Towards a New Communications Model

Over the past few years, many changes have confronted communications professionals due to the Internet, the web, mobility, etc. (basically all of the new networked communications tools). Because of these new tools, a fundamental shift in the entire model of communications (including marketing, PR, advertising, etc.) is now possible. This demands a movement from the old command/control, uni-directional, war-metaphor driven practices of the past to a cooperative, multi-directional model. This week we will start to build a framework for this new model, drawing on a variety of interdisciplinary thinking in media studies, philosophy, and sociology, for example, as well as on current best-selling books touching on the issue. Our goal is to start a discussion that will continue throughout 2005 as we seek to build this new model.

Before we start, I'd like to situate myself in this discussion. I am a 15-year practitioner of communications. I have a BS in Mass Communications from Boston University, and have pursued graduate work in Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech (Northern VA Campus), but have not finished this work. I remain fascinated by the study of how humans and technology interact, and how we can avoid becoming enslaved to that technology. I began blogging in August 2003, and since than, have spent an increasing amount of time trying to understand the implications of this and other new tools for organizational communications. I have continued to read and study from a wide variety of sources in philosophy, sociology and STS. The following discussion is based on this work, but I am well aware that I am far from an expert in any of the topics discussed, nor have I read all of the important literature on each topic. However, I think I am on to something important here, and am using this space to commence formal work on developing a new communications model.

To reiterate: This discussion is meant to start a discussion, not come to any conclusions. I intend on pursuing the work through the coming months, and I welcome any others who would like to help me.

Now that I am situated (more on why that is important later) let me explain to you some of the patterns I have been seeing, and why I think we need a formalized inquiry into, not why they are forming, but how do we, as professional communicators, deal with them. There are a wide variety of ideas being thrown around, but it seems to me that the implementation of any of them has been based on intuition vs. based on an accepted framework, itself based on current thinking in the fields that impact the work.

* We hear "markets are conversations", but what does that mean in practical terms about how we re-structure our corporate communications?

* We issue calls for "transparency", but what assumptions are underlying this call that come from the old command/control approach?

* We (culturally) celebrate (at least in the US) individualism in terms of "superstars" and "experts", but success in this new world may just rely on collective effort.

* Our strategies for success, e.g., for delivering messages, relies upon an objectification of the audience (people are things, without agency). But now, the audience is no longer passive. What does it mean to have an active audience (people with agency)? How must this new assumption change our strategy for communications?

* McLuhan famously stated, "the medium is the message." What is the message of the tools we are adopting e.g, blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, etc.? How does the tool itself change the interaction between transmitters - receivers of information? How does the use of these new tools transform traditional power flows? What does that mean for communication practice?

These are only a few of the questions we need to answer. A rare challenge! Over the course of this week, what I want to do is to present a few meta-categories of inquiry and identify a theory or two that might provide fruitful insights or tools for to adopt in our quest for a new model. At the same time, four other people will be adding their thoughts on topics that interest them as associated with this new way of communicating. I hope you join in the conversation, help us out by adding your critique and pointing us in the direction of sources.

Communicative Action vs. Strategic Action

This topic relates to the question, "What does 'markets are conversations' mean in practical terms to the professional communicator?" I want to look at this question from the frame of what our ultimate goal is here: "a movement from the old command/control, uni-directional, war-metaphor driven practices of the past to a cooperative, multi-directional model." So, an obvious place to start is to look what a conversation is. How can conversation be structured so that mutual understanding can be reached that is not corrupted by power plays, deception, etc.? Jurgen Habermas' work on communicative rationality (or communicative action) can provide some interesting insight. Briefly, Habermas fears a technocracy that objectifies (reifies) humans, leaving us enslaved. He seeks a way out of this, and sees it in rational communication. This rational communication has a very specific meaning, "that all publicly relevant issues are to be dealt with by entering into discourse and that in doing so, we must presuppose that if we were to engage in communication with this intention and persist long enough, we would necessarily arrive at a consensus that would count as a rational consensus." [p. 99, On the Pragmatics of Social Interaction, 2003]. In other words, for example, when a problem arises we have to get together and talk about it with the goal of reaching mutual understanding.

But, you say, isn't this what we do already? Well, no, not really. That is because to be a truly communicative action, it has to conform to some specific attributes:

Truth: This is not a truth that arises from within a la Descartes nor a truth based only in empirical evidence. Rather, it arises via linguistic communication that bridges this gap." Rather, communicative action presupposes the normative reality of a society just as much as an objectifiable reality and the subjectivity of the agent herself." [p. 127, Pragmatics] Habermas says, "the truth that we claim propositions to have by asserting them, depends on two conditions. First, it must be grounded in experience; that is, the statement may not conflict with dissonant experience. Second, it must be discursively redeemable; that is, the statement must be able to hold up against all counterarguments and command the assent of all potential participants in a discourse." [p. 89, Pragmatics] Therefore, "To distinguish true propositions from false ones, I take recourse to the judgment of others -- that is, of all others with whom I could ever enter into discourse (including, counterfactually all discursive partners whom I could encounter if my life history were coextensive with the history of human kind." [p. 89, Pragmatics]

Normative Rightness: That is, it conforms to societal norms recognized by the people involved in the communication. "To say that a norm is valid is to say that it claims to express a universalizable interest and to deserve the consent of all those affected. Cultural values per se cannot raise this kind of a claim to validity." [p. 122, Pragmatics] And, "Claims to truth and to normative rightness function in everyday practice as claims that are accepted in light of the possibility that they could be discursively redeemed if necessary." [p. 93, Pragmatics]

Sincerity: I mean what I say as I have said it:  no deception here.

When any one of these three attributes breaks down, then one must begin a discourse to reach understanding. Discourses are arguments that are aimed at reaching shared understanding, not at sharing information. "Discourses are events with the goal of justifying cognitive utterances. Cognitive elements such as interpretations, assertions, explanations, and justifications are normal components of everyday lived practice. They fill information gaps. However, as soon as their claims to validity are explicitly called into question, the procuring of further information is no longer simply a problem of dissemination but a problem of epistemic gain. In the case of fundamental problematizations, equalizing information deficits is of no help. Rather, we ask for convincing reasons, and in discourse, we try to reach a shared conviction." [p. 94, Pragmatics]

It is important that there are no external constraints put on this discourse, else it will fail: "Only if there is a symmetrical distribution of the opportunities for all possible participants to choose and perform speech acts does the structure of communication itself produce no constraints." [p. 98, Pragmatics] And: "If all participants in a dialogue have the same opportunity to employ communicatives, that is, to initiate communication and continue it through speaking and responding or asking questions and giving answers, then equally distributing opportunities for employing constatives (as well as the subset of regulatives relevant for commending and admonishing) -- that is, equally distributing the opportunities to put forth interpretations, assertions, explanations, and justifications and to establish or refute their claims to validity -- can be a way of creating a basis on which no prejudice or unexamined belief will remain exempt from thematization and critique in the long run." [p. 98, Pragmatics]

Here are some things about all of this that I think are important:

1) It doesn't privilege any individual. No one person is more important than others. Rather the focus is on a group trying to reach consensus. The assumption is that people will play by the rules, but that assumption can always be called into question and therefore people must be able to justify their actions.

2) Accountability rests in individuals, not the group. Because anyone may be called upon at any time to justify his or her position, each person must be accountable. If they cannot justify, then communications breaks down.

3) Because each person is accountable -- is treated as a subject -- we must stick with reaching consensus vs. applying strategies. Strategies treat people as objects, and are used in order to "win". They do not belong in this environment.

4)  Transparency is necessary.  Everyone has to state his or her interests, so sincerity is not called into question.

5) Equality is built into the process. If not everyone is given a chance to voice their opinion, then the entire process breaks down.

6) Expertise is not privileged. "Expertise is no doubt a condition that must be satisfied by a competent judge. But we cannot specify any independent criteria for what counts as 'expertise'; deciding on the choice of these criteria itself depends on the outcome of a discourse. That is why, if the assent of a judge is to be the test of my own judgment, I should not like to make his competence depend on his expertise, but simply on whether he is 'rational'." [p. 95, Pragmatics]

So the question we need to ask ourselves is: How can we use this theory as a tool for structuring organizational communications? There are special problems with this when we go online, as, for example, we lose the important non-verbal queues and it becomes harder to judge sincerity. How can we build the ability to judge sincerity into the conversational platform? What new skills do we need in order to participate in this type of communication? What built-in deceptions do we need to identify?

[Aside: As I write this I realize that this methodology might be more appropriate for issues like coming to a consensus about whether we should fund stem cell research vs. coming to a decision about what super dooper widget to buy. But again, in this work I don't seek to be a purist about the theories and how/where to apply them, but rather to seek within them insights and tools I can use to transform the current command/control practice of communications.]

There are many other questions, of course, but I suspect this line of inquiry could be fruitful. And it brings us to our next topic: Cooperation vs. Competition. More tomorrow!