Friday, September 7, 2007

The Hollow Conversation

Putting aside my penchant for trying to take on the Cluetrain Manifesto with either polemic or brash tomfoolery, let me now try to address the issue by framing it in a historical context. The basis for the frame is the concept of "conversation;" and, while I have already tried to frame conversation without the broader concept of the "interaction ritual," in this case I would like to take a more business-oriented approach and frame it in terms of "organizational communication." In order to do this, however, I must first recognize that those "terms" of organizational communication have evolved considerable over the roughly fifty years that both the practical world of business and the academic world of the professional literature have recognized it as a valid and significant topic. Therefore, I would like to offer a quick historical sketch of how the semantics of the phrase "organizational communication" has changed, based on the subjects of publications in that professional literature. These are the "phases of evolution" I would like to propose:

  1. Propaganda: This had both an external side (public relations) and an internal one (if anyone remembers the "home organ").
  2. Effective electronic mail usage: This initially concentrated on internal communication but gradually branched out to the external, starting with suppliers and distributors and eventually extending to customers (always getting the short end of the stick).
  3. Decision support through groupware: These tended to be studies of how Lotus was being used and how much impact (positive or negative) that usage had.
  4. Communication network theory: This had to do with how social networks formed, developed, and dissolved, with particularly attention to the role played by technologies, whether electronic mail or more sophisticated groupware. These studies were to first to take a more integrated view of the internal and the external. However, they were mostly descriptive (meaning that managers are still not sure what to do with the results).

This brings us to the present day, when Marx and Engels have been vindicated for their observation that the conduct of business is, above all else, a matter of "internal and external intercourse." (No, this is not from The Communist Manifesto; it is from The German Ideology!) On the surface that Marx-Engels phrase would appear to be just Cluetrain-speak. However, aside from my contention that the Cluetrain folks have only the most superficial conception of what a "conversation" really is, what is most important is that the "intercourse" itself is about more than just markets. What is missing from the picture, whether it is painted by the Cluetrain theses or by the evangelists for social software, is that, while technology keeps throwing out more and more ways to enable all that intercourse, the people empowered by the technology are still very much at sea when it comes to the content of the intercourse.

One of the popular protest mottos during the Vietnam War was, "What if they gave a war, and nobody came?" Today we seem to be addressing an analogous question, "What if we all gathered in conversation, and nobody had anything to say?" We all know this kind of situation. We have encountered it at countless parties. Our usual reaction is, to return to Goffman's terminology, to let ritual trump interaction and babble away on a sort of "automatic pilot." In many ways this would be the worst-case scenario behind that old Xerox marketing injunction to "keep the conversation going" (at the same time, giving the raspberry to Richard Rorty who coined the phrase in the context that "keeping the conversation going" was fundamental to the practice of philosophy).

There is an old joke about behaviorism that goes back to the days of Skinner. One behaviorist says to his colleague, "Boy, I am really impressed with operant conditioning. I have now trained my five-year-old to do anything I want!" He then pauses a bit and says, "So what do I want him to do?" So it is with the current state of that "internal and external intercourse." We have more "power of conversation" than we have ever had before. What we lack is the power to figure out what to talk about; so our conversations, if we hold them at all, turn out to be as hollow as that "automatic pilot babble" that takes place at so many social gatherings!

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