By Carla T. Kungl, M. Blake Hargrove, and Debra F. Hargrove
Purpose: The purpose of this article is to present a case history of one company’s project to refine and define its core values statement. In this case, the company chose to employ both traditional technical communication technique and the fine arts of creative writing, graphic design, photography, and illustrating.
Method: This article provides a detailed description of the process that one company employed to update an existing core values statement. It also provides the reader with specific guidance on the company’s process including the use of social science tools and the inclusion of fine arts.
Results: The results of this case history document the production of two specific cultural artifacts, a booklet and a book, which demonstrate the purpose and efficacy of using a combination of technical writing and the fine arts to produce artifacts that both convey meaning in a technical sense and evoke emotion in an aesthetic sense.
Conclusion: The intentional use of the fine arts can help a company create a core values statement that becomes an important cultural artifact and can help employees not just understand their role in that business but to also see how they are valued as part of it. Technical writing faculty should encourage students to incorporate creativity, and technical writing practitioners can use the artifacts developed in this case study as examples of work that can be produced through the intersection of the fine arts and technical communication.
Keywords: technical communications, fine arts, core values, creative writing, social science
- Provides an informative process for other organizations
- Employs social science tools to minimize bias and guesswork, and to maximize employee input
- Demonstrates the need for companies that wish to make their values a cornerstone of their operations to make a significant investment in producing high quality artifacts
- Adds to the growing body of technical communication literature that values artistic creativity
Developing and documenting the defining statements for a business, including its core values, can be a tough proposition. One can picture the process a well-meaning company might run through: Its people sit through meetings, hammer out words, hash through iterations. If the company is lucky, those people working on creating core values are not just those at the top but folks throughout the organization who feel like they have a say. And if it is really lucky, those words on the page that become core values actually mean something to the company and the people working there.
Unfortunately, this is where many companies stop: They did the work, had the meetings, and the finished product sits on a shelf for anyone to pick up or read in the employee handbook (see, for instance, Lipton, 1996; Jawahar & Gavin, 2003). A few glossy posters might be tacked up in the hallways here and there. But writing a set of core values should do more than check off a box under “good business practice.” This article suggests a path forward using creative and cooperative invention to revitalize a business’ core values statements, using the example of Dallas-based PCI, a mid-sized high-growth organization that specializes in creating alumni directories. Its authors, a technical writing professional and professor, a business consultant and professor who worked with PCI first-hand, and a human resources specialist whose job success requires incorporating and interacting with core values, see this company’s process of creating core values statements as not just successful for PCI but informative for other businesses.
The authors describe in this article a case history that illustrates the successful relationship between technical communication, other artistic creativity, social science, and business practice. The PCI team’s interdisciplinary approach incorporated the fine arts of writing and graphic design beyond their more traditional uses in technical communication, with the eventual deliverables, a 24-page Redbook and an 80-page Blackbook, showcasing how artistic creativity can invigorate a company’s typically mundane values statements.
In the rest of this article, the authors discuss literature on creating core values statements and on the intersection between technical communication and the fine arts. We provide a broader overview of the company, PCI, and detail the methods used in the case. After briefly discussing some results of the project, we conclude with the implications of this case for other businesses and for practitioners or professors of technical communication in general. As a whole, the case history suggests a method of developing a core values statement that can successfully help a company’s workforce envision how they can interpret and live out those values. Additionally, the products that result from the creative process can be more successful if nontraditional artistic elements are incorporated into them. Lastly, this article adds to the recent body of literature in the technical communication field that supports reconnecting and revaluing the creative and innovative thinking that undergirds the technical communication field.
This section provides a brief overview of Publishing Concepts Inc., the company where one of the authors worked to help revamp its core values statement. Next, it includes literature reviews on core values statements and creativity in technical writing. We look to lay the groundwork for understanding how this project combines solid business practice with creativity in technical communication.
The Core Values Project that lies at the heart of this case study took place at Publishing Concepts Inc. (PCI) during 2019 and 2020. PCI is the national leader in directory and association directory publication. The company has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, moving from approximately 80 employees and 10 million in sales to 350 employees and 48 million in sales. During the same growth period, the company has consistently been named as one of the best companies to work for in each of its four principal locations: its original Dallas location and its additional offices in San Antonio, Texas; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Little Rock, Arkansas. These honors are based on anonymous third-party surveys completed by the employees at all participating companies, with employee engagement and satisfaction the main determining factors. The company’s growth and accolades over the past five years indicate the high esteem it holds among its employees.
PCI is an intentional organization, meaning that every aspect of the company in both policy and practice is purposefully and proactively designed rather than organic or reactionary. This especially includes its organizational culture. Drew Clancy, PCI’s president and CEO, understands his role to be the visionary for the organization, and most of his in-house time is intentionally spent on culture-building, rather than on operational activities. During late 2018 and 2019, under Clancy’s leadership, PCI reviewed and revised its 2008 core values statements, as Clancy believed they no longer reflected the company’s current culture. His desire to revisit these statements bears out research that such statements have a positive effect on the longevity of successful companies, helping them make effective decisions and lead to an organization’s success (Lipton, 1996; see also Evans, 2005; Allio, 2006). In his opinion, culture is PCI’s principal source of competitive advantage and guides the company in every aspect of their business activity (see Figure 1). In fact, the entire “core values project” at PCI—from systematically gathering input from across the organization, to clarifying the meaning of the core values, to creating deliverables based on them—is a reflection of the company’s desire to train employees on the unique corporate culture of the company. In undertaking the core values project, the CEO invested significant time and financial resources in making sure he helped build a culture that employees could see themselves a part of.
At the end of a nearly three-year process and with the assistance of one of the principal authors of this article (who was employed as Associate to the President for Culture), PCI produced two deliverables. The first publication, the Redbook 2.0, is a short 24-page graphic-intensive booklet designed to facilitate orientation sessions, to be placed in the hands of each PCI associate (PCI’s term for employees). It is also available in each conference room to serve as a consistent reminder of the importance of culture to PCI, and it serves to represent PCI’s culture to outside stakeholders. The second deliverable, the Blackbook, is an 80-page hardcover work designed as a training document with a deep level exploration of the core values. Each of the Blackbook’s five sections, one for each value, contains explanations of the meanings of the key terms in each of the values, a deep level explanation of each supporting sentence, an original story that epitomizes the support sentences, and an illustration for each of those stories. In total, the Blackbook contains more than 13,000 words of technical writing explaining the statements and terms and an additional 9,000 words of creative writing in the form of company stories that bring these values to life. For each of the stories, photographs and other artwork complete the work. These artifacts flex the boundaries of creative and technical writing in the workplace and helped PCI develop core values that reflect their company’s culture and embody its philosophy.
Developing Core Values Statements
Though there is abundant popular literature on the importance of a company having vision, mission, and values statements, there are very few articles in academic journals from the business and technical communication fields specifically on writing or revising core values statements. Articles from the 1990s and early 2000s discuss core values in terms of a company’s “ethics” (Milton-Smith, 1995) or “corporate responsibility” (Were, 2003). Lipton (1996) offers an excellent discussion on the importance of writing a vision statement and ties “consistent, clear, and shared values” to the effectiveness of an organization and the satisfaction of that organization’s employees (p. 88).
But it wasn’t until after the Enron scandal and the ensuing passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that companies took seriously the idea of creating core values statements, not just for exhibition to those outside the company but as an integral part of good business practice (Cady et al., 2011). Manohar and Pandit (2014) give an excellent idealistic overview of what a company’s core values should be: “these values and beliefs form the philosophy and ideology of the organization, and define the purpose, mission, and long-time commitment of the organization. An organization’s core values reveal what the organization stands for” (p. 667; see also Kaplan et al., 2008). Additional literature on the ways that companies use or develop core values range from how core values might help a company innovate (Manohar & Pandit, 2014); how they can encourage conversations among employees and thus help them live out those goals at the workplace (Björkvall & Nyström Höög, 2019); and how more organic core values, as opposed to “mechanistic” ones, help managers in the business sector (Jin & Drozdenko, 2010) and the financial sector (Jin et al., 2012) feel a stronger sense of social responsibility. Wæraas’ (2015) study of federal agencies show that these agencies prefer to develop “soft” values such as integrity and respect to express their identities.
The challenge with these organic, soft, conversation-provoking values statements is that they still have to translate into something livable for employees. How do you help companies and employees SEE those values in action? How do companies create and live out their codes of conduct or their core values? Again, there are very few articles that discuss how businesses might develop a meaningful and understandable core values statement (exceptions include Kaplan et al., 2008; Marcus & Roy, 2019; Shapiro, 2016). The path taken by PCI was to combine social science practices to involve the company’s associates in developing the core values with the creation of artistically-imbued artifacts that both exemplify and embody the core values that were created, underscoring the connection between technical communication and artistic creativity.
Creativity in Technical Writing
There is ample space in business practice and in technical writing for creative thinking, creative processes, and creative production. Of course, there remains a difference between strictly “technical” writing, which we know must be honest, conveyed with clarity and accuracy, etc; and “creative” writing. An early piece on the knotty distinction, VanDeWeghe’s (1991) article muses on the importance not just of definitions between technical and creative writing but how we should use these terms to reimagine what our field does: “Writing technical documents and writing poems is not the same thing,” he argues, but we need to see ourselves as more than “’mere technical writers’” as we describe to others the creativity that occurs on the job (p. 298; see also Raymond, 1981; Wight, 1985; and Rutter, 1985 as other early examples of this exploration).
But these early articles are outliers in their appeals to technical writers to embrace creativity and remember the fullness of writing practice. More recently, however, there have been louder calls to re-examine and reclaim the imaginative work that must go on behind the scenes, in the highly relevant inventive processes that stem from rhetorical thinking and that both technical and creative writers must practice (of which this special collection is an example). Several recent articles on workplace writing suggest ways that teachers of technical communication can help students embrace creative elements as they move forward (Zhang & Kitalong, 2015; Brady & Schreiber, 2013). Bekins and Williams (2006) provide advice similar to VanDeWeghe’s (1991) from fifteen years earlier on how technical communicators should present themselves to others at work: “We must adopt language that more explicitly (and accurately) positions us as creative workers” (p. 289). Moeller and McAllister (2002), though they reject the model of students as “workers in training,” argue that teachers of technical writing need to reclaim “techne” as a creative force in the classroom and help students understand that creative processes undergird technical writing. They issue a forceful call to arms: “So, let us be forthright and idealistic about whom technical communicators are; they are artisans. They work under a variety of constraints but are not determined by them because they are liberated through their creativity” (p. 204).
As further relates to the project at PCI outlined here, articles examining visual rhetoric and how it is understood, incorporated, and used in the workplace by technical writing practitioners abound. Portewig (2008) focuses specifically on how invention techniques drive the creation of the visuals (rather than the writing) that result from the inventive process. Harrison (2003) notes the immense increase in visuals that technical writers have been asked to produce and offers social semiotics as a framework for understanding how images and text work together. Several articles also examine the ways humans understand and interact with visual imagery: through multimedia museum exhibitions (Kitalong et al., 2009; Kim, 2005); in aviation graphics (Mara, 2009); through cinema (Gillette, 2005); or through Internet graphics (Rawlins & Wilson, 2014).
Sam Dragga’s (2011) article on building dialogic codes of conduct effectively brings these two strands—of creative technical communication and business practice—together. He discusses how illustrations can communicate aspects of a business’s code of conduct as one of five important factors, citing research that discusses the importance of visual rhetoric to communicate not just factual information but also emotions, ethics, and morality.
Similarly, our case history of how PCI revamped its core values statement provides an excellent example of what artistic creativity can look like in contemporary technical communication practice, examining specifically the visual rhetoric that was created to impart the company’s vision. Moving beyond the traditional products that emerge from writing or rewriting core values, PCI developed two stand-alone booklets that incorporated both the standard graphic design elements inherent in much technical communication as well as creative writing, narrative, photography, and drawing and illustration.
The following section details the procedure PCI used, incorporating social science techniques, visual artistry, and creative writing, to first understand how associates collectively saw the company’s core values and then to how best communicate those values. In part because of the collaborative and truly “inventive” way the Associate to the President for Culture (APC) helped lead the company members through revising their core values statement, the CEO was inspired to go beyond a traditional bare-bones statement in an employee handbook. Instead, the CEO made the business and artistic decision to create two publications as artifacts of the PCI corporate culture. The publications themselves are exemplars of the intersection between technical writing, graphic arts, and creative writing.
Incorporating Social Science Techniques
Here, we describe the survey and focus groups the APC used to help senior management get a sense of how employees at PCI understood and felt about the company’s current core values statement.
Upon being engaged at PCI, the APC was provided with Core Values Statement v3.1, which included the following five values: Pursue Excellence Purposefully, Unlock Human Potential, Act with Integrity, Innovate a Culture of Relationships and Fun, and Lead with a Servant’s Heart. These values were established during 2018 by a process that combined input from top leadership and long-time associates. Core Values v3.1 had evolved from a previous value set that was established in 2008. The name indicates that it was an iterative process with a v2, a v3, and a v3.1. Senior leadership was thoroughly pleased with these five values and instructed the APC to leave them untouched in any revisions.
Each core value was accompanied by a brief support sentence, but senior leadership was not fully satisfied with these. Specifically, the CEO felt that the sentences did not reflect the meaning of the values themselves; nor did they reflect the way rank and file associates understood the values. Thus, the purview of the revision was not to develop new core values but to determine how employees understood the core values statement and to develop support sentences that better reflected the meaning of each value. The APC, a trained social scientist, chose to take an investigatory approach to examining the existing Core Values v3.1 (Gilner et al., 2011) and developed a survey instrument designed to quantitatively assess the following research questions:
- Do PCI associates recognize the existing core values?
- Do PCI associates recognize the existing support sentences and associate them with the coinciding core value?
- How do PCI associates define each of the key terms contained in the core values?
- How do PCI associates see, or not see, the core values being enacted?
The use of a primarily quantitative approach was balanced with the use of focus groups to do qualitative sense-making of the quantitative data (Phillips et al., 2016; Cerulo, 2018). In addition, the APC intended to rely on quantitative data outputs, such as charts and graphs, that he felt would be more easily understood by the focus groups. Finally, in the final sections of the survey, to explore the fourth research question, respondents were asked to provide open-ended, qualitative responses.
The CEO provided the APC with 200 names and emails (out of approximately 400 associates) whose tenure was greater than six months and who thus had some familiarity with PCI culture. Because of the selection bias in sampling, the generalizability across the company was compromised. It would have been more desirable to sample the entire associate population, but the CEO made a business decision to select approximately half based on two factors. First, the surveys were taken “on the clock,” so selecting half of the population was approximately half as expensive. Second, he felt that the opinions of associates with longer tenures were more likely to be enculturated at PCI. Because no control group was employed and only half the associates of the company were invited to participate, all results represent the respondents rather than the organization as a whole. In other words, without further testing, it is not possible to determine whether the survey’s results were generalizable across the whole organization.
Among the 200 associates who were sent the survey, 126 (n=126) opened the email and began the survey (63% gross response rate). Of those 126, 89 completed the survey entirely (44.1% complete response rate) and 37 made partial responses. These response rates are reasonable given that the survey was voluntary, took on average more than 30 minutes to complete, and diverted associates from their normally assigned duties. Respondents were first asked to provide their tenure at PCI, their job, their ethnicity, and their sex (male or female were the only options, per the CEO’s decision). Table 1 is a summary of the demographic results. These results indicate that the survey reached a diverse sample of the population; the People Department (Human Resources) confirmed that these results approximated the demographics of the organization. Taken together with the survey response rate, this provides some evidence that the sample reasonably represented the population of PCI associates with greater than six months tenure.
Following the demographic portion of the survey, participants were asked to respond to a number of items. To elicit information for the first research question, associates were asked to identify the five current values at PCI, choosing them out of 16 phrases often used at PCI. Figure 2 presents a graphic representation of the results of this portion of the survey; Table 2 presents the overall “penetration rate” of the five values among the respondents. These results indicate that a majority of PCI associates responding (>81.7%) were able to identify the five values.
For the second research question, respondents were asked to match 17 existing support sentences with one of the associated five core values. For example, the support sentence “We require complete honesty and integrity in everything we do” would correctly match with the value “Act with Integrity” and would incorrectly match with any of the other four values (see Table 3 for a summary of the matching results). Results ranged from a low of 22.2% correct to a high of 93.7% correct. Overall, 63.9% of the statements were correctly matched with the corresponding value, providing some evidence that a majority of PCI associates responding to the survey understood which supporting sentences were associated with which value.
The third research question asked respondents to choose synonyms for fourteen key words in the Core Values v3.1 to help them interpret and define those key words: pursue, excellence, purposefully, unlock, potential, act, integrity, innovate, culture, relationships, fun, lead, servant, and heart. The number of synonyms provided for each key word ranged from 10 (“culture”) to 36 (“integrity”) with an average of 20 and a median of 18. Respondents could choose two from each set of synonyms. The frequency of choices made by the respondents here in the survey helped the focus groups in the next step of this methodology extract themes from which to build consensus (Figures 3 and 4 are sample results for two of the key terms, innovate and servant).
Next, the survey returned to an exploration of the second research question. Respondents were asked to rate the alignment of each of the 17 statements with the corresponding core value, using a six-point Likert rating scale: “I strongly disagree that this statement is well-aligned with this value,” disagree, somewhat disagree, somewhat agree, agree, and strongly agree. In all cases, more than 80% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the statements were well-aligned with the corresponding values.
The final set of open-ended survey items explored the fourth research question. For each value, the survey required two qualitative responses (one positive, one negative), typical of scale development studies (Spector & Pindek, 2016; Loman et al., 2018). The positive formulation for these questions was: “For this question, we are going to ask you to make a mindful response. Please take three deep breaths. Now, take a moment to consider the core value ________ and an example of how you have seen this value in action at PCI. Please close your eyes and take five deep breaths. Okay, now please relate a specific incident of specific action taken by a PCI associate that you believe really exemplifies the core value ________. If you would like, you may use names. Remember, be specific in your response.” The negative formulation was identical in all but two ways. It asked for a specific incident “where you or another associate has fallen short of taking an action aligned with that core value” and directed respondents to “not use any names” in their responses. Word clouds were created for all the responses as aggregated for each value (see Figure 5 for a sample word cloud for the positive responses to the value “Innovate a Culture of Relationships and Fun”). A text analyzer was also used to identify the frequency of words and phrases found in the aggregated responses (https://www.online-utility.org/text/analyzer.jsp, accessed May 2019).
In order to extract meaning from the quantitative and qualitative data collected and act based upon that data, the APC organized a series of focus groups, sharing the survey data results in a PowerPoint presentation. Focus Group One, which met for four hours, consisted of 11 associates selected by the CEO because of his belief that these 11 associates “got” PCI culture. They were asked about their experiences at PCI in relation to the data collected. In other words, they helped the APC interpret the data collected by using their own institutional knowledge as a lens through which to interpret the findings of the study. These 11 associates actively participated in the sessions and made two key contributions.
The first contribution of the focus group was, as previously noted, its attempt to extract meaning from the data collected in the survey, where respondents selected synonyms for each of the 14 key words. Focus group members discussed the outputs in Figures 3 and 4 given them by the APC, who served as moderator, and tried to build consensus around the meaning of the keyword based upon the similarity of the synonyms and the frequency at which they were endorsed by the survey respondents. For example, for “Innovate,” the focus group extracted the themes of create (think up, launch, invent, pioneer, devise, start up, create, and cook up) and develop (establish and develop). For “Servant,” the focus group extracted four themes: nurturing, feeling, humble, and aware.
Their second contribution was to develop sentences exemplifying the five core values, having reviewed word clouds (e.g., Figure 5) and reading the words and phrases from the qualitative responses of their peers to guide them.
For example, for “Innovate a Culture of Relationships and Fun,” the focus group selected the following phrases to summarize the value:
- “Positivity is a choice. People must choose to be positive and optimistic”
- “Individuality is valued”
- “Create, pioneer, and develop by making the good better”
- “Happiness is a force multiplier. Fun is Contagious”
- “Culture builds great and lasting organizations. Culture is a sustainability strategy”
- “People make relationships; relationships make communities; communities make culture.”
- “Work is a meaningful part of life.”
Approximately one week later, the APC convened a second seven-person focus group (Focus Group Two), four of whom had also served in Focus Group One. The overlapping membership of the group provided continuity with the work of Focus Group One, and the inclusion of three new people brought fresh ideas and broadened organizational participation. Like the first group, the CEO selected the membership of the Focus Group Two. This group was tasked with (1) reviewing the input and summaries of Focus Group One, (2) evaluating each of the 17 support sentences, (3) scoring those sentences, and (4) making specific suggestions for words that should be used in the final version of the core values statement. Focus Group Two also met for four hours, and their work resulted in specific suggestions as to sentences that should be retained, be revised, and/or be eliminated. Focus Group Two also made some specific suggestions for words that should be used. For example, they felt that the word “love” should be included in a statement supporting the value “Lead with a Servant’s Heart.” Following this focus group, the APC summarized their findings in a report to the CEO.
Several days after Focus Group Two met, the CEO chose nine associates to work with, all of whom had served as members of the other focus groups, and convened a final focus group to select or rewrite supporting sentences with him. This group reviewed the recommendations from the APC’s report (the APC was not invited to this session) and drafted seventeen support sentences. These statements became part of the final core values statement of PCI and was given the moniker “theFIVE,” which was subsequently adopted by senior leadership as PCI’s current value statement. The reader will note that theFIVE describes “Who we are?” within the PCI cultural framework (see Figure 1).
Incorporating Visual Elements
Following the adoption of theFIVE, the CEO decided he wanted to produce two publications: the Redbook 2.0, a 24-page booklet, and building from it, the Blackbook, an 80-page hardcover work. This section provides details of the graphic design, photography, and illustrations employed in the Redbook 2.0 and the Blackbook.
The same attention to detail that marked the process and revision writing of the core values was incorporated into the graphic design required to produce these texts, which were intended to be displayed together, the red on top of the black as a set (see Figure 6). Artists designed the covers, graphic elements within the books, fonts selected, and page layouts all to be congruent and complementary across the two books. For example, the graphic designers chose pointillist waves to represent movement, denoting progress and improvement. These waves appear throughout the Redbook 2.0 and the Blackbook to ensure that the two would reflect one holistic cultural message.
Both the Redbook 2.0 and the Blackbook employ the fine art of photography and photo portraiture. A professional photographer was engaged to take portraits of dozens of associates, where the angles, framing, lighting, clothing, hairstyling, etc. were all intentional artistic choices. From hundreds of alternatives, a team consisting of the CEO, the APC, and PCI’s Director of Design selected nine photographs for publication in Redbook 2.0 and more than twenty for Blackbook. Photographs were selected based on aesthetic value and a desire to reflect the age, ethnic, and gender diversity at PCI.
Though color is used throughout the books in deliberate ways, the photographs of the associates are in black and white, which works well for these publications for two reasons. Firstly, black and white photos in general often evoke a feeling of timelessness (see Grainge, 1999, for example). Since the Blackbook especially is meant to be a historical document of the process of creating culture, the black and white photos provide that feel of historical authenticity. Secondly, as technical communicators, we understand the power that color has to both reinforce and to distract. Black and white photographs, in part because they are rarer, focus our attention. Kolonia (2016), in his discussion of black and white portraiture, notes how “monochrome can bring the focus powerfully upon the individual, while the distraction of color can pull it away” (p. 53). Thus, black and white photos in the books highlight the importance of each employee at the company, without the distraction of the color of a shirt or a background plant.
Both books also use the fine art of illustration, featuring original pieces for each of the five values and each of the 17 support sentences. To maximize associate contribution to the books, PCI held an all-company design contest for who could best conceptualize two of the core values; the winner, chosen by the CEO, the APC, and the Director of Design, not only won a $500 prize but became the illustrator for that portion of the project. The associate-illustrator, the APC, and the CEO engaged in a series of conversations intended to stimulate the artist’s creativity and draw out the CEO’s own aesthetic vision. They arrived at the decision to use allegory rather than literal interpretations of the values and support sentences, in part to avoid a “cartoony” or “hokey” look and feel to the illustrations. For example, for the value Pursue Excellence Purposefully, the conversation revolved around evoking the idea of excellence rather than a figure engaged in a chase. Eventually, the illustrator and the CEO agreed that summiting a mountain evoked that idea and effectively communicated the value, so the associate-illustrator created a series of sketches of mountain climbing until both the CEO and illustrator were aesthetically satisfied. Next, the illustrator transformed the pen and ink sketch into a finished illustration (see Figure 7) suitable for publication. This process goes beyond creating an illustration to simply meet the user’s need, a utilitarian use of graphics. Instead, the illustrator could parlay a first-hand understanding of the audience—fellow associates—to “communicate meaning” as part of the shared PCI culture (Rawlings and Wilson, p. 304) and add a personal, human element to what might otherwise be a stock image (see Dragga & Voss, 2000, for discussion of humanizing graphics). An image of a team working together to achieve, with the PCI flag planted at the top of the summit—using PCI-branded colors throughout—all reinforce the company’s value of the pursuit of excellence and the PCI culture of teamwork.
Incorporating Creative Writing
This section showcases the creative writing elements in these artifacts, specifically in the Blackbook. While the Redbook 2.0 reads more like a standard “technical writing” document, presenting the core values statement as developed through the process above, the Blackbook stretches typical business communication by using figurative language and storytelling, attributes more typical of creative writing.
There is no “one size fits all” style in technical writing; as with any rhetorical situation, good writers know their audience and create texts that fulfill the purpose. To take a standard technical communication textbook in the field, Markel and Selber (2019) argue that good writing means “choosing words carefully and crafting accurate, clear, concise, and forceful sentences” (p. 102; their other measures of excellence in technical writing include honesty, correctness, usability, comprehensiveness, and professional appearance; p. 10). But good technical writing doesn’t mean stuffy writing; as early as 1985, Wight, in Technical Communication, writes that “style should present information in natural ways that make it easy for the user to understand and use” (p. 10). Subsequent studies of corporate culture and style further elucidate how writing should be shaped for one’s audience; Driskill (1989), for instance, writes: “Corporate culture contributes many of the interpretive standards that affect writers’ choices of content, persuasive approach, and word choice” (p. 137; see also Brady, 2011). Quick (2012) argues that successful workplace writers are those who “learn and adapt within the discourse community of the workplace” (p. 232). And certainly Markel (2019) meets the needs of his audience, with a sense of humor coming through in several places in his student-centered textbook.
The corporate culture at PCI similarly affects the documents it develops and uses such as the Redbook 2.0 and Blackbook. Because they were specifically written to reflect PCI culture, the language used in these documents is often informal and the voice conversational. Here, for example, from the Blackbook, is part of the introduction to the discussion of the key word “purposefully”:
At PCI we understand that EXCELLENCE is no accident. We define “purposefully” as being intentional and deliberate, and we have achieved our great success by being deliberate and intentional in all that we do. …We create a great place to work, hire the best associates, invest in the right technology and tools, and carefully tailor our services to the individual needs of our clients and constituents. …In other words, we set ourselves up for success by doing everything we do on purpose.
You have likely been on family vacations. They don’t just happen. People have to coordinate and schedule for time off. People have to save up in advance for the costs of the trip. They have to plan where they are going to go and make sure they have packed the stuff they need. That’s all by design. There are people, one can suppose, that just get into their cars and go. But if they wanted to get to a beach in Florida, that’s not going to happen by chance. They are going to have a plan, pack some beach towels, and make sure they have the money to get there. The PCI family knows where we want to go, we have a clear plan to get there, and we make dang sure we pack the towels.
This casual style runs throughout the Blackbook, reflecting PCI’s culture, in contrast to the more “formal” and “business-like” language found in many corporate documents. PCI is a place where real people are valued as their whole selves, and the conversational voice provided here ensures access by all, another clear indicator of the culture at the company.
This blurring of strictly business-like (or “technical”) writing with more informal “creative writing” is developed even further with the inclusion of 17 stories that embody each of the 17 support sentences. Each story is placed in the section alongside the support sentences it exemplifies; following the support sentence “We believe people have potential. We believe people have the capacity for greatness,” (fourth overall and first under the core value Unlock Human Potential) is a story about four PCI associates who have risen from entry-level roles to senior positions.
Ideas for the stories were solicited from more than 50 PCI associates. The ACP, under the direction of the CEO, selected 17 stories from dozens of suggestions and held informational meetings with relevant parties for each of these company stories. He incorporated storytelling elements such as figurative language and subjective adjectives and adverbs to fit and support the narratives for each of the 17 statements the stories were designed to illustrate.
As one example, we can look to the story about Ernesto Marcano, featured with the third support sentence under the core value Innovate a Culture of Relationships and Fun: “Choose to be positive. Optimism and resilience are force multipliers” (the 13th overall support sentence). Ernesto, a long-time manager in the inside sales center who recently retired, has successfully struggled against terminal cancer for almost a decade. His inspirational story clearly shows the power of optimism and exemplifies the life-changing power that optimism and resilience can have. To add specificity to the general theme of resilience, the story adds details such as Ernesto taking hot summer bicycle rides “under the scorching Texas sun,” an image that is easily translatable though not strictly a fact. Ernesto is described as fighting “a war against a desperate enemy,” a metaphor easily understood by others. This storytelling element of the Blackbook helps distill Ernesto’s manifestation of this core value (resilience) into a meaningful touchstone for future PCI associates who will never have the opportunity to work with him.
Engaging in narrative not only adds a human element to an organization’s defining documents but poignantly allows the employees themselves to feel a part of the larger story. Shapiro (2016) notes the effectiveness that “story fragments,” which hearken to an organization’s mission statements or code of conduct, can have as associates begin to engage with a company’s culture and learn the “narrative context” into which these stories belong (p. 3). Similarly, Dragga’s (2011) article on codes of conduct notes that, in addition to emotive illustrations, including narratives of heroic individuals is a persuasive way to highlight the code in action. The stories incorporated into PCI’s Blackbook showcase how an employee embodies the core value being examined through an inspirational narrative of that core value being lived out. As the next section shows, “earning” the Blackbook and accessing the stories contained in it indicates that an associate understands PCI’s core values and, as Shapiro suggests, helps them feel part of the company story.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
In this section, we briefly relate how the artifacts described above will be used by PCI. While the Redbook 2.0 is complete and is being fully utilized, the Blackbook is still in final stages of production; our discussion of it here describes its intended use upon completion.
Use of the Redbook 2.0
The Redbook 2.0 presents the reader with PCI’s overall culture statement, the “5byFIVE” (see Figure 1). The purpose of the Redbook 2.0 is threefold: to introduce new associates to the company’s culture, to provide existing associates with a tangible reminder of the culture, and to represent the company to outside constituents. It presents the Purpose, Vision, Goal, and Promises on a two-page spread (see Figure 8). The booklet adds a second double-page spread in order to answer the ultimate question, “Who are we?” The answers to this final question are the company’s core values and list the support sentences on which the focus groups spent so much time.
Employee orientation at PCI attempts to give new associates a crash course in PCI culture. The facilitator of these orientation sessions, often the CEO, employs the Redbook 2.0 as the guide. New associates encounter PCI through the intentional aesthetic viewpoint present in the booklet. For example, when discussing the core value Innovate a Relationship of Culture and Fun (see Figure 9), new associates are viewing the photograph of a smiling woman, guided through each support sentence, and told the story of a deceased associate, Debra Dale. Debra devotedly worked to bring people together in fun ways and drove associate and company success by building relationships. The illustration reinforces the theme of the story and the support sentences of the core value.
PCI provides every associate with a copy of the Redbook 2.0. The booklet is at the workstation of most associates, serving as a tangible artifact of PCI culture and values. It is not uncommon for associates to quote a value or support sentence to resolve a business problem or inform constructive conflict. The Redbook 2.0 also serves as a marketing tool for external constituents. Prospects, clients, and vendors are often provided with a copy of the Redbook 2.0 as a way of communicating the kind of company that PCI is and intends to be.
Use of the Blackbook
The hardcover Blackbook will serve two principle purposes: as a teaching tool and as a reward and recognition mechanism. As associates grow in the company, they are expected to develop mastery of the culture. The technical definitions of the values and the support sentences (all supported by the social science work) provide a foundation for this enculturation. Associates treat the descriptions, definitions, and stories that are now codified in the Blackbook as the company’s canon for culture. For example, after some months of working for PCI, every associate knows the stories of Debra Dale and Ernesto Marcano. They know that Debra exemplifies fun and relationships and Ernesto represents optimism and resilience. Reading these stories in the Blackbook reinforces for associates that they are mastering PCI culture.
Not every associate will immediately possess a copy of the Blackbook; it must be earned. The Blackbook will be used in advanced training sessions on leadership, diversity, resilience development, and other similar business-related courses offered at PCI by its People Department (enacting the value of Unlock Human Potential). Only after completion of a sequence of classes will associates be awarded the Blackbook. Like the Redbook 2.0, the Blackbook is designed to be kept at the workstation. There, it can act as a tangible artifact of the culture, a source of reference, and a sign of achievement to its possessor.
In a rapidly changing market environment, businesses must be wary of creating a set of core values, laying them on the shelf, and failing to communicate them to their key constituents. Values, like every other aspect of a business, change over time in response to fluid organizational conditions. Wise leaders flexibly adapt their values to reflect changes within and outside their organizations and ideally take into consideration all their stakeholders: customers, employees, leaders, owners, and communities (Davison, 2005).
This article makes clear contributions for business practitioners concerning creating and living out core values statements. One, it describes how the tools of social science can be used in the development and definition of core values to minimize guesswork, bias, and top-down management influence. In other words, the methods in this case history required that PCI associates inform the company leaders what the values are and what they mean. This is very different than management dictating the meaning of values to employees.
Second, and more importantly, this article makes a strong argument for substantial investment in creating corporate cultural documents. Vision statements, mission statements, and value statements are important cultural artifacts within each company. When developed correctly and enacted intentionally, they can serve to define the meaning and purpose of the work done by each employee. Given the importance of these artifacts, this article argues that using a process that incorporates features of traditional technical writing and fine arts is an investment worth making. PCI’s commitment to culture and its willingness to use time and financial resources to support its value system is itself a powerful form of communication. PCI created a cultural artifact, a story, by committing to this resource-intensive process. By combining graphic design, art, photography, and creative writing in its two value artifacts, the Redbook 2.0 and the Blackbook, PCI models a way other committed companies might wish to proceed. PCI’s investment in its core values project succeeds in part because it uses technical writing to provide information and the fine arts to drive emotional impact.
Indeed, the case history presented here embodies the ways that creativity undergirds both process and product. The Blackbook especially asks us to continue those reconsiderations of the often too-strict divisions between technical and creative writing, between graphics that reinforce a point and graphics that imbue a company’s document with life. Because its development depended so heavily on cross-team collaboration and invention, as well as an openness to extend what a traditional “core values statement” contains, the Blackbook can be the kind of document that transcends its act of creation; it will likely not merely sit on shelves.
Similarly, for teachers of technical communication, the above case history underscores the importance of inventiveness in both business and technical communication. We believe we should encourage our students to continue to be creative, to forego the artificial split that many of us in the field continue to perhaps unconsciously practice. Like Shapiro’s study (2016), which discusses how narratives can enable innovation and creativity as an organization debates and frames its core values, we can encourage students to engage with all manners of writing as they begin to learn appropriateness of form or function. Yet, as teachers, we are often so focused on the product that students produce, that which we grade, that we may neglect to teach a process to help them arrive at our desired goals for them. Yes, we teach the importance of teamwork, but do we give our students time to run through the messiness that develops from creative iterations of ideas? Business students are told they need to be “strategic thinkers” or innovators, to come up with original ideas with an entrepreneurial spirit. But are they given the heuristic models to help them think creatively? Students might benefit from seeing examples such as the Redbook 2.0 and the Blackbook that more intentionally span traditional categories of writing and thinking and extend the boundaries of what is considered “business communication.”
Technical communicators, as noted by Bekins and Williams (2006), can thrive if they more fully position themselves as integral parts of the organization through their creative synthesis and leadership capabilities. Hailey, Cox, and Loader (2010) suggest that we borrow engineering phraseology and practice “innovation,” rather than strict “creativity,” to increase our job stability as well as to better align our terminology to the business world (p. 126). But whatever we call our skill set, technical writing practitioners can use the development of these deliverables and the deliverables themselves as models of what can be achieved when smart business practice is combined with the fine arts. This case study, with its deliberate, sometimes creatively messy process and its intentionally boundary-breaking deliverables, provides insight into how communicators can be successful: not just “solving” a problem but helping an organization understand the varying facets of a problem first through creative invention and then presenting creative communications that underscore originality (Plung, 2006). We hope it adds to the growing body of literature that urges technical communicators to value what creativity brings to the table and how it can be leveraged as necessary in the workplace.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Carla T. Kungl is an associate professor at Shippensburg University and Director of the interdisciplinary Technical/Professional Communications Minor. She also serves as the College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Associate for Advising and Director of the CAS Advising Center. She teaches technical writing and all levels of composition courses; additional teaching interests and publications run the gamut from the Victorian gothic and women’s studies to detective fiction and popular culture. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blake Hargrove is Professor of Organizational Behavior in the John L. Grove College of Business at Shippensburg University. His primary research interests include psychometrics, social sustainability, stress, and positive organizational cultures. All of his teaching and consulting focuses on making organizations fair, meaning-filled, and healthy workplaces. He believes that the social contract demands that organizations create cultures that treat employees with dignity and provide an environment in which all workers can thrive. He is available at email@example.com.
Debra F. Hargrove (SPHR, SHRM-SCP) is the Associate Vice President for Human Resource Services at Dickinson College. Her HR career spans more than 25 years, with 20 years as a chief human resources officer in both the private and educational sectors. Hargrove’s professional passions include creating a just workplace for every employee and promoting organizational cultures of inclusiveness and dignity. She also teaches as a lecturer in leadership and human resource management courses. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.