Organizational Communication: Networks


P. O’Neill  Spring 2002



            There is one common thread that runs through most all organizations that have ever been in existence.  This common thread is that all organizations seek higher levels of productivity.  A massive corporation like Hewlett-Packard seeks better productivity for better profits, while a small church seeks a more productive way of communicating with its congregation.  In this paper I will discuss the idea of networking in organizational communication and its significance in our society.  To understand the significance of networks we must first understand what organizational communication is, and how it affects us.


            Littlejohn provides a good number of ways to look at what organizational communication is, through the use of metaphors.  These metaphors include comparing organizations to machines or organisms.  These two entities consist of many working parts or influences that must work in concert if the entity hopes to survive.  Littlejohn also notes that organizational communication has been compared to cultures, because “they create meaning, have values and norms, and are perpetuated by shared stories and rituals” (Littlejohn 282).  Yet another metaphor Littlejohn presents refers to the network and its relationship with organizational communication.  All of these metaphors describe a type situation that requires a certain degree of reciprocity.  It is this reciprocity that drives organizational communication.  You communicate with another person and in turn that person communicates with some one else.  It is the wish of all organizations that messages are transmitted with the least amount of confusion or misunderstanding.  This concept is key in the network theory.  The network theory looks at the communication in certain groups of people and their interaction with other groups.  This theory looks at how a person in a group is also a member of another group, and a person in that other group is also a member in yet another group.  This theory looks at this massive web that is weaved by the many organizations or groups we communicate with and how messages are transferred through our group communication with the groups we are affiliated with.


            In organizations communication often involves more than just a single exchange between two individuals.  The most important messages are sent serially.  This means that each receiver is in turn a sender to the next person.  According to John Baird there are “three aspects of this serial transmission process that have significant impact upon the ways in which messages influence the organizational system’s functioning”.  (Baird 262)  These factors include the number of people involved in the transmission of the message, the direction in which the message flows through the organization’s hierarchy, and the structure of the network carrying the message- that is, who talks to whom?


            The more people that a message is sent through the more likely it will be changed for various reasons.  One of the reasons that a message changes is that people often change the message to fit their beliefs.  Many of us hear a message and when it is of a controversial nature we tend to adapt the message.  When people do not feel comfortable communicating certain messages they are likely to change the message rather than face the discomfort of communicating the message to the next person.


            The next factor to examine when looking at networks and the communication process is among what path the communication is traveling.  Often our communication is with our superiors or upward communication is vastly different than that of our communication with the people whom report to us, or our downward communication.  When communicating upward we often times bolster ourselves to justify our pay or position to our superior.  This type of communication greatly affects the network in our workplace.  There is yet another line of communication as well, and that is horizontal communication, or the communication amongst our peers.  There are many of us that communicate with people on the same level as us in a way that we would not dare to communicate to those above and below us in the chain of command.


            The third factor in looking at the communicating network is to examine the type of network that the message travels upon.  In other words, what channels does the message go though on its path to its receivers.  The stratification of the network can greatly affect the strength and effectiveness of the message.  Two types of communication networks that are significantly different are the rumor mill and serial transmission.  When a message enters the rumor mill it is often communicated by many people, to many people.  These messages tend to move extremely quickly and change at an even more rapid pace.  We all have experienced how fast this type of communication travels and how things tend to get more and more exciting or controversial.  In a large part this happens as a result of a very loosely structured network. 


            Another factor in communication networks are the roles that people assume when exchanging messages.  Gerald Goldhaber states in his book Organizational Communication that there are both formal and informal roles that we are engaged in.  Often, these roles are predicated by the situation or environment that we are in.  To understand this concept it helps to look at a person in his or her place of employment.  To paraphrase Goldhaber a secretary at an office formally communicates with her boss about filing procedures and appointments or with someone from another department about a transfer of documents.  An example of informal roles would be small talk or gossip with fellow employees or lunch out with the other secretaries in the office.  (Goldhaber 23)  It is reasonable to assume that these roles determine the content and styles in which we communicate. We speak much differently with our peers than we do with our superiors.


            In evaluating the theory of networks we must take into consideration its place in organizational communicational.  Networking is an integral part organizational communication because it explores the pathways of communication and the influences that alter these pathways.  Although this theory is very practical and logical it leaves some things out.  This theory does not take into account a few perspectives including the culture of the sender/receiver and also does not explore the feminist perspective.  Our country is filled with many different cultures.  These cultures often place importance on different things.  When examining certain roles in communication it is important to know the type of upbringing the sender/receiver is from.  If he or she is from a type of culture that handles message sending differently than ours does it can lead to confusion and uncertainty.  A person who had been told growing up what was appropriate in a certain situation may have a difficult time adjusting to the roles that are the norm in our society.  The other issue that this worthy of thought is whether or not this theory takes into account the feminist perspective.  I feel as though the ideas and role of women in society and where they fit into networks of communication are not accounted for.  It seems as though this theory does not go to deep into how certain people understand messages.


            Organizational Communication and Networking are concepts that we can apply to our lives in many aspects.  Everyday we communicate with everyone that we cross paths with.  This communication may be a complex as interpersonal discussion with a loved one or a simple glance, smile, or hello to someone you are passing in the halls.  It important for us to be cognoscente of the networks around us and how they are structured.  One can use this information to accomplish many different things.  By taking into consideration the networks that we are aligned with one can better understand the productivity levels of their communication. 


            In conclusion I am very pleased with the theory I was assigned to report upon and learn about.  It amazed me to think about the networks that I am associated with and how communication takes place in those particular groups.  




Works Cited


Alvesson, Mats.  Communication, Power and Organization:  Walter de Gruyter Pub.  New York,  1996


Baird, John E., Jr  The Dynamics of Organizational Communications:  Haper Row Publishers.  San Francisco  1977


Fulk, Janet & Steinfield, Charles.  Organizations and Communication Technology: Sage Publishers Newburry Park  1990


Goldhaber, Gerald M.  Organizational Communication 4th edition:  C. Brown Co. Publishers.  Dubuque, Iowa  1987


Littlejohn, Stephen W.  Theories of Human Communication:  Wadsworth Group.  Belmont, CA  2002