Sky Marsen Talks about Her Business Communication Career and Work with ABC

We conducted this Zoom interview with Sky Marsen after the 2021 International Conference of the Association for Business Communication on Tuesday afternoon. Sky edits the ABC Newsletter and is also the Chair of the ABC Research Committee. Her book, Professional Writing (2019), is now in its 4th edition and is the required text in several universities worldwide. She was awarded a Teaching Excellence Award from Flinders University in 2021.

Sushil: Sky, welcome to the Western ABC Bulletin! My very first question for you is, can you tell a little bit about yourself for people who might not know you here on the west coast?

Sky: Yes, certainly, my background is in linguistics and cognitive science. That was what my undergraduate degree was in, and then I moved into the uses of language in the professions and in organizational contexts. So, I apply my linguistic knowledge to business practices and the discourses of different professions. I also have some industry experience. I worked for IBM for a year after I finished my Ph.D. some years ago. That was actually my first full-time position before returning to academia.

Sushil: Could you describe your academic work which I understand has been both in and outside the United States?

Sky: I’ve worked in institutions and universities internationally. I was a visiting faculty member at Caltech and City University of Hong Kong, and then, I also worked for a couple of years in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Sushil: So, what took you to the far east?

Sky: The positions I talked about are my international visiting appointments. For most of my career, I’ve worked on this side of the globe, in the southern hemisphere. I worked for over 10 years at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. I’m currently back in Australia, where I work at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Sushil: Could you talk about the positions that you have held at these universities?

Sky: I’ve worked in Communication Departments, and recently at the University of Southern California, in the Department of Business Communication. One of the advantages—but could also be a disadvantage—of being a communication professional is that you don’t really know where you land. As you know, communication can be part of business schools, it can be a department on its own or it can be embedded in another college. It can even sometimes be part of an English department; so, it’s a very versatile discipline and I’ve got a pretty good experience in various manifestations of this discipline in different institutions.

Sushil: Now, could you talk a bit about your relationship with the Association for Business Communication?

Sky: Regarding ABC, I’ve been a member since 2013. I was encouraged to become a member by Bertha Du Babcock from the City University of Hong Kong when I was there as a visiting professor for a year. Since I joined, I’ve been involved in a lot of different areas in ABC. I’ll probably just stop my introduction, here, because you will be asking me more specific questions about this.

Sushil: Thanks for sharing this background with us. So, could you discuss some of your present work at Flinders University in Australia?

Sky: Yes, so here I designed and coordinate a new Bachelor’s degree in media and communication. I was employed to design this degree for the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. This degree combines three different strands. One strand is communication studies, and this includes Intercultural communication, crisis communication, and strategic communication. The second strand, which is in association with the College of Business, includes subjects like marketing and business communication. And there is a quite large third strand which is on digital media practices. Flinders is known for its creative digital media. Students get the opportunity to do some work on-screen production, digital game design, and multimedia and graphic design.  This degree brings together these three different strands and allows students to specialize in the strand of their choice.

Sushil: This sounds like a wonderful degree program. How long have you been working on this degree and how large is the program, particularly the digital component in it?

Sky: Since 2017 after I left Southern California. Students do courses in each of these strands. Digital media and screen production is what Flinders is known for and that aspect also defines our degree. Students take courses in business and in communication theory, but the reputation of the College really is very much on digital media practices.

Sushil: Thanks. Could you also talk a little about your own research?

Sky: Most of my research is based on discourse analysis and text analysis. I use qualitative approaches. I’ve written a book on professional writing which is based on interviews that I conducted in different parts of the world with professionals on their communication practices, especially in relation to written communication. The book is also used as a textbook but it is based on field research.

Recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on crisis communication. I guest-edited a special issue of the International Journal of Business Communication on crisis communication that came out last year. I collected a variety of articles for that. I have done some research in that area myself. It’s an area that I want to develop. I was given a C. R. Anderson Fund grant by ABC a couple of years ago to undertake research on the communication practices around data security and data breaches. I’m working on that as well and I’ll produce some work in that area.

Sushil: You have been working in different countries throughout your academic career; How is this mobility possible? Any insights for our readers who might be interested in an international teaching career?

Sky: Yes, well, I think that the first requirement for this is to have the willingness to do it, because some people are more constrained by circumstances to be in one place, for instance, family circumstances, or whatever else it would be.  So, the first requirement is this willingness to travel and experience different contexts. The second very important requirement is networks and associations. As communication scholars, we belong to different professional associations and have contact with colleagues around the world. There are always opportunities that come up if you are paying attention. The advantage of being an academic is that our profession and careers are international in many respects. We do a lot of collaborations for our conferences. We get people from around the world gathered in one place and that space always creates opportunities to meet international colleagues and then in turn visit those other places they come from. So to state briefly, the first is the willingness to be mobile and to seek out opportunities. The second is to create networks of colleagues internationally; perhaps, the people that you worked with on a teaching project, or a research project that could lead to some kind of exchange, or being invited to a fellowship. And, of course, the third requirement is that you do get the opportunity from your own institution. For example, in a couple of my international terms, for example, the one at Caltech and at City University of Hong Kong, I was on leave from my institution.  I was offered a fellowship or a visiting position for a year. I was then able to go to these places because I was allowed to take unpaid leave. My institution, which was at that time Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, had this policy to give their faculty an opportunity to gain international experience and network.

Sushil: Thanks for this. I would also like to ask a related question about the venues of your fieldwork; how do you locate these opportunities?

Sky: Again, it’s a matter of forming networks through relationships in academic and professional associations. For example, I’m a member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, which is the main public relations association in this country, which puts me in touch with public relations professionals, and that way, as an academic I can connect with professionals in industry. Another way is to network with alumni of my program. I keep in touch with a lot of my students who have graduated and have positions in industry. We are connected on LinkedIn and we also keep in touch in other ways. Sometimes I go to them for research ideas or industry questions because I always try to make sure that my teaching and my course design is well aligned with workplace expectations. I want to prepare students for the kind of work that they will be doing when they enter the workplace. Many of my graduates become members of different associations that I don’t belong to and that is another reason to have these valuable contacts.

Sushil: Before we go into your work with ABC, if you could talk about the regional ABC organization in your part of the world.

Sky: I am a member of the Asia Pacific region of ABC and we are not a very active region. Not because we don’t have business communication. We don’t really do a lot of stuff I know that other regions might have. For example, a member has been trying to start a newsletter for our region like your wonderful newsletter from the Western Region but we haven’t actually succeeded in getting it off the ground because of very low response in our region.  Let me try to clarify. One important aspect of the Asia-Pacific region is language: we have different countries that have different languages.  There’s obviously Australia and New Zealand who are English speaking but there are also Asian countries like Japan, China, Korea, and Indonesia. So, a lot of the work that ABC members in our region do is related to language and translation. For example, English is still the lingua franca in most countries, so university business communication courses take the form of English for Specific Purposes. We have some members that specialize in intercultural communication as well. I would say that language issues and intercultural communication are the major areas of research in our region.

Sushil: So, how does business communication work happen in these countries?

Sky: There are other business communication associations in this region that do this. There’s the Japanese Business Association and the Korean Business Association. Of course, they collaborate with ABC, but they are also separate organizations as well. So it’s different in our region, which is probably not as homogenous as the US-based regions.

Sushil: It might change the way the Spanish-speaking population is growing in the United States but at this time it’s very monolingual.

That takes me to another question: when English is serving as the lingua franca in certain countries in that region, is business communication mostly happening in the local languages in those places? Malaysia or Indonesia, for example?

Sky: All of those countries have their own business languages. If it’s a local business to business, or government to business, communication within that same country, they would use their own languages. What’s interesting is when you get someone let’s say from Indonesia communicating with someone in Japan. English would be the main language that they would use, which is what makes it a lingua franca. I’m not sure about countries like India, where English is a national (second) language and so would be more widely spoken.

Sushil: It’s one of the two national languages and it’s also a lingua franca. for those states that just don’t have many Hindi language speakers, the other national language of India.  

Sky: Right, so a lot of the university courses and training are done in English.

Sushil: That is true for all central universities. At regional schools, it is possible to do undergraduate education in local languages. At such institutions, English would be one of the subjects students will study for gaining proficiency in this lingua franca.

Sky: In a lot of the other Asian countries, you have one or two universities that have English as the medium and they would tend to be more business-oriented. You also have native language universities. In that case, English would be used when communicating internationally rather than within the country.

Sushil: That’s really an interesting phenomenon how each of these countries has been negotiating with English. Hindi doesn’t have the same prestige as English does. Probably the Japanese language does not have to compete for prestige with English the same way in Japan.

Sky: Also this has to do a lot with the history of the country—the colonial history. One example that comes to mind is Singapore where English is the main language even though there are so many other languages spoken there.

Sushil: You raised this interesting scenario of how Singapore would willingly choose to be an English-speaking country because it helps them with business as a port city.

Could we now move to your work with ABC at this time?

Sky: I’ve been the editor for the ABC Newsletter since 2014. It is a quarterly publication that announces ABC news, promotes various conferences, and publicizes members’ achievements or contributions. Of course, it also includes calls for papers and the letters of the President and the Executive Director that keep everybody updated on developments at the ABC headquarters.

I became the Chair of the ABC Research Committee in 2017. The Research Committee advises ABC on two awards: one is the Outstanding Dissertation Award and the other is the Outstanding Researcher Award. We also organize the research Roundtable at the Conference each year. In the last couple of years, we issued a call for papers, where people briefly present an overview of the project they’re working on and then break into groups with others who have the expertise to give them advice or share experiences. This year we asked the recipients of the Outstanding Researcher Award to organize the roundtable. They presented their research, followed by an open discussion.

This year, we’ve also started a new research event that we call the Three Minute Research Pitch, in which presenters either pose a question or describe an interesting project that they’re working on followed by discussion. We are hoping this will develop into a popular event, maybe something like the My Favorite Assignment lightning roundtable.

Sushil: This certainly sounds like a great initiative. Maybe you could recommend to the presenters that they consider expanding their work for our Western ABC Bulletin.

Sky: There are certainly many possibilities.

Sushil: Could you also talk about how the membership of the Research Committee is determined?

 Sky: Anybody who is an ABC Member can ask to be a member of the Research Committee. It does involve some work: for example, the members have to read the dissertations and nomination material submitted for the awards and participate in meetings to discuss ways to support and nurture the research-related activities of ABC.

Sushil: Many thanks for describing this committee’s work. Now, have I missed an important question that I should have asked?  

Sky: Where do we think that business communication is going? What is the future of our field?

Sushil: Our readers will be very interested in hearing your views on this topic.

 Sky: As I said earlier, the whole area of communication, not just business communication, is very complex because communication studies now include so many different disciplines and it’s also positioned in different places in each institution.

Sushil: Yes, the distinction between business communication, professional communication, and technical communication is becoming more porous because of how digital media is changing communication depending on how practitioners are using that technology. In this process, the distinction between business and technology is going to erode because technology is everywhere in the workplace and our classrooms.

Sky: Yes, definitely the rise of technologies has affected communication a lot. So, business communication needs to take into account, for example, what’s happening in social media and there’s no way you can do strategic public relations without this technology in this day and time. The development of social media has really changed the way companies communicate with the public and vice versa. In the workplace, a lot of projects are done in teams and this work is becoming more and more virtual at the global level.

Sushil: What work is happening in this area in Australia?

Sky: Multiculturalism and diversity are important aspects of Australian policy and social life. Australians sometimes feel isolated because of their geographical location. So, I always try to include components of international teamwork in my business communication course. This takes different forms, sometimes with students working in global teams and sometimes pairing up with students from another institution to explore the cultural aspects of business. Since Australia is in an awkward time zone with regard to the rest of the world, navigating time zones is a major hurdle to overcome in international teamwork – both at university and the workplace. Therefore, I’ve been trying to do more work with Asian Universities, which are in the same general region. Also, Asian countries are major trading and business partners of Australia, so it’s helpful for students to become familiar with their way of doing things. There is certainly a lot of scope for teaching initiatives that involve comparative cultural study.

Sushil: Thank you for this very interesting conversation.

Sushil Oswal with Sky Marsen. (2021). Sky Marsen Talks about her Business Communication Career and Work with ABC. the Western ABC Bulletin, 3.2.