Interorganizational communication (IOC) emphasizes relationships organizations have with external constituents as opposed to relationships that occur internally. IOC research considers issues like information flows, information sharing, reputation, cooperation, competition, coalition building, and power. IOC theoretical developments are substantially multidisciplinary. Communication researchers often emphasize the understanding of who communicates with whom and about what. Economists and sociologists tend to see linkages in terms of some exchange with limited interest in the content of communication within that exchange. This emphasis by communication scholars reflects the assumption that interorganizational relationships are enacted by individuals’ communicative actions.
Much IOC research considers the interplay between micro-level processes (e.g., organizational representatives’ actions) and macro-level structures (e.g., overall system qualities). Structure reveals qualities of the system and offers a context for understanding emergent patterns and systematic variation among its members. Regardless of whether macro-level or micro-level issues are in the foreground of the scholarship, research and theory development concerns itself with organizational roles within some social structure (created by some form of communication or exchange), and how that structure influences and, in turn, is influenced by organizational power, reputation, dependency on others, market share, social influence, and so on. Because of the emphasis on the structures that form as a result of organizations partnering, clustering, and/or remaining isolated, a substantial component to research about interorganizational communication involves understanding such relationships from a social networks perspective.
The interorganizational context is a space in which individual organizations act as well as an emergent manifestation of that action. Social network analysis is a way to identify an overall system structure and within that context, the nature of the role of individual organizations within it. Network concepts such as “group member,” “isolate,” and “liaison” are roles that describe the extent to which each organization is connected to others in the system. Clusters of group members often indicate coalitions; organizations that are isolated are seen as relatively marginal to the system; liaisons are seen as the connectors or gatekeepers that have the power to enhance or thwart information flows throughout the system. Each of these roles is a way of categorizing the continuous measure of centrality. Highly central organizations are well connected in the system (e.g., group members and liaisons), whereas those at the low end of the centrality spectrum tend to be peripheral, on the fringe, or relatively isolated.
While centrality is seen as an operational concept that describes organizational roles in the network, it also contributes to theoretical developments in interorganizational communication. Research across disciplines consistently confirms that centrality is positively related to power, influence, prestige, and reputation. It is theorized that having ongoing alliances with key others in the network is a way of obtaining social capital, which then relates to such ancillary benefits as having access to future potential exchange partners. For example, Flanagin et al. (2001) showed that creators of a Spanish federation were most central and had greater advantages than those members who “only” participated in the collective.
Macro-Level Issues As Theoretical Foreground
Macro-level theory development involves analysis of the greater interorganizational contexts in the pursuit of uncovering idealized structures, understanding dynamics of interorganizational systems, and investigating how collective systems are formed and maintained. Scholars consider topics such as the degree to which information sharing and linking with other organizations creates an efficient and effective information flow. Communication scholarship typically identifies individual organizational actions (who communicates with whom and what they communicate about) and their subsequent contribution to a greater context of relationships. Sydow and Windeler (1998) showed how structuration theory can be used to explain how structures shape and reproduce processes and network effectiveness. Key theory development is in the area of organizational reputation, social influence, cooperative/competitive relationships, and evolutionary dynamics.
Overall network configurations (interorganizational structures) are assessed with a variety of methodological approaches and theory development is tightly coupled with such methodologies. Density, for example, is a way of identifying the percentage of actual links to possible links that can occur in a system. Dense networks of local organizations indicate substantial social capital. Borrowing from evolutionary theories about ordered systems, some suggest that moderate density is an indicator that an emergent system is approaching order out of chaos.
Burt (1992) developed structural holes theory, arguing that a structural hole is a place in the social network where a tie that can potentially connect organizations or sets of organizations is absent. Structural holes theory contends that organizational systems are best when there is a balance of efficient and effective contacts. Stohl and Stohl (2005) showed that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that fill structural holes strengthen their respective positions in the global network, and in the process of filling structural holes NGOs simultaneously contribute to the quality of the entire network and the nation-state. The structural holes framework warns that an organization that attempts to fill all structural holes in a system may wipe out its resources in futile attempts to maintain those relationships. On the other hand, an organization that avoids filling structural holes puts itself at the mercy of its key partners. Strategically networking (i.e., selecting network partners that offer effective and efficient access to other system resources) to fill structural holes provides firms with informational resources and enhanced reputational power and influence.
Micro-Level Issues As A Theoretical Foreground
In connecting micro-level action to macro-level dynamics, alliance theories suggest that organizations network with others in order to manage uncertainty and relationships. Analyses of NGOs show that core functions of NGO networks include communication and information exchange. Extending the notion of information sharing to seemingly more altruistic intentions, public goods theory attempts to unravel the nature of organizational activities that contribute to overall collective benefits without necessarily offering instantly observable advantages to participating organizations. Examples of organizational-level activities include collaborative efforts such as coalitions, trade groups, and associations. Early developments reflect the underlying principle that interorganizational relationships are often marked by the simultaneous existence of cooperative–competitive relationships. Such studies showed the evolution of cooperation and communication activities that facilitated sharing resources without realizing instant reward for such behavior (e.g., Browning et al. 1995). Monge et al. (1998) more recently contributed to this theoretical framework by integrating communication technologies as a resource for supporting information sharing and collective action. Findings suggest that ongoing collaborative activities create a neutral “space” for information sharing, and that information sharing begins with small contributions with transformation toward more collective and cooperative ventures. Future research is directed toward understanding the IOC processes that facilitate such collaborative endeavors and result in collective advantages.
In emphasizing micro-level actions in the macro-level context, the term cooperation– competition is deliberately used to reflect the underlying tension that can exist in the formation of interorganizational relationships. Several studies demonstrate the importance of trusting relationships in developing consortia and coalitions. A consideration of cooperation–competition, then, is a way of describing the nature of the link between networking partners and also contributes to theory development about the tensions between needing to cooperate with others to sustain organizational viability yet having to (possibly) compete with the same partners for needed, and sometimes scarce, resources. Cooperation and competition tensions complement resource dependency theory.
Resource dependency theory attempts to explain the influence of organizations’ roles in their environment relative to the extent to which they are resource wielders or needy of resources. Research consistently shows that the organizations that are more reliant on others for resources are more likely to cooperate with others, comply with external demands, and engage in activities that aid in obtaining resources. Meanwhile, by virtue of their holdings, resource-wielding organizations reap additional benefits such as improved reputation, power, and social influence. Doerfel & Taylor (2005) showed that the extent to which an organization is seen as cooperative with other organizations relates to the extent to which the organization needs more key information and financial resources. Flanagin et al. (2001) demonstrated the advantages associated with early entrants to newly formed cooperative ventures in that founding members experienced greater reputational benefits and more social influence in the ongoing activities than later system entrants.
An analysis of interorganizational communication must also consider the concept of stakeholders. Stakeholders can be other organizations but can also be those who care about (“have a stake in”) the focal organization such as volunteers, internal employees, and external publics. Lewis et al. (2003) have integrated both stakeholder theory and resource dependency theory in understanding communication strategies used by organizations in planned change scenarios.
Much of the afore-mentioned IOC research has a common link that consistently demonstrates the extent to which “history matters.” Cooperation–competition theory shows that past cooperative acts beget subsequent cooperation, while competitive acts often reap subsequent competition. Similarly, reputation and social influence emerge as a result of past contributions to the public good. New directions in IOC theory emphasize longitudinal and multilevel analyses. For example, evolutionary models of interorganizational dynamics borrow from Charles Darwin’s theory with an eye toward understanding the factors that drive the emergence, sustainability, and possible decay of an interorganizational system. Researchers also see interorganizational alliances as potentially evolving into knowledge networks. Recent theoretical essays and empirical analyses promote a multi-theoretical, multi-level model that attempts to advance knowledge about psychological, social, and communication theory (multi-theoretical) jointly with how individuals, groups, and organizations interact (multi-level) to develop and sustain knowledge networks.
- Browning, L. D., Beyer, J. M., & Shetler, J. C. (1995). Building cooperation in a competitive industry: SEMATECH and the semiconductor industry. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 113 –151.
- Burt, R. S. (1992). Structural holes: The social structure of competition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Doerfel, M. L., & Taylor, M. (2005). Network dynamics of interorganizational communication: The Croatian civil society movement. Communication Monographs, 71, 373 –394.
- Flanagin, A. J., Monge, P., & Fulk, J. (2001). The value of formative investment in organizational federations. Human Communication Research, 27, 69 – 93.
- Fulk, J., Flanagin, A. J., Kalman, M. E., Monge, P. R., & Ryan, T. (1996). Connective and communal public goods in interactive communication systems. Communication Theory, 6, 60 – 87.
- Lewis, L. K., Richardson, B. K., & Hamel, S. A. (2003). When the “stakes” are communicative: The lamb’s and the lion’s share during nonprofit planned change. Human Communication Research, 29, 400 – 430.
- Monge, P., & Contractor, N. S. (2003). Theories of communication networks. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Monge, P., Fulk, J., Kalman, M. E., Flanagin, A. J., Parnassa, C., & Rumsey, S. (1998). Production of collective action in alliance-based interorganizational communication and information systems. Organization Science, 9, 411– 433.
- Stohl, M., & Stohl, C. (2005). Human rights, nation states, and NGOs: Structural holes and the emergence of global regimes. Communication Monographs, 72, 442 – 467.
- Sydow, J., & Windeler, A. (1998). Organizing and evaluating interfirm networks: A structurationist perspective on network processes and effectiveness. Organization Science, 9(3), 265 –284.