Because investigations of organizational communication involve the intersection of two complex concepts – organization and communication – the discipline of organizational communication involves a number of diverse topical interests. Most scholars would agree that “organizations” are social collectives, embedded in a larger environment, in which activities are coordinated to achieve individual and collective goals. The study of organizational communication, then, is the consideration of “how the context of the organization influences communication processes and how the symbolic nature of communication differentiates it from other forms of organizational behavior” (Miller 2006, 1).
Emergence of The Field
As with many disciplines in communication, the study of organizational communication has been traced back many decades – even to antiquity. For example, Clair (1999, 284) argues that the discipline “lean[s] on the shoulders of Smith and Ricardo or Marx and Engels . . . rel[ies] on the tomes of White and Russell or Levi-Strauss and Douglas . . . resurrect[s] Aristotle, Plato, or Heraclitus.” However, most historians of the field place the beginning of the modern discipline of organizational communication in the middle of the twentieth century. The genesis of organizational communication can be traced to influences from traditional rhetorical theory, investigations of human relations and psychology, and theories from management and organizational studies. From their early years, organizational communication studies have been influenced both by theoretical frameworks from sociology, psychology, rhetoric, anthropology, and even the physical sciences, and by the ongoing practical concerns of those working in organizational settings. These cross-currents of theoretical and applied interest still influence organizational communication scholars in the twenty-first century.
Redding and Tompkins (1988) provide a typical recounting of the early history of organizational communication in their discussion of three overlapping formative phases. The first of these, occurring roughly between 1900 and 1950, is labeled the “era of preparation.” During this time period, concerns revolved around the need for prescriptive and skills-based training that would achieve “effective” communication within organizational settings. For example, researchers during this period looked at ways to structure messages, make appropriate media choices (e.g., written vs oral), and send messages to the “right person” at the “right time” for business effectiveness. Tompkins and WancaThibault (2001, xxi) suggest that typical research questions during this era might include “What effects do downward directed mass media communications have on employees?” and “Is an informed employee a productive employee?”
The second phase (1940 –1970) is labeled the “era of identification and consolidation.” During this time period, the discipline of organizational communication as a unique entity emerged, as seen through the development of graduate programs, the publication of seminal research articles, and recognition in professional associations such as the Speech Communication Association in the US (now the National Communication Association [NCA]) and the International Communication Association (ICA). This time period was marked by attention both to prescriptive advice for practicing managers (what Redding and Tompkins call the “empirical-prescriptive” phase) and to an emphasis on the scientific method as central to the development of knowledge about organizational communication processes (what Redding and Tompkins call the “applied-scientific” phase). During this time period, empirical attention was focused on communication in supervisor–subordinate relationships, communication processes leading to employee satisfaction, communication networks such as “the grapevine,” and small group decision-making. These topic areas were investigated through straightforward surveys of organizational members and through laboratory experiments of basic organizational communication processes. Tompkins and Wanca-Thibault (2001, xxi) consider typical research questions from this time period such as, “What is the relationship between the attitudes and performance of workers and the feedback they receive?” and “How can communication networks in organizations be measured?”
Redding and Tompkins argue that organizational communication reached “the era of maturity and innovation” in the 1970s. At this point, organizational communication was recognized as an established discipline under the larger umbrella of communication studies, with important links to a wide range of allied disciplines including “administrative science, anthropology, business communication, corporate communication, industrial organizational psychology, management communication, organizational behavior, political science, social psychology, sociolinguistics, sociology, rhetoric, and even literary criticism” (Taylor et al. 2001, 102).
The maturity of the organizational communication discipline is clear: organizational communication is among the largest divisions in both ICA and NCA, there are divisions or sections of organizational communication in organizations such as the Academy of Management, European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) and the Korean Society for Journalism and Communication Studies (KSJCS). Graduate degree programs have proliferated across the globe, and organizational communication scholarship is well represented in our discipline’s journals, in interdisciplinary journals, and in specialized journals such as Management Communication Quarterly. The publication of “handbooks” and summary edited books on organizational communication in the 1980s (Greenbaum et al. 1983; McPhee & Tompkins 1985; Jablin et al. 1987; Goldhaber & Barnett 1988) also points to the maturing and consolidation of the discipline.
The time since this “era of maturity and innovation” began has not been stagnant, of course. In recent decades, the discipline of organizational communication has been marked by a number of major intellectual shifts and conceptual debates. These developments have largely followed similar currents in other academic disciplines but have had specific implications for organizational communication in terms of theoretical commitments and research topics. Further, as scholars in organizational communication have worked through these theoretical and conceptual discussions, the “new” perspectives have not totally replaced the “old.” As a result, organizational communication is now a relatively eclectic discipline in terms of theoretical commitments, methodological approaches, and research topics. Three important, and somewhat overlapping, strands of work are now prevalent in organizational communication. Following Corman and Poole (2000), these strands are labeled “post-positivist,” “interpretive,” and “critical.”
Post-Positivist Research in Organizational Communication
The first important strand of research in organizational communication is scholarship that has stemmed most directly from research conducted in the middle portion of the twentieth century and the phases of empirical-prescriptive research and applied scientific research discussed above. Variously labeled as post-positivist, modernist, empirical, functional, or normative, this strand of research was clearly the dominant perspective as organizational communication reached “maturity” in the 1970s. The ontological focus of research during this time period was on a realist conception of both “organization” and “communication.” That is, organizations were seen as “containers” within which people worked and within which goods and services were produced. These organizations were characterized by processes such as “input, throughput, and output” that emphasized both the boundaries of the organization and the definable processes of material and information management that occurred “within” those organizational boundaries. Further, communication was conceptualized in terms of mechanistic views of information flow that followed prescribed routes and included defined content.
Thus, communication and information were conceptualized as discrete “things” that could be investigated within the discrete boundaries of the organizational container. Epistemological and methodological commitments were closely aligned with the scientific method and a commitment to “objective” observation of communication behavior within organizational settings. During this time period, the post-positivist perspective in organizational communication was often linked with managerial concerns such as increasing productivity, increasing efficiency, and enhancing the effectiveness of information flow within organizational systems.
Thus, early examples of post-positivist research in organizational communication included extensive attention to topics such as supervisor–subordinate communication, semantic information distance, information flow, upward and downward feedback in the organization, communication climate, and prescribed and emergent communication networks. During the 1970s and 1980s, “systems” perspectives on organizational communication became particularly prevalent, fueled by scholars interested in understanding the complexity of communication in organizations, the relationships among organizational subsystems, and the embedding of organizations in larger institutional environments (Farace et al. 1977).
In the final decades of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, organizational communication research with a post-positivist epistemological and methodological focus has continued, but has also been marked by important developments. First, many organizational communication scholars in this tradition now eschew a strictly realist ontological focus, with its emphasis on organizations as “containers” and on communication as mechanistic processes of information flow. Instead, scholars working from a post-positivist stance in organizational communication today tend to embrace modified realist stances or more complex ontologies of social constructionism (Miller 2000). Second, post-positivist scholars in organizational communication today advocate and use much more sophisticated methodological choices, including over-time analysis (e.g., stochastic analysis, time-series analysis, longitudinal analysis), complex analysis of communication networks, and computer modeling of organizational communication systems. Third, post-positivist scholars in organizational communication today are engaged with crucial questions that face individuals and organizations in the late modern and postmodern world. These questions include issues of advanced communication and decision-making technologies, issues of globalization, alternative organizational structures and non-profit organizations, and self-organizing systems. As a result, post-positivist scholars are now generally less aligned with strictly managerial concerns than they were during the 1960s and 1970s and are less likely to consider questions of a strictly applied nature.
The Interpretive Turn
During the 1970s and 1980s, as in many fields of social and human research, organizational communication scholars began to question an allegiance to positivistic and functional approaches to scholarship. This questioning involved a rejection of realist conceptions of organizations and communication (e.g., the “machine” and “container” metaphors), together with a clear turn away from positivistic epistemological assumptions and research methods based on the scientific method and quantitative approaches. Within the discipline of organizational communication, several publications were particularly noteworthy during this time period. For example, Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) publication of Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis caught the attention of many organizational communication scholars, as it systematized the study of organizations to include alternatives to the dominant paradigm of functional analysis.
Within organizational communication, however, the “interpretive turn” is most often traced to a conference held in the summer of 1981 in Alta, Utah. Taylor et al. (2001, 108) recount that “during that summer a group of young communication scholars met in a mountain retreat just south of Salt Lake City to consider where the field had been and where it should now be going,” and Kuhn (2005, 619) argues that that gathering now “serves as a synecdoche for a movement occurring over many years, comprising a graduate shift in organizational communication from attention to information flow and the forces shaping members’ attitudes dominant before the conference . . . to an increased concern with meaning, interpretation, and power in organizing processes afterward.” The discussions from the 1981 Alta conference were published in a benchmark book, Putnam and Pacanowsky’s (1983) Communication in organizations: An interpretive approach.
The intellectual roots of the interpretive turn in organizational communication can be found in intellectual movements such as symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and ethnomethodology. There are a number of important markers of the interpretive approach in organizational communication scholarship that developed from these founding perspectives. Ontologically, the interpretive approach is marked by a social constructionist view of the social world (e.g., Berger & Luckmann 1967). With this shift in ontology come changes in epistemology and methodology. Specifically, in the 1980s many organizational communication scholars turned to subjective epistemologies that emphasized the relationship between the knower and the known and the value of local and emergent forms of knowledge.
Methodologically, scholars began to emphasize research methods drawn from anthropology (e.g., organizational ethnographies), rhetoric, and other qualitative modes of inquiry (e.g., interviewing, narrative, discourse analysis). The interpretive turn also led to a shift in the conceptualization of “organization” and “communication.” Instead of following the container metaphor, which emphasized the flow of information within and between organizational structures, interpretive scholars considered the role of communication in processes of organizing and sense-making (Weick 1979). In other words, organizational scholars shifted from a mechanistic view of organizational communication to a constitutive view of organizing and communicating (Craig 1999). Finally, the interpretive turn marked a definitive turn away from the managerial concerns that were important to many organizational communication scholars working from a functional perspective. Instead, attention turned to the experiences and interactions of a variety of organizational actors.
The era of the “interpretive turn” in organizational communication was also marked by the emergence of interest in a number of research topics. Perhaps the most important of these in the 1980s was “organizational culture.” Though early work in management and other applied areas emphasized a prescriptive approach to culture in which organizational leaders were urged to develop cultures that were “strong” (Deal & Kennedy 1982) or “excellent” (Peters & Waterman 1982), scholars in organizational communication followed the tenets of an interpretive approach in proposing models of culture that emphasized the emergent and performative nature of culture (Pacanowsky & O’DonnellTrujillo 1983), the existence of organizational sub-cultures, and the role of cultural understandings in processes such as organizational socialization, conflict, decision-making, and change. Other scholars during the early years of the interpretive turn focused attention on more macro issues of organizational identity and image, especially through the use of rhetorical approaches to organizational analysis (e.g., Cheney 1991). Many of these concerns are still active in organizational scholarship today, as scholars investigate the “lived experience” of organizational members through ethnographic, interview, and narrative methods.
The Critical Turn
During the same time period as the “interpretive turn” in organizational communication studies, many scholars were also turning to a critical approach to organizational communication in which organizations were viewed as systems of power and control. Indeed, the watershed Alta conference in 1981 discussed above also marked a move in the discipline to an appreciation of critical approaches to scholarship, though the roots of that scholarship (like the roots of the interpretive approach) can be traced to many decades earlier. In organizational communication research, critical scholarship can be traced to a number of intellectual origins, including Karl Marx’s attention to the commodification of labor and processes of alienation, Frankfurt School critics and their attention to cultural control, Louis Althusser’s attention to the political function of ideology, and Antonio Gramsci’s arguments regarding hegemony and control through consent. Organizational communication scholars also rely heavily on Jürgen Habermas’s work on forms of rationality and communicative competence, Michel Foucault’s discursive approach to power, and Anthony Giddens’s structurational conceptions of the relationship between agency and structure.
With these diverse and complex roots, the turn to critical organizational communication scholarship involved an analysis of organizations as sites of oppression, a consideration of the discursive construction of managerial interests, an examination of how workers are complicit in processes of alienation, and a consideration of processes of dissent and resistance in organizations (Mumby 2000; Deetz 2005). As Deetz (2005, 85) states regarding the critical approach in organizational communication, “of central concern have been efforts to understand the relations among power, language, social/cultural practices, and the treatment and/or suppression of important conflicts as they relate to the production of individual identities, social knowledge, and social and organizational decision making.” As organizational communication scholars interrogate these issues, there has been a consistent concern with praxis – the synthesis of theory and practice. In organizational communication, this concern often translates into considerations of alternative organizational forms, participatory practices in organizations, and opportunities for employee dissent.
With the critical turn in organizational communication scholarship also came a move to feminist sensibilities and scholarship (Ashcraft & Mumby 2004). Ashcraft (2005) argues that feminist research in organizational communication has roots in both the critical turn in social theory and research and the political activism that has served as the heart of feminism in all of its various waves. As Ashcraft (2005, 145) states, “whereas critical organizational scholars prioritized emancipation through ideology critique, feminists literally grounded their emancipatory interest in the trenches of practice.” Feminist scholarship did not gain a strong foothold in the organizational communication discipline until the 1990s, though there had been earlier studies of gender and biological sex in organizational communication processes, typically from a postpositivist perspective. However, in recent decades, feminist scholarship in organizational communication has included areas of research such as the public/private divide implicit in the distinction between work and home, feminist ways of organizing, emotionality in the workplace, and feminist approaches to conflict.
The critical turn in the discipline of organizational communication has also been associated in recent years with the emergence of postmodern theorizing (Taylor 2005). Postmodern approaches to organizational communication can be seen through two contrasting lenses. First, postmodern approaches differentiate organizations and communication in the modern epoch (e.g., centralized authority, mass markets, formalization, rationality, standardization, and stability) from the postmodern epoch (e.g., lateral relationships, fragmented and niche markets, consensus-based control, interactivity, and change).
In this sense, it is possible to talk about a postmodern era or postmodern organizational forms. Perhaps more important, though, organizational communication scholars draw on postmodern theory to consider concepts such as intertextuality, the fragmentation of identity, the interrelationships of power, knowledge, and discourse, and the need for reflexive understanding. Taylor (2005, 120 –130) provides five claims that are central to postmodern approaches to organizational communication. These are: (1) organizations are (inter-)texts; (2) organizational cultures and identities are fragmented and decentered; (3) organizational knowledge, power, and discourse are inseparable and their relations should be deconstructed; (4) organizational communication involves complex relations of power and resistance; and (5) knowledge of organizational communication is representational – thus, communication should be reflexive.
Contemporary Frames for Considering Organizational Communication
There are a number of ways that current theory and research in organizational communication have been categorized. For example, Conrad and Haynes (2001) identify five “clusters of scholarship” within organizational communication in terms of their underlying concerns with aspects of the dualism between action and structure. Some research privileges structure over action, such as research on information exchange and supervisor– subordinate relationship. Other research privileges action over structure, such as work considering the emergence of culture, symbolism, or ambiguity. Conrad and Haynes also identify clusters of scholarship that attempt to integrate action and structure (e.g., work stemming from Giddens’s structuration theory, considerations of unobtrusive control and identification, and critical theory), as well as research that crosses organizational boundaries and challenges traditional constructs from the 1980s and 1990s.
A second categorization structure for current organizational communication scholarship was proposed by Mumby and Stohl (1996), who identify four central “problematics” within the study of organizational communication. These are the problematics of voice, rationality, organization, and the organization– environment relationship. These problematics highlight the ways in which researchers question traditional ways of thinking about organizational communication and embed their interests in current concerns. For example, pressures toward globalization point to the fluid nature of the organization–environment relationship and the ways in which time and space are reconfigured through new technologies, new organizational forms, and the shifting needs of a global economy.
Putnam et al. (1996) provide a particularly insightful framework for considering contemporary theory and research in organizational communication. This framework considers the metaphors of communication and organization and highlights the varying ways the concepts of “organization” and “communication” are framed by theorists and researchers. The seven metaphors identified to categorize both historic and contemporary research in organizational communication are as follows. In the conduit metaphor approach to organizational communication, communication is seen as transmission that occurs within the container of the organization. Research in this tradition includes considerations of formal and informal communication flow, adoption of new communication technology, and considerations of information load in the workplace.
In the lens metaphor approach, communication is seen as a filtering process and the organization is seen as the eye. This metaphor highlights the possibility of distortion and the importance of message reception, and would include research on feedback in organizations, environmental scanning, and strategic ambiguity (Eisenberg 1984) in organizational communication. The linkage metaphor shifts the emphasis in theory and research to the connections among individuals and organizations. Thus, a primary focus of research within this metaphor is a consideration of communication networks, including network roles, patterns, and structures. Contemporary research in organizational communication considers these linkages both “within” organizations and in larger interorganizational systems. The performance metaphor marks a major break from the previous three, and interaction and meaning take the forefront. In the performance metaphor, “organizations emerge as coordinated actions, that is, organizations enact their own rules, structures, and environments through social interaction” (Putnam et al. 1996, 384). Organizational scholars working in this area rely on such frameworks as narrative theory and Weick’s theory of organizing (Weick 1979) and consider processes including storytelling and symbolic convergence in groups at the micro-level and the rhetorical construction of organizational image and identity at the macro-level.
The symbol metaphor sees the organization as a complex system of texts and communication as a process of representation through which the organizational world is made meaningful. Many current studies of organizational culture, organizational socialization, and the role of narrative, rites, and rituals in constructing the commonplaces of organization could be seen as stemming from this metaphor. The voice metaphor, as Putnam et al. note, “entails focusing on communication as the expression or suppression of the voices of organizational members” (1996, 389). Contemporary work from this metaphor could include considerations of ideology and naturalized knowledge (a consideration of distorted voices), considerations of hegemony and power (voices of domination), considerations of women and cultural groups in organizations (different voices), studies of hierarchy and participation (access to voice), and considerations of empowerment and democratization (making a difference through voice). In the discourse metaphor approach, finally, Putnam et al. consider theory and research in organizational communication that sees communication as a conversation, as collective action, and as dialogue. Scholarship stemming from this metaphor variously considers discourse as an artifact in organizational life, as structure and process, and as ongoing acts.
Contemporary Research Topics in Organizational Communication
The metaphors discussed above point to the disparate and enriching frameworks now used to consider organizational communication. However, it is important to emphasize the ongoing importance of the metatheoretical and theoretical influences discussed above, including post-positivism, interpretivism, critical approaches, postmodernism, and feminism. Organizational communication also continues to blend a concern with social theory with ongoing concerns with practice and with the experiences of organizational members. Further, the discipline of organizational communication continues to be marked by a consideration of various levels of analysis. Scholars are concerned with the individual experiences of organizational members; with the interaction of critical dyads in organizations, such as supervisors and subordinates; with interaction in task-related and social groups in the workplace; with the structure and function of various organizational types; and with larger systems of organizations across industries and nations.
There are a number of topic areas that would be considered “enduring” interests of organizational communication scholars. These include conflict processes in organizational systems and cultures, issues of leadership, and processes of individual and group decision-making. However, the following outlines some of the more important contemporary interests of scholars in organizational communication. All of these topics are currently approached from a variety of theoretical perspectives and with a wide range of methodological approaches and analytical tools (e.g., ethnographic analysis, network analysis, survey and interview techniques, field experiments, comparative case analysis, rhetorical analysis, archival analysis, and historical analysis). It should, of course, be noted that these topic areas are not mutually exclusive and that this list is not intended as a comprehensive accounting of current organizational communication research.
Influenced largely by feminist theorizing, contemporary scholars in organizational communication have shifted from a traditional view of organizational processes as rational and logical to a consideration of emotional experience in the workplace. Such work includes studies of emotional labor, stress and burnout in the workplace, compassion, humor, and workplace bullying. The concepts of organizational identity and identification have held a central role in organizational communication research in recent years, as scholars have considered the formation of identity and the influence of identification on issues such as organizational decision-making, commitment, and group interaction. Work in this area has important roots in rhetorical (especially Burkean) theory.
Not surprisingly, the role of communication technology in shifting organizational communication processes has been a central concern of scholars for the last several decades. This research is conducted largely within the auspices of post-positivist theoretical and methodological assumptions and has included considerations of decision-making technology, technology for information storage and retrieval, communication technology such as telephony and the Internet, and technology that allows for alternative organizational configurations such as telework. Shifts in technology, travel, and politics have led organizational communication scholars to the critical consideration of globalization processes. Theoretical and research interests in this area include both global and economic concerns as well as considerations of ways in which processes of globalization affect the work lives and communication processes of individuals. Much work in this area remains theoretical – often with a critical or postmodern sensibility – but there are increasing forays into research that considers data from a variety of levels (e.g., economic, political, network, psychological) and a variety of methodological approaches.
Traditional research in organizational communication considered profit-centered organizations and bureaucracies. However, organizational communication scholars have recently become more interested in considerations of nonprofit organizations and alternative “flatter” forms of organizations encouraged through feminist theorizing. Further, trends in technology and globalization have led to increased consideration of virtual workplaces, and concerns with knowledge management have led organizational communication scholars to concepts of learning and dialogue in organizational processes, and to continued considerations of participatory systems and organizational democracy.
Critical scholars in organizational communication initially gave a great deal of attention to the ways in which organizational processes such as managerialism, decision-making, organizational structure, identification, and gender and culture could lead to hegemonic processes of oppression and alienation in the workplace. In recent years, these scholars have also turned their attention to ways in which employees resist these processes and engage in active dissent and resistance. Given rapid developments in technology, globalization, organizational forms, and market concerns, scholars in organizational communication are concerned not just with the nature of organizational communication in the late modern and postmodern world, but also with the processes through which organizations change and adapt. Concerns with organizational change are particularly marked in considering the ways in which organizations navigate crises, the management of organizational image, and ethical considerations.
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