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vision and values

 

Through praxis we make ourselves and each other in interaction.

—Carolyn R. Miller, “What’s Practical about Technical Writing?”

 

We come from a cultural heritage that says things have a “nature,” and that this nature is fixed and describable. We find more and more that this idea is insupportable — the “nature” of something is not by any means singular, and depends on where and when you find it, and what you want for it. The functional identity of things is a product of our interaction with them. And our own identities are products of our interaction with everything else.

—Brian Eno (electronic musician, music theorist and record producer), from an interview with Eno published in the May 1995 issue of Wired

 

All things are connected, and nothing is more than a connection between others.

—Buddhist tenet, repeated in a handbook on the Korean martial art of Hap-Ki-Do

 

We learn about ourselves and test our values in active practice with others.

—bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery

 

It is customary for organizations, especially design consultancies specializing in “identity development,” to brand themselves with mission, vision, and values statements.

While I believe that having to craft a mission statement is a useful exercise for any business owner (especially those like me who have difficulty articulating the sum of their conflicting dreams and aspirations in 25 words or less ;-), I am not convinced that traditional vision & values statements have similar benefits.

What do these really mean, anyway?

Identity symbols are important, of course, for every organization; human beings are, after all, deeply symbolic creatures (homo depictor, before homo faber, as Ian Hacking puts it so nicely in Representing and Intervening). But a brand is always more than its officially-sanctioned set of meanings.

Enron’s four “values” — widely-distributed throughout the company by way of framed motivational posters, slogan-bearing coffee cups and paperweights — were:

Respect
Integrity
Communication
Excellence.

But each Enron value is inextricably bound to its “constitutive other” (e.g., respect/disrespect). And it never takes much of a misstep to bring the occluded meanings to the fore. Reporting on his visit to Enron headquarters in Houston in the 8 April 2002 issue of The Nation, Thomas Franks noted that disgruntled employees had made a collection of Enron values memorabilia “under a museum-quality vitrine, and given the resulting works of ‘art’ some sarcastic title: ‘A Lot of Bull.’ ‘Not a Shred of Evidence.’”

While Enron is perhaps an extreme case (although ongoing revelations about the pervasive culture of greed at Wall Street investment banks such as Goldman Sachs suggest otherwise), similar forms of creative play with corporate symbols abound, especially when an organization’s values are, as were Enron’s, stripped of the interactional context which gives them meaning, and made to serve a single visionary principle that has little to do with the actual corporate practices most of us encounter in our daily lives. Hence, what starts out as a coherent set of symbols intended to help us coalesce around common goals — by outlining a shared culture and sense of purpose — soon becomes rigid and irrelevant to the world of everyday practices. I would argue that we need organizational symbols which are flexible and adaptable, as well as stable and enduring; too often, what we get are dichotomous values which fixate on being at the expense of becoming.

As with our personal identities, organizational identities are multifaceted and situationally specific. Each of us is many different things to many different people, and never all at the same time. To further complicate matters, organizations have multiple stakeholders (e.g., owners, administrators, workers, employees’ families, customers, potential customers, competitors, business partners, outside colleagues, government regulators, the local community, and increasingly, the global village), with multiple interests and priorities, some of which will conflict. Simply adhering to four abstract values — Enron’s Respect, Integrity, Communication, Excellence — will not ensure harmony, or even an equitable balance, among stakeholders. For that, we need more substantial, and better integrated, guides to conduct and practice.

Once we accept that institutional character is at the same time stable and dynamic — in the words of molecular biologist Steven Rose, shaped by “the interplay of specificity and plasticity” — we can begin reassessing our (often ineffective) use of signs & symbols to create and communicate desirable group identities for ourselves. So rather than try to fix the character of Communicating By Design in the usual short list of dichotomous values, I have decided to describe who we are — and what we aspire to be — by explaining some of the both/and principles undergirding what we do and why we do it.

My intent here is to shift attention away from “values” conceived as ethical abstractions to what I would consider more traditional rhetorical values, invented — “in the literal use of the Latin word inventio, employed by rhetoricians to stress finding again or reassembling from past performances, as opposed to the romantic use of invention as something you create from scratch” — by looking AT, as well as looking THROUGH, actual practice. (The looking AT/THROUGH conceit is from Richard Lanham’s The Electronic Word; the quote about inventio is from Edward Said’s “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.”)

Some both/and values guiding
Communicating By Design conduct
and practice

Even a cursory review of these should reveal that we are comfortable with (at times, even thrive on): changing circumstance, risk, uncertainty, paradox, contradiction, provisional truths, experiment, failure (the better to succeed), constructive criticism, collaborative learning, interdisciplinary approaches, crediting the “hunches” that come with age & experience, and making difficult but needed trade-offs.

And herein, I believe, resides Communicating By Design’s “distinctives” (as in “Vision, Values, and Distinctives”).

more about some of the
both/and concepts that
undergird what we do
and how we do it ...

References

Frank, Thomas. “Shocked, Shocked! Enronian Myths Exposed.” The Nation 282.13 (8 April 2002): 17–21.

This article is available online at no charge.

Hacking, Ian. Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. 1983; 7th rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. (ISBN-10: 0521282462 and ISBN-13: 9780521282468.)

hooks, bell. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. Boston: South End Press, 1993. (ISBN-10: 0896087336 and ISBN-13: 9780896087330.)

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. (ISBN-10: 0226468852 and ISBN-13: 9780226468853.)

Miller, Carolyn R. “What’s Practical about Technical Writing?” In Technical Writing: Theory and Practice. Eds. Bertie E. Fearing and W. Keats Sparrow. New York: Modern Language Association, 1989. 14–24. (ISBN-10: 0873521811 and ISBN-13: 9780873521819.)

Rose, Steven. Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism. 1997; rpt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. (ISBN-10: 0195150392 and ISBN-13: 9780195150391.)

Said, Edward W. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” The Nation 283.12 (17 Sept. 2001): 27–36.

This article is available online for a fee. Subscribers to The Nation have free access.

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