Perspectives on Organizational Communication Theory



An Overview of Organizations and Communication

Three Broad Groups of Organizational Theory


Weber's Classical Bureaucratic Theory  

Human Relations School


Basic tenets of human relations

Argyris and Interpersonal Competence  

The Managerial Grid  

Likert's Four Systems  

The Systems Approach

A Quick Survey of Some Systems Theories  

Weick: The Process of Organizing  

Structural Functionalism


Adapted from Littlejohn, Stephen W. Theories of Human Communication. Second Ed. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1983.


Sociologist Amatai Etzioni: “Our society is an organizational society. We are born in organizations, educated in organizations, and most of us spend much of our lives working for organizations. We spend much of our leisure time playing and praying in organizations. Most of us will die in an organization, and when the time comes for burial, the largest organization of all-the state-must grant official permission” (Amatai Etzioni, Modern Organizations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 1.)

I.      An Overview of Organizations and Communication

A.    Berelson and Steiner give 4 characteristics of an organization that distinguish it from other social groupings. (Bernard Berelson and Gary Steiner, Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1964), p. 364.)

1.     formality The typical organization has a set of goals, policies, procedures, and regulations that give it form.

2.     hierarchy  typically expressed in terms of pyramidal structure.

3.     more impersonal  many people, “enough so that close personal relations among all are impossible.”

4.     long lasting Organizations usually last longer than a human lifetime.

B.    Strother’s definition of organization (George B. Strother, “Problems in the Development of a Social Science of Organization,” in The Social Science of Organizations: Four Perspectives, ed. H. J. Leavitt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 23.)

“According to Strother, organizations consist of two or more people involved in a cooperative relationship, which implies that they have collective goals. The members of the organization differ in terms of function, and they maintain a stable hierarchical structure. Strother also recognizes that the organization exists within an environment or milieu” (Comments by Littlejohn)

C.    Organizations are often studied from the perspective of communication. Littlejohn: “A survey on organizational communication indicates that a large portion of speech communication graduate programs offers courses in organizational communication stressing theory, research, and application” (Gerald Goldhaber, Organizational Communication (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1974), p. 8.).

D.    Three Broad Groups of Organizational Theory

(Goldhaber, Organizational Communication, p. 24. See also James March and Herbert Simon, Organizations (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1958), p. 6.).

1.     Classical theory

a.      Classical Theory rests on assumptions that organizational members are instruments of management or, more broadly, of the bureaucracy.
b.     Classical theories attempt to answer questions such as the following (Goldhaber, Organizational Communication, p. 7.):
1.)   How is the work divided?
2.)   How is the labor force divided?
3.)   How many levels of authority and control exist?
4.)   How many people exist at each level?
5.)   What are the specific job functions of each person?
c.      One of the weaknesses of classical theory is that it deals little with communication.

2.     Human Relations School

a.      It rests on propositions asserting that people’s attitudes, values, and personal needs are all important.
b.     Fundamental human relations questions include:
1.)   What roles do people assume in the organization?
2.)   What status relationships exist as a result of various roles?
3.)   What is the morale and attitude of the people?
4.)   What social and psychological needs exist for the people?
5.)   What informal groups exist within the organization?

3.     Social Systems School

a.      Assumes that organizations are based on decision making and problem solving.
b.     Tends to answer the following kinds of questions:
1.)   What are the key parts of the organization?
2.)   How do they relate interdependently to each other?
3.)   What processes in the organization facilitate these interdependent relationships?
4.)   What are the main goals of the organization?
5.)   What is the relationship between the organization and its environment?
c.      The systems approach is the most popular perspective for viewing organizations.

II.    Weber’s Classical Bureaucratic Theory

A.    Overview

1.     Max Weber (1864 -1930) was “one of the most prominent sociology and economics theorists of all time. In his lifetime, from, he produced a quantity of work on the nature of human institutions” (Littlejohn)

2.     Key is his theory of bureaucracy, part of a larger work found in The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, edited by Talcott Parsons.

Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organizations, trans. A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford University Press; 1947). A lengthy interpretation and discussion of Weber’s theory can be found in Parson’s introduction to the above book. Other secondary sources include: Strother, “Problems”; Dwight Waldo, “Organizational Theory: An Elephantine Problem,” General Systems 7 (1962): 247-60; March and Simon, Organizations; Etzioni, Modern Organizations; Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962); Julien Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber (New York: Pantheon Books, 1968). For a more complete bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Weber, see S. N. Eisenstadt, Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

3.     Weber’s ideas “form the heart of what is commonly known as structuralism” (Littlejohn).

4.     Weber defines organization as follows: “An ‘organization’ is a system of continuous, purposive activity of a specified kind. A ‘corporate organization’ is an associative social relationship characterized by an administrative staff devoted to such continuous purposive activity” (Weber, Social and Economic Organizations, p. 151.).

B.    Weber notion of bureaucracy involves power, authority, and legitimacy.

1.     Power “is the ability of a person in any social relationship to influence others and to overcome resistance. Power in this sense is fundamental to most social relationships” (Littlejohn).

a.      When power is legitimate, compliance is effective and complete.
b.     Etzioni summarizes this concept: “Weber’s study of legitimation introduces a whole new dimension to the study of organizational discipline. He used power to refer to the ability to induce acceptance or orders; legitimation to refer to the acceptance of the exercise of power because it is in line with values held by the subjects; and authority to refer to the combination of the two; i.e., to power that is viewed as legitimate” (Etzioni, Modern Organizations, p. 51.)
c.      “Legitimate power is a central communication concern. Whether communications will be accepted in an organization hinges on the degree to which the superior has legitimate authority” (Littlejohn).

2.     Weber outlines three types of authority (Weber, Social and Economic Organizations, pp. 330-32.).

a.      Traditional authority “occurs when orders of the superior are perceived as justified by tradition. One’s power is seen as legitimate because ‘it has always been legitimate’” (Littlejohn).
b.     Rational-legal authority is most relevant in bureaucracies. The authorities in a bureaucracy derive their power from the bureaucracy’s rules, which govern and are accepted by all organization members.
1.)   Weber sees bureaucracy as the most efficient pattern for mass administration: “Experience tends to show that the purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization—that is, the monocratic variety of bureaucracy—is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability.”
2.)   Principles of Bureaucracy (Weber, Social and Economic Organizations, pp. 330-34. See also Etzioni, Modern Organizations, pp. 53-54.).

a.)   Bureaucracy is based on rules. Such rules allow the solution of problems, standardization, and equality in the organization.

b.)   Bureaucracies are based on the concept of sphere of competence. Thus there is a systematic division of labor, each role having clearly defined rights and powers.

c.)   The essence of bureaucracy is hierarchy.

d.)   Administrators are appointed on the basis of their knowledge and training. They are not generally elected, nor do they inherit their positions.

e.)   The members of the bureaucracy must not share in the ownership of the organization.

f.)    Bureaucrats must be free to allocate resources within their realms of influence without fear of outside infringement.

g.)   A bureaucracy requires carefully maintained records-a communication issue.

i.)    “Administrative acts, decisions, and rules are formulated and recorded in writing, even in cases where oral discussion is the rule or is even mandatory. This applies to preliminary discussions and proposals, to final decisions, and to all sorts of orders and rules. The combination of written documents and a continuous organization of official functions constitutes the ‘office’ which is the central focus of all types of modern corporate action” (Weber, Social and Economic Organizations, p. 332.).

h.)   A bureaucracy is usually headed by a non-bureaucrat.

i.)    Non-bureaucratic heads are often elected or inherit their positions.

ii.)  They include presidents, cabinets, boards of trustees, and kings.

iii.)Bureaucrats are dispensable; they may be replaced by similarly trained individuals, but the succession of the non-bureaucratic head may well be a crisis, precipitating innovation and change.

c.      Charismatic authority under which power is justified through the charismatic nature of the superior individual’s personality.
1.)   Unlike bureaucratic authority charisma defies order and routine.
2.)   The charismatic leader is revolutionary and establishes authority in opposition to the traditions of the day.
3.)   One’s leadership as a prophet or demagogue comes about through the demonstration of magical powers and heroism.
4.)   Weber does not have much faith in this kind of mass persuasion.

C.    Criticism from Littlejohn: Weber’s theory:

1.     provides a “classical” or standard picture with which the other theories can be contrasted.

2.     presents the common traditional view of organizations, relating the essence of the classical notion of organizations. Notice that communication and human behavior are downplayed in the theory; the thrust is structure and task factors.

3.     Does not account for communication and human behavior-it’s greatest weakness. “The theory gives implicit ideas of what communication is like in organizations, but communication is not treated as an explanatory variable, nor is it seen as the essence of organizational life. This failure is significant.”

4.     Is prescriptive or normative—like most other classical treatments. “It does not explain how or why organizations operate the way they do. Hence we do not get an adequate idea of how organizations operate. While the claims of classical theories have some validity, the philosophical appropriateness of the assumptions of these theories is not adequate, nor is their heuristic value high.”

III.  Human Relations School

A.    Overview

1.     Developed partially as a reaction to the sterile classical theories and partially as a reaction to the depression of the 1930s.

2.     By the mid-1940s it had become very popular.

3.     Began with the Hawthorne Studies

a.      The Hawthorne studies received considerable attention in the 1920s and 1930s (For an excellent brief description of the Hawthorne studies, see Charles Perrow, Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1972), p. 97.).
b.     Directed by F. J. Roethlisberger, a Harvard industrial psychologist, and R. Dickson, a Western Electric manager. Elton Mayo of the Harvard Business School later acted as a consultant.
c.      This team directed some three hundred interviewers who talked with Western Electric employees about their problems and perceptions. These original interviews led to additional research on group functioning. Management and the Worker—a summary of the Hawthorne works (F. Roethlisberger and W. Dickson, Management and the Worker, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939).
d.     Elton Mayo is considered the founder of the movement because of his impact on the beginnings of human relations.
e.      Kurt Lewin is also an important early contributor.

B.    Two Branches of the Human Relations Movement (Perrow, Complex Organizations, p. 97.).

1.     Leadership in organizations

a.      Thesis of leadership school: “leadership facilitates morale, which in turn leads to increased productivity.”
b.     Emphasized leadership training and T-groups (training groups).

2.     Organizational Climate

a.      Again, productivity and worker welfare are stressed.
b.     Etzioni points out that “above all, the Human Relations School . . . emphasized the role of communication, participation, and leadership” (Etzioni, Modern Organizations, p. 32.).

C.    Basic tenets of human relations

1.     Productivity is determined by social norms, not physiological factors.

2.     Non-economic rewards are all important in motivating workers.

3.     Workers usually react as group members rather than individuals.

4.     Leadership is extremely important and involves both formal and informal aspects.

5.     Communication is the most important facilitator of shared decision making (Etzioni, Modern Organizations, p. 38.).

D.    Argyris and Interpersonal Competence as a Reaction to the Classical School

1.     Overview

Stresses the individual-organization relationship and interpersonal relationships within an organization as a source of energy within the organization.
The core of Argyris’s framework is found in Chris Argyris, Personality and Organization: The Conflict between System and the Individual (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957). It is updated in part I of Integrating the Individual and the Organization (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964). Shorter versions are available in part I of Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness (Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1962) and “Understanding Human Behavior in Organizations,” in Modern Organization Theory, ed. Mason Haire (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1959).

2.     Argyris’s Postulates (from Littlejohn)

a.      There is a lawful unity in every individual, which defines the self.
b.     This self or personality develops interpersonally from interaction with others. The person sees the world through this self-filter, accepting stimuli that are congruent with the self and distorting, denying, or rejecting stimuli that cannot be integrated readily into the self.
c.      Thus threatening stimuli arouse defensiveness, which blocks the person’s ability to become aware of new possibilities.
d.     Persons have a basic need to increase self-acceptance and acceptance of others, a need that is hard to fulfill in the presence of threat and defensiveness.
Argyris: “We come to the conclusion that it is impossible for a human being to enhance his awareness and acceptance of (aspects of) his self without simultaneously creating the conditions for others to do the same. Put in another way, an individual’s growth and learning (on the interpersonal level) is inexorably tied up with his fellow man” (Argyris, Interpersonal Competence, pp. 20-21.).
e.      An authentic relationship is one in which both parties can increase their sense of self-worth and self-awareness. Such a relationship is marked by a high degree of descriptive (non-evaluative) feedback, trust, and experimentation. It is low in defensiveness and threat.

3.     Argyris applies these postulates to organizational life.

a.      The needs of the organization conflict with the needs of the individual.
Argyris see a “basic dilemma between the needs of individuals aspiring for psychological success and self-esteem and the demand of the pyramidal structure” (Argyris, Integrating, p. 58.).
b.     Thus, the structures so important to classical organizational theory “require the person to separate from important dimensions of the self” (Littlejohn).
c.      This separation happens in six ways.
1.)   The person is required to behave “rationally,” thus divorcing the self from feelings.
2.)   The principle of specialization prohibits the worker from pursuing the need to utilize the range of abilities.
3.)   The mechanisms used by individuals to compensate (or escape), including daydreaming, absenteeism, turnover, trade unions, and noninvolvement, further drive the person from the need to be a producing, growing person.
4.)   The principle of power places the individual in subordinate, passive, and dependent states. This condition worsens the lower the level in the chain of command.
5.)   The same principle removes the worker from self-responsibility.
6.)   The principle of control (separation) places the evaluation of one’s work in the hands of another.
d.     The pattern is cyclical: as the individual self is suppressed, people are forced to take on organizational values, which deepens the problem. Argyris’s: “technical competence is high, but interpersonal competence is reduced.”

            (Argyris, Interpersonal Competence, p. 43.).

5.     Argyris envisions an organization in which human values are as important as production values. The pyramid structure may still apply, but he would encourage other concurrent forms in which individuals participate in organizational decision making and evaluation (For a detailed exposition of Argyris’s ideas on changing organizations, see parts II and III of Integrating).

E.     The Managerial Grid as Another Human Relations Model

1.     Robert Blake and Jane Mouton (Robert Blake and Jane S. Mouton, The Managerial Grid (Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1964). This book describes the nature of a number of managerial styles in some detail.

2.     Three dimensions of organizations: purpose (production), people, and hierarchy.

3.     The Managerial Grid maps possible relationships between these dimensions relative to managerial styles. (Blake and Mouton, p. 10).

4.     Each style is related to communication. Communication is increasingly open, two way, and adaptive, as the style moves along the diagonal from 1,1 to 9,9.

a.      At point 9,1 communication is highly formal, task oriented, and one way. At 1,9 it is very informal, social, and approval oriented.
b.     At 9,9 “the goal is open, authentic, and candid communication; that is full disclosure” (Blake and Mouton, pp. 160-61.).

F.     Likert’s Four Systems: Another Human Relations Theory

1.     Overview

a.      Most detailed and most explanatory theory of human relations
b.     Rensis Likert (Perrow, Complex Organizations).
c.      This rather elaborate theory can be found in Rensis Likert, New Patterns of Management (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961); Likert, The Human Organization (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967)

2.     Three broad groups of organizational variables

a.      Causal variables are those that can be changed or altered. In this sense they may be considered as the independent variables in the model.
b.     Intervening variables are those that lead to the results of the causal manipulations. They reflect the general internal state and health of the organization.
c.      End-result variables are dependent variables or outputs and reflect organizational achievement.

3.     These variables define a continuum of four systems

a.      System 1: exploitative-authoritative system. Under this system the executive manages with an iron hand. Decisions are made by the executive, with no use of feedback.
b.     System 2: benevolent authoritative leadership, is similar to system 1, except that the manager is sensitive to the needs of the worker.
c.      System 3: consultative system in which authority figures still maintain control, but they seek consultation from below.
d.     System 4: participative management, allows the worker to participate fully in decision making. According to Likert, system 4 leads to high performance and an increased sense of responsibility and motivation. (Likert, Human Organization, pp. 76-137.)

4.     Likert does include communication as an intervening variable, related to the interaction-influence system and a subpart of the category of attitudinal, motivational, and perceptual variables. (Likert, Human Organization, pp. 16-19.).





Organizational and performance characteristics of different management systems based on a comparative analysis

Operating Characteristics

System of Organization



Exploitative Authoritative

Benevolent Authoritative


Participative Group

a. Amount of interaction and communication aimed at achieving organization’s ob­jectives

Very little


Quite a bit

Much with both individuals and groups

b. Direction of information flow


Mostly downward

Down and up

Down, up, and with peers

c. Downward communication





1. Where initiated

At top of organization or to implement top directive

Primarily at top or patterned on communication from top

Patterned on communication from top but with some initiative at lower levels

Initiated at all levels

2. Extent to which communications are accepted by subordinates

Viewed with great suspicion

May or may not be viewed with suspicion

Often accepted but at times viewed with suspicion. May or may not be openly questioned

Generally accepted, but if not, openly and candidly questioned

d. Upward communi­cation





1. Adequacy of upward communica­tion via line or­ganization

Very little



A great deal

2. Subordinates’ feeling of  responsibility for initiating accurate upward communication

None at all

Relatively little, usually communicates “filtered” information but only when requested. May “yes” the boss

Some to moderate degree of responsibility to initiate accurate upward communication

Considerable responsibility felt and much initiative. Group communicates all relevant information

3. Forces leading to accurate or distorted information

Powerful forces to distort information and deceive superiors

Occasionally forces to distort; also forces for honest communication

Some forces to distort along with many forces to communicate accurately

Virtually no forces to distort and powerful forces to com­municate accurately

4. Accuracy of upward communication via line

Tends to be inaccurate

Information that boss wants to hear flows; other information is restricted and filtered

Information that boss wants to hear flows, other information may be lim­ited or cautiously given


5. Need for supplementary upward communication system

Need to supplement upward communication by spy system, suggestion system, or some similar devices

Upward communication often supplemented by suggestion system and similar devices

Slight need for supplementary system; suggestion system may be used

No need for any supple­mentary system

e. Sideward communication, its adequacy and accuracy

Usually poor because of competition between peers and corresponding hostility

Fairly poor because of competition between peers

Fair to good

Good to excellent

f. Psychological closeness of superiors to subordinates (that is, how well does superior know and understand problems faced by sub­ordinates?)

Far apart

Can be moderately close if proper roles are kept

Fairly close

Usually very close

1. Accuracy of perceptions by superiors and sub­ordinates

Often in error

Often in error on some points

Moderately accurate

Usually quite accurate




G.    Criticism from Littlejohn

1.     The movement helped practitioners and scholars understand that human beings have needs and values related to organizational functioning and that communication and group process are important aspects of organizational life.

2.     It has provided thought on the nature of organizational communication, group dynamics, and leadership, and it has produced a useful set of guidelines for improving interpersonal communication in organizations.

3.     However, the movement was basically extreme and embodied a number of serious problems. For a comprehensive critique, see Perrow, Complex Organizations.

4.     Objections

a.      Little empirical evidence of a positive correlation between high morale and productivity.
1.)   In many cases the correlations have not been found in research, and where they do appear, serious methodological objections have been raised.
b.     Fail to account for the affect of nonhuman variables such as structure and functional elements.
c.      Shares the limitiations of humanistic psychology; e.g. assumes conflict is minimal and that anything that might frustrate workers will stifle creativity and understanding. However, natural conflict can be positive.
d.     Has practical value for teaching and developing strategies, but has little theoretical or explanatory value. “Ironically, the ideology of the right, classical structural theory, and the ideology of the left, human relations, share this fault: Each calls for particular kinds of practices to improve organizational functioning without providing a basis for understanding how organizations operate.”

IV.  The Systems Approach

A synthesis of structure (classical theory) and human needs (human relations).

A.    A Quick Survey of Some Systems Theories

For a more detailed summary of these theories, see the first edition of Stephen W. Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill, 1978), pp. 303-20.

1.     Chester Barnard

a.      Chester Barnard, The Functions of the Executive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938)
b.     President of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company and, therefore, a practicing executive, he produced “one of the most influential treatises on management and organization” (Littlejohn).
c.      Barnard provided two theories, one on organization and one on communication.
d.     Barnard’s thesis is that organizations can only exist through human cooperation and that cooperation is the medium through which individual capabilities can be combined to achieve superordinate tasks.
e.      Perrow on Barnard: “This enormously influential and remarkable book contains within it the seeds of three distinct trends in organizational theory that were to dominate the field for the next three decades. One was the institutional school [systems approach]; . . . another was the decision-making school as represented by Herbert Simon; . . . the third was the human relations school. . . . The leading theorists of these schools freely acknowledged their debt to Barnard” (Perrow, Complex Organizations, p. 75.).
f.       Strother calls him the last of the “practical theorists;” “He draws on the work of the classical theorists, psychologists, sociologists, and institutional economists, as well as his own wealth of experience, to develop a closely reasoned, almost Euclidean treatment of industrial organization” (Strother, “Problems,” p. 16.).

2.     James March and Herbert Simon in Organizations (March and Simon, Organizations. A helpful secondary source is the interpretive work of Perrow, Complex Organizations).

a.      This technical treatise exemplifies theory in its purest form.
b.     Present hundreds of propositions related to decision making and organizational functioning.
c.      Conducted for the purpose of providing a more complete conceptualization than that found in the “machine” models of the past.
d.     Perrow writes: “Herbert Simon and James March have provided . . . the muscle and flesh for the Weberian skeleton, giving it more substance, complexity, and believability without reducing organizational theory to propositions about individual behavior [as the human relations movement has done]” (Perrow, Complex Organizations, p. 146.).

3.     Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn (Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn, The Social Psychology of Organizations (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966)).

a.      Present a clear and strong argument in favor of the open system model.
b.     Unlike a physical system the organization is social, created by people and bonded by psychological forces.
c.      Organizations as social systems are unique in their need for maintenance inputs or control mechanisms to keep human variability in check.
d.     Like Barnard, Katz and Kahn teach that the system involves overriding goals that necessitate the subordination of individual needs.
e.      Such is the nature of rule enforcement, accomplished through role behavior, norms, and values. These interrelated components provide a necessary integration within the system.

B.    Weick: The Process of Organizing Carl Weick (Carl Weick, The Social Psychology of Organizing (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969)

1.     Overview

a.      Significant in the communication field because:
1.)   It uses communication as a basis for human organizing
2.)   It provides a rationale for understanding how people organize.
3.)   It is one of the few truly organizational communication theories.
b.     The basic elements of Weick’s model. They are environment, equivocality, enactment, selection, retention, choices, assembly rules, behavior cycles, and equivocality removed. Weick envisions these elements working together in a system, each element related to the others.

2.     Weick and the Nature of Organizations

a.      Sees organizations not as structures or entities but as activities. “It is more proper to speak of organizing than of organizations, because organizations are something that people accomplish, via a process that must be constantly reenacted. Thus when people do what they do in an organization, their activities create organization, so that organizing is continual” (Littlejohn).
b.     Weick “The word, organization, is a noun and it is also a myth. If one looks for an organization one will not find it. What will be found is that there are events, linked together, that transpire within concrete walls and these sequences, their pathways, their timing, are the forms we erroneously make into substances when we talk about an organization” (Carl Weick, “Middle Range Theories of Social Systems,” Behavioral Science 19 (1974): 358).
c.      The essence of any organization is that people are acting in such a way that their behaviors are interlocked; one person’s behavior is contingent on another’s.
d.     A fundamental quality of interlocking is that communication takes place among the people in the organization.
e.      Thus all organizing activities consist of “double interacts.”
1.)   An act is a statement of communicative behavior of one individual.
2.)   An interact involves an act followed by a response.
3.)   A double interact consists of an act followed by a response and then an adjustment or follow-up act by the first person.
4.)   “Consider an executive and a secretary as an example. The executive asks the secretary to undertake an activity (act); the secretary then asks for clarification (interact); and the executive explains (double interact). Or the executive asks the secretary a favor (act), and the secretary follows through (interact), after which the executive responds with a thank you (double interact)” (Littlejohn).
f.       Organizing activities fulfill the function of reducing the equivocality of information received from the environment. In a sense, human beings organize to make sense out of their environment.

3.     Equivocality is ambiguity or uncertainty.

a.      All information from the environment, according to Weick, is equivocal; organizing activities are instituted by the members of the organization to make the information unequivocal.
b.     Of course equivocality is a matter of degree, and the organizing is done to reduce equivocality in the direction of unequivocality.
c.      “Let’s return to the example of the executive again. Suppose the executive receives a directive from the firm’s president to solve a problem of plant safety. What is the nature of this problem, and how should the executive go about solving it? The answers to these questions are not clear, inasmuch as the problem can be defined and solved in a number of ways. In other words the executive is faced with equivocal information” (Littlejohn).
d.     Note the similarity to entropy from information theory: “information is a measure of uncertainty in a stimulus situation and messages or communication reduce the uncertainty.”
e.      Organizing is accomplished through processes that are developed to deal with equivocal information.

4.     The Environment is dependent upon individual perception

a.      Instead of seeing the environment as a distinct entity opposed to the organization as the classical theorists do, Weick sees the environment as a product of the person, not something outside the person. What makes the environment salient for the individual is the person’s attention to particular aspects of the stimuli.
b.     Hence, environments are not preexistent; they are enacted by the humans in the organization. People are continually reenacting their environments, depending on their attitudes, values, and experiences of the moment.
c.      “For example, the executive of our example is faced with a situation in which interpretation is necessary. Immediately, he or she will attend to certain aspects of the ‘safety problem.’ In enlisting the aid of others, for example the secretary, the executive is beginning processes that will enable the group to treat the safety problem as its environment of the moment. To deal with this equivocal environment, group members make proposals (acts) to which others respond (interacts) so that the proposers can refine their initial proposals (double interacts). For example, the executive may ask the secretary to check the files for accident records. This constitutes a proposal, an attempt to reduce the equivocality. The secretary may comply, pulling the appropriate file, so that the executive can be assured that the company knows the extent of the safety problem. Here the sequence of the double interact would be as follows: request file (act), provide file (interact), take file and review it (double interact). Notice how the participants’ behaviors are interlocked. The secretary’s activity of the moment depends on the executive’s request, and the executive’s subsequent behavior depends on the secretary’s compliance” (Littlejohn). (double interact). Notice how the participants’ behaviors are interlocked. The secretary’s activity of the moment depends on the executive’s request, and the executive’s subsequent behavior depends on the secretary’s compliance” (Littlejohn).

5.     Organizing relies on a series of three major processes: enactment, selection, and retention, followed by a choice

a.      Enactment
1.)   The definition of the situation or the registering of equivocal information from outside.
2.)   The mere acceptance of certain aspects of the environment removes some equivocality.
b.     Selection
1.)   A process that enables the group to admit certain aspects of information and reject others.
2.)   This process therefore removes even more equivocality from the initial information.
c.      Retention
1.)   Further removes equivocality by deciding what aspects of the initial information will be saved for future use.
2.)   Retained information is integrated into the existing body of information on which the organization operates.
d.     Choice
1.)   After retention, organization members face two kinds of decisions.

a.)   Whether to reenact the environment in some way: Should we (or I) attend to some aspect of the environment that was rejected before?

b.)   Whether to modify one’s behavior or actions: Should I take a different action than I did before?

e.      These processes occur simultaneously throughout the organization. While some members may specialize in a particular process, “nearly everybody undertakes all of them in one form or another most of the time. Such is the essence of organizing” (Littlejohn).

6.     Two elements occur within each of these processes to reduce equivocality.

a.      Assembly rules guide the choice of routines that will be used to accomplish the process being conducted (enactment, selection, or retention).
1.)   Rules are sets of criteria on which organizers decide what to do to reduce equivocality.
2.)   The question answered by assembly rules is this: Out of all the possible behavior cycles in this organization, which shall we use now?
3.)   For example, in the selection process the executive might invoke the assembly rule that “two heads are better than one” and on this basis call a meeting of plant engineers.
b.     Behavior cycles are sets of interlocked behaviors that enable the group to come to an understanding about which meanings should be included and which rejected.
1.)   Thus the safety meeting called by the executive would enable interested individuals to discuss the safety problem and decide how to proceed in defining and solving it.

C.    Structural Functionalism

1.     Overview

Richard V. Farace, Peter R. Monge, and Hamish Russell, Communicating and Organizing (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1977)).
a.      A relatively recent theory
b.     An eclectic system approach, drawing from the best insights of previous work.
c.      One of the few strictly organizational communication theories.

2.     The Nature of an Organization, Information and Communication

a.      “An organization is a system of at least two people (usually many more), with interdependence, input, throughput, and output. This group communicates and cooperates to produce some end product by using energy, information, and materials from the environment” (Littlejohn).
b.     One of the most important resources in organizations is information.the reduction of uncertainty.”
c.      Communication is in part the reduction of uncertainty via information.
d.     Communication, however, also involves the use of common symbolic forms that refer to mutually understood referents.

3.     Two types of communication, which correspond to two types of information.

a.      Absolute information: what is known
1.)   consists of all the pieces of knowledge present in the system.
2.)   Thus the totality of communicated information in an organization is absolute communication.
b.     Distributed information: who knows it is that which has been diffused through the organization.
1.)   The fact that information exists in an organization does not guarantee that it will be communicated adequately in the system.
2.)   “Failures in distribution policies are due to failures by managers to identify which groups of personnel need to know certain things, or to establish where these groups are supposed to be able to obtain the information they need” (Farace et al, p. 28).

4.     The framework for organizational communication rests on three analytic dimensions.

a.      System level made up of four sublevels that function in a hierarchy.
1.)   individual
2.)   dyadic
3.)   group
4.)   organizational
b.     Functional level deals with the content of messages. These authors stress three above the rest: production, innovation, and maintenance.
1.)   Production refers to the direction, coordination, and control of activities.
2.)   Innovation generates change and new ideas in the system.
3.)   Maintenance preserves individual values and interpersonal relations necessary to keep the system together.
c.      Structural level which deals with the emergent patterns or regularities in the transmission of messages.

5.     Key Concepts for Communication Levels

a.      Individual Level: Communication Load
1.)   the rate and complexity of information inputs to a person.

a.)   Rate is the quantity of inputs such as messages or requests

b.)   Complexity is the number of factors that must be dealt with in processing the information.

2.)   Two problem areas relate to load.

a.)   Underload occurs when the flow of messages to a person falls below the person’s ability to process them.

b.)   Overload occurs when the load exceeds the person’s capacity.

3.)   Also applies to dyads, groups, and organizations
b.     Dyadic Level: Communication rules
1.)   Rules function to “pattern expectations.”
2.)   Rules can be explicit or implicit policies.
3.)   Some common rule topics include the following:

a.)   who initiates interactions;

b.)   how delays are treated;

c.)   what topics are discussed and who selects them;

d.)   how topic changes are handled;

e.)   how outside interruptions are handled;

f.)    how interactions are terminated;

g.)   and how frequently communication occurs.

c.      Group Level: Multiple Structures
1.)   Three types of group structure:

a.)   Communication structure or micro-network: the pattern of interaction in the group.

i.)    Who communicates with whom within the group?

b.)   Power structure.

i.)    Who has what kind of power over whom?

c.)   Leadership structure: role distribution in the group,

i.)    Who has influence over whom?

d.     Organizational Level: A macro-network
1.)   “A repetitive pattern of information transmission among the groups in an organization” (Littlejohn).
2.)   Usually multiple networks operating at once.
3.)   Can be formal (the org chart) or informal (social groups).
4.)   Two fundamental parts: the members and their links.

a.)   Links are characterized by five properties.

i.)    Symmetry: the degree to which the members connected by a link interact on an equal basis. In a symmetrical relationship the members give and take information relatively equally. An asymmetric link is one way, with a distinct information sender and receiver.

ii.)  Strength: a simple function of interaction frequency. Members who communicate more often have a stronger link, while those who communicate less often have a weaker link.

iii.)Reciprocity: the extent to which members agree about their links. If one person believes that he or she often communicates with another, but the other denies it, the link is unreciprocated.

iv.) Content of the interaction: Is the communication primarily about work, social matters, or some other content area? By probing the content of links in a network, we can discern the network’s overall function.

v.)   Mode: How is communication achieved, by what channel? Modes may be face-to-face conversations, group meetings, or communication via letter or telephone.

b.)   Members within an organization take on different roles

i.)    Isolates have no links with other network members.

ii.)  Groups, relatively stable structures which are characterized by four criteria:

(1.) More than half of the group’s communication is within the group;

(2.) Each person must be linked with all others in the group

(3.) The group will not break apart with the exit of one person or the destruction of one link

(4.) The group must have at least three members.

c.)   Bridges: group members who also are linked to other groups.

d.)   Liaisons: not members of any group, yet they link two or more groups.




D.    Criticism from Littlejohn

1.     “Exciting and quite different from classical and human relations theory.”

2.     They are valuable for us because they stress communication in organizations, emphasizing the ways transfer of information binds elements into holistic organization. With system theory the emphasis changes from components and structure to relations and interactions.

3.     Objections

a.      (See Bengt Abrahamsson, Bureaucracy or Participation: The Logic of Organization (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1977)).
b.     Systems theory is so abstract, different applications are inconsistent.
1.)   Weick’s theory presents a view of the most general organizing processes, with little attention to the actual activities that can occur.
2.)   The theory of Farace and his colleagues, however, looks at how people are grouped into organizational structures by virtue of their information links.
3.)   Although these theories are not inconsistent with one another, they are hardly comparable. Even though both theories are system approaches, and even though both relate to organizational communication, they cannot be compared in terms of power or utility. They also illustrate that system concepts are slippery and difficult to pin down when they are applied to particular observed events.
c.      System concept is more a way of thinking than a theory per se.
d.     System theories tend toward oversimplification.
1.)   System theories tend to exaggerate the system claims in regard to an organization, ignoring aspects of the organization that are not system-like.
2.)   Certain variables are downplayed because they do not fit well into the system paradigm.
3.)   Weick calls for a tempered approach that would address questions such as the following: “When will a set of related entities—the standard definition of a system—act like a system and when will they not; what conditions tighten and loosen interdependencies; what conditions freeze or extend the range of values a variable will take; what conditions diffuse or intensify boundaries?” (Weick, “Middle Range,” p. 357)
e.      System approaches rarely are specific enough to explain or to predict individual variation. Consequently they are not often falsifiable.
1.)   Most philosophers of science agree that the validity of a theory that is not falsifiable never really can be known and that such theories therefore should be rejected as inadequate.
f.       These system theories are ahistorical, ignoring the developmental course of organizations.
g.      These system theories downplay the role of power in the organization, suggesting that system outcomes are a natural result of the mechanism of interactional structure and not of the influence of individuals and groups.

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