Communicative Coworkership, Organizational studies

Part I: Communicative Coworkership – What is expected from us as coworkers?

The field of strategic communication is imbued with concept such as dialogue, participation and employee engagement, with communication policies and strategic documents employing this vocabulary (Heide and Simonsson, 2011). The communicative empowerment of a growingly self-dependent coworker, is based on the idea that employees should actively participate in dialogue and meaning creation, give and receive feedback on their actions and achievement, share knowledge and ideas, ask for support and listen to others, as well as act as ambassadors for the organization at large (Simonsson, n.d.).

Illustration by Anna Handell

Today in organizations as well as organization studies, we find increased expectations on the coworker to be engaged and participate in decision-making, presumably due to less hierarchical organizations which raises the status of the coworker in regards to management (Alvesson, 2004). The communicative organization is often cited as the modern organization that gives employees more agency and power, making he or she more participative and engaged, which in turn will create a successful business (Coreen, Kuhn, Cornelissen & Clark, 2011).

Illustration by Chris Gregori

This engaged employee requires more communication with and between all organizational members (Stohl and Cheney, 2001) since being able to interpret information and engage in creative dialogues are seen as capacities closely related to learning and innovation processes (Heide & Simonsson, 2011). The communicative organization is therefore considered to require communicative leadership, where the leader develops and controls the operations with communicative methods (Simonsson, 2002). In this organization where the central social practice is communication, it is not only common to talt about communicative leadership, but also communicative coworkership (Axäll, 2004; Hedman Monstad, 2015; Simonsson, n.d., Sveriges kommunikatörer, 2015), with the term communicative coworkership derived primarily from a practitioner’s area.Illustration by Jack & Wolf

The communicative leadership is considered to be dependent on communicative coworkership for dialogue to be conducted on all operational levels, since participation and communicative employees are seen as essential for the creation of value dialogue (Axäll, 2004) and considered to create effective organizations.

But what does this really mean from a coworker’s perspective?

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Organization and leadership

Is the “open” office a way to control?

Christensen, Morsing and Cheney (2008) argue that research and practice in organizational communication seems to promote a kind of regulation of an employee who is opposed to participation and empowerment, in spite of a real-time picture of the commitment among employees. We can link this to a transmission perspective on communication, which in itself can suggest there are other reasons behind the open office landscape’s popularity than the pursuit of transparency and openness, and instead evolves about power. Deetz and Mumbay (1990, p.37, referenced in McPhee & Zaug, 2000, p.4) points out ”All communication necessarily involves the use of power […].” And an organization’s communication will thus always involve a production and reproduction of power.

From a management perspective, the open office can be seen as a strategy to control what is being said, something that can prevent negative rumors in the workplace. If managers are in the same room, employees should be more limited in what they dare to express. We can see traces from the rational school’s policies on staff and control (Scott & Davis, 2007).

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Cornelissen (2012, p.171) talks about organizational silence as ”[…] corresponds to a ’closed’ communication climate because it involves a shared and widespread feeling among employees that speaking up is of little use, leading them to withhold potentially valuable information”. The focus here is the organizational culture and leadership as a basis for the communication climate being open or closed. On the other hand, one could argue the individual agent munity, and that this type of communication may find other channels, such as lunch breaks or digital communications in various forms (but that these channels themselves will have their implications in the communication process).

But Danielsson and Bodin (2008) and Toivonen (Larsson, 2010) points to the employees’ reduced motivation because of perceived reduced privacy and personal control. Jansson (2009) argues for the individual’s need for privacy and distance, and Galbraith (Scott & Davis, 2007) talks about the need for ”organizational slack” which means margins for error and reduced demands on performance. In an open environment where reduced performance does not seem socially acceptable, integrity, distance and margins may be difficult to create, and the open plan office fails to ensure these needs.

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If open plan offices mean that employees keep quiet about what they perceive as sensitive information, such as negative results or incompetence, it could be bad for business in general, such as the ability for management to make decisions based on data existing in the organization. We can link this to Glauser’s (1984) perspective on unwillingness to communicate further if you feel that the information reflects poorly on your own work or character. The open office does not mean necessarily better knowledge sharing. The image of free communication flows may get dented if one reflects on the consequences of a boss or an employee no longer being able to invite to discussion in their private rooms. To ”invite” may well show a desire to create a personal meeting and also provide space for such physically, both factors that may be valuable for a personal relationship and better communication between the parties.

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Organization and leadership

What happens to communication in the open office?

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An environment creates opportunities and possibilities for certain behaviors and reactions, as with the office environment, and different structures thus provide different communication patterns. As previous post has pointed out, communication is essential in an organization, with openness and transparency as a current theme (Falkheimer & Heide, 2011). The open communication ideal is based on the idea that the organization is more democratic if communication is encouraged and information is available. Transparency and communication among its members and with the environment is considered positive, and ”closeness, hierarchy and the withholding of information is valued negatively.” (ibid, p 136).

There is also the expectation of the individual employee to be a skilled communicator, for example, evaluates U.S. employers skill in verbal communication as the top three of the most highly valued skills of employees (Keyton, Caputo, Ford, Fu, Leibowitz, Liu, Polasik, Ghosh & Wu, 2013). Cornelissen (2011), however, focuses on management when he talks about organizational communication, and explains it as a management function which creates a framework for the effective coordination of all communications, which aims to create and maintain favorable rumors among stakeholders.

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A theme in organizational communication is integrated communication which means that the organization should not send different messages externally and internally. Most advocates an ideal of sending a message and have a voice that permeates vision, image and culture (see among others Hatch and Schultz, 2009; Aaker, 2004). Organizations’ commitment to openness and transparency, the unified communicated message, and the communication ideal of meaning creation, may explain the popularization of open plan offices, where there are no walls to be able to prevent the employees coming together to interact. Communication must therefore flow across hierarchical boundaries and give all a voice and influence. On the other hand, one can perceive a paradox in a polyphony of individual voices that together constitute the whole, that is, the organization (Christensen & Cornelissen, 2011), and a unified message that permeates everything.

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Organization and leadership

Why are organizations promoting open offices?

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illustration by Olimpia Zagnoli

With a shift from a closed perspective to the open approaches to organizing, office environments also developed. In the 1950s in West Germany, the foundations were built for a ”more humane environment than previous decades of open offices, with work in straight lines in order to enable effective monitoring”, and in 1966 the first Swedish open office environments was created (Rissler & Elgerot, 1980). Although the open workspace can be seen as a norm for workers during industrialization, where they clearly could be monitored and controlled, the open workspace was not a standard for management to have direct contact with the workers, but strove to maintain a model of authority and formality (Scott & Davis, 2007). With the help of the rational school type of organization standards, we can understand how power and status came to be reflected in the private service room.

 

Seddigh (2013) defines the room as cellular office, and says that even when the office organization begun to switch to open solutions, senior officials and managers have continued to work in private rooms. Ahlsson, Frankenberg, Iwar, Herkeman och Löwgren (referenced in Rissler & Elgerot, 1980) suggest that staff in higher income brackets were bothered more than lower income earners in terms of perceived efficiency reductions and concentration disorders, and they argue that it suggests that the nature of work has significance. An alternative way of looking at it is from a power aspect, namely that those with a history of status and power confirmed by private offices now have similar workspace as the others in the organization, which in itself creates dissatisfaction. On the other hand, the status could be shown by the individual landscape placement, for example near a large window with views opposed to near the toilets. It could also be demonstrated by anyone sitting, for example, close to other managers and executives as opposed to trainees. We can anticipate that the power thus always be communicated in organizational environment, and the open plan offices in itself does not necessarily mean a more equal workplace.

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Organizations’ quest for legitimacy, with isomorphism as a phenomena, can explain how the open plan offices spread in organizations and has become a symbol for the modern organization. Open plan offices were popularized in the 1970s when many companies implemented the design based on arguments that they created flexible spaces that were more functional when changes in staff numbers and structure. A movement was also to remove physical barriers to communication between individuals, groups and departments, to strengthen morale and productivity (Brennan, Chugh & Kline, 2002). An example of isomorphism can be seen in the trend around openness and transparency in and around organizations (see, inter alia Falkheimer & Heide, 2011; Fombrun & Van Riel, referenced in Cornelissen, 2011), where open communication seems to require open spaces.

 

Foss (2003) sees this in his example of a tendency for organizations to mix the hierarchy of markets to enhance entrepreneurship and motivation in the business, so-called internal hybrids, where he points to the company Oticon and its organization. The knowledge-based organization connects communication and transparency where information should be freely disseminated in the business, which requires open office environments. On the other hand, there is a rational perspective around the control remaining in the open office space. First, we see a bureaucratic control (Scott & Davis, 2007) embedded in the social and organizational structure, built in professional categories and responsibilities. Secondly, we see a social control (Sutton, 1996), a kind of paradox of subjection in transparency, where employees and managers are in the same room creating an awareness that others see what I do as an employee and hear what I say.

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Just like Oticon implemented an open office landscape, popular private employers such as Google and Microsoft have done the same, as well as the majority of public organizations (Conning, 2012). 1996 cell offices were discontinued at one of Skåne’s largest employer, Tetra Pak (Jurjaks, 2013) with approximately 4,000 employees in Lund (Tetra Pak, 2013). Another employer is the county council Region Skåne, with the central regional building in Malmö awarded the Urban Development Prize 2011, where reasoning among other things was ”[…] where every floor has open plan offices which are accessed via bridges. A thought about supporting the opportunities for increased spontaneous meetings in the workplace.” (Region Skåne, 2011). Legitimacy comes from how the open office landscape is in line with stakeholders’ expectations of the organization, by signaling modernity, flexibility and transparency in operations. The environment should enable an organizational culture where interaction is promoted, and signaled. There is also an economic aspect which means reduced costs for the organization, since open office solutions are both cheaper to build but also to maintain (Brennan, Chugh & Kline, 2002), which is to be requested from two specific stakeholder groups, namely the management and the shareholders’ perspective. The open plan office is here a way to promote the organization. Partly to external groups such as the media to pay attention to the organization and positively reflect on their audience, potential employees who will be attracted to apply to the organization, or customers who will want to associate with the organization and buy its products or services. Secondly it is a marketing internally to promote a particular organizational culture where communication, flexibility, and openness is considered desirable.

 

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Organization and leadership

Why is the organizational environment open?

Our contemporary commercial world is based on the function of organizations. Producing and sales companies, health associations, financial institutions, activities for public transport, all essential for how we live our daily lives. Scott and Davis (2007, p.11) explains an organization as ”a social structure created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of specific goals”. An organization may therefore differ depending on factors such as what kind of business operated, the management and the employees in the organization, how the organizational culture looks like and how you relate to the outside world. An organization adapts to standards but is also involved in creating and recreating them (Scott & Davis, 2007).

 

Organizations and organizing are two closely related concepts. On the one hand there is a general sociological tradition of striving for social order (Cooren, Kuhn, Cornelissen & Clark, 2011), and one specific quest for organizing within organizations to collaboratively to pursue their specific objectives. How then can we understand how an organization is coordinated and structured? By looking at the organizational history and the standards prevailing in society, we can better grasp what has shaped today’s organizations and their coordination of the work environment and employees.

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illustration by Arunas Kacinskas

The history and creation of norms as factors

With industrialization organizations became central in the community and hence the organization of employees. Based on this type of producing industrial operations with a clear division of responsibilities between skilled and unskilled staff, a former military function developed to a rational norm of organizing where efficiency, clear goal focus, formality, authority and control, were the core ideas (Scott & Davis, 2007). The Hawthorne-studies showed that individual workers did not act as rational economic actors, but were driven as much by emotions and perceptions, and that their behavior came from membership in social groups (ibid; Wren & Bedeian, 2009). The ”Hawthorne effect” demonstrates how the rational perspective is missing a human element in its belief in a particular outcome, namely human complexity.

 

Although communication was not in focus the above organization perspective of course created effects. Glausers (1984) meta study of research argues that much of the relevant information needed to make management decisions are in lower organizational levels of the organization, and that the dissemination of it upward in the organization is essential for an efficient operation. Glauser (ibid, p 614) points out that ”Several constraints inherent in organisations make sending information up the hierarchy more difficult than sending it horizontally or downward”. The hierarchical model involves fewer individuals higher up in the organization, which means a structural problem to move the information up, and even if all the information has spread upward managers don’t have the cognitive capacity to process all the information. Moreover, this organizational ideology that managers have a command and control while subordinates follow directives and rewarded accordingly, may create a reluctance among managers to listen to information coming from below, and involve employees who do not see the sense of conveying information upstream (Glauser, 1984).

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illustration by Hólmsteinn Kristjansson

An advanced perspective on organizations and organizing is seen in line with the open perspective where organizations no longer are viewed as self-contained units from its environment (Scott & Davis, 2007). The perspective on how institutions with its rules and norms alters the behavior of individuals has evolved into what is today called a new institutionalist perspective (see among others DiMaggio & Powell, 1991; Sutton, 1996; Merkelsen, 2000). A central concept is isomorphism, which means that organizations tend to be alike by imitation in a quest to be perceived as legitimate by its stakeholders (Cornelissen, 2011: DiMaggio & Powell, 2004). It acts by a ”rational myth” (Scott & Davis, 2007, p 262) that presents mechanisms as rational but which may equally well be counterproductive. For example, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is seen as a way to advantageously position yourself in the market against competing players, but the more that adapts the same strategy in their quest for legitimacy competitive advantages disappear.

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An introduction to Strategic Communication

What is a social intranet? Part II

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Falkheimer and Heide (2011) emphasize that the new information and communication technologies in organizations, for instance intranets, have positive qualities such as to reduce the distance in time and space, but could hardly live up to expectations on the efficiency of human learning, which is complex processes that new media itself cannot solve. The authors emphasize that the introduction of intranets require huge investments but has marginal results. With that realization, intranets can be understood as an expression of isomorphism, i.e. that they mimic how other organizations are acting to achieve legitimacy (Cornelissen, 2011). Then the Intranet is basically about creating a good image of the company in general for stakeholders than to serve as an interactive medium for employees.

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Social intranets seem to reflect a paradox in organizations. Partly it reflects a new communication ideal in having one voice, one message that pervades the vision, image and culture, which among others Hatch and Schultz (2001) argue in the Harvard Business Review. The ideal is also visible in the trend of ”integrated communication” which means that the organization should not send different messages externally and internally (Falkheimer & Heide, 2011). The internal culture of the organization should by using the intranet open up by the employees having access to larger amounts of information relating to the business by governing documents, manuals, etc. are available to all regardless of time and space. It works as a marketing channel that explains what the organization is, why it is important, the core values ​​it has and how employees are its ambassadors.

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On the other hand the intranet reflects the common perception of meaning in which organizations are considered to be in communication processes, rather than the opposite, which is found in the term ”organizational communication” which considers a polyphony of individual voices together constitute the whole organization (Christensen & Cornelissen, 2011). With the intranet, employees can communicate digitally across hierarchical boundaries through chat, comments and email system. The digital community will give all voice and influence. Christensen and Cornelissen (2011) criticize the communication ideal of one unified voice. They see instead how a vague and ambiguous message can promote opportunities for differences to co-exist in an organization, and make it work as a strategy to create identification with the organization of its employees, by allowing different interpretations of the organization’s message. Are the writers influenced by a classical transmission’s approach in their field, or is it even a development of the meaning making perspective? There is a constant tension in the literature between the transmission and meaning making perspective, information and communication, hierarchy and polyphony, and it is possibly the strongest point of strategic communication, but at the same time the weakest point.

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An introduction to Strategic Communication

What is a social intranet? Part I

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On 25 September, Skåne University Hospital (SUS) went over to the same intranet as the entire County Council of Skåne as an organization now gathers under. All pages and news can be commented on, and opening day started with a live chat for SUS’s employees (Mattiasson, 2013). This is an example of what is called a ”social intranet”, which somewhat simplified terms is an internal organizational forum with information document and the opportunity for interactivity. The term ”social” stems from the term ”social media” which from a communication perspective can be understood as that new communication technologies are seen as social with active participants in relation to older media as having passive spectators as an audience. This is a blind historical glance since every time has had a similar discussion and each media form their social function and significance, such as the invention of the printing press, the velocipede, amusement parks, and cinema visits (Andersson, 1993; Ekström, 2010; Sjöholm, 2003). But an organization requires media to communicate internally. Cornelissen (2011) argues that organizations have to communicate with their employees in order to push morale and identification with the organization, and ensure that employees can perform their own specialized tasks. He sees it as a balancing act both to coordinate employee activities to achieve organizational goals, and also meet the individual needs. Larsson (2005) has a broader societal perspective and can explain social intranet as part of the trends of the time, that information should be disseminated by mass communication means, as well as a scholar perspective about two-way communication with active citizens.

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But in contrast argues Christensen, Morsing and Cheney (2008 referenced in Christensen & Cornelissen, 2011) that research and practice in organizational communication seems to promote a kind of regulation of employee who is opposed to participation and empowerment, despite a contemporary image of promoting commitment among employees. This can be linked to the transmission view of communication (see among others Axley, 1984; Jansson, 2009; Varey, 2000; Botan & Taylor, 2004) and the traditional approach (Whittington, 2001), where rational planning from leadership direction leads to profit maximization which is seen as the organization’s objectives. Christensen and Cornelissen (2011) argues that the attraction seems to lie in the packaging of stability, order and predictability in an uncertain and segmented world. Coreen, Kuhn, Cornelissen and Clark (2011) is on the same track when they describe the conventionality in that communication itself organizes that stems from a sociological tradition of striving for social order. Here we see reflections in line with Jansson’s (2009) thoughts whether communication is inherently desirable and good.

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