Chapter 1: Communication & Organizational Communication

1.4 Characteristics of Organizational Communication

Scott T. Paynton (Ph.D) & Laura K. Hahn (Ph.D)

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Like defining communication, many definitions of organizational communication exist. Deetz argues that one way to enlighten our understanding of organizational communication is to compare different approaches. However, for the purpose of this class, we want to provide a definition of organizational communication so you have a frame of reference. Our definition is not definitive, but creates a starting point for understanding this specialization of communication study.

We define organizational communication as interactions among a stable system of individuals who work together to achieve, through a hierarchy of ranks and divisions of labor, common goals. This definition includes the following  key features of organizations that affect communication:

  1. Organizations are systemic: They are large, have many parts, and have both internal (e.g., employees) and external (e.g., customers, competitors, vendors) constituents.
  2. Organizations are hierarchical: Because of their size and complexity, organizations have identifiable reporting structures.
  3. Organizations have divisions of labor: Organizations hire individuals to do jobs related to the mission of the organization.
  4. Organizations must have collective action by employees: The employees’ and their jobs must all work together to perform the business of the organization.
  5. Organizations have layers of goals: Organization have mission statements, policies and procedure to help with collective action, departmental goals, and even personal goals set during employee annual performance reviews.

Organizational communication helps us to 1) accomplish tasks relating to specific roles and responsibilities of sales, services, and production; 2) acclimate to changes through individual and organizational creativity and adaptation; 3) complete tasks through the maintenance of policy, procedures, or regulations that support daily and continuous operations; 4) develop relationships where “human messages are directed at people within the organization-their attitudes, morale, satisfaction, and fulfillment” (Goldhaber 20); and 5) coordinate, plan, and control the operations of the organization through management (Katz & Kahn; Redding; Thayer). Organizational communication is how organizations represent, present, and constitute their organizational climate and culture—the attitudes, values and goals that characterize the organization and its members.

Organizational communication largely focuses on building relationships and interacting with with internal organizational members and interested external publics. As Mark Koschmann explains in his animated YouTube video, we have two ways of looking at organizational communication. The conventional approach focuses on communication within organizations. The second approach is communication as organization — meaning organizations are a result of the communication of those within them. Communication is not just about transmitting messages between senders and receivers. Communication literally constitutes, or makes up, our social world. Much of our communication involves sending and receiving relatively unproblematic messages and acting on that information. Other times things are a bit more complex, such as when you need to resolve conflict with a close friend or family member. There is much more going on in these situations then merely exchanging information. You are actually engaging in a complex process of meaning and negotiating rules created by the people involved.

For organizations to be successful, they must have competent communicators. Organizational communication study shows that organizations rely on effective communication and efficient communication skills from their members. A number of surveys (Davis & Miller; Holter & Kopka; Perrigo & Gaut) identify effective oral and written communication as the most sought after skills by those who run organizations. The U.S. Department of Labor reported communication competency as the most vital skill necessary for the 21st century workforce to achieve organizational success (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills). The Public Forum Institute maintained that employees need to be skilled in public presentation, listening, and interpersonal communication to flourish in an organization.

Organizations seek people who can follow and give instructions, accurately listen, provide useful feedback, get along with coworkers and customers, network, provide serviceable information, work well in teams, and creatively and critically solve problems and present ideas in an understandable manner. Developing organizational communication awareness and effectiveness is more than just having know-how or knowledge. Efficient organizational communication involves knowing how to create and exchange information, work with diverse groups or individuals, communicate in complicated and changing circumstances, as well as having the aptitude or motivation to communicate in appropriate manners.

How the Field of Organizational Communication Began

As you now know, communication study is deeply entrenched in the oral rhetorical traditions of ancient Rome and Greece. Similar to the many of the early concepts that shaped the discipline, some of the founding principles of organizational communication originated in the East. As early as the fourth century, Chinese scholars concentrated on the “problems of communicating within the vast government bureaucracy as well as between the government and the people” (Murphy, Hildebrandt & Thomas 4). Ancient eastern scholars focused on information flow, message fidelity, and quality of information within their governmental bureaucracy (Krone, Garrett & Chen; Paraboteeah). These still remain areas of focus for organizational communication that you will learn in your classes today.

Organizational Communication and You. Good Communication

The New York Times: Strikes Can Come Easier Than Words. Major League Baseball is trying to ease the language barrier, adopting a new rule that permits interpreters to join mound conversations when pitchers aren’t fluent in English. This example shows just how important communication is for the success of a team.

Good Communication Skills Maybe the Only Skill You Need?! The 10 Skills Employers Most Want In 2015 Graduates, a news article from Forbes demonstrates the communication skills desired by most organizations.


Like most of our field’s specializations, organizational communication began in the mid 20th century with the work of P. E. Lull and W. Charles Redding at the University of Purdue (Putnam & Cheney). During the industrial age, the focus of organizational communication was on worker productivity, organizational structure, and overall organizational effectiveness. Through this work people were interested in higher profits and managerial efficiency. Follett is often referred to as the first management consultant in the United States (Stohl). She focused specifically on message complexity, appropriate channel choice, and worker participation in organizations. Bernard placed communication at the heart of every organizational process, arguing that people must be able to interact with each other for an organization to succeed.

As a specialization in our field, organizational communication can arguably be traced back to Alexander R. Heron’s 1942 book, Sharing Information With Employees that looked at manager-employee communication (Redding & Tompkins; Meyers & Sadaghiani). Putnam and Cheney stated that the specialization of “organizational communication grew out of three main speech communication traditions: public address, persuasion, and social science research on interpersonal, small group, and mass communication”(Putnam & Cheney, 131). Along with public-speaking training for corporate executives as early as the 1920’s (ibid), early works like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936 focused on necessary oral presentation and written communication skills for managers to succeed in organizations.

Redding and Thompkins identify three periods in the development of organizational communication. During the Era of Preparation (1900 to 1940) much of the groundwork was laid for the discipline that we know today. Scholars emphasized the importance of communication in organizations. The primary focus during this time was on public address, business writing, managerial communication, and persuasion. The Era of Identification and Consolidation (1940-1970) saw the beginnings of business and industrial communication, with certain group and organizational relationships being recognized as important. During the Era of Maturity and Innovation (1970-present), empirical research increased, “accompanied by innovative efforts to develop concepts, theoretical premises, and philosophical critiques” (Redding & Thompkins, 7).

As with other specializations over the last century, organizational communication has evolved dramatically as dialogue between business and academic contexts. Redding and Thompkins conclude that “by 1967 or 1968, organizational communication had finally achieved at least a moderate degree of success in two respects: breaking from its ‘business and industrial’ shackles, and gaining a reasonable measure of recognition as an entity worthy of serious academic study” (pp. 18).

Organizational Communication Today

As communication evolves, research continues to develop, and organizational communication continues to redefine itself. In the early stages, this area focused on leaders giving public presentations. More recently emphasis has focused on all levels of interaction in organizations. Because interpersonal relationships are a large part of organizational communication, a great deal of research focuses on how interpersonal relationships are conducted within the framework of organizational hierarchies.

Modern organizational communication research has been summarized into eight major traditions (Putnam and Cheney; Kim):

  1. Communication channels
  2. Communication climate
  3. Network analysis
  4. Superior-subordinate communication
  5. The information-processing perspective
  6. The rhetorical perspective
  7. The cultural perspective
  8. The political perspective

Since the 1980s, this specialization has expanded to include work on organizational culture, power and conflict management, and organizational rhetoric. If you were to take an organizational communication course at your campus, much of the time would be spent focusing on developing your skills in organizational socialization, interviewing, giving individual and group presentations, creating positive work relationships, performance evaluation, conflict resolution, stress management, decision making, and communicating with external public’s.

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1.4 Characteristics of Organizational Communication by Scott T. Paynton (Ph.D) & Laura K. Hahn (Ph.D) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.