NCA Inside & Out

Tim Kuhn

5 Questions with Tim Kuhn

February 6, 2020

Timothy Kuhn, a former member of the NCA Research Council, is a Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. Dr Kuhn’s research frames organizations as communication practices, and those practices depend on, and generate, authority, knowledge, identity, and (un)ethical action. Dr. Kuhn is interested in the individual-organization relationship as it manifests in personal identity construction and meaningfulness and morality in work.

1. In 2017, you co-authored The Work of Communication: Relational Perspectives on Working and Organizing in Contemporary Capitalism. What do you mean by the “work of communication”?

My co-authors, Karen Ashcraft and François Cooren, and I hoped that the phrase would be read two ways at once. One the one hand, we wanted to draw attention to how forms of work in the “new economy” increasingly rely on communication. Here, we noted that the production of value turns more than ever toward manipulating symbols, producing feelings, attracting eyeballs, enrolling algorithms, and generating images. Think of the proliferation of branding, even in the academic domain, as exemplifying those now-ubiquitous types of communicative labor. 

On the other hand, the book is about probing what “work” communication thinking can accomplish with respect to shedding light on the conduct of organizing. People in our discipline have long argued that communication should be considered a form of explanation, not merely a phenomenon. This second sense—which was, incidentally, the topic of a Forum section of Management Communication Quarterly that brought together scholars from academic fields beyond Communication—is more like a challenge for scholars of all stripes to articulate just what our communication theorizing brings to bear on this new world of working and organizing. 

To engage with that dual sense of “the work of communication,” we reframed communication itself, portraying it as a complex practice that exceeds the field’s longstanding divisions between discourse and materiality. We produced three distinct visions—we called them versions of “communicative relationality”—of how working and organizing are made real only in and through communication. They challenge some taken-for-granteds in the field, and we think they’re tremendously generative conceptual tools. 

2. What can organizational leaders learn from The Work of Communication?

I suppose it depends what we mean by “leaders.” I’m not convinced that our role as Communication scholars is to help executives make organizations more efficient or effective at achieving narrow goals; they’ve got consultants, management schools, and best-selling books aplenty for that. But if “leader” includes anyone who seeks to shape the trajectory of organizing practices, I think they can extract three lessons from the book. 

First, they should look at the multiplicity of assembled forces if they want to understand how action happens, and how they might intervene in it. Academics call this is a question of agency. Communicative relationality holds that restricting agency to the identifiable speaking person, or to independently existing “things” that seem to have power, such as algorithms, buildings, laws, or organizations, means that analysts are likely to miss the ways those things depend on a complex arrangement of forces that are woven together in practice. 

Second, leaders need to examine the communication practices that do the weaving. For example, we find that organizations operating under charismatic versions of authority tend to manufacture crises as threats to, and justifications for, the positioning of a charismatic leader as essential; disrupting the connection between a crisis and a given authority can modify the organization’s logic of practice. 

Third, the book calls for leaders to position themselves “in” the practices to articulate alternatives. This is based on an acknowledgement that the things we call organizations are multiple. Organizations can be communicatively constituted—staged, enacted, produced—in many different ways. If organizations are not stable entities, but radically indeterminate practices, then leaders can interrupt the logics guiding those practices to alter the interests the organization serves. That’s not easy, of course, and it requires a promise of new models of value based on new connections across the woven arrangement of forces. And, importantly, you don’t need to be “inside” the organization to intervene. Digital activists, for example, have learned how to manipulate algorithms and harness tools such as Twitter in ways that influence corporations’ logics of extracting data from customers (though clearly there is much left to do in this regard). 

Several years ago, I was researching a large U.S. airline, where the CEO informed me that communication was simply figuring out how to convey strength, warmth, or expertise--whichever was appropriate for the audience. Communication scholars have argued against that sort of view for a long time, and The Work of Communication goes a step further. It argues that leaders, regardless of whether they’re in a position of formal organizational authority or not, should think of qualities such as strength, warmth, and expertise as emerging from an amalgam of forces, an accomplishment of communication. That would be associated with a sensitivity to how an array of forces is always stitched together in the conduct of practice—which can lead us to look for seams where threads can be pulled. 

3. Your research has also addressed the narratives that organizational members tell about their organizations. What role do narratives play in how organizational members interact with their organizations?

I think of narrative as a depiction of “an” organization, one that lays bare some important characteristics of collective, rather than individual, practices. For example, when Amazon workers talk about becoming “Amabots,” or when they extol the virtues of the company’s ruthless fascination with data (especially with respect to the unrelenting assessments of Amazon workers’ performance), they’re not only accounting for their own action; they’re also connecting with a more encompassing claim about the organization. 

There are, of course, a great many narratives circulating in the dispersed practices associated with companies such as Amazon. The authoritative text, a construct I’ve introduced, is a vehicle for understanding how collectives coalesce around a few central statements that portray what the organization is, where it should be going and why, and how it’s going to get there. These narratives can direct attention and discipline action, but ultimately, the authoritative text is meant to be an analytical tool for gaining insight into an organization's future trajectory. 

What I think is particularly useful about the authoritative text is that it’s interested in how organizational narratives are “authored.” It’s odd to think about authoring organizations, but the concept aligns nicely with the operation of authority in practice. It helps examine how struggles over meaning, from that multiplicity of circulating narratives I mentioned, proceed, and how and why some interests win out over others in the conduct of organizing. What becomes even more interesting, then, is the capacity to consider “counter-narratives,” which are alternative narratives that contend for authority over the organization’s trajectory by reinterpreting or challenging a plot line or disrupting a canonical story. Because organizations are excellent sites in which to study struggles over meaning, the play of counter-narratives in the authoring of healthier, more ethical, or more sustainable practices is attractive for anyone seeking to lead organizations to more inclusive and responsible pastures. The authoritative text is a device to make sense of such struggles. 

To come back to the question, I see narratives less as routes for members to interact with their organization (which implies that members and organizations are distinct entities) than I do as resources to explain how power-laden communicative practices constitute organizations. 

4. Some of your recent work has examined the constitution of authority in high-tech startup entrepreneurship. What interests you about startup entrepreneurship, and what does your attention to authority tell us about it?

I’ve been attracted in much of my empirical work to locations of cultural and social power, trying to figure out how those sites work, and how one enters those domains. I’ll admit I was originally fascinated by startups because of the cross-cultural hero worship of entrepreneurs, particularly the high-tech variety, as demonstrated by TV shows, business bestsellers, academic sub-fields, incubators at almost every university, and even simulation-based video games. I mentioned earlier how I’m interested in the “new economy,” and high-tech entrepreneurs are the example par excellence of its promises and problems. It is intriguing that so many tech entrepreneurs pursue startups when they know the odds of success are not in their favor and that many believe failure to be a desirable feature of one’s background. 

I started studying an entrepreneurial accelerator in Boulder, where 10-12 teams of founders from all over the world come for 3 months to learn how to go from having an idea to creating a viable business. I found that this world is much messier, and more interesting, than I had imagined.

Authority is a key question for startups. The founders tend to think that they alone establish the trajectory for their nascent organizations; control of decision making is something that accelerators teach them about. But the original narrative characterizing the startup is threatened when the startups’ initial ideas fall flat, when their many mentors (usually reasonably successful entrepreneurs) provide conflicting advice, when technology doesn’t cooperate, when funding sources make demands on action, when the locale is inhospitable, or when legal codes prohibit their plans. In these contexts, a struggle regarding “what we are, where we should be going (and why), and how we’re going to get there” follows.  

My research on this theme is in its early stages, but I’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge that “authoring” the startup can be about its procedures, such as its goals and methods, and/or its composition, such as what’s considered inside and outside the startup’s boundaries. Sometimes authority, as authoring, involves explicit attempts to shape future decisions and direction, such as when an investor insists on having a seat on the startup’s board. There are other forms of “authoring” that go unrecognized, such as the tools an accelerator uses to have founders display and test their business models at the beginning of the program, the subtle, nonverbal reactions of other startups in the accelerator, the search for technological solutions to almost all problems, or the stress a three-month sojourn to a new city produces. 

On top of this, an interesting procedural version of authority is evident when entrepreneurs talk in the register of a noble social purpose; they portray their startups as addressing some pressing social problem, which provides the startup and its financial supporters a mission and passion to accompany their profit-seeking action. Along those lines, I’ve recently turned my attention to Benefit Corporations (B Corps), firms that pursue social purposes as part of their charter. Understanding how both high-tech startups and B Corps organize is all about authority: how decisions about trajectory are made. Across these cases, it’s clear to me that Communication scholarship can help expose how nuanced and tension-filled these organizing practices are. 

5. You mentioned the intersections of corporations and activists a couple of times. What implications does your research have for addressing that relationship? 

The conventional wisdom on the corporation-activist relationship is misguided. We take it as a given that the interests of corporations and activists are opposed, which leads corporate leaders to think they should “manage” activists, and activist leaders to believe that only spectacles or mass mobilization will convince firms to change. But if we see both parties as participants in a set of interdependent practices, perhaps we can imagine new possibilities for their relationship. Doing so requires re-imagining something we see as natural and normal about organizations of all sorts: their boundaries.

This would start, once again, with the authoritative text, that representation of what the organization is, where it should be going (and why), and how it’s going to get there. Acknowledging that the authoritative text is the result of many interests competing for authorship, there’s no reason to limit our analytical gaze to the internal workings of a firm, especially in an economy where value creation is distributed across many sites. 

When activists can locate elements of the practice that connect them to a given corporation’s authoritative text, they can find creative ways to alter the narrative that provides guidance for the company’s action. For example, many firms’ very logic for existence now revolves around their ability to capitalize on algorithms to process large amounts of data. Even more traditional firms, such as coffee shop chains, use algorithms for controlling labor and operational costs. Digital activism, as I touched upon earlier, suggests that resistance can be more than merely boycotting the coffee shop or refusing Facebook; positioned well, it can be a resource for a firm’s always-emerging authoritative text. 

If data activists can convince firms’ managements that there is a cost to exploiting user-generated data and can leverage that claim of cost to establish the shared conviction that continued exploitation of users’ data requires explicit promises of value made to those users (beyond the activity that generates said data), then it is possible that decision-making processes—the central focus of authority—can be opened to a wider set of interests. Moving in this direction would mean that a firm’s boundaries could be permeable. The activist-corporation relationship would turn to the practice of deciding about data use, instead of how the organization secures its autonomy in the face of activist threats. 

I acknowledge that this might seem abstract and maybe even naive, but if corporations are changing as dramatically as analysts of the new economy claim, opportunities open for reimagining the communication practices that shape corporate trajectories.