At its core, business is about people connecting through language, written and verbal, says Allison Fraiberg, professor of communication and cultural studies in U of R’s School of Business. But now the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our communications landscape in profound and meaningful ways.
“We are all learning to use new apps and virtual platforms in our work, and many of us are catching up on so much,” Fraiberg says. “Between Zoom meetings, Teams calls, Webex webinars, Slack updates, Google slides, and myriad chats and texts, we are experiencing increased pressure to be ‘available’ constantly and respond to communication immediately, all while watching any traditional distinctions between home and work erode.”
While we now seem to be connected all the time, she wonders how much actual connecting we are doing—and the price we are paying for it. “Digital fatigue is painfully real and growing, and the effects of conducting our business lives in two dimensions—when we relied on three in the past—are palpable,” she observes.
Yet some people have been more successful than others in meeting these challenges. What makes the difference? “Those who have been successful in adapting to these altered conditions have committed to listening diligently to colleagues and clients alike, and to hearing the meaning in silences,” she notes. “They have let go of the jargon and business speak to focus on clarity and concision. Ultimately, they have recognized that business is, and always has been, about fostering relationships through meaningful communication. The pandemic has made us deeply aware that engaging with and caring for each other are vital to getting business done well, both now and in the days ahead.”
Beyond ‘what’ and ‘how’ to ‘whether’ and ‘why’
Writing-and speaking-intensive courses are integral to the business curriculum at the University on all its campuses, and whether classes are being held virtually or in-person. Fraiberg stresses strategies for connecting through persuasive communication during both regular courses and in special noncredit events for Redlands students and alumni. Her workshops on 21st-century business skills break the process of written and oral presentations into small, practical steps—from defining the central idea to designing compelling presentation slides.
U of R School of Business students acquire more than tactical communication skills. They are encouraged to think critically about big-picture issues, to focus not just on “what” and “how,” but on “whether” and “why,” says Fraiberg. She infuses her classes with readings and assignments that require students—already busy professionals—to think about their experiences. “They’ve worked a lot in their lives,” she says. “They have put in a lot of hours, but they’ve rarely been given a chance to reflect on their working lives. And that’s what happens in these courses.”
This pattern can be seen in the School’s study abroad programs, which Fraiberg oversees with Professor Michael MacQueen in times when health and safety guidelines are conducive to international travel. Within these business-focused, short-term international experiences, students interact with entrepreneurs in other countries, re-evaluate their own ideas, and hone new skills.
While on a trip to South Africa, Rina Dakanay ’16 and Malinda Thomas ’18 were impressed by a project called the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. Since returning to California, they’ve been working to launch a program to send gently used professional clothing from the U.S. to Harambee trainees, using their insights into communication in the process. “Being an effective communicator is integral in this day and age,” Dakanay says, “and there is an abundance of ways to share your voice, brand, and story and to create a community of advocates in support of a message.”
What employers want
Business leaders consistently highlight the importance of strong communication and critical thinking abilities and cite a shortage of such skills in the workforce. In 2011, the Carnegie Foundation published Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession. The report criticizes business programs for focusing too narrowly on technical skills and calls on them to integrate the core components of a liberal arts education—analytical thinking, multiple framing, reflective exploration of meaning, and practical reasoning.
While the report made big news in the academic community, it simply validated what the University of Redlands was already doing. School of Business undergraduates have long been required to take a course titled Critical Analysis in Context, which Fraiberg developed in the 1990s. The course incorporates those pillars of the Carnegie report, all of which depend heavily on using language skills.
According to Fraiberg, “If all a business school does is teach students how to obediently do the things we already do in business, we suffocate innovation and imagination—and we fail both our students and the most creative aspects of business.”
Like the class she developed, the fact that someone with Fraiberg’s credentials—a Ph.D. in cultural studies and degrees in film and English—became a founding member of the School of Business speaks to what makes the University of Redlands different. Fraiberg first came to Redlands as a faculty member in the Liberal Studies Department at U of R’s Whitehead College. In 2001, the University closed Whitehead and spun off its business program to form the School of Business. Fraiberg was invited to teach at the new school.
“You don’t get that kind of generosity and openness unless you’re in an institution that really values cross-disciplinary work,” Fraiberg says.
Learn more about the U of R School of Business.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first ran in the Spring 2020 issue of Och Tamale magazine.