Driskill: “Understanding the Writing Context in Organizations”

Driskill, Linda. “Understanding the Writing Context in Organizations.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 55-69. Print.

Originally published in

Kogen, Myra. Writing in the business professions. Urbana Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English; Association for Business Communication, 1989. 125-145. Print.



Driskill''s writing response (15 years after original publication): pleased that article''s case studies are still timely. Argues we need to "apply models to prevent problems instead of analyze them. Influencing larger spheres through research should now be our goal" (56).


Article begins: notes recent attention to writer''s attention to situation in organizations.


The Importance of the Writing Context


Provides example of advertising for mutual fund that had to be scrapped when lawyer looked at it.


Thesis: "This article presents a conceptual tool to help writers systematically tap the contextual sources of corporate savvvy that affect communication success" (57).


Structure: 1st discuss "current theoretical models'' inattention to the context for writing and the meaning of documents" (57) then "presents components of a model of the organizational context for communication and discusses how the model can systematize organizational savvy for the benefit of teachers, consultants, and writers in companies" (57).


Why Current Models Neglect Content


Argues that current theoretical positions have three slants


"Particular aspects of communication events" (genres, individual writer''s processes, communication technologies) (57): consider how many textbooks set up-- teach the form but not reason for using/ adapting form and why it matters in an organization. Also, study of individual''s writing behavior, emphasizing individual writing strategies (mostly for invention and arrangement). Very standardized approach. More recently, interest of effects of different technologies (email, word processing, etc.). "These studies tend to overlook context and to focus instead on the technology as the source of the behavior" (57). Finds each of these to be "incomplete."


"Communication systems and their abstract properties" (flexibility and direction of flow) (57): Structural-functionalist theory. Company is large, abstract machine. Shannon-Weaver model of communication:
information source]->message>[transmitter]>signal>(noise source)>channel>[receiver]>message>[destination]
Driskill notes that doesn''t address why people need to communicate or content (meaning or intentions) (58). Schramm revised S-W model "to indicate that communication takes place in an environment, involves people (not just information sources), and produces feedback (58).


"Interdisciplinary research into the social aspects of writing" (proposed by Faigley) (57): Faigley omits systems approach, suggesting "a ''social perspective'' in which writing is defined as an action ''that takes place in a structure of authority, changes constantly as society changes, has consequences in the economic and political realms, and shapes the writer as much as it is shaped by the writer''" (58). Driskill argues "social" encompasses too many meanings, opting instead for context. Meaning, according to Driskill, has "its primary source in the writing context because communication involves action and goals; it is instrumental" (58). Not limited to topic/subject knowledge. Acknowledges role of external and internal environments as sources of meaning, but states that it deemphasizes personality of writer or reader as source of meaning. Like others, she is arguing that language i"s not context-free, but situated" (59).


External Sources of Meaning: Mutual Funds Industry Example


Driskill cites case study of mutual funds advertising in the early- to mid-80s to argue that context, in this case, the external source of meaning of NASD (regulatory body), directly affected writing. States "external sources of meaning are interpreted, not absolute, influences on writers and readers. Some management scholars assume that language and reality are isomorphic, that reality is what language declares it to be" (60). With NASD, notes influence included specific phrasing and a move to more metaphorical language (60-61). Concludes: "The external environment, with its complex structure of audiences, information sources, and influences, had clearly affected what mutual fund companies managing government securities funds decided to say in their publicaitons and how writers of these ads created meaning" (62).


Internal Sources of Meaning: The Challenger Accident Example


"Structure, size, and technology of the organization will affect the roles people play and the ways rhetorical situations are defined" (63). Previous scholarship tends to look at organization''s process and structure/ adapting those processes and structures to efficiently / effectively communicate information but tend to overlook other factors, such as corporate culture and the individuals of the firm. Individuals, according to Driskill, are also sources of meaning.


Corporate Culture: "the company way." Shares myths, ideologies, values, artifacts. Structure differs from culture (think of two departments with different cultures but similar structures and how they may function differently/more/less/effectively). "Like organizational structure, but different in its operation, culture is a powerful determinant of the definition of situation and of rituals and procedures: Who speaks to whom? Who listens to whom, when, and why? Corporate culture contributes many of the interpretive standards that affect writers'' choices of content, persuasive approach, and word choice" (64). Notes how she was told to delete "hope" from a doc b/c "we don''t hope for anything around here. We decide what we want and then we make it happen" (64). Not all organizations have strong cultures, and not all strong cultures facilitate communication.
Suggests further research using technologies to investigate "how culture influences the creation of written or spoken language" (64).


Definitions of Situation/Prescriptive Paradigms: "Definitions of situation reflect the values of coroporate culture, the requirements of organizational structure, the influences of the firm''s external environment, and ways of thinking and arguing that derive from the individual''s training, education, and professional role" (65). Situation involves non-rhetorical elements but sets up rhetorical situations.


Notes reasoning process (approaches to situation) heavily influences by education and professional training, concluding "understanding the differences between the reasoning of different groups of professionals within a company or organization may be a primary key to anticipating the organization and use of evidence in documents produced by that group or person" (65).


The Space Shuttle Challenger Accident Case: Classifies it as an "inappropriate" implementation of a rhetorical situation (65). Argues that critical meeting between Morton Thiokol engineers and NASA managers may have begun "with a shared understnading of the rhetorical situation (purpose, roles, type of reasoning), but in this instance the NASA managers'' model-based logic and the Thiokol engineers'' analogical reasoning from a few specific instances produced a tragic conflict" (65). Engineers used to arguing "inductively from example" (65). NASA (Mulloy) "had a list of criteria that constituted a model for his decision making" (65). Cites testimony to conclude that "management interests differed sufficiently from engineering to produce a different conclusion" (67). HER DATE IS WRONG FOR THE EXPLOSION-- 1986 not 1987!


Organizational Situations and Rhetorical Situations


"Because of rapid changes in business environments and within companies, many rhetorical situations must be redefined to achieve greater congruence between organizational situations and rhetorical situations" (67).  E.g., recognizing that audience is more than simply the potential buyer, but may include lawyers, etc. "By using a broader model of the sources of meaning in the writing context, practitioners and teachers alike can construct more accurate definitions of organizational situations and rhetorical situations to guide their decision making" (67).


Implications for Teaching


Full rhetorical context beyond purpose, audience, and role. Include relationship between organizational situation and rhetoircal situation, and culture/values/ etc (culture). How do we define roles for those trained in different disciplines. Writing well not just genre conventions, but composing in context. Essential to validity/survival.