A Chronological Look at Understanding Organizational Communication

Now that you have a better understanding of the concept of organizational communication, let’s look at five different perspectives for understanding organizational communication that have developed over time.

Classical Management Perspective

The original perspective for understanding organizational communication can be described using a machine metaphor. At the beginning of the industrial age, when people thought science could solve almost every problem, American Frederick Taylor, Frenchman Henri Fayol, and German Max Weber tried to apply scientific solutions to organizations. They wanted to determine how organizations and workers could function in an ideal way. Organizations during the industrial revolution wanted to know how they could maximize their profits so the classical management perspective focused on worker productivity.

Case In Point

Owners Richard and Maurice McDonald

McDonalds

After running a restaurant successfully for 11 years, Richard and Maurice McDonald decided to improve it. They wanted to make food faster, sell it cheaper and spend less time worrying about replacing cooks and car hops. The brothers closed the restaurant and redesigned its food-preparation area to work less like a restaurant and more like an automobile assembly line.

Their old drive-in had already made them rich, but the new restaurant – which became McDonald’s – made the brothers famous. Restaurateurs traveled from all over the country to copy their system of fast food preparation, which they called the Speedee Service System. Without cars, Carl and Maurice would not have had a drive-in restaurant to tinker with. Without assembly lines, they would not have had a basis for their method of preparing food.

Being a short-order cook took skill and training, and good cooks were in high demand. The Speedee system, however, was completely different. Instead of using a skilled cook to make food quickly, it used lots of unskilled workers, each of whom did one small, specific step in the food-preparation process.

Instead of being designed to facilitate the preparation of a variety of food relatively quickly, the kitchen’s purpose was to make a very large amount of a very few items.

When you visit different restaurants belonging to the same fast-food chain, the menu and food are pretty much the same. There’s one reason for this uniformity in fast food – it’s a product of mass-production.

http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/fast-food.htm

The machine metaphor of classical management suggests that three basic aspects should exist in organizations: Specialization, Standardization, and Predictability (Miller). Those who advocated this perspective argued that every employee should have a specialized function, thus, essentially any individual could perform a job if they are properly trained. If one individual fails to do the job, they are easily replaceable with another person since people are seen as simply parts of a machine.

Taylor developed his Theory of Scientific Management from his early days as a foreman in a machine shop. Little did he know how drastically he was going to influence organizations and our notions of working life. Taylor could not understand why organizations and individuals would not want to maximize efficiency. In Copley’s biography about Taylor he reveals a man who was driven by perfection: “The spectacle of a [man] doing less than [his] best was to him morally shocking. He enthusiastically believed that to do anything less than your best is to add to the sum of the world’s unrighteousness” (207). However, workers were not always as enthusiastic about efficiency and quality as Taylor, especially given the significant difference in status and pay between management and labor. For the common laborer during the industrial revolution, this new approach to employment meant possibly losing your job if a “scientific” formula showed that fewer workers could do the same job. If you don’t think this is alive today, think about organizations such as Apple that have employees overseas manufacture iPhones.

Organizational Communication Then
Frederick Taylor
In today’s world, fast food chains are good examples of classical management. Next time you buy that Whopper or Big Mac, you can thank the influence of American businessman Frederick Taylor. Literally using a stopwatch, Taylor’s used his time and motion studies to prove that for every job, there is one best way to perform it in the shortest amount of time. This meant properly selecting, training, and rewarding the appropriate worker with the right task (Taylor, 1947). Peek into the kitchen the next time you order that burger, fries, and coke. It is likely that you will see employees separated by station and task, doing their specific part to fulfill your order. Likewise, the design of hard plastic seats and bright colors in fast food restaurants is done with intention to get customers in and out of the restaurant in an efficient and expedient manner.

efficiency

During this time, Weber was also developing his ideas about bureaucracy. He was fascinated with what the ideal organization should look like, and believed that effective hierarchies helped organizations operate effectively. Precise rules, a division of labor, centralized authority, and a distinctly defined hierarchy should be driven by rational thought void of emotion and outside influence (Weber). These qualities would allow organizations to operate in a somewhat predictable manner — employees knew what to expect and who was in charge, and management could make decisions based on familiar, relevant information rather than irrational feelings. Think about the bureaucracy of your college campus, there are numerous divisions of labor, rules, policies, and procedures. Registering for classes, tracking transcripts, obtaining financial aid, living in campus housing, are all part of the time you spend navigating the bureaucracy on your campus. Imagine a campus without bureaucracy. What if you couldn’t easily access your transcripts? What if no one kept track of your progress through college? How would you know what to do and when you were done? What if there was no process for applying for financial aid? While bureaucracies can be slow, tedious, and often inefficient, they provide structure we have come to rely on to accomplish personal and professional goals.

Fayol’s theory of classical management focused on how management worked, specifically looking at what managers should do to be most effective. For Fayol, organizational members should be clear who is in charge, and everyone should know their role in an organization. He argued that organizations should be grouped in a precise hierarchy that limits the flow of communication to top-down communication.

Theory X is an example of a classical management theory where managers micro-manage employees by using reward-punishment tactics, and limiting employee participation in decision-making(McGregor). This theory sees employees as basically lazy or unmotivated. Because of this, managers must closely supervise their workers. Those that do not do their work are disposable parts of the machine. This allows for management to mistreat and abuse their employees, ultimately lowering the very thing they were after, greater productivity.

Organizations using this approach can still be found today. Have you ever had a boss or manager who treated you like an interchangeable part of a machine who had little value? If so, you’ve experienced aspects of the classical management perspective at work. While scientific approaches to organizations were an interesting starting point for determining how to communicate, the classical management approach fell short in many ways. Thus, development and refinement continued to occur regarding ways to understand organizational communication.

Human Relations Perspective

Because classical management was so mechanical and did not treat people as humans, organizational scholars wanted to focus on the human elements of organizations. The human relations approach focuses on how organizational members relate to one another, and how individuals’ needs influence their performance in organizations. In 1924 Elton Mayo and his team of Harvard scientists began a series of studies that were initially interested in how to modify working conditions to increase worker productivity, decrease employee turnover, and change the overall poor organizational effectiveness at the Hawthorne Electric Plant near Chicago (Roethlisberger & Dickson).

Mayo’s team discovered that, no matter what changes they made to the work environment (such as adjusting lighting and temperature levels, work schedules, and worker isolation), worker productivity increased simply due to the fact that researchers were paying attention to them. Simply paying attention to workers and addressing their social needs yielded significant changes in their productivity. This is where the term “The Hawthorne Effect” developed. Mayo’s work provided an impetus for a new way of looking at workers in organizations.

Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that human beings are actually motivated to satisfy their personal needs. His theory is still of interest to us today as we try to comprehend the relevance of human relations in the workplace. Papa, Daniels and Spiker s describe McGregor’s contributions: “As management theorists became familiar with Maslow’s work, they soon realized the possibility of connecting higher-level needs to worker motivation. If organizational goals and individual needs could be integrated so that people would acquire self-esteem and, ultimately, self-actualization through work, then motivation would be self-sustaining” (33). Remember that Theory X managers do not trust their employees because they think workers are inherently unmotivated and lazy. At the other end of the managerial spectrum, Theory Y managers (those that take a human relations perspective to employees) assume that workers are self motivated, seek responsibility, and want to achieve success. As a result of this changing perspective, managers began to invite feedback and encourage a degree of participation in organizational decision making, thus focusing on human relationships as a way to motivate employee productivity. Today many companies make employees happy by keeping them well rested and supplying them with ways to catch up on sleep even at work.

Human Resources Perspective

The Human Resources perspective picks up where human relations left off. The primary criticism of human relations was that it still focused on productivity, trying to achieve worker productivity simply by making workers happy. The idea that a happy employee would be a productive employee makes initial sense. However, happiness does not mean that we will be productive workers. As a matter of fact, an individual can be happy with a job and not work very hard. Another reason scholars tried to improve the human relations perspective was because manipulative managers misused it by inviting participation from employees on the surface, but not really doing anything with the employees’ contributions. Imagine your boss encouraging everyone to put their ideas into a suggestion box but never looking them. How would you feel?

Human Resources attempts to truly embrace participation by all organizational members, viewing each person as a valuable human resource. Employees are valuable resources that should be fully involved to manifest their abilities and productivity. Using this approach, organizations began to encourage employee participation in decision making.

An example of the human resources perspective is William Ouchi’s Theory Z. Ouchi believed that traditional American organizations should be more like Japanese organizations. Japanese culture values lifetime employment, teamwork, collective responsibility, and a sound mind and body. This contrasts with many American work values such as short-term employment, individualism, and non-participation. Many U.S. companies implemented Japanese organizational concepts such as quality circles (QC), quality of work life (QWL) programs, management by objectives (MBO), and W. E. Deming’s notion of total quality management (TQM). Each of these approaches was designed to flatten hierarchies, increase participation, implement quality control, and utilize teamwork. Human Resources works “by getting organizational participants meaningfully involved in the important decisions that regulate the enterprise” (Brady 15).

Systems Perspective

Collectively, individuals in organizations achieve more than they can independently (Barnard; Katz & Kahn; Redding; von Bertalanffy; Skyttner). The systems perspective for understanding organizations is “concerned with problems of relationships, of structure, and of interdependence rather than with the constant attributes of objects” (Katz & Kahn 18). An organization is like a living organism and must exist in its external environment in order to survive. Without this interaction an organization remains what we call closed, and withers away (Buckley).

Case In Point
Outsources Jobs

The US News & World Reports Article,Outsourcing to China Cost U.S. 3.2 Million Jobs Since 200–New research shows that more than three-quarters of jobs lost were in manufacturingstates that,

“Jobs outsourced to China have diminished American employment opportunities and have helped contribute to wage erosion since 2001, when China entered the World Trade Organization, new research shows.

Between 2001 and 2013, the expanded trade deficit with China cost the U.S. 3.2 million jobs, and three quarters of those jobs were in manufacturing, according to a report released Thursday from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank. Those manufacturing jobs lost accounted for about two-thirds of all jobs lost within the industry over the 2001 to 2013 period.”

Read the rest of the article HERE to see the impact of systems theory at the organizational and national levels.

All organizations have basic properties. Equifinality means that a system (organization) can reach its goals from different paths. Each professor that teaches public speaking, for example, does so in a different way but, the end result is that the students in each of the classes as completed a course in public speaking. Negative entropy is the ability of an organization to overcome the possibility of becoming run down. Companies like Apple do everything they can to stay ahead of their competition and keep their products ahead of the curve. Requisite variety means that organizations must be responsive to their external environment and adjust when needed. Apple is always under pressure to come up with the newest and best technology. When Apple goes a long time without doing so, the public begins to be critical. Homeostasis points to an organization’s need for stability in a turbulent environment. When gas prices go up, for example, organizations impacted by these rising costs take steps to ensure their survival and profitability. Complexity states that the more an organization grows and interacts, the more elaborate it becomes (Katz & Kahn; von Bertalanffy; Miller). Think about how huge companies such as Verizon must have elaborate organizational systems in place to deal with all of its employees and customers in a competitive market place.

If an organization is a system, how do we use the role of communication to analyze interactions among organizational members? Karl Weick’s Theory of Organizing suggests that participants organize through their communication and make sense of unpredictable environments through interactions. Simply put, organizations exist as a result of the interactions of people in those organizations. An organization is more than just a physical building with people inside. Communication is the “process of organizing” implying that communication actually is the organization (Eisenberg & Goodall). Regardless of whether the focus is on the message or the meaning, systems theory stresses the interdependence of integrated people in organizations and the outcomes they produce as a result of their interactions.

Cultural Perspective

Each organization has unique characteristics and cultural differences such as language, traditions, symbols, practices, past-times, and social conveniences that distinguish it from other organizations. Likewise, they are rich with their own histories, stories, customs, and social norms.

fast food

Fast food restaurants such as In-and-Out and Chipotle have a culture of serving high quality food at a fast rate, yet they are very different organizations. Chipotle’s company motto is “good food is good buisness” (Chipotle.com). We can understand organizations by seeing them as unique cultures.

Simply put, the cultural perspective states that organizations maintain: 1) Shared values and beliefs, 2) Common practices, skills, and actions, 3) Customarily observed rules, 4) Objects and artifacts, and 5) Mutually understood meanings. Shockley-Zalabak contends, “Organizational culture reflects the shared realities and shared practices in the organization and how these realities create and shape organizational events” (63). Not every individual in an organization shares, supports, or engages in organizational values, beliefs, or rules in a similar manner. Instead, organizational culture includes various perspectives in a continually changing, emerging, and complex environment.

Some people try to treat culture as a “thing.” However, organizational cultures emerge through interaction. Members share meaning, construct reality, and make sense of their environment on an ongoing basis. As Morgan states, “There is often more to culture than meets the eye and our understandings are usually much more fragmented and superficial than the reality itself” (151).

Organizational Communication Now
Google
There’s no question that Google is a trendsetter. The company made Web search sexy, and lucrative. It established the foundation for an ecosystem that allows any old little Web site to make money off advertising.

With its lava lamps, simple doodle design, pampered employees and millionaires in its rank and file, it has become a cultural icon and an emblem of the gold-rush promise of the Web.

Google was ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place in the U.S. to work, and it has reached another zenith by becoming the most popular Web site. It’s even become a verb in the dictionary.

And it may even have started a new trend by creating a job that carries the title “chief culture officer.” Stacy Savides Sullivan is that person at Google. Sullivan’s mission is simple: retain the company’s unique culture and keep the Googlers happy. In an exclusive interview, she tells CNET News.com how she does just that.

What do you do as chief culture officer?
Sullivan: I work with employees around the world to figure out ways to maintain and enhance and develop our culture and how to keep the core values we had in the very beginning–a flat organization, a lack of hierarchy, a collaborative environment–to keep these as we continue to grow and spread them and filtrate them into our new offices around the world.

We want all of our employees to play a part in being involved in keeping our culture the way it is today but also growing and developing it. So some of it is coming up with different programs or processes, and just being there to talk with people when they have issues, setting up Web sites where people can report bugs in their culture and ideas on how to improve it, and those types of thing.

What have we not covered that you think is germane to what you do at Google?
Sullivan: I think for any company that is growing as quickly as we are the work-life balance component is actually quite high. We don’t typically have early-morning meetings or late-night meetings. And people are welcome to do things via conference call at home and we pay for people to connect from home. We have a good paternity-leave policy where the dads can take off a couple of weeks when their spouse has had a child and we pay for peoples’ meals when they have new babies for the first few weeks.

We’ve all heard about the ability for people to bring their dogs to work. And you have such a litany of perks and benefits and things that would encourage people to stay or even join. And we have a benefit where we reimburse people up to $5,000 if they buy a hybrid or electric car. And we have shuttle service (for commuters) to and from San Francisco, the East Bay, Santa Cruz.

http://news.cnet.com/2100-1023_3-6179897.html

When we become involved with organizations, we learn from other people in the organization “the correct way to perceive, think, and feel” (Schein 12). There are three interdependent levels that provide insight into how culture works in organizations.

  • Artifacts are the first type of communicative behavior we encounter in organizations. Artifacts aresymbols used by an organization to represent the organization’s culture. You might observe artifacts such as office technology, office architecture and arrangement, lighting, artwork, written documents, personal items on desks, clothing preferences, personal appearance, name tags, security badges, policy handbook, or web sites. You might observe routine behavior such as work processes, patterned communication (greetings), non-verbal characteristics (eye contact and handshakes) rituals, ceremonies, stories, or informal/formal interactions between supervisor and subordinate. All of these are artifacts that tell us something about an organization’s cultural values and practices. What artifacts represent the college or university you are attending right now?
  • Values are an organization’s preference for how things should happen, or strategies for determining how things should be accomplished correctly. Hackman and Johnson believe that values “serve as the yardstick for judging behavior” (33). Many times there is a disconnect between what an organization says it values, and their actual behavior. Disney espouses family values, for example, yet many of their subsidiary companies produce media that do not hold up these values. A way around this for Disney is to make sure to use other names, such as Touchstone Pictures, so that the Disney name is not attached to anything antithetical to “family values.”
  • Basic assumptions are the core of what individuals believe in organizations. These “unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings” ultimately influence how you experience the world as an organizational member (Schein 24). Unspoken beliefs reveal how we treat other individuals, what we see as good and bad in human nature, how we discover truth, and our place in the environment (Hackman & Johnson; Burtscher). Basic assumptions guide how organizations treat employees and provide services to customers. Imagine that you work overtime almost everyday without pay. Why would you do this? Maybe you hold the basic assumption that people who work hard ultimately get ahead by being given promotions and pay raises. Imagine if you did this for years with no recognition or acknowledgement. What does that say about your basic assumptions in comparison to those of the organization?

Looking at organizations from the cultural perspective began in the 1980s (Putnam & Kim). During this time, several popular books focused on ideal corporate cultures, and the cultural perspective became a hot topic. Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (Deal & Kennedy) and In Search of Excellence (Peters & Waterman) described cultural elements that mark prosperous organizations. The authors talked with Fortune 500 companies and determined that if an organization demonstrates a bias for action, has a close relationship with customers, has identifiable values, reveres individuals that exemplifies organizational values (heroes), and has a solid communication network, it is a healthy organization.

Culture is complicated and unstable. Each organization has its own unique identity, its own distinct ways of doing things, and its own ways of performing culture (Pacanowsky & O ‘Donnell-Trujillo). The books mentioned above prompted many organizations to try to replicate the companies with “strong” or “excellent” cultures. Ironically, several of the companies identified with strong or excellent cultures have had a difficult time maintaining productivity over the last twenty years.

An important focal point of the cultural perspective is the climate of an organization. Climate is the general workplace atmosphere or mood experienced by organizational members (Tagiuri; Green). Organizational climate is a “subjective reaction to organization members’ perception of communication events” (Shockley-Zalabak 66). Do you like working with the people at your job? Are you satisfied with the general climate of your college campus? Are you appropriately rewarded for the work you do? Do you feel like a valued member of your church or social group? Climate has a direct effect on organizational relationships and members’ satisfaction and morale. Researcher Jack Gibb proposes that the interpersonal communication in organizational relationships, especially between superiors and subordinates, contributes to the overall climate of organizations. Gibb identifies a continuum of climate characteristics ranging from supportive to defensive behaviors that lead to member satisfaction or dissatisfaction.