Business Communication Programming for the 21st-Century Business School
With many viable models available to increase, not decrease, business communication programming, it should be a goal that by the time students graduate, professional communication skills become their habit, not the exception.
Recently, a question posed on the AACSB member forum prompted discussion about a trend in business schools moving away from stand-alone business communication courses and toward a model of course-embedded writing instruction. The optimistic explanation for the trend is that it would help students learn the writing conventions of their disciplines; the cynic in me suspects that another reason is to conserve resources or use resources for purposes other than business communication courses.
The listserv question focused on whether this course-embedded model works. In my opinion, it cannot, and I believe there is a better, richer approach to teaching business writing.
Models for business writing instruction that require only a stand-alone business communication course or that require only course-embedded learning (and not necessarily with any embedded writing instruction) are better than nothing but are not optimal. The reason is that these models are rooted in a misunderstanding of where and how students learn to write and in the perception that business writing is only a skill rather than a pedagogy rooted in the academic field and applied body of knowledge that we call “business communication.”
Why Can't My Students Write?
This misunderstanding can be seen in the types of questions I regularly field as a tenured professor in business communication: “Don’t students learn to write in their freshman composition classes?” “My students took a technical writing course. Why can’t they write in my accounting class?” “Didn’t students learn grammar and writing in high school? Why do we have to use resources for this stuff?” “Why should a business college teach writing? We need to focus on business knowledge.” “Why did our students perform so poorly on our writing assessments even though they took our business communication course?”
The questions are legitimate, to be sure. I teach business writing at the beginning, advanced, and MBA level, and I, too, sometimes ask myself how my students reached adulthood with so little command of their native (usually) language. We cannot, however, teach the students we wish we had; we have to teach the students who show up in our courses. If we know that business students’ writing skills are not sufficient to meet the demands of their professions, we have an obligation to teach business writing as part of the business knowledge and skill set they have upon receiving their degrees.
Business Writing vs. Composition vs. Technical Writing
But this doesn’t answer the question of why students cannot develop their business writing skills outside the business college or in a single, stand-alone business communication course. The answer lies in the fact that composition, technical writing, and business communication courses all deliver content that responds to exigencies of the various audiences, contexts, and purposes specific to their discipline. Composition courses respond to the demands of academic writing and the audiences, contexts, and purposes students can expect to encounter throughout their academic careers. Technical communication courses frequently focus on topics such as usability, instructions, web design and web page development, to name just a few—closely related to business writing but not quite.
Students who take composition or technical writing courses certainly benefit from doing so, but they will not likely encounter topics specific to business communication such as the “you view,” factors that affect the choice of a direct or indirect approach, genre conventions for business documents, or other features of business discourse. Nor will they practice writing emails, letters, social media communication, and, yes, even memos. Even if students are required in their composition or technical communication courses to write emails or other business documents, they do so for audiences and purposes specific to their disciplines.
Business communication courses are specifically developed to teach students the problem-solving, transaction-oriented communication that enables business professionals to achieve their and their companies’ business goals and develop their professional image. Business communication courses address a rhetoric specific to the needs of businesses to move their processes, products, goals, and daily interactions forward. Composition and technical communication courses do not exist for this same purpose, nor should they given the audiences, contexts, and purposes they serve.
Close But Not Quite
Many business schools recognize the need for writing instruction that is specific to business and thus require students to take a business communication course—-which is great for introducing students to the conventions of workplace writing. The disadvantage is that a single course is not long enough for the instruction, practice, feedback, and additional practice students need to write for the workplace. In addition, if writing skills are not taught or enforced after the course, students may not develop good writing as their habit.
A course-embedded model for business writing instruction has the opposite problem. To write well students must be taught how a command of sentence structures, grammar, and business rhetoric results in good writing. My experience is that instructors in other business disciplines are happy to hold students accountable for good writing and to teach discipline- or content-related conventions but do not have the time, inclination, or expertise to teach fundamental business writing skills. Thus, while a course-embedded model for writing instruction may save resources and provide discipline-specific writing skills, it seems an unlikely model for producing good outcomes if students do not have a command of business writing fundamentals in the first place.
A Better Model
Our alumni, advisory boards, and other stakeholders agree that students need more, not less, instruction in written communication for the workplace. For my part, the solution is not a single-course option or offering communication skills only as embedded work in students’ major courses. The solution must be one that offers students the breadth and the depth of experience and training in stand-alone business courses and course-embedded writing such that, by the time students graduate, professional communication skills become their habit, not the exception.
Of course, offering a broad and deep experience requires resources, and it’s a hard sell to get administrators to devote resources when they see the development of communication skills as an expense rather than as an investment. But to offer students the education they need to acquire professional written and oral communication skills requires dedicated resources:
- Tenure-track faculty lines and long-term instructional academic staff
- Faculty and staff whose research and professional development interests are specific to business communication
- Faculty and staff who have relevant academic degrees and professional experience
- Clear and measurable learning goals and outcomes for communication across the curriculum
- Robust assessment
I am fortunate to be part of a college of business that offers required business communication courses as well as electives that lead to a business communication certificate and that includes communication assessments in courses across the business curriculum. Both our students and our stakeholders have reaped the benefits of this programming.
Business communication courses are not on their way out. I agree that many viable models are available for delivering business communication programming, but if anything, let’s work to bring more, not fewer, courses into our business colleges.
If you would like to correspond further, I would be thrilled to discuss business communication models that would best prepare our students for the workforce. I can be reached at [email protected].
Paula Lentz is an associate professor of business communication in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire College of Business. She is the academic program director for the Business Communication Department as well as the director of the college’s Business Writing and Presentations Studio and Student Professional Development Program. She has also co-authored several business communication textbooks with Kathryn Rentz, including Business Communication: A Problem Solving Approach.