Available literature demonstrates that communication is not only a central component to the existence of the organization (DuBrin, 2010), but is a complex process which generally involves creating, exchanging, interpreting, and storing messages to accomplish common tasks and goals within an enterprise (Conrad, 1994).
This paper purposes to briefly explain some of the theories of organizational communication, provide their examples in real life scenarios, and explicate their contexts within the history of organizational communication as a field.
The Theory of Bureaucracy was developed by German sociologist Max Weber to exemplify an ideal organizational form; that is, an organization exhibiting a high level of formal structure. In terms of communication, the theory assumes as hierarchical approach where each organizational member reports to one above him/her until the communication reaches the top command.
According to the theorists, ideal organizations should assume an impersonal structure and have a clear set of rules not only to control emotional-oriented behaviors of workers that causes them to react irrationally and unpredictably, but also to protect common workers from abuse of power by those in the upper echelons of the structure (Fergusson, 2007).
The United States Military, public service, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations are all examples of bureaucratic organizations.
Bureaucracy comes to organizational communication from the Classical School. It is important to organizational communication because of its effectiveness in strictly controlling workers, ensuring an absolute chain of command and structure, facilitating predictability of behavior in general and, by extension, the performance of the organization, and promoting principles of workplace standardization and specialization (Conrad, 1994; Fergusson, 2007).
Acceptance Theory of Authority
This theory was first proposed in 1938 by Chester Barnard in his book The Functions of the Executive. Among his major contributions, Barnard argued “…that the three functions served by the informal organization are (1) communication, (2) maintenance of cohesiveness in the formal organization, and (3) maintenance of feelings of personal integrity and self respect” (Fergusson, 2007, pp 26-27).
Additionally, Barnard provided a “bottom-up” explanation of authority and the communication process, suggesting that executives were merely interconnecting centers in a communication system (Conrad, 1994), and that authority was not vested in those who gave the orders (executive) but on the recognition or non-recognition of authority by subordinates (Ferguson, 2007).
Many academics believe that church-based organizations utilize this theoretical typology as rejection of a communication by the congregation is perceived as denying the authority of the communicator.
This theory comes to organizational communication from the Human Relations School. It is important to organizational communication because it does not only stress the need to acquaint all organizational members with effective channels of communication, but also underlines the importance of formal channels of communication to connect all organizational members, with every individual within the organization reporting to or demonstrating subordination to someone else (Conrad, 1994). Indeed, Barnard also stresses that “lines of communication must be as direct and as short as possible in order to increase the speed of communicating and to decrease distortions” (Ferguson, 2007, p. 27).
General Systems Theory
This theory originated from biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffly in 1937, but has been extended by other scholars, including Talcott Parsons and Erwin Laszlo. In developing the theory, Ludwig sought to account for the interrelationships in the world around him and to view the world in a holistic way.
For communication scholars, this theory provides the most natural avenue for investigating organizational functions and relationships because it “…views the organization as a system composed of many subsystems whose interdependent and interlocking parts are held together by communication” (Ferguson, 2007, p. 42).
The theory also postulates that the same kind of communication exchanges that occurs within the boundaries of the organization also transpire between the entity and the external environment, with such transactional processes involving the transfer of energy, labor, money, resources or information.
Many researchers believe that the 2008 global financial meltdown was as a result of systems thinking, whereby the housing bubble orchestrated by financial institutions and subprime lending led to the collapse of major global economies.
The theory comes to organizational communication from the Systems School. It is important to organizational communication not only because of highlighting the importance of feedback in any communication agenda, but also due to its capacity to influence researchers to look outside the entity’s boundary for better comprehension of communication exchanges inside the organization (Conrad, 1994; Ferguson, 2007).
Theory X and Theory Y
This motivational theory was coined by Douglas McGregor based on directly opposing assumptions of human nature. In his theory, McGregor not only underlines the development of self control, promotes creativity, and recognizes people as the greatest asset of the enterprise, but also suggests that workers should be rewarded based on their performance and contribution toward the attainment of goals set by the organization rather than on the basis of individual attainments, and that they should be given a stake in the running of organizational affairs by motivating them and giving them a voice (Ferguson, 2007).
In modern management scene, it is evident that most managers of innovative blue chip companies such as Google and Microsoft use Theory Y in McGregor’s theory to motivate employees through opening up communication channels to spur innovativeness and commitment to organizational objectives.
The theory comes to organizational communication from the Human Resources School (Ferguson, 2007), and its importance lies in its capacity to demonstrate that effective communication and motivation are two sides of the same coin; that is, effective communication rather than external control and threat of punishment is likely to motivate people to work towards the achievement of organizational objectives (DuBrin, 2010).
Functional Approach to Corporate Culture
This approach views culture as an indispensable asset to the organization because it enhances performance unification across the organization. Among the many theorists of this approach, Deal and Kennedy developed the “strong” approach to organizational culture and suggested that strong organizational cultures not only enable workers to comprehend and identify with the work roles and with each other (DuBrin, 2010), but such cultures arise due to a supportive business environment, commitment to shared vision and values, reputable corporate heroes, and the internalization of effective rights, rituals and networks (Conrad, 1994).
Scholars and mainstream commentators are in agreement that world-renowned companies such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Virgin Atlantic, have been able leverage growth and competitive advantage due to their strong approach to organizational culture.
The theory comes to organizational communication from the Cultural Perspectives. It is important to organizational communication due to presumption that effective communication reflects and creates a distinctive organizational culture, which leverages growth and competitiveness by shaping how work gets done (DuBrin, 2010).
Theory of Corporate Colonization
Having originated from Stanley Deetz, the theory purposes to demonstrate how the corporate sector has evolved to become the primary institution of the United States society, and how this sector has succeeded to colonize most facets of our lives, including government, family relations and the media.
The theory presupposes that our capacity to participate in fully functional organizations has been gradually eroded by capitalist bureaucracies that breed passive-employee consumers, and that to revive participation we must expose the ramifications of colonization and work (LittleJohn & Foss, 2009).
In recent times, media organizations such as Fox News and CCN have colonized the lives of most workers, not only reducing them to passive employee-consumers who do not participate in corporate decisions, put also systematically reducing political and workplace participation due to the unobtrusive nature of colonization.
The theory comes to organizational communication from the Critical Perspectives. It is important to organizational communication mainly due to its most basic tenet that organizational communication (re)produces systems of power within the organization that lack any neutrality or randomness with the view to enhance dominant vested interests (LittleJohn & Foss, 2009).
The Speech-Act Theory & the Learning Organization
Originally coined in 1975 by British philosopher John Austin, this theory is developed upon the understanding that human existence is defined by the ability to coordinate efforts through the employment of language, as well as the capacity to create images from others to construct reality through words (Barker & Camarta, 1998).
Due to the theory’s presupposition that human beings cannot act without interpreting what is being said by others, it is increasingly used to assist organizations address challenges, issues, and performance gaps within their business departments and with their employees through the concept of learning organizations (Senge, 2006).
It is evident that many technology-based companies such as Dell, Compaq and HP apply this theory not only to leverage creativity and innovativeness, but also to remain ahead of competition through focused and coordinated efforts to construct reality through learning from others.
The theory comes to organizational communication from the Constructivist Paradigm. It is important to organizational communication as it assist stakeholders in learning organizations to realize that reality does not exist independently of the individual, and that learning should take place at all levels of the organization through effective communication and corroboration of members (Barker & Camarta, 1998).
Barker, R. T. & Camarta, M. R. (1998). The role of communication in creating and maintaining a learning organization: Preconditions, indicators, and disciplines. Journal of Business Communication, 25(4), 443-467.
Conrad, C. (1994). Strategic organizational communication – Towards the twenty-first century. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
DuBrin, A. J. (2010). Human relations for career and personal success: Concepts, applications, and skills (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Ferguson, S. (2007). Organizational theory and Communication implications. In S.D. Ferguson & S. Ferguson (Eds.), Organizational Communication (2nd ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
LittleJohn, S. W. & Foss, K. A. (2009). Encyclopedia of communication theory, volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth Discipline: The art & Practice of the learning organization (2nd ed.). New York: Currency Doubleday.