Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Technical Communication






Journal of the Society for Technical Communication

Publication Date


First Page


Last Page



Purpose: While many organizations use ambiguity to strategically build a "unified diversity" around an organization's mission, democratically managed organizations need to tread a narrow path between necessary ambiguity (which allows flexibility) and dysfunctional ambiguity (which causes disarray). To illustrate, I report a subset of findings regarding occasions when ambiguous documents had a significant impact on a democratically managed organization.

Methods: I conducted a three-phase study of a democratic cooperative. Using a mixed-methods approach, I sought to uncover the ways technical and professional communication (TPC) concerns like ambiguity and clarity function in a democratic business. In my analysis, I looked for patterns and dissonance between/among artifacts and participants, paying special attention to areas of ambiguity. Interviews and transcripts were analyzed alongside various genres using rhetorical analysis.

Results: Looking at two significant documents—job descriptions and bylaws—I found that ambiguity was rarely benign at Owen's House. In the job descriptions, ambiguity rendered key positions dysfunctional and undermined the collective, resulting in a crisis. However, ambiguity in the bylaws allowed the collective to reinterpret organizational goals in support of necessary changes critical to achieving solvency.

Conclusion: When building unified diversity, democratic organizations must consider the positive and negative consequences of textual ambiguity. This consideration should extend to regulatory documents where clarity is often an assumed objective. Documents need to be flexible enough to adapt to changes and defined enough to avoid sliding into dysfunction.