Assessing organizational communication

Every time two people communicate, they not only exchange information but they also build, maintain, or destroy a relationship between them. Multiply each communication times the number of people in your organization and the implications are staggering. Cal W. Downs and Allyson D. Adrian view organizations as political-business arenas in which competing interest groups vie for control over resources. So it’s no surprise, they say, that a major goal of an organizational communication audit is to understand the underlying structure of an organization’s communication flow—and that flow doesn’t always resemble what the org chart suggests.

Cal W. Downs is professor or organizational communication at the U. of Kansas, and Allyson D. Adrian is adjunct assistant professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. In Assessing Organizational Communication: Strategic Communication Audits (Guilford Press, 2004, 292 pp.) they say that an organizational communication audit must collect data in a well-planned and logistically defensible way; analyze data in a scientifically and pragmatically justified way; and interpret data in a qualitatively integrated manner.

The success of these steps depends on involving the client in the entire process, they say. Without client involvement, not only will many recommendations be irrelevant and misleading, but also the client will not “own” the recommendations and the analysis will become just another consultant’s report on the shelf.

Investigators have found that managers are more likely than workers to think that downward communication is taking place. There has long been a difference as well between management’s perception of what employees need to know and what employees say they need and want to know. Good downward communication is not limited to immediate work assignments; it integrates people into their environments.

Communication should be thought of as an ongoing, dynamic process – not a static, linear, finite phenomenon. What the organization’s managers need to do, and what auditors can help them do, is to understand how communication is an integral part of achieving the organization’s objectives, rather than a separate function.

When auditors design a final report it’s crucial to determine how the feedback can be given effectively to these people under these circumstances. Observations must be put into some context historically, organizationally, industrially, or economically.

As interaction patterns stabilize in an organization, they develop into structures called communication networks. Auditors investigate formal and informal networks to learn how organization members process information. Network analysis allows auditors to identify information pathways, to determine real or potential bottlenecks, to determine how communication links match the needs of the task processes, and to analyze the roles that specific people occupy.

The authors mention that new technologies affect how communication networks form and operate. As examples, they mention how the introduction of email and Lotus Notes gave people contacts in their organizations that they never had before. Of course, since this book was published (2004), social media, including blogs, news feeds, wikis, and social bookmarking have become influential in the workplace, and will complicate communications audits even further.

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