ALISON DONALDSON & BOB MACKENZIE
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: writing, conversation, organisations, internet
Writing Futures: looking at writing with fresh eyes
This anthology was preceded, as most writing is, by many
conversations. These have included three annual collaborative
workshops on the theme of writing in the world of work, attended by
a diverse collection of people – a loose network of professionals
interested in the part played by writing in organisational life.
The titles of these events provide a flavour of the journey we have
been on together: 'Striking Moments' (2007); 'Inspiring Writing'
(2008); and 'Writing Futures' (2009, in Brighton). It was in
Brighton that we agreed to put together a special pdf issue of
Organisations & People on the theme of 'Writing Futures'.
Our aim has been to assemble a useful and topical anthology of
articles that raise important themes and offer a range of different
styles and perspectives on the present and future of writing. We
have not attempted or wanted to reach a unified view or
comprehensive coverage of the topic. In our experience, that is not
what the age of the internet is about, as the various articles here
point out and demonstrate. Rather, we have invited a range of
willing and respected authors to contribute thoughtpieces, with a
clear understanding that the final word on this subject is unlikely
ever to be written. In a sense, we’re simply taking the temperature
at a particular moment in the history of writing. Inevitably this
means there are many aspects of writing futures that we have not
yet explored – for example, the widespread use of email by people
to 'cover their backs', or the reported tendency to ignore emails
('No one reads emails any more – with the exception of those from
the boss' (Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times, Monday 23 November 2009,
In setting out on this journey, not quite knowing where it might
take us, we’ve found it helpful to remind ourselves of some
important milestones in the development of alphabetic writing.
Exact dates are impossible to nail down, but scholars tell us that
the alphabet was probably invented by ancient Semites or
Canaanites, and that the Phoenicians were writing in letters from
about 1000 BC. It was the Phoenicians who literally shipped
alphabetic writing – the notion of using 26 symbols to represent
all imaginable linguistic sounds – around the Mediterranean,
including Ancient Greece. Printing followed much later – in Europe
– in the 15th century AD.
It is probably therefore not too far off the mark to describe the
years 1500 to 2000 AD as the 'Age of Print' in the western world,
and to characterise the context in which writing in its various
forms takes place today as the 'Age of the Internet'.
Continuities and novelties
The articles in this issue seemed to us to fall into two broad
groupings, which we’ve called 'continuities' and 'novelties'. The
novelties are easy to point to. They are springing up constantly –
those most talked about currently seem to be blogging and tweeting
(see West, Billing and Hearsum in this issue). The continuities may
be less obvious – themes highlighted by the authors here include:
the special quality of writing by hand (Clare), the uncertain
future of scholarly writing (Franklin), the value of 'writing that
connects' (Taptiklis), and the notion of 'conversation-entwined
What particularly strikes us now, after studying all these
contributions, is the way that every new opportunity or new form of
writing seems to have a shadow side. For example, the internet is
apparently facilitating and even encouraging short, informal,
collaborative and responsive forms of writing (see Jackson 2009;
Donaldson 2009, West 2009, Peckham 2009 – all in this issue), and
anybody with a computer and an internet connection can become some
kind of author, broadcaster, networker or curator. Yet, at the same
time, all these opportunities and possibilities bring with them
possible losses or risks. For example, people can publish opinions
without taking responsibility for doing or changing anything (see
Dreyfus 2009), and without providing appropriate evidence or
argument (see Franklin 2009, in this issue).
Perhaps the ultimate question is, does writing have a future?
Despite dire warnings to the contrary (e.g. Sperber 2002), we hold
to the conviction that writing is by no means dead or dying.
Rather, it is evolving and adapting within the context of
breathtaking and unpredictable changes in communication
technologies and habits.
Despite our optimism about writing, we remain open to be proved
mistaken, and we anticipate further developments and
counter-arguments with great interest.
A note on the articles
This collection has a distinctly personal accent. The authors are
all people for whom writing is an important aspect of their
professional lives, and most have reflected on their particular
experience with writing, rather than attempting sweeping
generalisations or futuristic visions. Some reveal strong feelings
and concerns about trends in writing – e.g. Peter Franklin's The
future of scholarly writing and Jeremy Clare's homage to
handwriting, Of Mouse and Pen.
Starting with the 'continuities' group of articles,
'conversation-entwined writing' is a central theme that emerges
from Beyond paperwork
, by Alison Donaldson
article takes a particular experience from her working life
(preparing for a strategy meeting) and uses it to explore the
special qualities of writing and talking. If more people thought
about this before they sent off an email, we might all benefit.
Of Mouse and Pen
by Jeremy Clare
takes an aerogramme
received from a boy in Africa as its starting point, exploring what
we have gained and lost by adopting computers and all the
associated new writing technologies.
Writing that connects
by Theodore Taptiklis
contemplates the dominance of 'corporate writing' in organisational
life today, questioning whether it is really so fact-based and
bias-free as it appears. The author goes on to praise a different
kind of writing that provides a detailed glimpse of an aspect of
organisational activity, and thus opens up opportunities for
In The future of scholarly writing
, Peter Franklin
argues that better decisions tend to emanate from considered debate
based on sound evidence. He goes on to advocate urgent action to
equip people to judge the 'truth' of evidence and assertions made
by writers and broadcasters in today's hurried world. .
Turning to the 'novelties' group of articles, one thread connecting
them is a sense that the internet is enabling and even encouraging
brief, improvisational, informal and collaborative forms of
Improvisational writing – Miss Smith pokes back
by Paul Z
takes us on a journey all the way from old-fashioned
dictation to today's voice recognition, asking the question 'will
writing soon be extinct?'. His own answer is that there will still
be 'protected spaces' for well-crafted writing in future, as well
as myriad opportunities for short, collaborative, improvised
In Communicating across generations
– engaging Generation Y,
relates how she undertook to understand
the generation born after 1980, in an attempt to work out how her
company's website could engage this group – e.g. by adopting a
fitting style and including more interactive features.
In Twitter: collaborative writing to save the world, in 140
characters or less
, Rachael West
argues that this new
form of writing (the tweet) may offer us a way of connecting
millions of people across the world and 'prototyping' – exploring
new concepts quickly, openly and collaboratively. She argues that
this feature could be helpful in tackling the financial and
ecological crisis, providing new opportunities to build awareness
and join in solving problems.
Finally, how could this anthology fail to shine a spotlight on
blogging, so talked about today, though who knows what it will
become tomorrow? In Blogging to build a body of work
relates how, after completing his doctoral
thesis on the subject of organisational change, he wanted both to
share and develop his thinking in ways that would be of practical
use to managers.
In a related article, To blog or not to blog
offers a wealth of tips and information sources on
blogging, and reflects on the tension between revealing yourself
and presenting your business online.
Some observations on editing an online pdf journal
When we embarked on commissioning this special issue, we set out
consciously to reflect on our editorial roles in the age of the
internet. In publishing a pdf document, it occurred to us that we
may be dealing with some kind of hybrid. Is it helpful to regard
this form as a halfway house between a printed document and an
online, hyperlinked publication?
We’ve also been noticing the way conversations and writing were
intertwined throughout the process. Editing this journal has meant
engaging with a whole range of individuals – authors, the AMED
O&P Working Party, and other interested parties – in countless
and varied forms and cycles of conversations. Frequently, these
conversations have been preceded, followed by and punctuated by
writing over several months. Some of our writing – for example in
emails and reflective notes – has itself been essentially
conversational. This appears to bear out our contention about the
inseparability of writing, speaking and reading (see, for example,
MacKenzie 2008: 36 on ‘learning conversations in a multi-media
context’, and Donaldson 2009, this issue, on ‘conversation-entwined
The commissioning and publication process for this issue has also
raised for us the question of ‘what matters in internet writing?’
We’re acutely aware that, to some, the multiple iterations of the
editorial process for a pdf version of O&P may seem slow and
cumbersome compared to the virtually instant, more nimble,
spontaneous calls and responses of the ‘purer’ internet forms of
blogs, chats or discussion forums. Do publication guidelines and
quality standards still matter when writing for and over the
internet? Do we still need editors and proof readers? Or is this a
position adopted by dinosaurs who at best are stuck in Web 1.0
mode? It seems to us that certain disciplines remain useful (see,
e.g. Franklin, this issue), as do certain principles of ethics and
courtesy to readers and authors, regardless of whether one is
writing for traditional or newer platforms.
In the course of our work as commissioning editors for this
publication, we’ve also noticed how the topic of ‘Writing Futures’
has started to influence and infuse our social lives and
conversations. It may have crept up on us, but we cannot ignore any
longer the fact that the internet is transforming our lives as
professionals who write.
Join the conversations online and in person
The conversations and writing on this topic continue. We have
created a dedicated Discussion
to enable you to participate online. Please feel free to
visit this site and give your views on this topic. We are also
planning a fourth annual collaborative writing workshop in May
2010, again in Brighton, where no doubt the issues aired here will
be turned over and taken further.
Creating this November 2010 issue of e-O&P has not been an act
of sole authorship. Many people have been involved, both in front
of and behind the scenes, and we would like to give them the credit
that is their due. In front, of course, the contributions of our
speak for themselves. Behind, Vicky Cosstick
has scrutinised drafts with eagle eye and has been a valuable
sounding board for us as commissioning editors. David McAra
and Deborah Booth
of the O&P Working Party have beavered
away anonymously to create the online conditions in which this
issue appears. We are also grateful to Terry Gibson
laying the foundations of O&P’s reputation, and to everyone
else who has supported us in this project.
We would also like to thank Penny Walker
for suggesting such
an appropriate image of the Bios robotlab writing robot to grace
our front cover. In line with the conventions of Creative Commons
Attribution, we would like to acknowledge that David McAra has
adapted slightly an original photograph taken by Gastev in the ZKM
Medienmuseum, Karlsruhe, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. Gastev
uploaded this image in flickr on 6 January 2008, and Penny traced
it via a Wikipedia page authored by Mirko Tobias Schaefer .
Schaefer notes: ‘The installation 'bios [bible]' consists of an
industrial robot, which writes down the bible on rolls of paper.
The machine draws the calligraphic lines with high precision. Like
a monk in the scriptorium it creates step by step the text.
Finally, in anticipation, we would like to thank all our readers,
especially those who will take on this discussion in a variety of
ways. Please let us and as many other people as possible know what
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Donaldson, A. (2008). "Striking moments – how reflective writing
can develop new ways of seeing and acting", Organisations and
vol.15, no. 1, pp: 22-27. To be available shortly on the
Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2009): On the internet
, London & New
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. (1983): The printing revolution in
early modern Europe
, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MacKenzie, B. (2008). "Writing Interventions to Facilitate Self and
Others". Organisations and People
15(1): 35-40. To be
available shortly on the AMED website.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: Extensions of Man
Ong, Walter J. (2002). Orality and literacy
Routledge (first published 1982 by Methuen & Co).
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the
, MCB University Press.
Robinson, A (2007). The story of writing: alphabets, hieroglyphs
, London: Thames & Hudson.
Sperber, D. (2002). Reading Without Writing (or The Future of
Writing). text-e. I. J. N. Organisers; Bibliothèque Publique
d'Information (BPI), Association Européenne pour le Developpement
de l'Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche sur Internet
(EURO-EDU); Sponsor: GiantChair. Virtual Symposium, 15 October 2001
- end March 2002, text-e. 2004: The debate on this 'paper' ran live
from 31 January - 14 February 2002.
has been an independent consultant for 20
years. Her earlier working life included spells with organisations
as varied as McKinsey & Company, Which? magazine, and the
International Institute of Management in Berlin. In 2003 she was
awarded a Doctor of Management in Organisational Change. Today she
is part of a small network of experienced consultants known as 'a
working alliance', who are helping people sharpen their leadership
and influencing skills by noticing how change emerges in
is Professor of Management Learning with the
International Management Centres Business School. He also operates
his own independent consultancy, which aims to support managers,
leaders and learners in the digital age. Bob wrote his doctoral
thesis on ‘A Learning Facilitator’s Uses of Writing’, and he is
Convenor of the AMED Writers’ Group. email@example.com