Communicative Coworkership

Part III: Communication as Constitutive of Organizing

A perspective acknowledging this central role of communication, is the viewpoint regarding communication as constitutive of organizing (CCO), which has evolved within the field of organizational communication (Putnam & Nicotera, 2009). This perspective offers a significant value to organizational research since it recognizes organizations as continuous products of sense-making practice, which is always political in the sense that they could have been produced differently (Coreen et al, 2011).

CCO is especially valuable in looking at the understudied perspective of coworkers, since it highlights how their sense making processes and communication is fundamental in constituting the organization (Heide & Simonsson, 2011), and has emphasized how discourse is an essence of organizational life (Coreen et al, 2011). Despite this however, the aspect of power is placed in the background of the CCO-perspective (Rose, O’Malley & Valverde, 2006; Leclercq-Vandelannoitte, 2011) and is therefore something that should be developed in order to further a significant contribution to organizational communication research.

Mikhail Pavstyuk

There is thus a need of a study with aim to analyse power relations in the communicative organization, where the focus is on the coworker. With a critical approach it should be examined how this communicative coworkership is described, practiced and experienced, what conditions this entails for the coworker and what the consequences are.

The purpose is two-fold: 1) to develop the CCO perspective in organizational studies by adding a power perspective, 2) to address a deficit of research in strategic communication regarding coworkership. A study should wish to shed light on the power aspects of organizational communication in studying the organizational tensions a communicative coworkership entails for the employee, and what the consequences are. It should acknowledge but also problematize the coworker as an active communicator and creator of meaning.

The aim is to further a development of constitutive communication models for organizational research. A study could do so by developing the analysis of organizational communication from the Montreal School’s CCO-argument by adding a Foucauldian perspective where power relations are in focus, highlighting the tensions that arise for the coworker when communication is considered essential. The study could do this through case studies in which the framework is formed by a concept model based on Foucault’s ideas (see Figure 1 above). The cases will exemplify how organizations are constituted by dynamic power-knowledge relationships, which mobilize discourse, structures and subjectivity.

 

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Communicative Coworkership

Part II: Organizational Tensions

There is currently not much written about the communicative coworker, and therefore we do not grasp the consequences of these mounting expectations on the employee to be communicative in everyday organizational life; not only actively engaged in his or her work assignments, but also expected to participate in overall organizational dialogue. The lack of research means that we do not grasp how the coworker perceives, experiences and enacts these expectations. The concept of a communicative coworker is not unproblematic since it places high demands on employees in addition to skills in their professional roles, where they are also expected to be skilled communicators both in relation to colleagues and managers, and also to external stakeholders such as customers, suppliers and media.

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Simonsson (n.d.) describes how managers often get training, support and coaching in creating their identity as a leader, something coworkers on the other hand seldom receive in creating their identities as communicative coworkers. Ciulla (2004, p. 5) argues how employees in today’s organizations perhaps get more responsibility however not the tools required, such as time or knowledge, which she calls ”bogus empowerment”. The importance of employee participation is thus constantly put in the background when instrumental values ​​such as time and money, based on short-term goals, in the end is what is valued most for the organization (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn & Ganesh, 2010; Simonsson, 2002).

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This form of organizational tension between the expectations put on the coworker and the perceived work situation, looking at the employee’s perspective of the tensions, is understudied in organizational communication research (Trethway & Ashcraft, 2004) and the understanding of the coworker’s perspective is generally underrepresented in a management and leadership oriented research field (Heide & Simonsson, 2011; Tengblad, 2007). Despite a trend towards the post-bureaucratic organization, where hierarchy is flattened and the coworker is considered to have a more active role in relation to managers and directors as well as ambassador of the organization externally (Tengblad, 2007), there is always an unequal balance of power between employee and manager. Leadership in itself is about influence, which inherently entails an asymmetric power relationship (Axäll, 2004).

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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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Marketing communications

A pink underdog

Joint research with Mimmie Bergvall and Katrin Svensson

May’s elections to the European Parliament created history! Feminist Initiative is the first political party with a pronounced feminist ideology due to take place in Parliament. The party has in a short time during its election campaign succeeded in attracting rapidly growing voter sympathies, and the campaign went to take on the fall’s general election. Overall, marketing tactics to achieve strategic objectives have risen in politics; to compete in the increasingly competitive political arenas, with complex regulations, but also to meet knowledgeable and demanding audiences (Thrassou, Vrontis & McDonald, 2009). Before the parliamentary elections in 2010, the Swedish political parties invested SEK 280 million on their campaigns (Brännström, 2010 reference in Stömbäck & Shehata, 2013).

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What were the factors that created F!’s successful campaign? We see three things that helped F! to meet the four percent threshold:

1) F!’s core issues were trending
F! have had a problem privilege (Strömbäck & Shehata, 2013) in the political debate since the feminist question is current in society, including appearing in Belinda Olsson’s controversial program Fittstim – my struggle, which resulted in a variety of articles and public posts in social media. When a SVT debate was held between the Left Party Malin Björk and the Christian Democrats Lars Adaktusson before the European elections in their morning show, and they choose to focus a greater share of TV-appearance on discussing gender, we can understand this with the help of the problem privilege.

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2) F! used coproduction
F! received no state party support and relied therefore largely on volunteer work, which means that the party must be effective in recruiting volunteers and relate to a limited framework regarding marketing resources. Anyone who wanted to work for the F! may do so, and so without compensation. This is a way to open up to co-produce, or what is often called co-creation (Arvidsson, 2005; Cova & Dalli, 2009). When users themselves are involved in the production of the service they want to participate, they find that the brand value increases. Feminists Initiative get with the help of their voters a kind of free promotion and establishment in the community, by for example home partys shared on Facebook, or pink chairs which began to circulate on Instagram. It’s not the brand itself that matters but what you do and what you can get by using the brand.

Co-creation might give the co-creator power and influence, which in F!’s case can be seen as a strengthening of democratic possibility, when participants of a home party will be able to ask critical questions to the politician in a safe home environment. On the other hand, the co-creation ”steal” time from the individual, which becomes an interesting question of values ​​in a political context, for example, is unpaid political campaigning necessarily valuable to the individual, or more valuable than activities such as being with their family and devoting themselves to artistic work? Co-production is also an opportunity for the organization to put the responsibility on the individual. If F! fails a four per cent barrier and does not come into parliament, will volunteer workers then have to take responsibility for this, and what might it mean for individuals and companies associated with the campaign work?

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3) F! tells a cultural narrative
F! is playing on a backlash against the Swedish Democrats’ success, a social trend of egalitarian values, as well as more agile voters are seeking identification which does not necessarily aline with class or political block belonging (Paharia, Keinan, Avery & Schor, 2010). The party focuses on ideology in their marketing, with concepts such as feminism, anti-racism and social justice. They also addresses the heterogeneous, multicultural society, including pictures of their candidates to the European Parliament, which consists of a group of old, young, men, women, blacks, whites, and so on. Through its marketing focus on the major forgotten ideological issues, the party appears a bit like the missing heroine, an underdog, in today’s neo-liberal, economy-centered society.

F! also highlighted what they call the myth of Sweden; Sweden is not a tolerant country with a focus on equality, human rights and anti-discrimination. This story of Sweden can be seen as the country’s national identity, something that frequently is used in marketing. When we are no longer to the same extent identify with religious and ethnic groups, we need to find new sources of a common identity and organizations exploit the anxiety that occurs when increased globalization collides with national identity. When F! talks about the ”new” Swedish myth it can be seen as the opposite of what the Sweden Democrats tells of Sweden. It is a form of cultural branding, where a strong brand built by the organization uses the myths that ties in with the most tangible social tensions in society.

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The parties’ tales meets two ”underdog”-narrativ, a story that has been used successfully in marketing (Holt; Moor, 2007), among others, Apple and Google, but also in a political context in the form of Barack Obama. Both parties offer an alternative to the established neo-liberal politicians who generally are based on ”hard facts”, rationality and figures rather than emotion, ideology and stories. The strategy is clear in the response that Schyman gave to an Expressen reporter when the newspaper examined Feminist Initiatives’ proposals. According to the reporter two economical proposals are not financially realistic. In response to this Schyman (2014, May 15th) states:

We’re about to have a debate where you can not open your mouth without a receipt first comes out. It is absurd that we should not talk visions and ideas. A economism have insinuated itself into politics.

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There are of course dangers in every marketing strategy. Co-production can create a feeling of resignation and exploitation, and the underdog narrative can fall flat if the party becomes established. Only time, and strategy, will show the way!

Also, the use of marketing terms regarding political campaigns are not unproblematic, but reflects a general neo-liberal discourse in society where the emphasis is on economics and markets (Savigny, 2008). Seeing an election campaign as marketing instead of, say, community information, is not without consequences for how phenomena are perceived.

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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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