This field developed as a specific area of study in the 1970s and early 1980s during the specialisation, expansion and diversification of the wider discipline of communication studies that began in the 1960s. It is largely derived from US traditions, initially based on functionalist and mechanistic systems theory, followed by overlays of psychology, anthropology and, more recently, cultural and critical perspectives. Today, organisational communication includes studies of organisational culture, organisational leadership, internal organisational communication, organisational networks, change management and organisational learning. The term sometimes is used generically to refer to all internal and external communication by an organisation—that is, as a synonym for corporate communication or public relations.
The development and convergence of new media and information technologies during the 1980s and early 1990s significantly influenced organisational communication and its networks and today the field of practice utilises intranets, wikis and internal blogging and microblogging tools such as Yammer, as well as publications, events and other traditional communication materials.
Organisational communication is an international field, with a continuing North American focus. Australian practitioners are part of a global network, represented through practitioner bodies such as the International Association of Business Communicators, which has branches in each Australian state, and to some extent the Australian Human Resources Institute—although the HR field largely focuses on industrial and workplace issues. Academics in the field are most likely members of the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association and/or the International Communication Association.
‘Organisational communication’ does not appear in the list of occupations published by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, so it is hard to identify the number of practitioners or size of the industry, and to separate it from HR or public relations. In Australia, many organisational communication practitioners are located within an organisation’s corporate communication or public relations function. However, a number of Australian universities, including Charles Sturt University, the University of Queensland and the University of South Australia, offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses in organisational communication.
Organisational communication helps an organisation and its members to define goals, allocate roles and responsibilities, coordinate operations, establish information networks and develop the organisation’s culture and climate. The four main approaches to organisational communication commonly used in the past defined it variously as: information transfer; a transactional process; strategic control; and a balance between creativity and constraint (of achieving what you want within the constraints of the situation). Later, when studying organisational communication relative to management within an organisation, scholars used existing views of human nature, which relate to principles and assumptions about human behaviour that include early perspectives of scientific management by Fredrick W. Taylor (1911); administrative science by Henri Fayol (1949); human relations developed after the Hawthorne studies of Elton Mayo and Chester Barnard; and the human resources approach to organising used by Robert Blake and Jane Moulton (1964) as well as Rensis Likert (1961), with each new theory building on previous work.
The general systems theory—developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968) and originating from biology and engineering—was the next approach adapted. It defined an organisation using the metaphor of a complex open ‘system’, which requires interaction (or communication) between its component parts and its environment.
The more recently applied cultural studies approach defines organisations as ‘cultures’, each with its own unique values, rituals and behaviours. Authors such as Terrance Deal and Allan Kennedy (1982) and Tom Peters and Robert Waterman (1982) have argued that successful companies can be identified through their cultures. This approach also sees an organisation’s communication system or ‘cultural network’ as setting up and reinforcing its cultural values via formal organisational communication channels such as newsletters and informal channels such as employee interactions.
Critical theorist Stanley Deetz examined how communication systems and practices within organisations favour specific dominant interests, leading to external consequences for society at large. Deetz sees organisations and their communication systems and practices as political sites that carry the interests of those in power, where some values dominate over others. It uses concepts such as ideology, hegemony, emancipation and resistance to describe how power within organisations is represented through organisational discourse—or how something is ‘talked about’, either in everyday conversations of its members or through media representations.
An important issue within organisational communication relates to member assimilation and socialisation processes. These processes begin with the job interview and continue through the roles members play throughout their employment within an organisation. Organisational communication examines how these roles are developed and negotiated over time.
Organisational communication also involves conflict resolution. Conflicts occur at various levels within an organisation and require effective processes of conflict negotiation, mediation and arbitration to be set in place, implemented and maintained to fit the cultural diversity and everyday realities of the workforce, such as family responsibilities and disability.
Contemporary challenges for organisational communication include new forms of work and workplaces such as teleworking, outsourcing and virtual work groups.
REF: N. Weerakkody, Research Methods for Media and Communication (2009).