Fanning Center for Business Communication celebrates 20 years

Author: Nancy Writer

The Eugene D. Fanning Center for Business Communication at the University of Notre Dame marks its 20th anniversary this year.  These two decades have witnessed dramatic changes in classroom technology — from blackboards to streaming video, for example.  But even more important are the changes in the way communication is taught, says the center’s director, James O’Rourke IV.

“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, our emphasis was on document preparation and formatting, along with expressive, plain English,” said O’Rourke.  “And, while those issues are still important, the landscape has changed dramatically in the last 20 years.”   Three factors have caused us to re-think the way we approach business communication today: globalization, technology, and stakeholder empowerment, he says.

“Our audience is much larger today than it was 20 years ago.  It’s much more globally dispersed, and it’s much better connected.  Business managers today must think about a wider, more diverse set of stakeholders— ­­people with a real interest in the outcome of your management decisions — who now have the ability to talk among themselves,” O’Rourke says. Speaking on behalf of a business organization today requires managers and executives to anticipate that people around the planet will have an opportunity to react instantaneously, he adds. 

“At the very least,” O’Rourke says, “today’s communication plan must include a digital strategy and a plan for responding very quickly, whether the news is good, bad or neutral.”  The Internet and digital technology have changed not only how we communicate, but when, where and why, as well.

Originally called the Notre Dame Center for Business Communication, the Fanning Center was founded in August of 1990, when O’Rourke, who had taught English at the U.S. Air Force Academy, joined Notre Dame’s business school and set out to create a center for the study of business communication. The center was renamed in August of 1996 in honor of benefactor Eugene D. Fanning, a Chicago businessman and graduate of Notre Dame’s Class of 1953 who taught undergraduate communication classes at Notre Dame from 1989 to 1992.

One of the major innovations in the business communication classroom has been the use of case studies, in which students hone their communication skills by solving authentic business problems. While top business schools have used case studies for years, their primary use was to illustrate management principles. O’Rourke realized that these real-life studies were valuable tools in examining communication responses as well.  In the Tylenol poisoning case, for example, the traditional case might examine product issues. But there were valuable communication lessons offered, too, by what Johnson & Johnson had to say about the crisis and how the company distributed their message.

O’Rourke found a niche for the Fanning Center in compiling business communication case studies. Today, Fanning faculty and students together produce about 15 case studies per year, which are used by dozens of the best business schools in the world. Notre Dame publishes more case studies in management and corporate communication than any other school, O’Rourke says.

Speaking more broadly about trends in the world of business communication, O’Rourke said that one change that has had a direct impact on corporate operations is the emergence of stakeholder engagement. Twenty years ago, companies could strictly control corporate information. But today, managers no longer own their brand; they are better characterized as stewards on the behalf of stakeholders, O’Rourke says. This change carries with it a public demand for transparency. Given technology that offers instant access to information, companies no longer can contain their decisions within the executive suites or boardrooms, or hard-to-access financial statements. 

When a product is recalled, for example, a company will release information hour by hour on plant closings and faulty ingredients. This is necessary, O’Rourke says, to build trust with key stakeholders: employees, customers, investors, vendors and lenders. “If you lose trust, your business will collapse.”

The notion of “transparency” in business today means that people must be able to see what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and question why you’ve chosen to go about it in this way.  “That means,” says O’Rourke, “that each of our students must be firmly grounded in business ethics and moral decision making.”  Every communication act has both ethical implications and moral consequences, he adds, explaining Notre Dame’s insistence on a values-based education.

Another trend he observes results from technology’s relentless intrusion in our lives. For young people, there’s a positive effect to frequent messaging, e-mailing and texting: They stay in touch with each other very well. However, the resulting writing style is at odds with the traditional expectations of the business world. “This means business students must become multilingual, learning one method of expression for their friends and associates, and another for the business world,” O’Rourke says.

Convincing students of the value of language in problem solving is a major accomplishment of the Fanning Center, O’Rourke says. “There is an assumption that the numbers contain the answer in every case. I would argue that if you talk to employees, listen and communicate with key stakeholders, you will produce opportunities” for wise problem solving.

Some observers say business schools need to teach more technology.  O’Rourke believes that technology is important but incidental to the classroom experience.  He wants students to be able to make good decisions when they face ethical dilemmas that will affect employees and other stakeholders, and to do that they will need to refer to their values education, not technical instruction. “The key is to understand when training is required to address a problem, and when you must rely on the values acquired in education.”

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