5 Questions For: Anne-Laure Fayard

The NYU professor on her new book about the evolution of the written word,'The Power of Writing in Organizations'
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nne-Laure Fayard, an assistant professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, studies the interactions between people and technology in organizations. Her new book—published with Anca Metiu, a professor of management at ESSEC Business School in France—explores the role of writing in forming relationships and developing new ideas.
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This summer Fayard worked with ?What If! on the renovation of our New York office, analyzing our behaviors and helping us create a space that balances the physical, material, and social needs of innovation. (“Innovation is about interaction and reflection,” Fayard says.) Editorial Associate Adrienne Wong talked with Fayard about Einstein, the problem with PowerPoint, and her thoughts on standing desks. Edited excerpts:

Wong: Your new book, "The Power of Writing in Organizations," charts the evolution of the written word. How did you become interested in this?

Fayard: There’s a lot of research on technology’s impact on collaboration and communities. Some people say it’s great, some say it’s causing communities to die, and that we can’t develop new ideas in virtual teams. We were frustrated with the existing literature.

In the first part of the book, we started looking at history. The development of scientific communities is all based on letters. Einstein worked with many scientists, like the French mathematician Henri Cartan. Organizations also developed through letters. The Hudson Bay Company was managed from the London Headquarters via letters with their trading post in Canada.

A lot of discussions today focus on the medium—computers, telephones, blogs, tweets—but they don’t think about the fact that we’re still writing. We started looking at writing as a mode of communication. We started with the assumption that we’ve been writing for a long time, and we’ve been achieving a lot through writing.

The second part is about changes in technology that might cause us to lose something. We interviewed professionals and practitioners in publishing, media, advertising, management consulting, and architecture from Europe to the U.S. to Asia. We asked them how they were using writing, and what kinds of things they were achieving, and we realized that people have developed some smart strategies to keep writing a powerful mode of communication.

We developed a framework around the four main mechanisms of writing.

One, when you write, you objectify what you’re writing. There’s a difference between having the idea in your head and writing it down: writing allows me to articulate and develop it.

Two, you’re always writing for someone. Thinking of a potential recipient makes you contextualize and better articulate your idea.

Three, because you write linearly, you have to be specific. When I stop in the middle of a sentence, I can imagine you know what I meant. If I were to record myself, I would realize that I don’t finish most of my sentences. If we were face-to-face, it would be even worse. When you write, you are forced to be specific for others and for yourself.

Four, because it’s out there, you can reflect on your written idea and go back to it. There’s this reflective process, which can be lost with technology, because it’s more and more synchronous versus asynchronous, and a lot of writing tends to be short.

What else are we losing?

We don’t objectify. What came out of our interviews was a lot of frustration from people who think that people don’t know how to write anymore. When they talk about writing, it’s not about spelling and grammar, but about being able to articulate an idea, an argument or a story. Even when using PowerPoint, you need to have a story to tell. People often don’t realize that PowerPoint is only a means for communication. In fact there’s a whole stream of research that shows that companies are less innovative because they tend to only reproduce and exchange PowerPoint decks as if they were the ideas themselves.

There’s a misconception that some people are good writers and some aren’t, and those who aren’t good writers just don’t write. But you’re saying that writing, no matter how “good” it is, is critical to good ideas.

Engineers or designers do the same things with a sketch. Sketching allows them to specify their ideas. It’s the objectifying process, whether it’s through writing or sketching.

Writing is also important in fields like architecture. I interviewed the founder of an architecture firm who was sending his employees to writing workshops. Architects have to explain what they’re doing, and it helps them to start thinking about a project. Management consulting firms are sending their employees to writing workshops, too. It’s about how you think.

What do you think of trending topics in design today, like standing desks?

It’s an interesting way to support short interactions. We found that, whatever space you offer, people always interpret it. Their interpretation of it depends on what type of work they’re doing, and what type of organization they’re in. We saw management consulting firms with beautiful lounge areas where people would grab coffee and leave. They would say that their work is about sitting at a desk and interfacing with clients, and it wouldn’t look good for them to sit there. On the other hand, I worked with an ad agency where people wanted to be seen in the coffee area because it would make them look creative.

What does your workspace look like?

I could send you a picture and you would be scared. You can only occasionally see the floor.

FROM the greenhouse