Formal organizational communication is not an easily defined term. Organizational communication is a complicated phenomenon that has no clear boundaries. Several definitions attempt to conceptualize the abstract nature of organizational communication. The study of organizational communication involves the intersection of two complex and dynamic concepts: organizations and communications. An organization has three primary characteristics:
- Social collectivity (a group of people)
- Coordinated activities (structure)
- Goal-oriented activities (both individual and collective)
In defining communication, most scholars agree that communication is a process that is transactional (involving two or more people interacting in context) and symbolic (placing meaning and abstractions on things). To formalize organizational communication means to understand how the context of the organization influences communication processes and how the symbolic nature of communication differentiates it from other forms of organizational behavior.
Studying Formal Organizational Communication
Eric Eisenberg and Harold Goodall (2004) offer a broad but usable definition of organizational communication. They suggest that there are four ways to conceptualize and study formal organizational communication:
- Communication as information transfer
- Communication as transactional process
- Communication as strategic control
- Communication as balancing creativity and constraint
Communication as Information Transfer
The traditional approach to study communication has followed the linear model of communication, also known as the transmission model, the information engineering approach, or the model of information transfer. The information transfer approach views communication as a tool that people use to accomplish goals and objectives. Clear, one-way communication is emphasized as a means of impressing and influencing others. The information transfer or linear model suggests that communication flows one way or linearly from the sender of the message to the receiver of the message. This model suggests that communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people.
Some scholars have suggested that communication operates in a predictable fashion; hence the information engineering approach. The information engineering approach advanced the SMCR model. This model posits that communication occurs when a sender (S) transmits a message (M) through a channel (C) to a receiver (R). The sender encodes an intended meaning into words and the receiver decodes the message when it is received. The communication as information transfer model is similar to both the linear model of communication and the information engineering approach in that communication is framed metaphorically as a pipeline through which information is transferred from one person to another. Within the organizational context, managers transfer information or directives to subordinates and subordinates do the same in their peer and superordinate interactions.
Communication theories in the information transfer approach are based on the following assumptions of transmission:
- Language transfers thoughts and feelings from one person to another person
- Speakers and writers put thoughts and feelings into words
- Words contain those thoughts and feelings
- Listeners or readers extract those thoughts and feelings from the words
There are several problems associated with the information transfer method as an approach to the study of formal organizational communication. Information overload is when the receiver of the message becomes inundated with information that needs to be processed. Information overload is made up of the amount of information, the rate at which the information is received, and the complexity of the information.
Another problem with the information transfer model is with communication distortion. Distortion is the processing noise that distracts the receiver from fully processing information. Communication distortion can be semantic (different meanings for sender and receiver), physical (sound distractions), or contextual (sender and receiver have different positions or perspectives that lead to miscommunication).
Ambiguity offers the third problem with the information transfer model. Ambiguity occurs when multiple interpretations of a message distort or misdirect the sender’s intended meaning. Differing meanings and interpretations, based on one’s worldviews, backgrounds, context of communication, and experiences, along with abstract language, may lead to ambiguity.
Communication as a Transactional Process
A second approach in the study of formal organizational communication is communication as a transactional process. Communication as transactional process asserts that in actual communication situations, clear distinctions are not made between senders and receivers of messages. This assumption contrasts with the information transfer model. Instead, in the transactional process, both communicators play both roles of encoding and decoding messages simultaneously. This model emphasizes the importance of feedback in communication. This model also highlights the importance of nonverbal communication, which is missing in the information transfer approach. Organizational communication as a transactional process suggests that nonverbal feedback may accompany or substitute for verbal messages. Finally, the transactional process model suggests that meanings are in people, not words, as the information transfer model assumes. How an individual receives a message and how the receiver constructs the meaning of that message is the focus of the transactional process model.
The transactional process influences contemporary leadership studies. Effective and successful leaders using this approach are better able to mobilize the meanings that followers have for what leaders say or do. This creates a transactional and fluid process between leaders and followers in organizations.
The approach of studying formal organizational communication through the transactional process approach may be problematic in its emphasis on creating shared meaning through communication. By focusing on shared meaning by means of clarity, openness, and understanding, communication as a transactional process minimizes the complexities of the human condition whereas ambiguity, vagueness, and instrumental objectives are central in some forms of formal communication in organizations.
Communication as Strategic Control
Communication as strategic control views communication as a tool for controlling the organizational environment. This approach acknowledges that clarity, openness, and understanding are not always the primary goals in interpersonal and organizational interactions caused by personal, relational, social, and political factors. Communication as strategic control assumes communicators have multiple goals or agendas in organizational situations. These agendas play out in performance evaluations, delivering or accepting bad news, asking for a promotion or raise, or in various other situations where the individual or organizational interests are at stake.
The strategic control approach to formal organizational communication suggests that individuals should not be expected to communicate in a rational or objective manner. Communication rules, clarity, and honesty may be broken or compromised when it is in the communicators’ best interests to do so. Generally, strategic communicators are competent communicators. Communication competence refers to the appropriateness and effectiveness of a message. The communicating party must be rhetorically sensitive in that he or she must be able to recognize the constraints of the situation and adapt to the multiple goals of all parties simultaneously.
Strategic ambiguity is a common form of strategic control. Strategic ambiguity describes the ways people deliberately communicate ambiguously to accomplish their goals.
Strategic ambiguity seeks to accomplish specific goals. First, strategic ambiguity promotes unified diversity by taking advantage of the multiple meanings different people may give the same message. For example, if a supervisor directs employees to work more as a family, there are multiple interpretations on how this should occur.
Second, strategic ambiguity is deniable because the words may seem to mean one thing, yet under pressure, these same words can seem to mean something else. For example, if an organization has announced a merger, organizational leaders are careful when discussing job loss because of duplication of processes, so that when job loss occurs later, their words at that time appear more abstract and less definitive.
Finally, strategic ambiguity facilitates organizational change by allowing people the interpretive room to change their activities while appearing to keep those activities consistent.
The strategic control model of formal organizational communication opposes the idea of shared meaning. The primary goal of communication in this approach is organized action. Organized action minimizes the importance of understanding and clarity and highlights working and acting in mutually satisfying ways to fulfill each party’s self-interest.
Many scholars have criticized the strategic control approach for several reasons. First, this approach minimizes the importance of ethics. Although strategic ambiguity is widespread in organizations, it may be used to elude the truth and escape blame.
It is also problematic because it places all responsibility on individuals without much thought about the community implications. This model implicitly suggests that individuals are only concerned with accomplishing their individual goals, often at the expense of the organizational community or the community at large.
Additional Approaches to Formal Organizational Communication
There are other approaches to studying formal organizational communication. These approaches include the functional approach and the meaning-centered approach.
The functional approach is a way of understanding organizational communication by describing what messages do and how these messages move through organizations. The functional approach conceptualizes communication as a complex organizational process that serves messaging, organizing, relationship, and change functions. This approach posits that communication transmits rules, regulations, and information throughout the organization.
Message Function. In formalizing organizational communication, it is important to recognize how communication contributes to the overall function of the organization. Messages act as a communication function for production, maintenance, adaptation, management communication, regulative, integrative, innovative, informative, task, persuasion, command, and instruction.
Organizing Function. The organizing function of formal organizational communication guides, directs, and controls organizational activity. Communication functions to organize rules and regulate the environment. These regulative and organizing functions are found in employee handbooks, policy manuals, training, newsletters, memos, and so on. The organizing function establishes what is expected at work and how individuals are required to accomplish these expectations.
Relationship Function. The relationship function of organizational communication focuses on how human interaction makes organizational functioning possible. The relationship function helps individuals define their roles and measure the compatibility of individual, group, and organizational goals. This function is particularly important because it contributes to employee morale, role in the organization, and organizational self-esteem. The relationship function establishes relationships with peers, superiors, subordinates, and customers; and it further clarifies these roles.
The relationship function is accomplished by verbal and nonverbal communication. Scholars have suggested that the informal organization, often characterized by the relational function, is more powerful than the formal organization. Relational communication ranges from the informal conversations in a break room to one’s job title, office space, or cubicle to how an individual is greeted on meeting.
Change Function. The final function of formal organizational communication is its change function. The change function helps an organization adapt what they do and how they do it. This adaptation occurs in decision making, internal and external changes in the environment, organizational repositioning, and other change functions. The effectiveness of the change function of organizational communication is associated with the survival of the organization and its ability to adapt to the changing environment. Change communication is necessary for innovation and adaptation and is the process through which organizations obtain existing and new information, and how they process this information in light of the current situation and emerging trends.
The meaning-centered approach is a way of understanding organizational communication by understanding how organizational reality is constructed through human interaction. This approach describes organizational communication as a process of organizing, decision making, sense making, influence, and culture. Pamela Shockley-Zalabak (2002) offers key assumptions of the meaning-centered approach.
- All ongoing human interaction is communication in one form or another. A major theme in the communication discipline is that an individual “cannot not communicate.” This is due in part to verbal and nonverbal cues.
- Organizations exist through human interaction; structures and technologies result from the information to which individuals react. This idea suggests that organizations cannot exist separate from human activity. An organization relies solely on individuals’ enactment of organizing and structuring. Karl Weick (1979) offered insight to these ideas by suggesting that organizations do not exist per se but are a culmination of the ongoing human interaction surrounding events that are continually created and shaped by these interactions. The meaning-centered approach to formal organizational communication describes communicating and organizing as a parallel process.
- Organizing and decision making are essentially communication. This is the process of choosing from among numerous alternatives to direct behaviors and resources toward organizational goals.
- Identification, socialization, communication rules, and power all are communication processes that reflect how organizational influence occurs. The meaning-centered approach proposes that influence is a necessary process for creating and changing organizational events. Influence plays a role in understanding how individuals identify with their organizations, how organizations attempt to socialize members, how communication rules direct behavior, and how individuals use communication to exert power.
- Organizing, decision-making, and influence processes describe the cultures of organizations by describing how organizations do things and how they talk about how they do things. Organizational culture reflects the shared realities and practices in organizations and how shared realities create and shape organizational events. The culture varies from organization to organization depending on the individuals’ engagement with each other and the organization’s goals. Culture describes the unique sense of the organization, its practices, and how the organization describes itself.
- Eisenberg, E. (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227-242.
- Eisenberg, E. M., & Goodall, H. L., Jr. (2004). Organizational communication: Balancing creativity and constraint (4th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
- Jablin, F. M. (2001). Organizational entry, assimilation, and disengagement/exit. In F. M. Jablin & L. L. Putnam (Eds.), The new handbook of organizational communication: Advances in theory, research, and methods (pp. 732-818). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Redding, W. C. (1972). Communication within the organization. New York: Industrial Communication Council.
- Shockley-Zalabak, P. (2002). Fundamentals of organizational communication: Knowledge, sensitivity, skills, values (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Weick, K. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.