Organizational Context

Organizational context is another communication variable that influences the content and presentation of both internal and external communications. Organizations—or any group of people working together—may be flat or hierarchical in structure; informal or formal in image; and small, medium, or large in size.  All of these characteristics make up the organizational context which, in turn, influences communication expectations and your communication choices for both internal and external communications.

Internal Communications

Consider how your group or organization functions internally in terms of sanctioned communication. A flat organization is one in which communication among all participants is encouraged.  Employees at all levels have relatively equal communication access to each other as well as to the person in charge.  A hierarchical organization has more specific reporting and communication structures, in which employees may have defined avenues of communication.  Some businesses have other types of structures.  For example, according to Sam Ashe-Edmunds in an article in Chron, some businesses  “use a matrix structure, which creates project groups who share multiple department managers, requiring more multi-tasking and careful coordination of communications on the part of top management….The more employees a business has, the more ways communications occur, not just in terms of what methods people use but also where and how they send messages.”[1]

Also consider the level of formality in your group or organization, which often depends on its size. Does communication occur mostly through planned channels such as emails, standardized formats, and/or structured meetings?  Are there often impromptu discussions or casual meetings?  Are employees encouraged to drop by others’ locations as needed, or are appointments required? Are all or only some members of the group or organization on a first name basis?  Do all, or only some, members of the group or organization have relatively equal access to managers and leaders?

As you consider how sanctioned communication functions internally in your group or organization, also ask yourself about unsanctioned, or grapevine communication.  According to Bovee and Thill, grapevine communication “encompasses all communication that occurs outside the formal network.  Some of this informal communication takes place naturally as a result of employee interaction on the job and in social settings, and some of it takes place when the formal network doesn’t provide information that employees want.”[2] It’s important to consider grapevine communications so you can try to clarify formal communications, to lessen the chances of message distortion via the grapevine.

The following video is relatively lengthy, but offers good insight into internal organizational contexts, explaining aspects you need to consider as a communicator.  Note that it starts with a preview of cultural contexts, which you’ll also read about in this text.


External Communications

Understanding organizational context for internal communications will help you more effectively manipulate communication variables in external communications, if you are tasked with creating those communications. If the organization is relatively formal, then formality should be characteristic of external communication, using titles, spelling out words instead of using contractions, and using standard communication formats.  If the organization is relatively informal, then you may want to use recipients’ first names, less formal wording, and/or creative formats.  External communication always should reflect the professional image that the group or organization wants to project.  If in doubt, err on the side of formality.

You may want to read an interesting, short article from Forbes magazine that deals with some aspects of internal and external communications: Four Corporate Communications Best Practices to Learn from GE.

[1] Ashe-Edmunds, Sam. “The Structure & Lines of Communication in an Organization.” Small Business –, 25 January 2019.

[2]Bovee, Courtland and John Thill. Business Communication Today. 13th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2016, pg. 9.