Throw Away the APA

Jul 27

Communication is a major emphasis of many MBA programs, at least as a matter of rhetoric. Business leaders should be skillful, effective communicators. It’s not a hard case to make, and I agree that a leader who can’t communicate his vision will not be very effective. What I can’t understand is the almost singular focus many universities have on “writing styles”, such as APA, MLA, etc.

Benefit of Standardized Communication

Standardized communication approaches can bring benefit. For example, when reviewing hundreds of papers to see if they may contain details related to some research, it’s helpful to have abstracts. In the process of diving deeper into published research it’s helpful to know that sources are located in the bibliography. It’s even helpful to have the same font, spacing and formatting so that transitioning from one paper to another is easier on the eyes.

From a grading perspective, I can also see how a standardized format can make life easier for a professor. But that’s not really the point of a graduate degree, at least not as I see it.

Leadership is about Creation

Leadership should be about creation, not emulation. When my university sends me out into the world as a newly minted, card carrying business leader, capable of tackling any problem, what will the world expect of me? I’m pretty sure when I present a solution to a pressing business problem, no one will complain that it’s not in APA format.

In fact, I’ve found professionally that when I publish solutions in a standard format, such as IEEE for electrical engineering, it actually works against me. I’ve observed that my peers were turned off by the format, since it reminded them of school and being forced to dig through hundreds of papers full of dry commentary on research all to often void of novelty.

What worked then? I have found that creating a website for internal or group communication among peers is more accessible, shared more frequently, more easily found by my team and benefits more people outside my immediate organization as search engines direct traffic there.

Google and Bing are the New Standard

Above I mentioned some of the perceived benefits of standardized communication. Before search and the Internet came on the scene, those benefits were huge. They saved time and provided attribution and established communication channels. Today’s search engines do all of that in a matter of milliseconds.

Every benefit gained from pre-internet writing standards is present in the Internet. Links within articles for attribution not only provide bibliographic details, but also give the reader instant access to the source material. Search, both to find research and then within the research itself, greatly speeds discovery and review. Modern browsers allow the user to customize the font and other display aspects to meet their needs. This is especially true for individuals with disabilities who can leverage the accessibility tools built in to modern operating systems.

As far as communication channels, online mechanisms are fast replacing traditional mail and phone. Email, chat, video conferencing and more are now available from PCs and cell phones, without great expense or technical barriers to use.

The Future of Academic Communication

At some point the rhetoric in academia about effective communication for tomorrow’s business leaders will have to shift away from antiquated standards and focus instead on inventive ways to leverage our modern technology landscape.

Marketing departments already talk about engaging the customer where they are, in the search engines and social media. When will business leaders learn to engage their employees where they are? Maybe when universities let go of yesterday’s standard and encourage the type of exploration that will produce truly relevant, meaningful and modern communication.

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