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Informal Communication, Sustainability, and the Public Writing Work of Organizations

Informal Communication, Sustainability, and the Public Writing Work of Organizations

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Published by Brian J. McNely
Pre-publication version of my paper in the Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE Professional Communication conference (IPCC). The official version is available here: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/freeabs_all.jsp?arnumber=6087195
Pre-publication version of my paper in the Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE Professional Communication conference (IPCC). The official version is available here: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/freeabs_all.jsp?arnumber=6087195

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Published by: Brian J. McNely on Nov 29, 2011
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Informal Communication, Sustainability, and thePublic Writing Work of Organizations
Brian J. McNely
 Ball State University
- Distributed work via social softwareincreasingly functions as regularized discourse withinorganizations. Social software supports a kind of interstitial organizational writing practice, whereknowledge workers publicly enact both personal andorganizational discourses that foster and help sustainboth personal and professional relationships. Thispaper details findings from two qualitative studies of social software as organizational, public writing work,exploring the role of microblogging in seedingknowledge assets and extending organizationalrelationships. I argue based on findings from thesestudies that informal communication via public,interstitial writing practices plays an important role infostering the distribution and sustainability of organizational knowledge work.
 Index Terms - phatic, tummeling, Twitter, microblogging,writing work, informal communication.
The networked writing technologies supportingdistributed work are changing technical and professionalcommunication [1]. Indeed, writing practices areincreasingly distributed and shared among professionalsin contemporary organizations, and such organizations“are by necessity writing intensive” [2]. Writing,therefore, constitutes one of the primary material traces of contemporary knowledge work; by closely following the public writing work of organizations, researchers in professional communication can surfaceextraorganizational ties that are critical to the seeding and promotion of a given organization's knowledge assets[see, for example, 3, 4]. Moreover, surfacing and tracingorganizational writing work that is often seen asinsignificant or ephemeral—writing work enacted viasocial software, for example—can help researchers better articulate and map the distribution of knowledge assets tointerested parties external to an organization.Interestingly, data gathered from qualitative studiescarried out at two very different organizations indicatethat professional writing via social software is often notacknowledged as writing work at all. At the same time, participants' intentional and strategic use of suchnetworked writing technologies reveals a keenunderstanding of the crucial role that such communication practices play in distributing knowledge assets andfostering extraorganizational relationships. Participants inthe two studies detailed in this paper used social softwaresuch as Facebook and Twitter strategically andeffectively, but they did not see such practices asorganizational
writing work 
. Instead, such activity moreclosely resembled informal communication for  participants. Despite participant's distinctions betweentheir communication practices via social software andmore traditional forms of organizational writing, findingssuggest that microblogging activities are indeed
organizational writing work 
 —interstitial and ambientwriting that often carries knowledge assets beyondorganizations and everyday organizational contexts.Social software, therefore, comprises increasinglyrelevant and ubiquitous channels for regularized and public organizational discourse. This paper providesdetails from two qualitative studies tracing interstitialwriting practices carried out via social software—in particular, via the public microblogging service Twitter.These studies yield findings about seeding organizationalknowledge work through these interstitial public writing practices; such practices in turn help foster and sustain professional relationships beneficial to both individual participants and the organizations for which they write.One of the key findings across both studies concerns therole of informal networked communication—social, often phatic (written) utterances—in establishing and holdingtogether such professional relationships.S
 As Grabill and Hart-Davidson suggest, contemporaryknowledge work often looks like writing and is largely
supported by writing activities that are “epistemologically productive”—writing creates and distributes knowledgework even as it develops as an increasingly distributed practice [5]. Spinuzzi argues that "distributed work is thecoordinative work that enables sociotechnical networks tohold together and form dense interconnections among andacross work activities" in contemporary knowledge work environments [1]. He notes that this kind of work is"deeply interpenetrated, with multiple, multidirectionalinformation flows" [1]. Grabill et al. contend that thedistribution of writing work across organizations hasmoved in part from professional and technical writers to“professionals who must write,” a situation wherein thecontemporary knowledge worker may be increasinglyinvolved in the public writing work of the organization[2].Complicating matters is the ubiquity of social softwarein contemporary knowledge work, which often means thatmore professionals are engaged in representing their organizations publicly, in venues such as Facebook andTwitter. Many organizations, in fact, encourage professionals to use social software as a hybrid personal/organizational outlet; indeed, in the two studiesdetailed in this paper, Twitter use is seen as a strategicorganizational asset. Spinuzzi notes that organizationalcommunication is changing and responding to a variety of factors, not the least of which is social software [6]. Manycurrent iterations of social software are “free andexperimental … [and] designed for mobile access ... aswell as computer access”; such software has the capacityto foster “ambient awareness of potential collaborators'activities” [6]. Just as content management systems have become essential to contemporary knowledge work  practices [2, 4], so too is social software increasinglyimportant as part of the array of writing technologiesdeployed by professionals in organizations.Zachry argues that "scholars have become increasinglyinterested in studying routine or regularized discourse andits connections to the many institutions within which people act" [7]. To study social software amongknowledge workers, I argue, is to study an emerging formof regularized professional discourse. Moreover, to studysuch discourse is to likewise study people acting withtechnology, following Kaptelinin and Nardi [8]. AsKaptelinin and Nardi contend, "the
of the activity ina rich social matrix of 
 people and artifacts
" grounds theanalysis of people acting with technology [8]. Exploringthe rich social matrix of contemporary knowledge work requires detailed, meaningful observations of complexhuman activity; intentionality and sociocultural influencescannot be gleaned by simply analyzing the
of interaction. In other words, in order to study theinterstitial writing work carried out via social softwarewithin an organization, researchers must become“embedded within these communities” [9].M
 Currently, many of the most cited studies of Twitter take a quantitative approach to understanding practicesand trends in microblogging [see, for example, 10, 11, 12,13, and 14]. While these studies are valuable for revealinggeneral patterns in large samples of Twitter activity, theyare less successful in providing the kind of granular detailcalled for by Kaptelinin and Nardi and other activitytheory approaches [15, 16, 17]. In order to develop thick descriptions of social software use within organizations, both studies detailed in this paper were conducted usingwell-triangulated qualitative methods, deploying anexploratory version of contextual inquiry [18].The two studies discussed in the remainder of this paper were, respectively, a systematic case study of socialsoftware use at a professional conference, and a broader ethnographic study of knowledge workers at a mediaresearch firm. While both studies deployed an exploratoryversion contextual inquiry as the primary methodologicalapproach at the outset, the length, detail, and field procedures of the second study (discussed below)constitute an ethnography of one workplace site. Bothstudies included the collection of multiple types andinstances of data, including:
in situ
field observations of writing and communication activities, the collection of avariety of participant-produced artifacts, face-to-faceinterviews with participants, and recorded audio, video,and still photographs. The two studies are related to oneanother in that the case study acted as a pilot project for exploring the organizational use of social software later detailed in the ethnographic study. In this way,exploratory methods of collection and analysis of socialsoftware activity were tested in the case study and thenenacted in greater detail and scope in the ethnography.The case study explored a 2009 professionalconference as an information ecology [17], considering in particular the public networked writing practices deployed by both the sponsoring organization and the participantsthemselves. Acting as a participant researcher, my datacollection consisted of observations before, during, andafter the conference (including observations of executive board and local site coordinator meetings), interviewswith a purposeful sample of participants after theconference, and special attention to collecting publiclyavailable digital artifacts produced in concert with theorganization's social software strategy [more details fromthis study are discussed in 19].Analysis from this pilot study focused on observationsof participant intentionality during planning meetings andthe conference itself, and the primary writing work carried out through conference-sponsored blog posts,videos, and the microblogging activity of a subset of conference participants. Public blog posts were obtainedfrom the conference website, while public videos werecollected from the conference YouTube channel. A
comprehensive sample of Twitter updates was collected by establishing and then exporting custom RSS feeds for the two primary conference hashtags in use before,during, and after the event (hashtags are essentiallymetadata included as part of a Twitter update to identify participation in a conference, event, community, etc.).Data collection for the ethnographic study began inJuly of 2010 and concluded in early April, 2011. For the8-
months of data collection, I had unique access toseven professionals in a prominent media research firm.For example, my participants accommodated severalunannounced site visits and impromptu observations andcopied me on all email correspondence related to the project I was studying; this is in addition toaccommodating several planned observations, semi-structured interviews, and the sharing of artifacts.The organization I studied specializes in conductingconsumer research and usability studies, and countscompanies like Nielsen, Time Warner, and ESPN amongits clients. Data collection at this site centered around thefirm's practice of “ideation sessions,” a form of consumer research similar to focus groups that uses creativitytechniques to generate rich consumer perspectives aboutmedia. I was able to study the organization as they planned, developed, executed, analyzed, and disseminatedresults from a series of ideation sessions exploring online privacy issues.The total data set included over 150 participant- produced artifacts, more than 20 semi-structuredinterviews, over 60 hours of recorded audio, some 30,000words of field notes, over 250 photographs, and almost2,400 Twitter updates, collected by establishing and thenexporting custom RSS feeds for three of the primary participants; this also included all of the updates using a particular hashtag from a professional conferenceattended by one of the participants in late 2010.My university’s Institutional Review Board approved both studies. The approach to data analysis includescomprehensive coding of all the data collected in the pilotstudy (codes were inductively derived via the generationof 
in vivo
, descriptive, and process coding methods). For the ethnographic study, the current analysis is limited to participants’ use of social software; at the time of thiswriting, this analysis included genre mapping of socialsoftware use within the organization [15] and coding of the comprehensive sample of Twitter updates collectedduring the study period (using a list of starter codesgenerated during the pilot case study, as well as newdescriptive and process codes). In both studies, coding of Twitter data was triangulated via field notes and analyticmemos, and validated via interviews with participants.W
?For participants in both studies, the organizational useof social software was clearly strategic and intentional.During observations of pre-conference planning meetingsconducted by the executive board and local sitecoordinators for the pilot case study, an organizationalawareness of the need to better leverage social softwarewas strikingly apparent, so much so that theorganizational promotion of live-blogging, a YouTubechannel, and Twitter were key to the conferenceexperience. Likewise, in the ethnographic study the primary participants were keenly metacognitive andsanguine about their use of social software to promotetheir organizational brand and seed organizationalknowledge assets (for example, by incrementally teasingfindings from their consumer research on Facebook andTwitter).Yet one of the most interesting details to emerge frominterviews with participants in both studies was the sensethat professional writing via social software isoverwhelmingly unacknowledged
as writing work 
 — especially in contradistinction to more traditional forms of organizational writing work like reports, documentation, proposals, and email. Though participants were aware thatone focus of my research was their use of social software,when asked (on multiple occasions for three participantsin the ethnographic study) about the kinds of 
theydo in their work, participants never mentioned their writing in social software unless prompted. When prompted, participants would typically respond withsurprise and belated acknowledgement that composingTwitter or Facebook updates does indeed constitutewriting.This finding leads to a peculiar understanding of socialsoftware within the realm of what these subjects consider the traditional norms of organizational discourse. There isa clear sense in which public, organizational writing in amedium such as Twitter is transitional and interstitial for these knowledge workers—such activities are significantin the main, in aggregate, but deemed less significant
aswriting work 
when considered at the level of composition.This is perhaps indicative of the emerging understandingof the role of social software within organizations— knowledge workers know such work is important, butdon't yet consider such work as part of the writing they do professionally.In many ways, then, writing for social softwareenvironments is interstitial—it circulates in the in- between spaces of organizational writing work and carriesmeaning in non-traditional ways. For example, theinformal nature of many Twitter posts in both studiesreveals a casual, often phatic, socially significant tenor,interactions that may carry more personal meaning for  participants than some sense of organizationalsignificance. But despite participants' reluctance toacknowledge things like Twitter updates as organizationalwriting work, there can be no doubt that such updates, inaggregate and alone, “count” as writing work—oftensignificantly so.

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