One of my favorite scholars to read and to talk with in the field of technical and professional communication is Brenton D. Faber. I used his article on what it means to be “professional” communication for my first major publication, and for my dissertation, which focuses on women’s agency within large organizations, I used his book Community Action and Organizational Change: Image, Narrative, Identity (2002).
The premise is that organizations have an image that they want to portray or that they believe sums up their identity, but if narratives do not match up with that image, there are problems. He theorized this after earning his PhD from the University of Utah and working as a consultant for several organizations. He also used his consulting experiences as research, and that’s why we have a book.
And it is a delightful book. It is rare to call an academic book “delightful.” We might think of them as informative, dense, scholarly, important, or significant, but very rarely are they delightful. But this one is. He uses his personal experiences and connections with the narratives, images, and identities of places and people to introduce us to the more academic observations about the organizations within those communities. The first few pages of the book are all about attending a rodeo in small-town Utah. He and his wife experience “the bare backs and the saddle backs,” “cowgirls riding quarter horses,” and “passing hot dogs, beer, and soda pop back and forth along the rows” (p. 3). This reminded me of my own experiences after moving from San Jose, California, to a small town in Utah where we had a county rodeo, a pig chase, and a yearly celebration with beauty queens, talent shows, and fireworks.
Faber’s rodeo experience, told as a story, informs the purpose of the book. That researching organizational change and observing organizational change as a process is “about the ways people cope with change,” and teaches us about “how we research and talk about change” (p. 4). He is interested in linking the academic and the community, and his stories tie into that as well as pulling in readers. Ultimately, “Stories document our habits, successes, failures, and lessons learned. They place our culture’s defining events, oddest moments, and strategic messages into common narratives we assimilate, refine, and then pass on to next generations” (p. 21). He argues that while stories play a role in contexts of change, they may also actually construct the change themselves (p. 20).
He uses stories to examine organizations, and we learn that organizational identity is “the visible, performed interpretation of organizational culture” and he argues that it is “highly contested terrain during times of change. The term ‘organizational identity’ points to those signifiers that enable people within organizations to situate themselves as distinct from those working in other organizations” (p. 27-28). In addition, he suggests that the function of organizational change is “to affect the deeply rooted cultures of an organization by using stories to alter the organization’s visible signs of those cultures, its identity” (p. 28-29).
I saw a lot of this in the stories that women told me for my dissertation research. Many of them recounted telling their own stories in order to counter what they saw as organizational problems or deficiencies. In my favorite example, one woman heard a public narrative from a top executive in her company about how the company was one of the best places for women to work. She knew from her years of experience there and from hearing other women’s stories of harassment, mistreatment by HR, demotions, and inconsideration for maternity that this was not true. She and another woman spent months collecting the stories of women who worked for or had worked for the organization, and she compiled these into a dossier of problems that the organization faced when it came to supporting female employees. This report was given to the executive who had made those public comments, and his belief about organizational identity was altered because of the stories he heard from the inside. As a result, this woman has heard that paid family leave is in the works, but nothing official has yet happened because of her work to make such narratives visible. However, the problem has been identified, those in positions of power are aware of it, and the discussion is ongoing.
Interestingly, Faber learned that “if an organization does not invest in maintaining and telling its narratives, others will tell these narratives instead—and one can never predict what kind of tales others might tell” (p. 32). This is always a fraught experience for an organization, especially those that are powerful and want to maintain such power. Think of BP after an oil spill, or the nuclear waste storage companies that may advertise all about their “clean,” “green,” and “efficient” missions within your community. They are engaged in “the communicative process of realigning the organization’s discordant narratives and images” (p. 39). Faber argues that “change can be a stabilizing and recursive force as an organization’s stories pull discordant images and narratives back into a sense of temporary alignment” (p. 39). I’m not sure how effective some of this is with many organizations, but I certainly can recognize the attempts they make.