Thursday, November 21, 2013

A viral spot reconsidered: What does language tell us about a business’ acceptance?

A viral spot (that has however not yet taken off) advocating sustainable investment as being the investment strategy of the present and future caught my attention yesterday. The video clip, initiated by an investment management group headquartered not far away from our institute in Zurich, both thrilled and puzzled me at the same time.

The clip busts several myths regarding sustainable investments in order to propagate the initiator’s investment strategy. The underlying proposition suggests that you can earn more money when your investment manager assesses the stocks’ potential of your portfolio in the most complete manner available. The approach applied by the initiator enlarges the financial analysis of firm’s performance by adding an analysis of the social and ecological performances of the firm. Apart from its rather instrumentalist application, the concept behind it—called the triple bottom line—excites me. It demands of firms to take into account their responsibilities to all stakeholders (e.g. employees or customers), not only stockholders. The result suggested in the clip may seem paradoxical: The less a firm tries to solely meet the demands of its stockholders, the merrier is the stock’s potential in the future.
However, the puzzling aspect of the clip unfolded just as I tried to connect it with my (current) research interest: the diffusion of business practices. The question arises as to how widespread the above business is. As I am eager to learn more about rhetoric theories that highlight the potency of language in shaping organizational life and behaviour, the language used in the clip awakened my interest.
From a rhetorical perspective, the way a particular practice is accompanied by language tells you a lot about its state of acceptance. The relationship between the rhetoric used by people and their social practice is theorized about in many complicated ways. A catchy—and thus highly persuading, as rhetorical theorists would say—framework was, however, introduced by the management scholar Sandy Green. As evidence of a practice’s acceptance, he proposes the lack of a need to justify it, for example in legitimating it by rationalizing the matter of subject. And what is the video clip actually doing? It’s not a typical commercial trying to persuade the audience that the initiator is better at doing its business than its counterparts. In the core, however, this clip is purely a justification of the initiator’s business practice at all. Even though it repeatedly refers to the triple bottom line as being common sense, this clip can be taken as a testimony of the rather weak penetration of this business practice even without knowing much about this business (as I definitely do not).
My puzzling to me is, therefore, the weak state of diffusion of business practice that corresponds to my very own idea of how business ought to work. However, the theory of rhetoric gives us a master plan about institutional change. Among the factors impacting whether a business practice is adopted or not, the most powerful ones are not those seeming the most efficient or the most effective, but rather the ones that make sense to the people. From a rhetorical viewpoint, you just have to talk about it long enough until a critical mass of people is persuaded. 

Christian Stutz

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