An Interview With Grant Kien

Grant Kien is an assistant professor and Graduate Program Director, Dept. of Communication, California State University East Bay.

Grant, it's a pleasure to speak with you. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

The pleasure is mine. I lead a double life. I spent ten years working in the music industry in Toronto before deciding to become an academic, and now I'm a faculty member in the Department of Communication at California State University East Bay, in the San Francisco Bay Area. So by day I'm a communications scholar specializing in media studies, and I'm the director of our department's Graduate Program in Communication. I lead a covert life after dark in community leadership, which has brought me a different sort of satisfaction from my day job. I remember calling my first meeting to organize a club at recess when I was in second grade, I had an agenda and everything, and I've been organizing meetings of one type or another ever since. Somehow I was recently chosen to be Vice President of the Operations team for the Silicon Valley chapter of the University of Illinois Alumni Association, my alma mater. I didn't realize it at the time, but we have over 19,000 alumni in the Silicon Valley area, so it's a real thrill to represent the interests of such a talented population! Immediately after getting the title I delegated everything to my team members and left for China. They're still looking for me. (laughs)

Can you briefly describe a day in the life of an associate professor of new media?

There are a couple of different seasons in academia… the teaching season, which never has a quiet day, and the researching season. During teaching season, I start my day with a cup of coffee and research, reviewing academic literature, posting online articles to my Facebook account for future reference. Then I usually head to my office to meet with students and deal with administrative issues. I meet with my assistants and delegate work, and if I have any lecture preparation left over from the night before I take care of that. Then of course I lecture. I usually schedule my lectures in the afternoons, so in the evening I can do some writing and more reading. All told I usually work around twelve or more hours a day. Days between teaching are jam packed with meetings. And then there's the research season, which we’re in right now. I have a lot more flexibility with my schedule, but it's also the time to do the research projects designed during teaching season, so there are a lot of daily chores. And there is also some administration to take care of because of my position.

What are some of the major challenges in your job?

Student issues, their personal crisis, and finding ways to help students deal with the system so they can get the best benefit from their studies. There's no end to the unique challenges students face. In this type of job you have to respect that, but you also can't let it consume you, because it never ends. I've seen some people get hardened to it, but I always try to remember that I was once in their position too, and some nice professors helped me get where I am today.

What projects are you working on currently?

I just completed a book called Global Technography, which is a study of mobility in the context of globalization. It'll be out in the fall in the US. I also have a handful of other academic writings in press. My current research project is about intercultural communication, on the meeting of Western and Chinese cultures in new Shanghai. My most recent work for business is a talk for leaders and trainers on inspiration and achievement, about how to get people on a path to excellence based on my experiences working with students.

How do you go about branding yourself in the workplace? Is there much difference between branding your image in the world of academia and business?

Great question. There's definitely a difference. What is considered adding value is much different, and so is the measure of achievement, although the principles remain constant. Excellence is always excellence, and that's born out of an attitude you carry with you. Academics look for excellence in scholarship, and everyone who becomes a tenure-track professor is excellent, so you need to have expertise that's unique in your field. And to do that, you genuinely have to be that. So in academia, I'm a Global Technographer, which is taken from the title of the book I mentioned earlier. It's a new ethnographic methodology I invented. Achievement is recognized mainly through peer-reviewed publication, and the process from research to published article can take years. This would be unheard of in business, which demands results immediately and mainly values what contributes directly to the bottom line. So in business I market what I actually practice every day as an educator, which is how to work with people to achieve a mindset of excellence that will drive up productivity in an organization's human capital.

If you were to teach a course in communications at a university in China, what would you talk about in the first ten minutes of your first lecture?

It would depend on who the audience is. For a media studies course I would raise a discussion on virtual environment and identity management, which I've been researching back in California. The San Francisco Bay Area really is the world's incubator for tech innovation, and there are a lot of interesting projects going on there that blur the line between virtual reality and physical reality. So I'd talk about how that's changing ideas about privacy and property. For a business communications crowd, I'd get right to the point about effective messaging in inter-cultural environments, how the same message doesn't always mean the same thing to people from different cultural backgrounds and how to deal with that. For a strictly Chinese business audience, a course on 'How to Listen to Foreigners' would be useful, since there are so many courses on how to TALK to foreigners but not much on how to interpret the subtleties of what they're actually saying, as in reading between the lines.

What kinds of people are best suited to take on the role of communication managers in multi-national companies in China? What core skills should they have?

A core skill set as anywhere has to cover the interplay of the main communications functions: Sender, message, channel, and audience. Communications managers are translators who craft messages and deliver them through the most effective channels to whoever the intended audience is, and that function doesn't change radically from one company to another. What does change is the range of available channels, and who the intended audience is. So most important for any communications manager is to understand who the audience is that they are messaging for, and how to reach them. So, for example, Instant Messenger is an accepted form of internal communication in China because it reaches the intended audience, but in the US there's a lot of resistance to the idea that an instant message carries any authority at all. I would think a multi-national would want a manager that is familiar with these subtle cultural differences.

What qualities are you looking for if you were to hire someone for a job as a communication strategist for a large multi-national company?

That would depend a lot on the type of business, product lines and the history of the company in the region. China is like ten countries all jammed together with a lot of regional variance, so you'd need to be careful not to pick someone who thinks too generically in terms of a national strategy. And the role of communication strategy is different here than in the West too, since the mass media system isn't as strategically playable in terms of an integrated marketing strategy. Public relations are extremely important for brand identity, and you'd need a strategist here who knows how to reach the general public with localized messaging through means other than the traditional mass media. Basically, I'd want me (joking).

If scrolling through a person's iPod or scanning their bookshelf can tell us more about that individual, what does your table in your departmental office reveal about aspects of your personality?

I guess that I read a lot, and read widely. And I'm fun! I have a sense of humor about myself. I purposely keep an old copy of George Boole's "The Laws of Thought" on my desk right beside my laptop, because I love the idea that the very same calculus he invented in that writing is what makes my computer work. I have stacks and stacks of trade papers from all areas of business, supply chain, wireless industry reports, video-making magazines, you name it. Apart from that, I'm pretty influenced by German philosophers--Heidegger, Hegel, Marx, Leibniz, the Frankfurt school. Lot's of French postmodern theory and the Toronto school of communication (McLuhan and Innis). Musically, I listen to everything from classical to Latin Jazz to contemporary punk. Lately I can't quit listening to the band Muse. I think they just may have saved rock 'n' roll.

Do you enjoy the process of writing or do you prefer to stand up in front of a crowd and talk?

Writing is actually painful. Truthfully, even though I do it well and often, I hate it. I struggle over every word and it's pretty lonely work. I definitely prefer talking. I'm a people person, love being in front of people and working the crowd. My mother had me on stage doing public speaking since I was six or seven years old, so it feels pretty natural for me. People tell me I'm good at it. I don't really know, but I've never been asked to leave a stage. Although there is that one time someone threw a glass at me, but that's some kind of Irish expression of appreciation, isn't it? (smiles)

What does Grant do when he is not working?

I tried that once. Didn't like it much.

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