly, 1990; Olson et al., 1993; Orlikowski, 1992; Suchman, 1996).

In this paper, we propose that genre systems--sequences of interrelated communicative actions (Bazerman, 1994; Orlikowski & Yates, 1994)--are important means of structuring collaborative work both tacitly as habitual mechanisms and explicitly as deliberate devices. We illustrate this claim empirically by drawing on data from a field study of teams using Team Room, a collaborative medium produced by Lotus Development Corporation. Genre systems are generally important ways of organizing the temporal, spatial, and social dimensions of interaction. In addition, we believe that genre systems can also be a particularly powerful means of structuring electronic interactions. With geographically and temporally dispersed groups using new electronic media, key dimensions of collaborative work have all shifted: that is, interaction may happen at different times and/or across different places, allowing different groups of individuals to participate, and encouraging different types of social interaction. Next, this paper elaborates on a set of dimensions of genre systems that help us better understand such collaboration. We conclude by discussing some research implications of our elaborated genre system lens and by suggesting that groups seeking to collaborate electronically may find genre systems especially useful in facilitating their cooperative work.

Genres and Genre Systems

While the concept of genre has a long tradition in rhetorical and literary analysis (Bakhtin, 1986), a number of researchers in cultural, rhetorical, and system design studies have recently begun using it to refer to typified social action (Bazerman, 1988; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Miller, 1984; Reder & Schwab, 1988). In previous work, we applied this notion of genres to organizational communications (e.g., memos, meetings, reports, training seminars, resumes, and announcements) and examined them as socially recognized types of communicative actions used by organizational members for particular communicative and collaborative purposes (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994). …

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