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Communicative rules and organizational decision making.

This article suggests that managerial awareness of ordinarily unconscious communicative rules (and how these rules potentially influence decision-making processes) might help managers to be more intentional about their communicative choices and may therefore lead to better decisions. The article explores the impact of communicative rules on decision-making processes using the retrospective discourse surrounding the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger as an example case. Communicative rules may have played a part in the course of the eve of the launch debate over whether to launch the Challenger. Four potential communicative rules are identified using quotations from the presidential hearing transcripts. Being aware of communicative rules may be especially important in decision-making situations because it can enable one to make conscious choices concerning communicative behavior instead of unconsciously following intuitive social norms--norms that might have undesirable along with unintended results.

Keywords: decision making; Challenger; organizational communication; communicative rules


Communicative rules surround us and fill our communal world. We usually learn the rules naturally with little effort simply by participating in the social life of the community. Consider the following simple examples. Rule A: If one is summoned and one hears that summons, then one must respond to the summons. Rule B: If one receives a gift or a favor, then one should say "thank you." Rule C: If one is among a large group of people in a public place and the proceedings are formal and orderly, then one should raise one's hand to indicate a desire to speak. As evidenced with just a few simple examples, communicative rules, though often operating below the surface of conscious awareness, are ubiquitous.

Communicative rules are also prevalent in organizations, where not only norms concerning polite interaction are in effect but also where norms and communicative patterns emerge over time alongside and within an organizational culture. Consider a few hypothetical examples. Most organizational members learn the norm fairly quickly that if one is in a professional, business environment and one is requesting a raise from one's boss, then one must not use foul language or swear. For a slightly more in-depth example, it is fairly easy to imagine a company with an assertive, ambitious, goal-oriented culture where employees learn to "look good" by posting positive results. It is almost as easy to imagine some communicative norms developing in this culture that look something like the following. If one has positive news about increasing sales, higher profits, and so on, then one must share that news with upper management directly. If one has negative news about decreasing sales, lower profits, and so on, then one must massage that news into a more positive form before sharing it with upper management. In some cases, the second rule might even be a prohibition against sharing negative news, a norm that could significantly affect decision making. Some of these communicative rules are obvious and easily understood when identified. On the other hand, many communicative rules lie beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. These communicative rules, although hidden and unidentified, may influence communicative behaviors and choices and may therefore have unintended consequences for decision-making processes and outcomes. Managerial awareness that communicative norms exist and that these norms can significantly affect decisions has the potential to improve organizational decision-making outcomes.

One organizational decision that affected not only the people within the organization but also the lives of hundreds of people across the country was the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger. Considerable debate concerning the decision took place on the eve of the launch when Morton Thiokol Inc. (MTI) engineers recommended against the launch because of concerns that the O-ring might tail at the predicted low temperatures of the next day's launch time (failure of the O-rings was later identified as the cause of the disaster). Why the decision was made to recommend a launch, in spite of the vigorous objections of several engineers, has been the subject of much debate from a wide variety of disciplines including statistics, engineering, sociology, business, and communication, to name just a few (Dalal, Fowlkes, & Hoadley, 1989; Lighthall, 1991; McConnell, 1987; Starbuck & Milliken, 1988; Vaughan, 1996).

Given that the Challenger accident occurred several years ago and has already been studied extensively, one might ask why it is worthwhile to examine this particular decision-making process again. There are several reasons. First, NASA's complex nature and rich communicative world, as revealed in this particular event, provide enormously rich potential for study that has not yet been exhausted. Second, the nature of the materials used for this analysis (almost 3,000 pages of transcripts) lends itself to continued study because of their stability over time. Third, the recent accident of the space shuttle Columbia provides further significance to the Challenger decision. Recent investigations of the Columbia event reveal similar concerns surrounding implicit communicative rules and the effect of these rules on the decision-making process surrounding the Columbia heat shield. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003) noted that NASA's organizational culture discouraged subordinates' dissent and hindered the open exchange of information. This comment hints at some of the same communicative rules potentially influencing the Challenger launch, indicating that implicit communicative rules functioning at the time of the 1986 Challenger disaster may continue to influence NASA decision makers today.

Even if one remained unconvinced by the preceding reasons, this article serves several purposes in addition to providing further investigations of the Challenger launch. First, a study of the communicative rules operative at NASA may shed light on communicative rules operative in other organizations. Second, this study serves as a model or example of discerning communicative rules using retrospective discourse. Third, a close analysis of the communicative rules operative at the time of the Challenger disaster provides a foundation from which to investigate more recent occurrences of potentially flawed decision making at NASA. Finally, on a highly practical note, the article suggests that awareness of communicative rules may help managers to be more intentional about their communication, resulting in better decision-making processes.

A growing body of literature explores the rules of "engineer talk," explicitly bringing to conscious awareness the rhetorical nature of technical writing and engineering presentations. Although much of this work addresses technical writing and the pedagogy of technical writing (Couture, 1992; Winsor, 1990a, 1990b, 1996), some of the work examines speaking situations, usually in the form of oral presentations (Anson & Forsberg, 1990; Dannels, 2000, 2003; Freedman & Adam, 1996). An area that has received less attention to date is the rules governing informal speaking situations and the similarities and differences between the communicative rules of engineers and the communicative rules of managers.

This article explores the communicative rules of engineers and managers that were implicitly at work in the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger. A review of the Challenger literature specifically addressing the roles of engineers and managers follows. In the years following the disaster, authors reviewing the Challenger launch often cited differences in managerial versus engineering discourse as potentially affecting the decision to launch. The "Report to the President by the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident" (1986, referred to as the RPC), concluded that the physical cause of the disaster was a failure to seal the aft joint of the right solid rocket booster (SRB). The contributing cause of the accident was "a serious flaw in the decision-making process" (RPC, 1986, Vol. 1, p. 104). The commission saw the fundamental problem as "failures in communication that resulted in a decision to launch 51-L" (p. 82). This decision was based on three aspects of faulty communication including "incomplete and sometimes misleading information, a conflict between engineering data and management judgments, and a NASA management structure that permitted internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers" (p. 82, italics added).

Many of the early investigations of the shuttle disaster assumed that managerial misconduct by both NASA and MTI managers contributed to the flawed decision-making process. McConnell's (1987) narrative-style volume conveys the tone of these accusations by describing the "massive white columns of the solid rocket boosters" as "the final product of flawed policy and political corruption" (p. 7).

Other scholars posited various other reasons for the fatal decision. Lighthall (1991) claimed that the root cause of the problem involved "a gap in the education of engineers" (p. 63) and that faulty statistical analysis resulted in the engineers' lack of the objective proof they needed to argue the link between cold temperatures and O-ring erosion. Miller (1993) claimed, on the other hand, that assumptions about science and technology led engineers to choose persuasive strategies that were less influential with managers and resulted in the poor decision. Tuft (1991) points to inadequate and improper chart preparation by the engineers as partially responsible for the poor decision, stating "the displays failed to reveal the risk that was in fact present" (p. 45). Others saw the decision-making problems as being more individualized. Werhane (1991) posited that at least part of the problem with the decision making was "a failure both by engineers and by managers to exercise individual moral responsibility" (p. 605).

Vaughan (1996), in a comprehensive volume published 10 years after the launch, claimed that all the explanations focusing on the decision itself and the events of the evening of the launch failed to account for the historical aspects that led inevitably to the decision of January 28, 1986. Vaughan countered the conventional explanations of managerial wrongdoing and safety violations, and stated instead that "the cause of the disaster was a mistake embedded in the banality of organizational life and facilitated by an environment of scarcity and competition" (p. xiv). She believed that a study of the history of NASA as an organization evidenced "an incremental descent into poor judgment" (p. xiii) and that the real concern was the "normalization of deviance" (p. 62). (1)

In addition to sociologists, business scholars, and engineering experts, organizational communication scholars also examined the Challenger disaster from a variety of perspectives (Gouran, Hirokawa, & Martz, 1986; Tompkins, 1993, 2004). Walzer and Gross (1994) concluded that the real concern in the eve-of-the-launch discussions lay in the failure of the managers to recognize that the lack of conclusive data concerning temperatures and O-rings necessitated a management decision based on normative versus technical knowledge. The managers, Walzer and Gross proposed, should have deliberated in order to discover the institutional norms (that is, rules) dictating where the burden of proof should fall and thus should have resolved that though the data were inconclusive, the paramount safety of the crew dictated postponing the launch. Instead of pointing to such things as a perceived pressure to launch and a failure to ask relevant questions, Walzer and Gross considered the main cause of the accident to be a failure to identify the type of knowledge that was needed for a management decision.

These diverse viewpoints suggest that managers and engineers communicated differently and that an awareness of organizational norms may have aided the managers to arrive at a better decision. The present study investigates the communicative rules potentially employed by engineers and managers at the time of the launch and the potential impact of these communicative rules on the decision-making process. Before discussing the specific research questions that motivated this work, it is important to review some background information concerning communicative rules.

First, a general overview of rules may be helpful. Communicative rules refer specifically to the norms (explicit or implicit) that guide communicative behavior; they are both applied and implied in every interactional utterance. Rules theory has emerged in part, according to Shimanoff (1980), because scholars recognize that human beings "make and evaluate choices among alternative courses of action and that many of these choices are made on the basis of rules" (p. 32). In decision making more than in many activities, individual choices may have a direct bearing on the outcome of the event, (2) and the impact of rules in organizational settings is undisputed. As Gilsdorf (1998) states, "Rules are sometimes formulated deliberately but sometimes coalesce from practice. Whatever their origin, rules exist and they guide the decisions of organizational actors" (p. 175).

Second, four characteristics of rules were set forth by Shimanoff (1980) and are still generally agreed upon today; these are that (a) rules are followable--individuals have a choice to follow the rule or not; (b) rules are prescriptive--breaking a rule may have consequences in the form of negative sanctions; (c) rules are contextual--they are applicable in certain situations and not in others; (d) rules are bound by a domain--they can be linked to people as well as to a context (that is, rules may prescribe different behavior for different individuals depending on the status or role of that individual). Together, these characteristics form the basis of Shimanoff's definition of a rule: "[a] rule is a followable prescription that indicates what behavior is obligated, preferred, or prohibited in certain contexts" (p. 57).

Third, it is important to recognize that communicative rules, because they are embedded in speech and are not usually articulated explicitly, require a deep level of interpretation and must be inferred from what is said. Fourth, it is significant to note that communicative rules, as Weider (1974) claims, are created in the discourse itself; they are evidenced and also constituted in the same speech event. They are not "out there," apart from the discourse of the participants; they are not entities that exist outside of the words used to invoke them. In the Challenger hearing process, this means that the words used by managers and engineers that provide evidence of a norm are, in this very usage, also serving to substantiate and perpetuate the specific norm or rule.

Finally, Hall (1988) differentiates between three approaches to communicative rules and articulates the relationship between rules and action for each approach. The normative force is the approach taken by Shimanoff (1980) and others in which internalized norms and external sanctions together work to influence actions and outcomes. The interpretive position, on the other hand, claims that rules function to create a sense of social order but that there is no direct causal relationship between rules and action taken. The discursive force position (the third approach) does not attempt to predict action itself, given a rule, but instead makes predictions concerning the discursive response that will follow a violation of norms (Philipsen, 1987). Hall states that the same discursive response is expected whether the rule that is violated relates to communicative or sociological norms; thus, both rules might be inferred from the speech of participants. The discursive force position predicts that violation of a norm or rule will incur a discursive response concerning the violation. This article is guided by the discursive approach in that a discursive response following a violation of a norm is seen to provide evidence for that norm.


This study uses, as its corpus of data, the RPC. Two of the five volumes of this report contain the transcripts of the legal hearings that were conducted by the commission as they investigated the cause of the Challenger accident. These hearings produced 2,872 hearing pages that constitute the materials for this project.

There are several advantages of employing these particular materials as the basis of organizational research. First, this study is grounded in an authentic setting. Retrospective talk, occurring in the real-world context of a public hearing and concerning a decision that took place in a functioning organization, constitutes the corpus. The immediate presence of a researcher did not affect what was said or done; participants were unaware of the current research questions, and thus their spoken interactions were unaffected by the expectations of the researcher. These aspects of the materials enhance the validity of the present project. In terms of reliability, the repeatability of the study is enhanced because actual transcripts were used instead of personal observations. Other researchers desiring to replicate the work have the advantage of beginning with identical materials. The materials are also easily accessible and, because they captured a specific moment in time, they now allow repeated examination of those interactions.

The primary disadvantages of these materials are the limitations inherent in the production of the transcripts and the related concern of the lack of immediacy. The RPC includes transcripts only of the testimony related to the Challenger disaster. Conversations taking place outside of the formal testimony are not recorded. Interaction in the hall, casual conversations between colleagues, even the on-the-side conversations occurring during the hearings are not recorded. The result is that the transcripts cover only a subset of the interactions surrounding the launch decision, limiting the opportunities for identifying communicative rules. The hearings also constitute a formal event in which formal interaction is prescribed (i.e., the communicative rules for this context proscribe a more formal weighing of one's words than the spontaneous speech of luncheon interaction). Furthermore, those testifying at the Challenger hearing were under a significant amount of stress because they could potentially be implicated in the disaster and incriminated by their own testimony. Thus, the hearings constituted a stressful event requiring heightened consciousness. No doubt these circumstances influenced what was said and how it was spoken. Still, because communicative rules are often below the level of conscious awareness, it is likely that the same rules were operative in the explanations of the launch as were operative the night of the launch itself.

Second, a lack of immediacy makes the identification of rules more suggestive and less absolute. Without the participants being immediately present, it is not possible to formulate a rule and then test it out in other situations or settings. Asking the hearing participants for their general sense of awareness of a particular rule is also not possible. Nonverbal elements of communication, such as tone of voice, that might be helpful to identify such things as sanctions for norm violations are not available in the hearing transcripts. All of these factors make it more difficult to articulate the presence and application of various communicative rules with complete certainty. Nonetheless, it is possible and useful to explore the discourse of the hearing process and, keeping these limitations in mind, to articulate some of the likely rules operating within the organizational cultures of NASA and NASA contractors. In this article, I articulate four communicative rules evidenced in the use of language by hearing participants. The first two rules address the research question Are there communicative rules that apply to all members of NASA and NASA subcontractors? The second two rules respond to the question Are there communicative rules that apply differently to different individuals depending on their organizational role? (i.e., Is domain a relevant aspect of communicative rules at NASA?)

During the first phase of this research, I read through the entire set of hearing transcripts. Because I was specifically interested in the role of communicative rules in decision-making situations, it was important to identify the utterances among the 2,872 pages of hearing transcripts that specifically referred to the talk surrounding the decision making on the eve of the launch. I set passages aside for detailed examination if both of the following criteria were met.

1. The speaker was a participant in a speech event (3) preceding the launch decision.

2. The topic or issue of discussion was either (a) one of the eve-of-the-launch speech events or (b) the decision-making process.

Two tasks were accomplished through this initial general reading of the transcripts. First, the discourse that met the stated criteria was identified and set aside. Second, instances of discourse specifically related to communicative rules were identified.

During the second phase of the research, I went through the transcripts and highlighted the utterances evidencing communicative rules or potentially related to communicative rules. Through this process, I began to recognize recurrent patterns of interactions in the hearing transcripts. I sharpened and refined potential rules and rejected some previous ideas as not rule governed. By the end of this process, I had generated and recorded several hypothetical rules. In the next step, I recorded every utterance that offered an instance of the potential rule in action and every utterance that specifically indicated an expectation, assumption, or requirement concerning speaking. I grouped these utterances according to theme, and honed and refined the rule associated with each group using Shimanoff's definition of a rule.

As mentioned previously, Shimanoff (1980) defines a rule as "a followable prescription that indicates what behavior is obligated, preferred, or prohibited in certain contexts" (p. 57). This definition includes what she considers to be the essential components of rules: context (circumstance where it applies), prescribed behavior (what ought to be done), and force of the rule (is it preferred, required, or prohibited?). These components can be arranged in the following way to provide a standard format for articulating rules.

1. "If"

2. Context (e.g., "one is summoned and one hears that summons")

3. "Then"

4. Statement of prescription (e.g., "one must")

5. Required behavior (e.g., "answer that summons")

These steps result in the following rule: If one is summoned and one hears that summons, then one must answer that summons. Using a standard format to articulate rules helps to reveal the underlying logic of the rule and to refine the wording of the rule. It also allows for consistency across research.

In the following sections, the two research questions posed above will be addressed. Block quotations taken from the RPC are cited with the name of the speaker first, followed by his or her words. Certain segments of quotations have been italicized to assist the reader in identifying important aspects of a specific utterance while offering the larger quotation as context.


One of the results of the enlightenment period was a solid and somewhat unshakable belief in the power of human reason to untangle the mystery of our ordered universe. The scientific method, with its focus on stable conditions for experiments, details, accuracy, and so on, yielded positive results with respect to increasing objective knowledge--things once considered mysterious were researched, analyzed, and broken down into "facts." The effect of the enlightenment can be seen through the desire of scientifically minded people to acquire objective, quantifiable data on which to base reasoned decisions. This desire for objective data to support a claim has become, in fact, a requirement in many technical contexts including NASA and MTI at the time of the Challenger launch. Having the evidence available to support one's claim, especially a claim associated with a recommendation, appears, from the RPC transcripts, to be a rule-governed communicative behavior. In the following paragraphs, several communicative rules will be identified through carefully attending to (a) claims involving a sense of duty or requirement, (b) requests to redo a communicative behavior, and (c) challenges to a communicative behavior.

Consider the following utterance made by Mason in the context of a question from Vice Chairman Armstrong.

Vice Chairman Armstrong: And would you characterize your own feelings about pressure that may have influenced the decision process in any way?

Mason: I've thought a lot about that, and there was some pressure, but I believe it is in the range of what we normally encounter. Whenever we're taking a position, NASA tests us on that position to explain it, justify it, that sort of thing. And that is the way I perceive we were being tested, is how supportive or how well can we justify our position. (p. 1376)

Mason tells the commission that what outsiders might perceive as "pressure" to change one's position is the usual and normative way of speaking within the context of NASA interaction with subcontractors. Within this context, individuals are expected to be able to "support" and "justify" their claims or positions, and NASA is expected to "test" the contractors to insure that they can explain and justify their position. Hardy goes one step further by describing the proactive response needed to justify claims as they are made.

Hardy: Well, maybe the point that is missing is that on recommendations on any matter, regardless of what position that recommendation takes, it is typical and traditional to ask first of all that we don't just do things with people dropping letters in to each other; a recommendation is made. The question is asked, or it doesn't have to be asked because they know it is going to be asked, what is your rationale for that. And the next step usually is, well, my rationale is based on this data, and the next question is, well, how do you interpret that data and on what basis do you interpret that data ? (p. 1622)

It is not necessary that the question concerning rationale be explicitly asked. It is so much a part of the normative world that everyone knows "it is going to be asked." In this statement, Hardy is articulating for the commission what he considers the normal series of discursive moves made in the context of a recommendation. The first discursive move consists of an individual making a recommendation or a claim. The next potential step is that the listeners request the rationale for that claim. The third step is that the individual making the claim provides the rationale and the data on which the claim is based, and the fourth step is a request for interpretation of the data. Hardy points out that the second discursive step is often skipped because the person making the claim is so aware of the sequence of events that they simply provide the rationale without being explicitly asked for it--they skip to Step 3 and justify their claim as it is being made.

Collectively, these statements, combined with the challenges for nonconforming behavior and descriptions of requests to redo behavior (discussed below), suggest an epistemological communicative rule that can be stated as follows:

Rule 1: If a claim is made (especially in the context of a recommendation), then the individual making the claim is expected to have a logical basis for the claim that can be supported with data (preferably quantitative data).

This rule is suggested by the preceding statements; it is affirmed with descriptions of challenges of behavior and with requests to redo behavior not conforming to the rule. One of Shimanoff's (1980) key means of identifying a rule is to determine if others can criticize behavior not conforming to the rule. If violations of the rule cannot be criticized, then it may not be a rule. In the case of the proposed Rule 1, several NASA participants provided testimony in which participants "challenged" behavior that they perceived as not conforming to the rule. Consider the following examples.

Mulloy: That was an engineering conclusion, which I found to be without basis and I challenged its logic. Now, that has been interpreted by some people as applying pressure. I certainly don't consider it to be applying pressure.

Any time that one of my contractors or, for that matter, some of Mr. Hardy's people who come to me with a recommendation and a conclusion that is based on engineering data, l probe the basis for their conclusion to assure that it is sound and that it is logical.... We tested that logic and rationale in great detail. (p. 1529)

Reinartz: He [Mr. Hardy] wanted the MTI opinion and their technical opinion of that. He asked them if they had any additional data supporting their opinion. (p. 1157)

In the first example, Mulloy tells the commission that he challenged the particular position held by MTI engineers during the evening teleconference (8:15 p.m.) to ensure that the engineers' claims had a logical basis and were supported with engineering data. He also articulates the general response resulting from the application of the rule: "anytime that one of my contractors ... comes to me with a recommendation ... I probe the basis for their conclusion to assure that it is sound and that it is logical." Mulloy frequently describes this situation of "challenging" behavior that does not conform to the rule. If he felt that a claim was not adequately supported with data, he "challenged that."

Mulloy: And this was a rather surprising conclusion, based upon data that didn't seem to hang together, and so I challenged that. (p. 1532)

Mulloy: If somebody is giving me a recommendation and a conclusion that is based upon engineering data, I am going to understand the basis for that recommendation and conclusion to assure that it is logical. (p. 1532)

Mulloy: I hope that I have not said that I was upset by a recommendation not to launch. What I was challenging were conclusions that were drawn. The recommendation not to launch or to launch at that time wouldn't upset me one way or the other. (p. 1543)

Hardy and Powers both affirm that this discursive sequence is typical; "probing the data" and "assessing the rationale" are "typical" responses when a claim is made as shown in the quotes below.

Hardy: It is not typical to ask for a vote count when a senior responsible official of the contractor presents the company position. What is typical is to assess the rationale for that position, whichever way it may come down. (p. 1601)

Powers: He [Hardy] was probing the data, which is typical, trying to ascertain if there was a valid concern with the temperature as it would affect the behavior of the seals at the joints, the field joints, not the nozzle, just the field joints. (p. 1945)

In these examples, a behavior not conforming to a rule (making a claim that is "found to be without basis," p. 1529) is verbally challenged or questioned. A specific type of challenge is a request to redo the original communicative behavior. In this case, the person whose behavior has not conformed to the rule is given a second chance to perform the behavior correctly, that is, in accordance with the rule. Consider the following examples:

Lund: And of course, we were requested then [after the initial 5:15 p.m. teleconference] to go back and do something more and prepare detailed charts to show that in more detail. And so we got busy then, and I gave assignments to a dozen or so people to go out and generate data that would in a workmanlike manner show the rationale and show the data that we had so that everyone would understand all the data and where it came from.... And so we stood at the white board there in the Management Information Center... and put together a rationale for what we wanted to do. (p. 1457)

Boisjoly: I was asked, yes, at that point in time I was asked to quantify my concerns, and I said I couldn't. I couldn't quantify it. I had no data to quantify it, but I did say I knew that it was away from goodness in the current data base.... I was asked again for data to support my claim, and I said I have none other than what is being presented. (p. 1415)

Consider the first example taken from Lund's account of the January 27 interactions. During the initial 5:15 p.m. teleconference, Thiokol engineers verbally presented their ideas concerning temperature effects on O-rings, concluding that they did not "want to fly" (p. 1457). This first teleconference was simply a "verbal presentation" (p. 1457), without charts and short on visual evidence. Lurid describes how they "were requested then to go back a do something more." In saying, "of course," Lurid evidences his assumption that they would be expected to support their spoken claim with evidence in the form of data and charts. It was a part of his normative expectations that MTI engineering would be asked to "put together a rationale" for what they "wanted to do."

Boisjoly is also asked to redo his discursive move when it does not meet the expectations of other NASA participants. During the prelaunch discussions, Boisjoly made a claim. He stated that "we had a problem with temperature" and that lower temperatures were "away from the direction of goodness" (p. 1399). This claim led to a response from others--he was asked to quantify or support his claim. Boisjoly, however, was unable to honor their request, so he continued to make his claim without the requested quantification. This further support of the claim by Boisjoly led to a second request to redo his communicative behavior when he was "asked again for data to support [his] claim."

At another point in the testimony, Boisjoly again reflects on this interaction, stating,

Boisjoly: They felt that we had not demonstrated, or I had not demonstrated, because I was the prime mover in SRM [solid rocket motor]-15, because of my personal observations and involvement in the flight readiness reviews, they felt that I had not conclusively demonstrated that there was a tie-in between temperature and blow-by. (p. 1203)

Boisjoly is making a claim to the commission here concerning others' responses to his claims. He says that others treated his explanations and claims as defective. His inability to support his claim ("that there was a tie-in between temperature and blow-by") with quantifiable data led to an evaluation of his claim as inadequate.

Vaughan (1996) affirms this epistemological communicative rule necessitating the supporting of one's claims with data. She states that the format of the teleconference on the eve of the launch was the format of a flight readiness review (FRR) and that "in every FRR the contractor engineers for all shuttle projects had to prove that their data support their engineering conclusions and the launch recommendation" (p. 343). She follows this up even more strongly with her own assessment of the historical climate of work at NASA, stating,
   To meet the demands of the original technical culture, Marshall work
   groups experienced pressure to achieve the most rigorous data
   analysis possible to back engineering recommendations....
   Observational data, backed by an intuitive argument, were
   unacceptable in NASA's science-based, positivistic, rule-bound
   system. Arguments that could not be supported by data and did not
   meet engineering standards would not pass the adversarial challenges
   of the FRR process. (p. 221)

The immediately preceding quotations help to explicate a communicative rule that evidenced a standard epistemological assumption concerning what constitutes acceptable support for a claim. The engineers at MTI and NASA attempted to provide acceptable data to support their hunch that cold temperatures could negatively affect O-ring performance (to the point of catastrophic disaster), but they failed to meet the required epistemological standard and the decision was made to launch the shuttle.

Managers, in their retrospective discourse, needed to account for the catastrophic decision given that several engineers had attempted to support a claim that the shuttle should not be launched at cold temperatures. Their retrospective comments also evidence a communicative rule. Managers responded to the lack of meeting an epistemological standard by invoking a social rule. They claim that every person had the opportunity to speak openly and freely. They identify that the data provided were insufficient, but they also justify their response by claiming that everyone had the opportunity to provide more convincing data because the communication was "free" and "open."

Consider the following statements made by three different NASA employees, from three different levels of management.

Lucas: I have always considered the contractor people that we deal with to be reliable, professional people and have counted on them to bring their concerns to us if they have them. That has been the NASA mode of encouraging people to speak up and to express concerns if they have them. I don't know of any reason at all why they would not, and they have certainly had that opportunity. (p. 1889)

Aldrich: I fully expected that 1 would receive a call from one of the key officials at Rockwell if they felt that my decision, based upon the kind of input they gave me, was a problem to them. When the situation has been reversed on previous launches, I felt free to call Downey, California, and talk to a key official there to get him to tell me directly his opinion when I thought there was some question in a decision. And 1 would think that it was more than reasonable that, if someone were still concerned that this was a very bad judgment or a bad action to take, that they would call me. And I left every opportunity for that to happen. (p. 1857)

Reinartz: In regard to the launch recommendation process, I continue to believe that the activities associated with this process, specifically the January 27th discussion between Thiokol and Marshall, were conducted in a thorough and professional manner and in the NASA tradition of full and open participation of the personnel necessary for appropriate disposition of the specific concern.... I believe Marshall thoroughly probed the data, and all parties had an opportunity to provide inputs and express their views. (p. 1663)

In each of these statements, NASA employees articulate their expectations concerning the social and communicative behavior of NASA and/or contractor employees. Concerning NASA's contractors, Lucas claims that he has always "counted on them to bring their concerns to us if they have them." He continues, "that has been the NASA mode of encouraging people to speak up and to express concerns if they have them." In these statements, Lucas imputes a communicative prescription for contractor employees; that is, if they have concerns, they are expected to "speak up" and "express" those concerns. Aldrich also evidences an orientation toward this expectation or prescription. He states that he "fully expected that he would receive a call" if the contractor was concerned, and that he "would think that it was more than reasonable that, if someone were still concerned that this was a very bad judgment or a bad action to take, that they would call" him. Reinartz also refers to the "NASA tradition of full and open participation," thus implying a certain expectation for interaction within NASA.

Each of these statements suggests that NASA and contractor employees had an obligation to speak up when they had a concern. Together, they suggest a communicative rule that can be formulated as follows:

Rule 2: If a NASA or contractor employee has a concern, then he or she is expected to express it.

These utterances indicate that participants oriented toward this expectation of expressing one's thoughts as if this expectation were a rule. Several utterances in the hearing transcripts also describe behavior that conforms to such a communicative rule. Mason states that this type of interaction, where each person fulfills this communicative expectation and freely expresses his or her opinion, occurs frequently.

Mason: In that discussion [during the teleconferences], I felt that everyone had represented their opinion.... I just feel that it is the kind of discussion that we frequently have, in which all of the people express their opinions and they make them clear. (p. 1362)

Several other individuals describe the interactions that took place during the teleconferences as "open," "free," and "full."

Mason: Now, the discussion was a free and open discussion with all of the people there. (p. 1360)

Reinartz: And no heated protest was injected into the open discussion by the senior Thiokol representative at KSC [Kennedy Space Center] during that two-and-a-half-hour period. (p. 1667)

Mulloy: I wasn't surprised that, given the opportunity to think it through, to take advantage of the discussion, the free interchange of discussion in a calm and deliberate manner--I didn't hear a single engineer say it is unsafe to fly 51-L. (p. 1578)

The consistent and frequent use of these descriptive terms by a variety of hearing participants indicates that the type of communicative behavior called for by Rule 2 occurred (or was at least perceived as occurring) during the eve-of-the-launch teleconferences.

The expectation, according to this communicative rule, was that individuals with concerns would express them. If another force was constraining an individual from expressing his or her concerns, then the expectation of expressing the concerns might not apply to that individual. If, however, there was no other force constraining an individual's behavior, then the expectation concerning open expression remained effective. This seems to be the reasoning of some NASA employees, who made an effort to point out to the commission that no other force existed, thus implicitly suggesting that the expectation that these individuals would express their concerns was valid. Consider Hardy's and Reinartz' comments:

Hardy: The presentations were professional in nature. There were numerous questions and answers.... To my knowledge, anyone who desired to make a point, ask a question or express a view was in no way restrained from doing so. (p. 1598)

Reinartz: Mr. McDonald had the opportunity to inject anything into that Thiokol internal if he chose to. As far as I know there was nothing constraining him. (p. 1675)

These individuals articulated the shared belief that each person in the NASA community had an equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to the discussions.

Vaughan (1996) also affirms this rule, stating that "the freedom to speak your piece was a belief asserted by both managers and engineers in other contexts and described ... as a taken-for-granted part of NASA culture" (p. 369). McCurdy (1993) also emphasizes the necessity of free and open discussion; he states, "NASA's ability to handle risk required open discussions in which mid-level managers and engineers felt unrestrained in voicing warnings and dissent" (p. 65).

The preceding descriptions of communicative behavior appear to conform to an expectation. These descriptions, combined with the initial utterances in which hearing participants articulate these expectations, provide some evidence that expressing one's concerns was a communicative behavior that was normatively governed in the organizations of NASA and NASA's contractors. Managers seem to partially employ a social rule of free and open communication to respond to the inadequate epistemological evidence presented on the eve of the launch.


The rules discussed above seem to apply equally to all members of NASA and contractor organizations. Other communicative rules appear to apply differently to managers and engineers. That is, in some cases, "domain" is an important aspect of some of the communicative rules evidenced in the Challenger hearing process. In the following section, two rules are introduced that seem to differentiate subordinates (often engineers) and their communicative rote from superordinates (often managers) and their communicative role. Hearing participants frequently articulate distinctions between engineers and managers that appear to play a role in some communicative rules.

Consider the following statements.

Boisjoly (MTI engineer): I must emphasize, I had my say, and I never rake any management right to take the input of an engineer and then make a decision based upon that input, and I truly believe that. I have worked at a lot of companies, and that has been done from time to time, and I truly believe that, and so there was no point in me doing anything any further than I had already attempted to do. (p. 1420)

Boisjoly (MTI engineer): Okay, the caucus was started by Mr. Mason stating that a management decision was necessary. Those of us who were opposed the launch continued to speak out, ... and we were attempting to go back and rereview and try to make clear what we were trying to get across, and we couldn't understand why it was going to be reversed. So we spoke out and tried to explain once again the effects of low temperature ... and when he realized he wasn't getting through, he just stopped.... I also stopped when it was apparent that I couldn't get anybody to listen. (p. 1418)

Mason (MTI senior vice president): In fact, Roger [Boisjoly], as you just noted, is one who says he didn't change his mind. But it was one of those where it becomes the responsibility of management to make we think a rational decision, and that is what we did. (p. 1128)

These statements suggest some broad themes with respect to the roles of engineers and managers at NASA. In general, engineers seem to have the role of offering support to their management. Such support includes making calculations, offering evidence, making claims about technical issues, and supporting those claims with data. Managers, on the other hand, have the role of receiving the input of the engineers, recognizing when they have received all the different input, and then making a decision utilizing that input. These roles are evidenced in, created by, and help to constitute communicative rules associated with these two organizational roles.

A manager's role seems to involve collecting all of the available information and recognizing when he or she have acquired all pertinent input so that he or she can proceed to making a decision. Engineers, on the other hand, are expected to provide support to managers. It seems that engineers, as a part of this role, abide by a communicative rule related to being sensitive to when managers have received all the input that they are capable of receiving and to cease offering their input once this point has been reached. The rules suggested by these utterances can be stated more formally as follows:

Rule 3: If a superordinate has heard all there is to be said regarding a particular issue, then he or she should make a decision.

Rule 4: If a subordinate is providing input to his or her superior and he or she perceives that his or her input is not being received by the superior, then he or she should stop attempting to provide that input.

The following section will explore the potential evidence for these two rules in the language used by NASA and contractor managers and engineers throughout the hearing process. As with the other norms, some comments referencing the rule are prescriptive, indicating that participants oriented to the behavior as a rule, whereas other comments are descriptive, indicating that the behavior occurred. Consider the prescriptive comment made by Mason, page 1128, (preceding quote) and the ones made by Boisjoly and Russell (below).

Boisjoly (MTI engineer): Okay, the caucus was started by Mr. Mason stating that a management decision was necessary. (p. 1418)

Russell (MTI engineer): So we got to a point in the caucus where Mr. Mason [MTI senior vice president] said, and rightfully so, we are covering the same information, we are not talking about anything new here, and it's time for a decision. (p. 1486)

In each of these statements, the speaker refers to the obligatory nature of managerial decision making. They state that "it becomes the responsibility of management," "a management decision was necessary," and that Mr. Mason [MTI vice president] "rightfully" called for a decision. Mason indicates that he had heard Boisjoly's dissenting opinion and, at the same time, that it was the "responsibility of management to make ... a rational decision." In each case, the speaker orients toward the behavior of managerial decision making as more than just a desirable quality, it is a requirement that goes along with the managerial role.

Other comments describe the behaviors and situations that seemingly evidence the rule at work in the interactions of NASA participants.

McDonald (MTI manager, located at KSC): I guess I would have to characterize it as a management decision, the final decision. (p. 1312)

Reinartz (NASA shuttle projects office manager): And the only thing that I had, after the results that I had, the recommendation from Thiokol program manager, I had the Marshall engineering support of that activity, and I had the SRB manager's decision that he wanted to proceed, which I concurred with. (p. 1675)

Aldrich (NASA manager, National Space Transportation Systems program office): And as I have said previously, I have worked with the Rockwell team closely for a number of years and I fully expected that I would receive a call from one of the key officials at Rockwell if they felt that my decision, based upon the kind of input they gave me, was a problem to them. (p. 1857)

In the preceding statements, several individuals articulate the roles filled by both managers and engineers. Managers recognize that a subordinate's role is to provide input and that it is the "responsibility" of management to hear the input and then make a managerial decision. Reinartz emphasizes that McDonald had the opportunity to provide input to the MTI managers who were making the decision if he chose to do so--McDonald's role was to provide input. Reinartz further claims that he (Reinartz) had "engineering support" and "the SRB manager's decision;" each role offering the appropriate output for that role. Aldrich, although he is referring to a different situation concerning interaction with Rockwell, reiterates the same rules in which the engineer offers input that is, in turn, used for a management decision.

Managers were not alone in perceiving a distinction between the appropriate rule-governed roles of managers and engineers. Consider Boisjoly's statement, page 1420 (preceding quote). Boisjoly articulates the relationship between a particular behavior and an organizational role as well as the distinction between the roles of management and engineers. An engineer's role is to provide input and to recognize when he or she should stop providing input. A manager's role, on the other hand, is to take that input and to "make a decision based upon that input." Boisjoly emphasizes that he believes this is not only the way things are, but it is also the way that things ought to be. He "truly believes" that it is a manager's role to receive the input and it is a "management right to take the input of an engineer and then make a decision based upon that input."

Earlier in his testimony, Boisjoly described the interactions that took place during the Thiokol caucus.

Boisjoly (MTI engineer): Those opposed to launching continued to press their case with MTI management, and those opposed to the launch that pressed this case in the caucus were basically myself and Mr. Thompson. And we did ever3'thing we could to continue to try and press for not launching .... When we realized that we basically had stopped in the discussion and we could go no further because we were getting nowhere, we backed off, both of us. We just sat back down. (p. 1203)

Boisjoly's notes (written after the launch):
   Arnie Thompson went up and placed a pad of paper right in front of
   Mr. Mason on the table and attempted once again to explain the
   affect of a lower temperature. Arnie stopped when it became apparent
   that he wasn't getting through. I then spoke up again and this time
   made a big point about the photo evidence.... I too stopped when it
   was apparent to me that no one wanted to hear what I had to say.
   (p. 679)

In Boisjoly's quotation, page 1418 (preceding quote), as in these two quotations, Boisjoly reiterates to the commission his perspective on the interaction that took place during Thiokol's off-line caucus. He claims that he and Thompson "did everything we could to continue to try and press for not launching" and "to make clear what we were trying to get across." They worked to provide management with both the technical information and their subjective opinions concerning the launch/no-launch recommendation. Yet, when they realized that they "could go no further because [they] were getting nowhere," that they "weren't getting through," that they "couldn't get anybody to listen," and that "no one wanted to hear" what they had to say, they "just stopped." Boisjoly claims that they recognized when management was no longer able to receive their input and that the appropriate action at that time was to cease providing the input.

Like Boisjoly, Thompson and Russell also describe the situation as one in which an engineer must stop providing input when managers have heard all that they can hear, thus suggesting an orientation to this communicative rule. Consider the following comments made by Thompson and Russell.

Thompson (MTI engineer): And during the caucus I, as Mr. Boisjoly has mentioned, and something that I am not usually accustomed to doing, sitting down between two managers and trying one more time to explain and make sure that I got my thoughts across to them. And after not completing that conversation but concluding that I probably wasn't being--I wasn't communicating, and that may be my fault, I am happy, not happy, but I readily admit that it may have been my type of explanation, I wasn't getting through. (p. 1452)

Russell (MTI engineer): But I felt in my mind that once we had done our very best to explain why we were concerned and we meaning those in the camp who really felt strongly about the recommendation of 53 degrees, the decision was to be made.... However, we were not asked as the engineering people. It was a management decision at the vice president level, and they had heard all that they could hear, and I felt there was nothing more to say, that we could change anything. (p. 1487)

Thompson and Russell indicate that they recognized at a certain point during the caucus that their input was no longer being received and that at that point it was time for management to make a decision. Thompson allows that it might have been his way of communicating that resulted in his not "getting through." He also states that the conversation was not completed--potentially indicating that he was prepared to speak more, but that he ceased to speak because he perceived that the managers could not receive more input. Russell also states that once they had done their "very best" to explain their concerns, that management should appropriately make the decision. Russell recognized the point at which the managers "had heard all that they could hear" and that at that point, "there was nothing more to say" that "could change anything."

Probably partially due to the hearing process, but notable nonetheless, is the emphasis that each of the engineers places on his effort to communicate and to provide his input to management: "and we were attempting to go back and rereview and try to make clear what we were trying to get across" (Boisjoly); "and trying one more time to explain and make sure that I got my thoughts across to them" (Thompson); "once we had done our very best to explain why we were concerned" (Russell). This emphasis could be the result of perceiving their role as engineers as that of providing input to management. Each of them emphatically assures the commission that he worked hard to provide input to the managers.

Boisjoly, Thompson, and Russell suggest that they took the appropriate communicative step by ceasing to provide information when they realized that managers did not desire further input. Because they followed the norm, it is not possible to determine what sanctions might have been imposed had they not followed the norm. Thus, it is instructive to consider an example of a different situation in order to observe the potential sanctions related to not following this rule. In this situation, instead of the subordinate being an engineer with managerial superordinates, the subordinate is himself a manager at MTI who is located at KSC and is interacting with NASA managers who are above him in the organizational hierarchy of NASA.

McDonald (an MTI manager) offers an extended explanation to the commission of his conversations with various NASA officials on the eve of the launch. All individuals were located at the KSC. McDonald speaks for seven hearing pages to describe a single conversation following the final teleconference. In this conversation, McDonald offers three reasons why he believes that the shuttle should not be launched. In addition to the concern about temperature effects on the O-rings, McDonald offers concerns about ice on the launch pad and rough seas in the area where the reusable hardware for the shuttle should be retrieved as two further reasons for not launching. His extended description of this conversation during the hearing process indicates a lengthy conversation occurring on the eve of the launch and a potential violation of the rule that one should cease to speak when one's input is no longer being heard or listened to.

The response McDonald receives offers some indication that this is indeed a rule that has sanctions associated with its violation. After his description of his lengthy input to the others located in the room at KSC, McDonald tells the commission,

McDonald (MTI manager): I was told that, you know, the[s]e really weren't my problems and I really shouldn't concern myself with these. But I said, you know, all three of these together should be more than sufficient to cancel the launch, if the one we had discussed earlier wasn't. The NASA people who were there said that, well, they would pass these on, and they could tell I was disturbed and they would pass those on as concerns, and that they would do it in an advisory capacity. (p. 1297)

To be told that something really is not your concern could be considered a type of rebuke. It seems that McDonald did not recognize when his input was no longer desired by the NASA managers who were present and that breaking the rule by continuing to speak after the managers no longer desired his input resulted in the sanction of being told that he should not "concern himself" with things that really were not his problems. It is possible that additional norms were influential in this situation; nonetheless, the interaction suggests possible implications when a subordinate fails to refrain from offering further input to his or her superior.

The previous paragraphs have laid out evidence that suggests that NASA and MTI managers and engineers abided by certain communicative rules during the eve-of-the-launch discussions. Although both managers and engineers evidence these rules in their speech, it seems likely that they were unconscious of following these norms. Yet the norms may have influenced the eventual outcome of the decision. For example, it seems possible that relevant information, important for making a wise decision, was constrained because of a communicative norm that engineers stop speaking when management was no longer able to receive input. It is possible that an awareness of these communicative rules might have led to different communicative behaviors, different choices, and potentially, a better decision.


One way managers may benefit from an awareness of the communicative rules that are operative within their organization is by recognizing how certain communicative rules may interact with other communicative rules, thus leading to potential misunderstanding and confused signals. In this article, I have identified four communicative rules potentially guiding the interaction of NASA and contractor employees on the evening before the Challenger launch. Rule 1 provides evidence for the well-known epistemological assumption that engineers' claims must be supported by valid data (preferably technical, quantitative data). Rule 2 indicates that NASA and MTI managers used a positive social rule, that communication at NASA was "free" and "open" during the decision making process to justify and defend their decision to launch the Challenger. They apply a social communicative rule concerning norms of interaction that are applicable to all employees to explain that everyone had the opportunity (and therefore, implicitly, the obligation) to provide input, and no one was hindered from doing so. Through this rhetorical move, they subtly shift the responsibility for identifying the relevant data from their own role as decision makers to the role of the engineers or others that are in possession of the required data.

In spite of this rationale that everyone was responsible to speak up if they had a concern, all participants seem to agree that the ultimate responsibility for the decision lay with the superordinates (usually managers), as indicated by Rule 3. The idea of managerial responsibility for the final decision has been extensively analyzed in the Challenger literature. On the other hand, Rule 4 offers new input indicating that in the NASA culture, subordinates (often engineers) should limit their input according to the interest level and receptivity of the managerial superordinates. Did these communicative rules, potentially at work in the eve-of-the-launch discussions, play a part in the poor quality of the final decision? We cannot know for certain. Nonetheless, awareness of possible communicative norms that influence information-gathering strategies and the resulting decision-making processes could allow managers to make more conscious choices regarding gathering, organizing, and interpreting the complex information required for many decisions.

The communicative rules suggested by the retrospective discourse of individuals participating in the decision to launch the Challenger provide one example of the ways that organizational self-awareness concerning communicative norms may assist managers and engineers in developing and upholding a single purpose and in ultimately making a good decision. It is hoped that this article offers decision makers some appreciation for the ways that communicative rules may influence group decisions.


(1.) Three factors explained this process: the production of culture, the culture of production, and structural secrecy. By closely examining the decade before the Challenger launch, Vaughan (1996) identified a pattern carried out repeatedly in which something that was previously considered an anomaly or deviant was normalized to be an acceptable risk. The five-step process began with the sign of potential danger, after which an official act recognized the increased risk, the evidence concerning the situation was reviewed, and an official act accepting the higher risk led to a decision. Vaughan claimed that this is the process that occurred the night of January 27, enabling the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Thiokol managers to overrule the concerns of some engineers and recommend launch of the Challenger space shuttle.

(2.) The impact of rules on behavior in organizational settings has been recognized by scholars from a variety of disciplines including sociology (Weider, 1974), business (Schall, 1983), mass media (Lull, 1982), and communication (Collier, Ribeau, & Hecht, 1986; Eisenberg, Monge, & Farace, 1984; Lamude, Daniels, & Graham, 1988).

(3.) Four specific speech events occurred on the evening of January 27, the night before the Challenger launch. First, a three-location "telecon" took place between various engineers and managers of NASA and Morton Thiokol (MTI; the company that manufactured the solid rocket booster). The purpose of the telecon was to determine Challenger launch time. MTI engineers were concerned that the O-rings might fail to seal at the predicted low temperatures on the morning of the scheduled launch. All participants were aware that failure of the O-rings could mean a shuttle catastrophe. Given the predicted low temperatures, MT] engineers recommended that the launch be delayed until noon or later on January 28. A second telecon was scheduled for 3 hrs later. The same people participated in the second telecon (the second speech event) where charts had been faxed from MTI to the other two locations. Thiokol engineers then gave a presentation, with the result that Thiokol did not recommend a launch. Various negative comments were made, and Thiokol requested a 5-minute, offnet caucus. During this third speech event, engineers and management at MTI discussed the temperature effects and potential erosion of the O-ring and management was asked to make a decision. The fourth and final speech event was a third telecon with the same participants as the first two telecons, but this time MTI management recommended a launch.


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Lorelle Beth Jabs (Ph.D., University of Washington, 1997) is an assistant professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at Seattle Pacific University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lorelle Jabs, Communication and Journalism Department, 210 Marston Hall, 3307 Third Avenue West, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA 98119; e-mail:
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Date:Jul 1, 2005
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