Distinguished Publication on Business Communication. (ABC Publications Award Winners for 2001)
Barker, Randolph, Business Communication Quarterly
Charlotte Thralls, Iowa State University, Ames, Commentator
Working from a postmodern and cultural studies perspective, Jim Henry in Writing Workplace Cultures: An Archeology of Professional Writing explores how writing is the means by which realities become socially constructed in the workplace. Arguing that a collusion of workplace and academic discourses has produced an impoverished identity for professional writers and writing, Henry's book serves as a clarion call for executives and workplace writers, but most especially for educators in the academy, to develop a richer vision of writing's potential in its various print and electronic forms.
Writing Workplace Cultures merits this year's Distinguished Publication on Business Communication Award because, in arguing for this richer vision, Henry brings a sophisticated theoretical lens and fresh insights to several problems that have persistently troubled us in ABC--for example, why business/professional writing is so undervalued in the workplace and in many academic institutions, and how we might construct an identity for our field that engenders greater respect. I cannot in the following brief comments do justice to Henry's nuanced response to these problems, but I will attempt to highlight some of his key arguments in order to suggest why the book is essential reading for everyone in our field.
Perhaps most significant is Henry's vision of writing and writers' roles in the workplace. Arguing that our conventional notions of writers--as document producers--situates communication in the " 'low' practical dimensions of authorship," Henry calls for reseeing or "re-presenting" writers as organizational analysts, "always implicated in the 'high' practices imbricated in broad, deep, vital cultural issues" (p.145). For me Henry's re-presentation is vitally important, not merely because it captures the deep connection between communication and workplace culture, but because it has profound implications for the way we characterize our field to colleagues, students, and executives. As Henry points out, when we re-present writers as organizational analysts and writing as cultural production, we can more readily counter misconceptions of our field as "contentless." The content of business and professional communication becomes the "work it effects, the realities it mediates, and the subjectivities it shapes" (p. 137). We also can identify for others and ourselves the expertise that our discipline can potentially foster: "acuity in perceiving convergences between discursive structures and organizational structures (p. 151) and an ability to "contribute to discoveries of new linkages between [organizational] solutions and needs" (p.6).
In addition to this vision of writers and writing, Henry offers practical strategies to help professional communicators strengthen their "writing prowess" (p.7) and acuity as organizational analysts. Here, rightly I think, Henry focuses on the educational experience we offer students in our business and professional communication courses. Contending that organizations must be helped in unlearning Taylorist-driven notions of professional writing and writers, Henry sees our students--those currently holding or planning to pursue jobs in professional communication--as the primary teachers and ambassadors. He underscores, however, that our students can only fulfill this role if we provide them the theoretical frameworks and research opportunities that will foster a deeper understanding of communication. Offering strategies that go beyond our traditional notions of internships and real-world, client-based projects--in which students primarily learn to produce professional quality communications--Henry advocates th at educators design research experiences that allow students to explore how workplace communication positions writers and constructs workplace realities and that encourages them to reflect on ways communicators might intervene in and modify those processes. …