Scheidel lecturer Dr. Dawna Ballard on how effective organizations communicate slow to go fast

This spring, the Department of Communication welcomed organizational communication scholar Dr. Dawna I. Ballard of the University of Texas, Austin, who delivered the Department’s annual Scheidel Lecture. A departmental tradition for 25 years, the Scheidel Lecture invites scholars conducting cutting edge communication research to share their work with the broader UW Communication community.

In her talk, Ballard described the role communication plays in our usage of time, through her analysis of the performance of Children’s Advocacy Centers. 

Ballard is an expert in chronemics, the study of time as it’s bound to human communication. She argues that communication-designed perspectives are an important way to think about how time works.

“Communication design refers to the intervention that people make to make things happen,” Ballard said.

To understand the relationship between communication and time, Ballard suggested it is important to recognize the distinction between time and temporality.

“Time is something we create — temporality exists without our intervention,” she said. “We age and the day goes by, this all happens without us doing anything.”

Ballard described temporality as something that defines a process that is not affected by any external forces. Time, in contrast, is the “symbolic marker that might point toward that process, event, or activity.”

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Texas serves as an illustrative case study for Ballard as she explores the relationship between communication and time.

In the 1980s, the Children’s Advocacy Center found that when child abuse is reported, the agencies involved would receive separate notices to individually address the issue, complicating their capacity to collaborate on an intervention plan.

As a result, a multidisciplinary team (MDT) was developed, consisting of Child Protective Services, Family Advocates, forensic interviewers, law enforcement, medical experts, mental health experts, and prosecutors.

Ballard’s guiding research questions interrogated the temporal processes of each occupation in the MDT and evaluated their performance in relation to how they utilized time. Her team toured five centers in Texas, attended case briefings and staff trainings, and observed what agents do in a typical work day. The researchers then created 29 focus groups where they asked agents to walk them through the timeline of their case processing procedures. In the end, they gathered 1,400 samples with about 1,000 usable surveys.

Ballard’s research team found that agencies varied in terms of how long they took to process a case. Child Protection Services, for example, took between 30 to 45 days, whereas a mental health therapist ranged from 10 months to more than two years. The team also investigated ways the different stakeholders communicated to accomplish their shared goals.

Ultimately, Ballard’s research showed that time-based slowdowns supported temporal processes and improved overall performance. As she explained, slowing down to facilitate efficient communication helps achieve efficiency, which is especially important since protecting and advocating for children includes multiple agencies that may function on very different timelines.

Ballard highlighted the ways communication contributes to building greater efficiency, which is most often understood as how many actions can be done within a period of time.

Ballard is currently completing her latest book, Time by Design (under contract at MIT Press), about how effective organizations routinely communicate slow to go fast. Her other work includes the edited volume, Work Pressures, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles in outlets such as Communication Monographs, Communication Research, Small Group Research, Human Communication Research, Management Communication Quarterly, Communication Yearbook, Journal of Applied Communication Research, and KronoScope: Journal for the Study of Time. Her research and commentary are regularly featured in mainstream news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes, Inc., and NBC News.

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