Oral tradition and written word in the workplace

Bloomberg published a fascinating article on a potential transition from society’s reliance on the written word to a society that works more heavily in spoken word (e.g. Post-literate) even if that “spoken word” is actually written in short burst (e.g. tweets).

Thankfully, no organization has to manage the breadth of diversity and divisiveness that exists today in the United States, but it is worth looking at the interplay between spoken and written word in providing the context for the working environment (e.g. corporate culture). The Bloomberg article identifies ways to make the most of a primarily oral environment (and how Donald Trump used these so effectively):

  1. Use tightly descriptive language (e.g. Crooked Hillary);
  2. Be redundant and repetitive (e.g. “I am a leader. I am a leader. I lead people,” etc.); and
  3. Engage in reflexive debate (e.g. “You’re the puppet!”).

To the first point, any workplace teems with acronyms and lingo that can convey a great deal of information quickly. We are also quick to hammer such mantras as “we are here for our customers” or “we have to be patient-centred.” Reflexive debate may be visible in more formal meeting environments or can also take place between two people behind closed doors. Unfortunately, such quips are also part of corrosive e-mail chains. The manner in which an organizational culture allows such “debates” can be defining of the work environment.

On the other side of the divide, the written word provides the luxury of being able to reference (rather than simply recall) decisions that we have made, policy that we have crafted and lessons that we have learned. In written documentation, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to fully explore a nuanced space, for example, we can describe exactly what “customer-centric decision making” entails beyond the tagline that “the customer is always right.” Further benefits of written communication come to bear when we make such content widely available, which can promote transparency beyond the group that is directly involved.

Technology has given us excellent solutions for availability. Accessibility may provide the biggest challenge for workplace policies and procedures. The written documents become very important in dealing with such issues as compliance, governance and litigation. The expectations of these areas tend to pull us away from being “widely accessible.”

NOTE: I was recently exposed to the acronym RTFM (Read the F@#%!*@g Manual) or RTFI (Read the F@#%!*@g Intranet). The predictable “oral response” to this written barb is: Make Your F@#%!*@g Manuals More Accessible (MTFMMA).

Discussion and dialogue are the means of collaboration that are most familiar and effective. In today’s work world, “oral” may not mean just spoken (think “chat” or informal e-mail discussions). The Bloomberg article references Marshall McLuhan’s edict “The medium is the message.” In a workplace, one can expect a blending of media and messages. The written reflexive debate can get ugly very quickly. As an example (ironically), have a look at the written “oral” comments at the bottom of that Bloomberg article.