Factors that Hinder Effective Communication in my Organization
There is a widespread belief in the organizational world that in today’s society the future of any one company depends critically on how it is viewed by key stakeholders such as shareholders and investors, customers and consumers, employees, and members of the community in which the company resides. Public activism, globalization and recent accounting scandals have further strengthened this belief; and have also brought the importance of strategic communications management into closer orbit.
Not surprisingly, therefore, both the academic and professional worlds have been suggesting frameworks and models that prescribe steps towards the ‘strategic’ use of communications including such ideas as ‘integrated marketing communications’ (Kitchen and Schultz, 1999), ‘corporate identity management’ (Van Riel and Balmer, 2007), ‘reputation management’ (Fombrun, 2006), ‘stakeholder communications’ (Christensen and Cheney, 2004) and ‘excellent public relations’ (Grunig and Grunig, 2008).
Much of this work has been prescriptive in suggesting factors that may hinder communication in an organization, frameworks for managing these factors, and for managing firm-stakeholder interactions, as opposed to a more grounded and detailed understanding of the practices of communications among organizations and how these may make a difference in the management of firm-stakeholder relationships.
Such an understanding is, I suggest, particularly important given the rift between the importance placed by CEO’s and senior executives upon effective communications, that is, linking communications activities with the overall organization strategy and objectives of the organization, and their views that there is a huge under-performance in the communications profession in the US, the UK and continental Europe because of a lack of qualified personnel and a limited understanding of what communication practices actually make a difference (Argenti et al., 2005; Murray and White, 2004; Van der Jagt, 2005).
Against this background, I will be conducting primary research into factors that hinder effective communications in my organization that have had consistently strong and glowing reputations over the past years, despite market setbacks and negative coverage in the media. The overall aim here was to elicit and conceptualize in more detail the factors and issues that define Effective Communication (EC) in my organization.
This extended conceptualization is based upon a view of EC as a ‘practice’, which focuses upon how practitioners engage in the doing the ‘real work’ (Cook and Brown, 1999, p. 387) – a view of that, I hope, will stimulate conceptual debate and empirical research and offer a more informed basis for practitioners to make sense of their professional realities and act upon it.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE AND CRITIQUE
According to writers Ewen (1996) and Cutlip (1995) the professional discipline of effective communication activities undertaken by an organization to inform, persuade or otherwise relate to individuals and groups in its environment – developed itself, expanding in its scope and activities, because of public skepticism, political reform, turmoil and activism throughout the 20th century. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, power was largely concentrated with big businesses, although the balance has since then shifted towards powerful groups in society including governments, trade unions, investors and stockholders (Broom et al., 1991). In response to the increased saliency and power of such groups, new areas of expertise such as investor relations, public affairs, issues management and employee communications were added to the existing specialties of media relations and publicity. The ‘managerial discipline’ has since then, as writers Van Riel (1995) and Cornelissen (2004) have documented, evolved into the ‘managerial function’ of communications.
The fundamental contrast being that under effective communications activities and specialties (eg media relations, government relations, employee communications, community relations, advertising, investor relations, corporate design and issues management) have been increasingly taken together and consolidated into one or a few units or departments and, importantly, these activities are increasingly given shape and coordinated from the strategic interests of the organization as a whole.
Van Riel (1995: 26) for example suggests in this regard that effective communication as a managerial function is ‘an instrument of management by means of which all consciously used forms of internal and external communication are harmonized as effectively and efficiently as possible’, with the overall objective of creating ‘a favorable basis for relationships with groups upon which the organization is dependent’. The evolution of effective organization and its recognition as a managerial function is furthermore documented in the relatively high position of communications managers and departments (e.g. ‘Corporate communications’, ‘Public Affairs’ or ‘Corporate affairs’) within organizations’ hierarchical structures (Cornelissen, 2004), the rise of a new ‘style’ more business savvy ‘corporate communications’ manager (Freeman, 2004; Harris and Bryant, 2006; Marion, 1998), and the widespread adoption of the effective communication vocabulary of ‘stakeholders’, ‘identity’ and ‘reputation’ (Argenti, 1996; Van Riel, 1997).
In reviewing these literatures that have dealt with the function and process of communications between firms and groups in their respective environments, I observed two key points about the current conceptualization of effective communication and its embodiment as a managerial function in firms around the globe. First, theories and theoretical frameworks in these literatures implicate the importance of effective communications in firm-stakeholder interactions – and in that sense are coming together (cf Schultz et al. , 2000: 3) – but only focus on the process of communicating between a firm and stakeholders in its environment.
These theories have been particularly focused on stakeholder effects and outcomes (e. g. images, reputations, relationships) established, but have paid very little attention to the managerial activities, professional issues and organizational contexts that characterize effective communication (cf Vercic and Grunig, 2000). Thus, there is a gap between theoretical deliberations on the relevance and importance of communications and descriptive accounts of its actual use and embodiment in practice. The Organization of Communication Work
The way in which communication practitioners and functional areas are organized is important as it not only determines to a large extent whether the communications function is enabled to provide strategic input into decision-making at the corporate level, but also whether the communication activities that are carried out at various places within the organization are streamlined and coordinated. In other words, the way in which communications is organized carries important strategic and political dimensions and is also crucial for the effective support and integration of communication activities.
Ever since the 1970s, academic and practitioner writings have emphasized that firms should consolidate rather than fragment their communications by bringing practitioners and functional areas together into central organizational departments, with the purpose of pooling and enhancing communication expertise and increasing the organizational autonomy and visibility of communications within the organization (e. g. Cook, 1973; Dozier and Grunig, 1992; Grunig and Grunig, 1998; Schultz et al. , 1993; Van Riel, 1995).
Siemens, for example, has consolidated all of its communications staff and their responsibilities into a ‘corporate brand and design’ department responsible for the strategic development and policing of the Siemens umbrella brand values, brand design and brand portfolio management, a ‘corporate communications’ department which includes advertising, internal communications and media relations, and a central ‘corporate messages’ unit encompassing both senior communications professionals responsible for developing and guarding the overall corporate story of Siemens and copy writers for speeches of senior managers.
Such consolidation is according to a number of research surveys (eg Cornelissen and Thorpe, 2001) now commonplace, with the exception of a few large corporations like General Motors which rather than bringing functional areas together into a few central communications departments have devolved them as stand-alone units (eg a governmental affairs unit) or subordinated to other functions such as human resources or finance. Generally, then, there app-ears to be a greater consolidation of communications into a few departments, yet still in separate ‘corporate communications’ and ‘marketing’ or ‘corporate branding’ departments.
Within large firms, such as multidivisional firms and multinational corporations like Siemens, Nokia, Philips and Shell, the relationship between the corporate center or group headquarters and the various business-units is usually a major strategic issue. One key structural consideration here, is as Argenti (1998: 5) suggests, to have ‘all communications focused by centralizing the activity under one senior officer at a corporation’s headquarters or to decentralize activities and allow individual business units to decide how best to handle communications’.
Most large multinationals like Siemens, Shell, Nokia and Philips have a combination of centralized ‘global’ departments at the corporate center and decentralized ‘local’ departments, teams and professionals in business-units around the world. Within both Philips and Siemens, the ‘corporate branding’ and ‘corporate communications’ departments have defined a brand charter and a number of work processes to assist professionals within the business with their specific communication programs.
The obvious reasoning behind these examples is that although bringing communications specialists together vertically into one or a few departments may lead to enhanced efficiency, to the ability to develop specialized, distinctive capabilities, and to ease of management through the centralization and consolidation of communication activities, it may not lead to coordination between communication-related departments and with other functional areas (eg human resources) outside those departments, and it risks ‘turf wars’, functional myopia, and over specialization.
A horizontal structure overlaying the vertical structure, therefore, is often seen as necessary for coordinating disparate communications tasks and activities, which also recognizes that communications with key stakeholders might emerge from various places within the organization and that the process of developing and executing communication programs is therefore essentially cross-functional or cross-disciplinary (Heath, 1994).
Horizontal structure can take various forms including multidisciplinary task or project teams, formal lines of communication, standardized work processes (Philips), council meetings (Shell, Siemens), communication guidelines (Siemens, Philips) a corporative vision and communications strategy (Nokia) or the use of ‘czars’ (senior practitioners working as integrators between departments). Large organizations in both the private and public sectors generally need at least some of these horizontal structures.
Particularly in multidivisional firms operating across geographical borders, horizontal structures do not appear to be a luxury but an absolute necessity. In recent years there has been a lot of discussion around the departmental arrangement of communications and the reporting relationship of the central corporate affairs department (see Cornelissen, 2004). Ultimately, the stakes of this discussion are about the professional status of corporate communications (vis-a-vis other established functions as human resources and finance) and its strategic involvement in decision-making at the highest corporate level.
Claims that have been made to this effect include the arguments that different communications disciplines should be consolidated in a single department, and that the head of this department should report directly to the CEO or the senior management team (or be a member of this team) to bolster and secure the functional expertise as well as the strategic involvement of corporate communications in decision-making. Broom and Dozier (1986) and Grunig and Grunig (1998) characterized this involvement in organizational decision-making as perhaps most important to the communications practitioner than any other measure of professional growth.
The guiding idea in this regard is that a direct reporting relationship to the CEO may be seen as an indication that there is indeed a broad, growing recognition among corporate executives and corporate boards that the ability to succeed will depend upon the firm’s ability to effectively communicate with its stakeholders; and that therefore the communications function is recognized as an absolute, integral part of the top management function.
White and Mazur (1995) have added that such a direct reporting relationship is also important as it leads to excellent communications management as senior management is counseled on issues, and stakeholder and identity considerations may more easily get factored into the process of organizational decision-making. The results from a number of studies indicate that in the large majority of cases, there is indeed such a direct reporting relationship from the staff communications department to the CEO and/or executive team (e.
g. Argenti and Forman, 2000; Cornelissen and Thorpe, 2001; Grunig and Grunig, 1998; Grunig et al. , 2002; Van Ruler and De Lange, 2003). In most large organizations, such a direct reporting relationships consist of counseling and advising the CEO and senior executive team on stakeholder and reputation issues, rather than having a direct involvement (through a seat on the executive team) in corporate decision-making. Contribution of Work and Activities
The contribution and consumption of work and activities carried out by communication practitioners takes place at three levels within large firms: the corporate, market (or business-unit), and operational levels. Strategies and activities at the corporate level are concerned with the overall purpose (mission and vision) and scope of the firm to meet its various stakeholder expectations and needs. Strategies and activities at the market level are concerned with determining how the firm will compete successfully in particular markets.
Strategies and activities at the operational level concern the way in which communication manages its own resources, processes and people to help deliver corporate and market-level strategic goals. Central to the question of what factors or contribution effective communication makes and whether this is located at the corporate, business-unit or strictly operational level, is the definition and enactment of the function as either strategic or tactical.
As a strategic function, there is likely to be strategic involvement of communications practitioners in managerial decision-making at the corporate and business-unit levels. Such a strategic view of communications, which in part has already been realized within the business world but in part is also still aspirational (Cornelissen, 2004), means that communications strategy is not just seen as a set of goals and tactics at the operational level – but that its scope and involvement in fact stretches to corporate and business-unit-wide decisions and activities.
At the corporate level, where strategy and activities are concerned with the corporate mission and vision as well as corporate positioning, communication practitioners can aid managers in developing strategies for interaction with the environment. In this sense, communication practitioners are directly involved or support strategic decision-making through their ‘environmental scanning’ activities which may assist corporate strategy-makers in analyzing the organization’s position and identifying emerging issues which may have significant implications for the firm and for future strategy development.
This research will use a descriptive case study approach to assess the factors that hinders effective organization in my organization. Gerald R. Adams and Jay D. Schvaneveldt (1997) define the descriptive case study approach as “an in-depth study of one or a limited number of cases in which each case is treated as a whole”. The authors further added, “The descriptive case study approach is particularly helpful when deeper understanding is needed” (Adams & Schvaneveldt, 2001).
This case study will be conducted with my own organizations who have a strong reputations with their stakeholders and the marketplace. This organization is an ideal subject for this study chiefly for two reasons. Firstly, this organization is a multi-divisional firm operating under the same corporate umbrella. As such, it is typical a large firm with over 75000 employees around the world and over 100 employees spread over the gulf countries. It has an elaborate organizational structure stretching from the C. E. O. to the lowest ranked employee.
There have been problems of communication both vertically and horizontally and even with the outside public (clients). Secondly, my organization has an excellent reputation in the eyes of its stakeholders and the general public according to ToMAC (Top of Mind Awareness of Corporate Brands) scores and reputation rankings published in recent years. This organization therefore allows us to examine not only the range and kind of activities carried out within my organization, but also as to what extent these make a difference (given the strong reputations enjoyed by my organization).
A descriptive case-study approach was chosen as most appropriate for our theory-building purposes (Yin, 2003). It will allow us to examine effective communication holistically and address each of the ‘practice’ dimensions mentioned above. Surveys using written questionnaires and interviews will be conducted with senior managers of my organization, for example, the president of corporate communication and marketing communication, the communication managers within divisions, and if possible, the board member who is responsible for (corporate) brand communication.
Here, a topic guide will be used with topics that are relevant in the context of the factors and practice of effective communications. However, the guide may left enough room for the respondent to communicate his or her particular views on in what way activities and dimensions (structure, political and cultural issues, professionals) are linked for effective communication in an organization. The topic guide consisted of the following themes: communication organization (How are communications activities and the staff responsible for them departmentalized and
structured within the corporation? What organizational factors and facilities exist to support effective communications? What is the professional ethos and culture of communications staff and of people in other departments of the organization? ), communications work (What is the general view of people within the organization (ie the CEO and senior managers, marketing staff, communications staff, and others) of effective communications and its role and contribution to the organization?
How is decision-making concerning effective communications strategy organized? What does the process of effective communications strategy formation look like, in both corporate and market-led communications? What general activities does your job involve? ) and communications professionals (What is the general profile of communications practitioners working in the organization? How are communications staff recruited and selected? What training and development initiatives and trajectories exist for communications staff? ).
I will then analyze the data by looking for common themes across the interviewees in my organizations and by identifying links between the dimensions of effective communication practice. MAIN ARGUMENT The practice of effective communication was conceptualized by circumscribing in very broad terms four dimensions: (1) the roles, skills and activities of practitioners, (2) the organization of these practitioners and their work, (3) political and cultural issues that contextualize and mediate these activities, and (4) the communication and consumption of the process and products of activities performed.
Throughout discussion, and in the course of the primary research with my organization, I hope to identify factors that hinder or promote effective communication practice. The first process labeled as strategic positioning describes the ongoing efforts of effective communication practitioners to position themselves as credible communications managers to senior executives within the executive team and in other functions by developing staff, by finding appropriate mechanisms for coordinating work, by developing value-added activities and by communicating the contribution of effective communications to the organization.
Underlying this process is perhaps the realization that communication practitioners need to enact managerial roles through management activities like environmental scanning, counseling and strategic planning that demonstrably add value to the corporation, and that they need to vie for an organizational arrangement that gives them a central, recognizable place in the firm from where to counsel and support senior management as well as managers in other functional areas.
To illustrate, within my organization the emphasis on corporate branding and the development of a corporate brand architecture will be presented as central to the corporate strategy of the organization: We have to influence decisions about what businesses do we invest in and what businesses we do not want to be in … We have a clear business strategy ‘ go for profit and growth ’ , which sounds really general but behind this is an intensive and very detailed program, the management system, which our branding architecture and systems tie into.
The overall corporate target is to attain worldwide leadership in each of the businesses that we are active in. Business success is the most important thing and that is driving the brand values and the brand strategy’ (Director of Brand Architecture). There is a constant concern with the strategic positioning of corporate branding and corporate communications, not just to increase and communicate the current performance but also to secure a receptive environment at the senior management table.
The head of corporate communication worldwide is a close advisor of our CEO. In fact, the incoming CEO, Kleinfeld, has a doctorate on the topic of corporate identity, and has a deep understanding of branding and communications’ (Vice President Corporate Brand and Design). A second process that we identified involves what we term cultural accommodation which describes how effective communication, its practitioners, its organization and the general way in which it is practiced is embedded in the cultural context of the organization.
Effectively, the choices made by my organization regarding staffing, training and development, structuring and the model of effective communication strategy development are all highly varied, yet linked to the core of its business, history and culture. Such variety and cultural adaptation may point to what Gratton and Ghoshal (2005) call signature practices; practices and processes that embody a company ’ s character and are therefore somewhat unique and idiosyncratic, rather than general and universal for the entire industry.
Signature practices are linked with the core values of the organization and evolve from a company-specific history and are embedded in its culture and core values. Within my organization, as mentioned, effective corporate communications is seen as a part of an Organization-Wide technocratic engineering culture where every function and the work processes involved are documented and standardized, so that these can be constantly monitored, updated and optimized. Work processes (e. g. media inquiries) within corporate communications have equally been documented and standardized in flow-charts and worksheets (following ISO quality specifications).
This kind of signature process may not work in other companies in the consumer electronics industry (or indeed other industries) as it is tied to my organizations’ core cultural values and company history. Expected Outcome The expected outcome of this study on “Factors that hinder effective communication in my organization,” are the important dimensions of this perspective. These are (1) the communication roles, skills and activities of practitioners, (2) the organization of these communication strategies among practitioners and their work, and (3) political and cultural issues that contextualize and mediate these communication activities.
Together, these dimensions (see Table 1) provide a framework for considering the practice of effective communication in its entirety. Table 1 : Summary of the practice conceptualization of effective communications Dimension Themes Roles and activities of — Manager vs technician practitioners — Generalist vs specialist — Professional development, status and contribution Organization of — Departmental arrangement effective communication work — Reporting relationship and/or seat on executive team — Centralization vs decentralization Political and cultural issues
— Status of communication practitioners and their work — Added value of communication activities — Cultural accommodation Contribution of communication and activities — Strategic or tactical contribution — Input into corporate strategy and decision- making — Interface between communication and other Functional areas (e. g. Finance, Human Resources, etc) I also articulated two processes (strategic positioning and cultural accommodation) that appear to be important factors to the practice of effective communication. In all, the practice-based conceptualization of effective communication makes the following contributions.
First, it has started to open up the ‘black box’ of the organization in which communication activities take place. Effective communication is conceptualized as an organizational phenomenon rather than a macro strategy problem detached from the internal dynamics of the organization. Internal politics, structure and cultural issues are introduced into the field of managing effective communications, not as inevitable failings or difficulties within firms, but as significant for communications strategy outcomes, perhaps even as attributes to be exploited positively
for the status and contribution of effective communication. Second, the ‘practice’ conceptualization of effective communication has started to ‘humanize’ the field (cf Pettigrew et al. , 2002: 12). In effect, all factors and activities are seen to emerge from human action – from the actions and contributions of communications practitioners, as well as the reactions by senior managers and managers in other functional areas (human resources, finance, etc. ) of the organization.
Finally, as this case study hopes to demonstrate, the factors of effective communications consists of interrelated dimensions, and as such I extend prior perspectives that have narrowly focused on either dimension or only on the strategic outcomes of effective communication activities.
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