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Industrial & Organisational : Introduction : Personnel : Organizational psychology : Occupations: Work environment: Index : Outline

Organizational communication is the study of

  1. how people communicate within an organizational context, or
  2. the influence of, or interaction with organizational structures in communicating/organizing.

History and development of the discipline

The discipline of organizational communication traces its roots through the discipline of rhetoric back to the orators of Ancient Greece and Rome, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Quintillian.

The modern field finds its more recent lineage through business information, business communication, and early mass communication studies published in the 1930s through the 1950s. Until then, organizational communication as a discipline existed primarily as a few professors within speech departments who had a particular interest in speaking and writing in business settings.

Through the World War II and post-war years, particularly 1942 through about 1949, studies of effective communication practices in group and organizational settings became particularly salient. Great numbers of servicemen (and some service women) underwent communication training, first in the military, and then in colleges and universities. A concern with effectiveness in transmitting messages soon broadened into concern with environmental factors, characteristics of the people involved in the communicative activity, and differences in utility of different transmission media.

Several seminal publications stand out as works broadening the scope and recognizing the importance of communication in the organizing process, and in using the term "organizational communication". Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon wrote in 1945 about "organization communications systems", saying "communication is absolutely essential to organizations."[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In 1951 Bavelas and Barrett wrote An Experimental Approach to Organizational Communication in which they stated that communication "is the essence of organized activity".

In 1953 the economist Kenneth Boulding wrote The Organizational Revolution: A Study in the Ethics of Economic Organization. While this work directly addressed the economic issues facing organizations, in it he questions the ethical and moral issues underlying their power, and maintains that an "organization consists of a system of communication."

In 1954, a young Chris Argyris published Personality and Organization. This careful and research-based book attacked many things, but singled out "organizational communication" for special attention. Argyris made the case that passed for organizational communication at the time was based on unstated and indefensible propositions such as "management knows best" and "workers are inherently stupid and lazy." He accused the emerging field of relying on untested gimmicks designed to trick employees into doing management's will.

Assumptions underlying early organizational communication

Some of the main assumptions underlying much of the early organizational communication research were:

  • Humans are rational actors. Sane people behave in rational ways, they generally have access to all of the information needed to make rational decisions they could articulate, and therefore will make rational decisions, unless there is some breakdown in the communication process.
  • Formal logic and empirically verifiable data ought to be the foundation upon which any theory should rest. All we really need to understand communication in organizations is (a) observable and replicable behaviors that can be transformed into variables by some form of measurement, and (b) formally replicable syllogisms that can extend theory from observed data to other groups and settings
  • Communication is primarily a mechanical process, in which a message is constructed and encoded by a sender, transmitted through some channel, then received and decoded by a receiver. Distortion, represented as any differences between the original and the received messages, can and ought to be identified and reduced or eliminated.
  • Organizations are mechanical things, in which the parts (including employees functioning in defined roles) are interchangeable. What works in one organization will work in another similar organization. Individual differences can be minimized or even eliminated with careful management techniques.
  • Organizations function as a container within which communication takes place. Any differences in form or function of communication between that occurring in an organization and in another setting can be identified and studied as factors affecting the communicative activity.

Herbert Simon introduced the concept of bounded rationality which challenged assumptions about the perfect rationality of communication participants. He maintained that people making decisions in organizations seldom had complete information, and that even if more information was available, they tended to pick the first acceptable option, rather than exploring further to pick the optimal solution.

Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the field expanded greatly in parallel with other several academic disciplines, looking at communication as more than an intentional act designed to transfer an idea. Research expanded beyond the issue of "how to make people understand what I are saying" to tackle questions such as "how does the act of communicating change, or even define, who I am?", "why do organizations that seem to be saying similar things achieve very different results?" and "to what extent are my relationships with others affected by our various organizational contexts?"

Research methodologies include

  1. Quantitative / statistical (such as surveys, text indexing, network mapping and behavior modeling);
  2. Qualitative / participatory (such as narrative analyses, participant / observer studies, and metaphor textual readings) and philosophic inquiries.

The National Communication Association and the International Communication Association are among the chief academic organizations with substantial organizational communication participation.

Components of Organizational communication

Organizational communication can include:

Flow of Communication, e.g.,

  • formal, informal
  • internal, external
  • upward, downward, horizontal
  • networks

Induction, e.g.,

Channels, e.g.,

  • electronic media such as e-mail, intranet, internet
  • teleconference
  • print media such as memos, bulletin boards, newsletters etc.
  • face-to-face

Meetings, e.g.,

  • briefings
  • staff meetings
  • project meetings
  • town hall meetings

Interviews, e.g.,

More recently, the field of organizational communication has moved from acceptance of mechanistic models (e.g., information moving from a sender to a receiver) to a study of the persistent, hegemonic and taken-for-granted ways in which we not only use communication to accomplish certain tasks within organizational settings (e.g., public speaking) but also how the organizations in which we participate affect us.

These approaches include "postmodern", "critical", "participatory", "feminist", "power/political", "organic", etc. and draw from disciplines as wide-ranging as sociology, philosophy, theology, psychology (see, in particular, "industrial/organizational psychology"), business, business administration, institutional management, medicine (health communication), neurology (neural nets), semiotics, anthropology, international relations, and music.

Thus the field has expanded or moved to study phenomena such as:

Constitution, e.g.,

  • how communicative behaviors construct or modify organizing processes or products
  • how the organizations within which we interact affect our communicative behaviors
  • structures other than organizations which might be constituted through our communicative activity (e.g., markets, cooperatives, tribes, political parties, social movements)

Narrative, e.g.,

  • how do group members employ narrative to acculturate/initiate/indoctrinate new members?
  • do organizational stories act on different levels? Are different narratives purposively invoked to achieve specific outcomes, or are there specific roles of "organizational storyteller"? If so, are stories told by the storyteller received differently than those told by others in the organization?

Identity, e.g.,

  • who do we see ourselves to be, in terms of our organizational affiliations?
  • how do communicative behaviors or occurrences in one or more of the organizations in which we participate effect changes in us?
  • do people who define themselves by their work-organizational membership communicate differently within the organizational setting than people who define themselves more by an avocational group?

Interrelatedness of organizational experiences, e.g.,

  • how do our communicative interactions in one organizational setting affect our communicative actions in other organizational settings?
  • how do the phenomenological experiences of participants in a particular organizational setting effect changes in other areas of their lives?
  • when the organizational status of a member is significantly changed (e.g., by promotion or expulsion) how are other organizational memberships affected?

Power e.g.,

  • how does the use of particular communicative practices within an organizational setting reinforce or alter the various interrelated power relationships within the setting?
  • do taken-for-granted organizational practices work to fortify the dominant hegemonic narrative? Do individuals resist/confront these practices, through what actions/agencies, and to what effects?
  • do status changes in an organization (e.g., promotions, demotions, restructuring, financial/social strata changes) change communicative behavior? Are there criteria employed by organizational members to differentiate between "legitimate" (i.e., endorsed by the formal organizational structure) and "illegitimate" (i.e., opposed by or unknown to the formal power structure)? Are there "pretenders" or "usurpers" who employ these communicative behaviors? When are they successful?


Redding, W. Charles. "Stumbling Toward Identity: The Emergence of Organizational Communication as a Field of Study" in McPhee and Tompkins, Organizational Communication: Traditional Themes and New Directions, 1985, Sage.

Gergen, Kenneth and Tojo Joseph. "Organizational Science in a Postmodern Context." Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 1996, vol. 32, pp. 356-378.

See also

External links