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Communicative Constitutions of Organizations
Robert McPhee

GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION: ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION


  1. Introduction
    1. Robert McPhee and other communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) theorists insist any company is what it is because communication brings the organization into existence.
    2. They believe only communication can bind people into an organization.
    3. McPhee believes that CCO theory can help us see that any organization’s chaos has an underlying order.
  2. Communication: The essence of organization
    1. Employees are not a set of lifeless parts; people create an organization.
    2. Communication calls organization into being.
    3. According to Weick’s Information Systems Approach, organizations are like organisms—active beings who must continually process information to survive.
    4. When faced with such equivocality, Weick encouraged organizations to engage in sensemaking— communication behavior designed to reduce ambiguity.
    5. McPhee thinks communication doesn’t just reduce ambiguity—it creates the organization itself.
    6. McPhee’s answer to the big CCO question [how does communication create organization?] is four specific forms of communication, or flows.
      1. Membership negotiation
      2. Self-structuring
      3. Activity coordination
      4. Institutional positioning
    7. McPhee thinks each flow literally creates the company as members talk. These flows aren’t something an organization does but rather what an organization is.
  3. The Four Flows of CCO
    1. CCO theorists believe organizations are like a river—always changing, always active, and sometimes violent.
    2. McPhee believes the communication must occur in four flows, or “circulating systems or fields of messages.”
    3. Specifically, these four flows concern who is a member of the organization, how these members structure their working relationships, how they coordinate their work, and how the organization positions itself with other people and organizations.
    4. It’s worth noting that not all communication between organization members involves the four flows.
    5. What sets the four flows apart is that they are necessary for creating the organization itself.
  4. Membership negotiation: Joining and learning the ropes
    1. All organizations regulate who is a member and who is not.
    2. Texas A&M University communication professor Kevin Barge reminds us that membership negotiation doesn’t end after accepting a job offer.
    3. The next step of membership negotiation is socialization, or learning what it means to be a member of the organization.
  5. Self-structuring: Figuring out who’s who in the organization
    1. After the organization’s founding, self-structuring continues through the writing of procedures manuals, memos, and sometimes a chart that specifies the relationships among employees.
    2. McPhee reminds us that the official chart isn’t the final word on structure.
    3. Cooren and Fairhurst argue that employees seek closure, or a sense of shared understanding that emerges in back-and-forth interaction
  6. Activity coordination: Getting the job done
    1. McPhee believes all organizations have goals.
    2. A defined purpose, such as a mission statement, separates an organization from a crowd of people. Most important to CCO theorists, members communicate to accomplish the organization’s day-to-day work toward their goals—a flow McPhee terms activity coordination.
    3. Activity coordination becomes quite complex at any organization with more than a handful of employees.
  7. Institutional positioning: Dealing with other people and organizations
    1. Institutional positioning is communication between an organization and external entities—other organizations and people.
    2. No organization survives on its own.
  8. Four Principles of the Four Flows
    1. McPhee claims that communication constitutes organization through the four flows of membership negotiation, self-structuring, activity coordination, and institutional positioning.
    2. It’s the intersection of the four flows, mixing and blending together, that constitutes organization.
    3. Four principles direct the four flows of communication.
      1. All four flows are necessary for organization.
      2. Different flows happen in different places.
      3. The same message can address multiple flows.
      4. Different flows address different audiences.
        1. Self-structuring is of little interest to those outside an organization.
        2. Membership negotiation targets new members or those who may be leaving.
        3. Activity coordination addresses specific groups within an organization.
        4. Institutional positioning focuses on external organizations.
  9. Diverting the flow: Crafting solutions to organizational problems.
    1. Some CCO scholars are pragmatists who try to use such insights to fix organizational problems.
    2. They can begin doing this by describing the four flows in an organization.
    3. It is likely that improvements to an organization must address more than just one flow.
  10. Critique: Is constitution really so simple?
    1. McPhee provides a degree of relative simplicity that few interpretive theories possess.
    2. But that simplicity doesn’t appeal to everybody.
    3. CCO researcher James Taylor is critical of McPhee’s top-down approach and instead prefers a ground-up theory that starts with everyday conversation.
    4. Taylor is critical of McPhee’s vague definitions, particularly of the term “flow.”
    5. Through a masterful yet dizzying appeal to linguists such as Chomsky, Greimas, Husserl, and Latour, Taylor counters that conversations organize when members engage in co-orientation, or communication “wherein two or more actors are entwined in relation to an object.”
    6. According to Ryan Bisel (University of Oklahoma), both approaches are valuable but share a common fault.
      1. Taylor and McPhee identify sufficient conditions (co-orientation and the four flows, respectively) for organizing.
      2. Both may be necessary conditions rather than sufficient conditions.
    7. Although they may disagree on the details, CCO theorists share a broad community of agreement.


CHANGE TO View by Type

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MOVIE CLIPS





Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Communicative Constitutions of Organizations
Robert McPhee

GROUP AND PUBLIC COMMUNICATION: ORGANIZATIONAL COMMUNICATION


  1. Introduction
    1. Robert McPhee and other communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) theorists insist any company is what it is because communication brings the organization into existence.
    2. They believe only communication can bind people into an organization.
    3. McPhee believes that CCO theory can help us see that any organization’s chaos has an underlying order.
  2. Communication: The essence of organization
    1. Employees are not a set of lifeless parts; people create an organization.
    2. Communication calls organization into being.
    3. According to Weick’s Information Systems Approach, organizations are like organisms—active beings who must continually process information to survive.
    4. When faced with such equivocality, Weick encouraged organizations to engage in sensemaking— communication behavior designed to reduce ambiguity.
    5. McPhee thinks communication doesn’t just reduce ambiguity—it creates the organization itself.
    6. McPhee’s answer to the big CCO question [how does communication create organization?] is four specific forms of communication, or flows.
      1. Membership negotiation
      2. Self-structuring
      3. Activity coordination
      4. Institutional positioning
    7. McPhee thinks each flow literally creates the company as members talk. These flows aren’t something an organization does but rather what an organization is.
  3. The Four Flows of CCO
    1. CCO theorists believe organizations are like a river—always changing, always active, and sometimes violent.
    2. McPhee believes the communication must occur in four flows, or “circulating systems or fields of messages.”
    3. Specifically, these four flows concern who is a member of the organization, how these members structure their working relationships, how they coordinate their work, and how the organization positions itself with other people and organizations.
    4. It’s worth noting that not all communication between organization members involves the four flows.
    5. What sets the four flows apart is that they are necessary for creating the organization itself.
  4. Membership negotiation: Joining and learning the ropes
    1. All organizations regulate who is a member and who is not.
    2. Texas A&M University communication professor Kevin Barge reminds us that membership negotiation doesn’t end after accepting a job offer.
    3. The next step of membership negotiation is socialization, or learning what it means to be a member of the organization.
  5. Self-structuring: Figuring out who’s who in the organization
    1. After the organization’s founding, self-structuring continues through the writing of procedures manuals, memos, and sometimes a chart that specifies the relationships among employees.
    2. McPhee reminds us that the official chart isn’t the final word on structure.
    3. Cooren and Fairhurst argue that employees seek closure, or a sense of shared understanding that emerges in back-and-forth interaction
  6. Activity coordination: Getting the job done
    1. McPhee believes all organizations have goals.
    2. A defined purpose, such as a mission statement, separates an organization from a crowd of people. Most important to CCO theorists, members communicate to accomplish the organization’s day-to-day work toward their goals—a flow McPhee terms activity coordination.
    3. Activity coordination becomes quite complex at any organization with more than a handful of employees.
  7. Institutional positioning: Dealing with other people and organizations
    1. Institutional positioning is communication between an organization and external entities—other organizations and people.
    2. No organization survives on its own.
  8. Four Principles of the Four Flows
    1. McPhee claims that communication constitutes organization through the four flows of membership negotiation, self-structuring, activity coordination, and institutional positioning.
    2. It’s the intersection of the four flows, mixing and blending together, that constitutes organization.
    3. Four principles direct the four flows of communication.
      1. All four flows are necessary for organization.
      2. Different flows happen in different places.
      3. The same message can address multiple flows.
      4. Different flows address different audiences.
        1. Self-structuring is of little interest to those outside an organization.
        2. Membership negotiation targets new members or those who may be leaving.
        3. Activity coordination addresses specific groups within an organization.
        4. Institutional positioning focuses on external organizations.
  9. Diverting the flow: Crafting solutions to organizational problems.
    1. Some CCO scholars are pragmatists who try to use such insights to fix organizational problems.
    2. They can begin doing this by describing the four flows in an organization.
    3. It is likely that improvements to an organization must address more than just one flow.
  10. Critique: Is constitution really so simple?
    1. McPhee provides a degree of relative simplicity that few interpretive theories possess.
    2. But that simplicity doesn’t appeal to everybody.
    3. CCO researcher James Taylor is critical of McPhee’s top-down approach and instead prefers a ground-up theory that starts with everyday conversation.
    4. Taylor is critical of McPhee’s vague definitions, particularly of the term “flow.”
    5. Through a masterful yet dizzying appeal to linguists such as Chomsky, Greimas, Husserl, and Latour, Taylor counters that conversations organize when members engage in co-orientation, or communication “wherein two or more actors are entwined in relation to an object.”
    6. According to Ryan Bisel (University of Oklahoma), both approaches are valuable but share a common fault.
      1. Taylor and McPhee identify sufficient conditions (co-orientation and the four flows, respectively) for organizing.
      2. Both may be necessary conditions rather than sufficient conditions.
    7. Although they may disagree on the details, CCO theorists share a broad community of agreement.


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