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Proposals for classifying business communication

Business communication can be viewed in very different ways. It can be seen as referring to all forms of communication within and between firms, and thus the object of research, as a type of corporate strategy or as an organizational unit (for further detail, see Janich 2015). With regard to communicative practices within business organizations, it appears sensible to use those definitions which systematically differentiate the various levels of business communication according to criteria of relevance for language use. The economics-based definition introduced by Zerfafi (2004) appears to be particularly suitable here. Rather than accepting the blurred distinction between “inward” and “outward”, Zerfafi differentiates according to addressee and communicative purpose, and hence according to different “mechanisms of coordination” within the communicative process (Zerfafi 2004: 20-21). He distinguishes between:

a. organizational communication, which occurs predominantly within the company and serves the specialized process of formulating and implementing strategic plans (Zerfafi 2004: 316: “arbeitsteilige [...] Formulierung und Realisierung strate- gischer Konzepte”), and so enhancing the performance and motivation of company employees;

b. market communication, which is directed predominantly outside the company and occurs largely in a persuasive mode, serving to ensure that strategic objectives govern the company’s relations with its suppliers, buyers and competitors (Zerfafi 2004: 316-317: “Durchsetzung strategischer Konzepte in den Beziehungen mit Lieferanten, Abnehmern und Wettbewerbern”);

c. public relations work, which is likewise directed first and foremost outside the company and serves to ensure its fundamental ability to act and to legitimize specific strategies (Zerfafi 2004:317: “prinzipielle Handlungsspielraume zu sichern und konkrete Strategien zu legitimieren”). The aim is to secure a positive reputation and moral integration within society (Zerfafi 2004: 317).

This threefold classification of business communication can be positioned in relation to a number of nuancing distinctions based on the situational embeddedness of specific communicative practices, in order to facilitate more precise characterizations of situation, function, and formality. With regard to types of talk or conversation in business communication, for example, Gisela Brunner distinguishes between the following pairs of concepts (2000: 7-20):

a. work-related communication (“Arbeitskommunikation”) vs. social communication (“Sozialkommunikation”);

b. formal vs. informal communication (depending on the existence of rules and hierarchies that shape communication);

c. factual/technical communication (specialist communication within the company) vs. hierarchical/economic communication (institutional forms of communication);

d. specialist communication within company divisions (“fachintern”) vs. specialist communication between divisions, within or outside the company (“fachextern”);

e. autonomous communication (linguistic acts with a predominantly communicative purpose) vs. subsidiary communication (linguistic acts with a predominantly non-communicative purpose);

f. empractical communication (linked with non-linguistic action and relating directly to it) vs. non-empractical communication.

Distinctions (c) and (d) correspond in certain respects to the overarching categorizations established by Zerfaft, and can serve, within that framework, to make more precise differentiations in terms of communicative functions, addressees and topics.

These two proposals for ordering business communication provide an initial, approximate orientation, but are not sufficient to provide a typology of communicative practices in business contexts. Such a typology is likely to remain elusive if it seeks to be both scientific-exhaustive and practical-instructive, because the contradiction between achieving the greatest possible differentiation, on the one hand, and the best possible orientation for text production and reception at the workplace, on the other, is extremely hard to resolve (Adamzik 2008). Nonetheless, linguistic research has produced a number of proposals worthy of consideration that can certainly be used and further developed, at least in relation to specific research questions.

In his typological outline of business as a domain of action, for example, Hundt (2000) differentiates, in very classical manner, on the basis of textual functions. First, he distinguishes between texts containing business terminology for special purposes and texts that mediate between different domains (e.g., between organization and mass media). Within these two groups of texts he differentiates on the basis of the following textual functions.

a. Information (“informativ”): For special purposes, texts that describe and serve to inform, such as reports, notifications, inventories and balance sheets; for general purposes, also including financial press texts such as stock market reports;

b. Direction (“direktiv”): For special purposes, texts that demand or instruct, such as orders, invoices, reminders and instructions; for general purposes, e.g., advertising texts;

c. Commitment (“kommissiv”): For special purposes, texts that contain a promise to do something, such as contracts and approvals;

d. Declaration (“deklarativ”): For special purposes, texts that create social realities or document events, such as certificates, securities, receipts.

This mode of differentiation draws on a study by Rolf (1993) of types of non-literary texts for general and specific purposes (“Gebrauchstextsorten”). Rolf collected German language names for text types in dictionaries and produced from this corpus of words a typology of text types based on these designations. Hundt (2000) scoured this corpus to find names for text types from the business domain, noting that the functional distributions in the corpus as a whole (2074 names for types of text) differ markedly from the distributions in the “business” sub-corpus (475 names for types of text, i.e. 22.9% of the corpus as a whole) (Hundt 2000: 646-647):

a. informative: Whereas 43.5% of all text types from Rolf’s corpus (1993) can be classified as informative, according to Hundt this is the case for just 22.5% of types of business text;

b. directive: 24.3% of all text types can classified as directive and the proportion is fairly similar for business, namely, 23.6%;

c. commissive: 11.9% of all text types fall into the commitment category, while in the special field of business the figure rises to 27.4%;

d. declarative: 15.0% of all text types have a declarative function, while 26.3% of business texts display this feature;

e. expressive (i.e. the function of making and nurturing contact): These text types are rare in the corpus as a whole (5.2%) and virtually absent from the business subcorpus (0.2%), which is why Hundt omits it from his typology.

Hundt cautions against reading too much into these figures because this kind of quantitative dictionary evaluation neither guarantees exhaustiveness nor takes account of semantic relations between the different designations. Nonetheless, the importance of business texts for everyday communication is demonstrated by the high proportion of such texts in the corpus as a whole (more than one fifth). According to Hundt, their divergent function distribution relative to the corpus as a whole, especially the larger proportions in the commitment and declaration categories, reflect the key requirements of business communication, namely procedural certainty, procedural rules and the creation of institutional realities (Hundt 2000: 645: “Verfahrenssicherheit, Verfahrensregelungen und Schaffung institutioneller Wirklichkeiten”).

Other studies that have dealt with written and oral business communication, and the issue of classification, also conclude that functionality - or, more specifically, the “work task” - must be the primary criterion of differentiation (Muller 2006:147 and, in a similar vein, Diatlova 2003: 219). Thus, what is otherwise a rather rough-hewn approach is rendered more specific by framing general text and conversation functions according to certain situational contexts.

In his ethnographic study of conversations in business communication, Muller (2006: 148-149) assumes that conversations and texts come to be interconnected with one another because work tasks are undertaken in a sequence of phases:

a. the initial cause;

b. the recognition of this cause;

c. the announcement of a meeting;

d. the preparation of a meeting;

e. the actual conversation itself;

f. the work resulting from the conversation;

g. the elimination of the cause.

The need to run through each individual phase, he argues, decreases in each direction starting from the core phase (e).

In her likewise corpus-based, action-theory study of texts in business communication, Diatlova (2003) also sees the key task of these confirmed by the fact that a complex pattern of action topoi (“komplexes handlungstopisches Muster”) dominates as a core pattern of argumentation in texts and clusters of texts. It always comes into play wherever a certain action is established from the very start as the one path towards a certain goal (Diatlova 2003: 219). She describes one such complex pattern of actions as a sequence consisting of the following topoi (Diatlova 2003:178):

a. starting point topos;

b. principles topos;

c. motivation topos;

d. final topos;

e. consequence topos.

According to Diatlova’s empirical corpus analysis, most text clusters (understood as interconnected texts in a process of communication) manifest this pattern of topoi in varying orders and with different weightings, thereby constituting alternative modes of procedure (Diatlova 2003: 219). The text types within these clusters can be more precisely defined according to their systematic association with the individual stages of an action, as long as their contextual embeddedness in such clusters is also taken into account (Diatlova 2003: 208). The result in the business context, according to Diatlova (2003, Section 9.5.5), consists in texts whose primary purpose is to describe a situation (starting point topos), assess a situation (motivation topos), establish certain values/norms/principles (principles topos), establish goals and purposes, and reach preliminary decisions (final topos), and/or demand or instruct a certain action (consequence topos).

Comparing the two approaches, we see that Diatlova’s description of a situation corresponds roughly to Muller’s identification of an initial cause of communication. Her assessment of a situation corresponds to this same phase (recognition of a cause) in Muller’s scheme, but also, and more closely, to the subsequent phases, viz. announcement and preparation of a meeting. The goal formulation and preliminary decision-making phases in Diatlova’s model coincide most closely with the actual conducting of a meeting or conversation in Muller’s. This phase is also a good match for establishing principles (Diatlova) - if this has not already been done while preparing for the meeting. Finally, the demand for action (consequence topos) can be found in Muller’s scheme in the work arising out of a meeting and the elimination of the cause of communication.

Diatlova (2003, Sections 8.10-8.12) makes the recipient the key classificatory criterion for determining specific text types within a text cluster. Here she distinguishes, in particular, between external recipients (suppliers, customers, shareholders and banks, ministries and government agencies, mass media) and internal ones. For conversations, as is logical, Muller enriches the analysis by adding as a secondary criterion the recipient (i.e. participant) constellation (Muller 2006: 149). By this he means not merely relations of symmetry/asymmetry but a situation- specific combination of participant roles and the tasks associated with them in the conversation concerned (e.g., reporting, asking questions, informing, advising). Taking a corpus of different types of conversation as his empirical basis, he identifies eight genres (Muller 2006:149-153), namely:

a. personal conversations (“Privatgesprache”, e.g., canteen conversations, workplace conversations with colleagues who are also friends);

b. introductory conversations (“Kontaktgesprache”, e.g., job interviews, anniversary celebrations);

c. presentation conversations (“Prasentationsgesprache”, e.g., talks, presentations of workshop results);

d. training conversations (“Schulungsgesprache”, e.g., training sessions of all types);

e. assessment conversations (“Beurteilungsgesprache”, e.g., staff appraisals, discussions of objectives);

f. planning conversations (“Planungsgesprache”, e.g., budget negotiations, strategy meetings, sales and purchases);

g. crisis conversations (“Krisengesprache”, e.g., quality circles, dispute resolution); and

h. analytical conversations (“Analysegesprache”, e.g., product team meetings, production analyses).

If we look at the results that emerge from these kinds of attempts to create typologies, there is ample reason to claim that communicative practices can be described according to relatively rough-and-ready pragmalinguistic criteria without necessarily introducing a fixed or rigid grid of genres. On the other hand, we can, like Hundt (2000), go further than merely identifying a general function and then proceeding immediately to describe individual occurrences, as is widespread in the research literature (see the literature quoted in Section 1). The comparison above of text- and conversation-oriented perspectives shows that it is possible to prove the existence in business communication of patterns of action that clearly intersect with one another, but which take different forms and can occur in differing ways in texts and conversations, and in the interconnections between the two.

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