The digital age is all about living in the moment: just as we have grown to expect instant information from news agencies, we exchanged emails at work in rapid-fire and a growing number of our personal and professional exchanges happen on social media, in full view of colleagues and professional acquaintances. In this context, the temptation to hit “send” first and ask questions later is becoming an increasingly serious problem.
As the digital world transforms the way we share information, Professor Anca Metiu – co author of the book The Power of Writing in Organizations: From Letters to Online Interactions– argues that it’s more important than ever to nurture our writing skills at the office, and that new technologies aren’t necessarily the enemy to thoughtfulness.
Writing is one of the main ways we communicate at work – but it’s important for other reasons, too
First and foremost, writing is an integral part of the thought process – one must first write down an idea to truly explore it in its entirety. Of course, an idea might grow through oral communication – through a conversation around the water cooler for example – but innovation always involves interplay between the written and the oral. An idea needs to be put down to be developed, built upon and nuanced. If it doesn’t take shape in the written form, an idea is just words floating around without consequence.
Written communications are also important in that they let us leave a trace. This is quite universal in the sense that they exist through all kinds of media. Whether you write with pen a paper, write on your computer or even on your phone, writing allows you to leave a trace, justify your thoughts and tailor your argument to your perceived audience. The significance of writing has been thousands of years in the making. Since ancient Mesopotamia, writing has been intrinsically linked to society’s ability to organize, record history, share knowledge and fix meanings. Without writing, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Has our access to new technology hurt our ability to express ourselves through well-developed writing?
Indeed, some might argue that new technologies have led to a decline in writing ability for certain professionals and students. “Death by PowerPoint” has become an observed reality in both professional organizations and in the classroom, described as a situation where otherwise capable students and staff are unable to write and develop an argument.
Largely because the speed of communication, the ease with which we can type something and send it to somebody, we can easily forget to think first. Part of this question is technical – the way these devices are designed – but some of it has to do with practices – the way people are using these devices. In other words, on the one hand, your iPhone makes it easier than ever to send an email while on the go or post a comment to twitter. On the other hand, these same devices are letting work cut into our private time and we have less time to reflect and to think before hitting send.
There is a feeling now that people should react to things right away. This is preventing people from really using their thinking process to the fullest and express things in a more nuanced way. Managers need to understand that slow is sometimes better: sometimes you need to draft an email, put it away and then look at it later to reformulate.
Do new technologies also add value to the writing experience?
Metiu and Fayard's research shows that feelings about new communication technologies were twofold. While many felt negatively about being overwhelmed with emails and the writer’s expectations to receive an instantaneous reply, these feelings could not annihilate the positive experiences: these new tools give us the ability to write articles and design complex research projects with others while rarely meeting or speaking, make us members of enthusiastic online communities and let us keep in touch with friends and family while living abroad.
Modern communication technologies have also added practical new features to writing. In particular, they can give us easy, searchable access to archives of what has been said and to the knowledge that has been expressed. It’s more about uses and practices than it is about kinds of media. You could even be very thoughtful in writing a tweet. You could write a poem on a cell phone – and people do. New media can also be used to foster innovation. Take the example of open source software which is used to develop complex products and work out political issues by letting people share ideas and collaborate to find solutions to problems.
How should a company foster better writing skills amongst employees?
A lot of professionals feel they need to work on their written communication skills because, at the end of the day, it is written presentations and exchanges what are really going to convince a client that you have a strong product. Your written documents are also the traces you leave behind after your business with a client has been concluded. What you write shows that you have deep knowledge of a subject, of an industry or of a problem. And beyond this, documents that incorporate points that your client made prove that you’ve been listening.
For the book The Power of Writing in Organizations: From Letters to Online Interactions Fayard and Metiu interviewed quite a few people regarding their current practices. Writing courses were common in the more technical domains: architects, for example, might be able to design a building, but they also need to be able to write a complex, well argued and nuanced project proposal. In businesses around the world, we tend to adopt Anglo-Saxon writing styles: very clear, straightforward style and unadorned compositions. The reason this style has been adopted is because people are busy and they need to know the most important point of a document right way. Many business schools, including ESSEC, are now giving written communication courses.
Through their research for the book The Power of Writing in Organizations: From Letters to Online Interactions, Professors Metiu and Fayard attempt to show how writing is a creative mode of communication supporting the development of reflection and critical thinking.
"The Role of Writing in Distributed Collaboration" , published in Organization Science
"Beyond Being There: The Symbolic Role of Communication and Identification in Perceptions of Proximity to Geographically Dispersed Colleagues", published in Management of Information Systems Quarterly
"Task bubbles, artifacts, shared emotion, and mutual focus of attention: A comparative study of the micro-processes of group engagement" , published in Organization Science