Presidential Address – ABC Virtual Conference 2020

Geert Jacobs, Ghent University, Belgium

Let me start with a compliment, Jim. I was at the opening reception last night – as you know, it was set up by our amazing Ashley and Dee live from the Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and I must say I had the best wine ever at an ABC conference. So, thank you for that.

Now, slightly more serious, this is a great conference, Jim, and I am very grateful to you and Marilyn and the tech coordinators and the conference hosts for pulling off what nobody could have imagined even 3 or 4 months ago. Thank you.

A lot has been going on in ABC recently. For example, I hope you have all seen the video project on past and present ABC leaders – it’s a project that was led by our historian – yes, we have a historian – Sky Marsen. Now the video presents what I think is a fun and inspiring series of interviews, and as your current president I was flattered to be a part of it. One of the questions I was asked was what I thought was the most important contribution that the business communication discipline has made both to scholarship and society at large. I hope you’ll agree that’s not an easy question and after some consideration, I answered that, from my perspective as a linguist, business communication has been pretty successful in infiltrating other disciplines, including linguistics. What I’m trying to say is that I believe business communication research and teaching has played its role in making business more central as a domain for scholarly inquiry in its own right. Let me give an example: when I wrote my PhD on press releases back in the 90s, other linguists looked at me and wondered if I couldn’t find another, more traditional set of data to work with. Two decades later, a lot of linguists are engaging with business data and hardly any, thanks God, receive questions about it. So, business communication, I think, has made business a more central concern in the world of scholarship

At the same time, and this relates to the second part of the question in the interview, some of the key principles of business communication seem to have moved centre stage in society, as a whole as well. Think of crisis communication and the way in which some of its most popular do’s and don’ts (like don’t speculate, or avoid shifting the blame) have trickled down to the way in which we talk about our daily mishaps with colleagues, relatives and friends. But perhaps more importantly, think of the way in which we value transparent, concise and clear communication, not just in business, but also in our schools, in our personal networks – even in our families.

Now this is where, I’m afraid, I need to bring up the C-word for a second, COVID or, if you like, Corona. Is there any new light that our discipline can shed on the current crisis? Well, I believe there may well be evidence to be found that supports the claim that, amidst the daily turmoil, we are insisting on the transparency, conciseness and clarity I just mentioned more than ever before. We expect it from our governments and employers alike. And in a way this is understandable: these are very uncertain times indeed and we count on our elected officers and on our bosses to tell us exactly what should be done, to give us unambiguous guidelines that will help us navigate the storm.

At the same time, I would argue it’s somewhat paradoxical, even unreasonable, to hope for certainty when, fundamentally, we know nothing is certain and when we realize that today’s guidelines are bound to be irrelevant tomorrow. It follows that the best our leaders can provide us with is an illusion of certainty and that there is a distinct danger that we will end up frustrated with inevitably ever-changing and less than fully effective rules and regulations. So, here’s my point: I believe it may well be worth questioning the dominant logic of clarity and exploring how our communication efforts can help people (citizens, employees, customers, shareholders, our students) – how they can help all these people embrace uncertainty. I believe as business communicators we need to foreground how nuance, critique and narrative may be just as powerful as (right now perhaps even more powerful than) the supposed clarity offered by numbers.

At the start of Monday’s ABC Board meeting I showed this picture of a work of art by a Belgian artist Koen Van Mechelen to illustrate that point.

And I think it’s not a coincidence that we need to turn the world of art – rather than to statistics or to logic – to create this new insight.

Now I know that, in a way, I’m not telling you anything new. Nuance, critique and narrative have always been strong features of the business communication discipline. We’ve always felt – and I’m quoting from an article by our Executive Director Jim Dubinsky in the Korean journal BCRP, “the baseline need to study communication in situ, to understand what businesses are doing , the kinds of genres they are using or adapting, and how technologies and new media are impacting their practice” (p. 3).  Jim’s words remind me of Richard Rumelt’s observation in  Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (2011) that, in the end, all of his case-based MBA classes are about a single question: “What’s going on here?”; they are not about “deciding what to do, but [about] the more fundamental problem of comprehending the situation” (p. 79).

I think it’s the same for COVID. I’m in Belgium and I’m sure you’ve heard my current is doing really badly for COVID in spite of the many efforts we’ve made to contain the virus – and I think we’ve reached a stage where people are no longer asking ‘What should we do?’ – we’re actually wondering: What’s going on here?

I would highly recommend a brand new book by Kay & King called Radical Uncertainty, in which they argue that, in assessing management problems, too many people “get immersed in technicalities” and fail to stand back, like Rumelt, and try and understand the bigger picture, the underlying story. Kay & King argue that we need to kick off our addiction to thinking in terms of mathematical probabilities in situations where they make no sense anyway and that we need to acknowledge that policy-making, business and households are not about optimizing (in other words, efficiency and effectiveness) but about coping (getting along on a day-to-day basis).

Radical Uncertainty was published (just) before the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but it is not difficult to see how Kay & King’s argument can be applied to what we are going through right now. In fact, at one point they offer a clue themselves when they suggest that “[t]o describe catastrophic pandemics, or environmental disasters, or nuclear annihilation, (…), in terms of probabilities is to mislead ourselves and others. We can talk only in terms of stories” (p. 40).

Now if we take all this seriously, then I believe it must have methodological repercussions for the work we do: we need to consider turning or returning to ethnography and case analysis. We need to engage in interdisciplinary and multicultural exploration. And again, this is a point that Jim makes in the article I referred to.

Of course, ethnography is all about finding out what is going on, making sense of what’s happening rather than quantifying or forecasting. It’s also about reflexivity, i.e. about considering our own beliefs and actions, and – crucially - how they impact on what is going on. It is important to note here that this kind of reflexivity is not just a defining feature of a lot of qualitative inquiry; I believe it matters to all of the work we do. It matters to our teaching, for example: this morning I was in a panel that basically focused on ‘learning about learning’ – somebody argued that if students don’t know about our course objectives, then they won’t be aware of what they’ve learnt. Even more, I would argue that reflexivity is central to all communication, in business and elsewhere. To give just one example: whatever a chairwoman writes in her letter to the shareholders is not just mirroring her organization’s current state; it is equally bound to impact on it. And she’d better be aware of that. As a linguist, I would say that there is a certain performativity involved.

What I’m trying to say here is that, amid the global pandemic, more than ever, it is crucial to be aware of the essential reflexiveness (or performativity, if you prefer that angle) of all communication: speaking or writing (or tweeting, for that matter) is not just describing a state of affair; it means acting on it; and it is crucial for practitioners, for teachers and for researchers to take this into account.

I also mentioned the need for multicultural exploration, and of course that brings me to the internationalization of our association and of the discipline. A lot of you know that as the first European President of ABC in the whole of the 85-year history of the association, I have a strong interest in internationalization.  Some have argued that the global pandemic has led us to fall back on ourselves, with national governments obsessing with their own statistics and their own policies.  I think that’s true, but I believe that this very return to fragmentation makes cross-country scholarly analysis as well as teacher and student exchanges more relevant and necessary than ever before and so I would hope the crisis in the end will provide another boost to the internationalization of the discipline and of ABC.  Look at this conference: I think we’ve never been so diverse as we are this week.

To wrap up: I believe that as teachers, researchers, and practitioners we should engage with the radical uncertainty that COVID-19 is pressing on us and we can see that engagement almost as an act of CSR – I’ll rename that as Communicative Social Responsibility. In doing all that, it would be wise to engage in the kind of reflexiveness and to take the kind of international perspective that I’ve been talking about.

So: if people ask me why we’re having a conference on business communication when the world is on fire, my answer will be what I just told you.

Thank you.