From the Instructors Manual
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Chapter 20—Communicative Constitutions of Organizations
- Robert McPhee and other communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) theorists insist any company is what it is because communication brings the organization into existence.
- They believe only communication can bind people into an organization.
- McPhee believes that CCO theory can help us see that any organization’s chaos has an underlying order.
- Communication: The essence of organization
- Employees are not a set of lifeless parts; people create an organization.
- Communication calls organization into being.
- According to Weick’s Information Systems Approach, organizations are like organisms—active beings who must continually process information to survive.
- When faced with such equivocality, Weick encouraged organizations to engage in sensemaking— communication behavior designed to reduce ambiguity.
- McPhee thinks communication doesn’t just reduce ambiguity—it creates the organization itself.
- McPhee’s answer to the big CCO question [how does communication create organization?] is four specific forms of communication, or flows.
- Membership negotiation
- Activity coordination
- Institutional positioning
- 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.
- The Four Flows of CCO
- CCO theorists believe organizations are like a river—always changing, always active, and sometimes violent.
- McPhee believes the communication must occur in four flows, or “circulating systems or fields of messages.”
- 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.
- It’s worth noting that not all communication between organization members involves the four flows.
- What sets the four flows apart is that they are necessary for creating the organization itself.
- Membership negotiation: Joining and learning the ropes
- All organizations regulate who is a member and who is not.
- Texas A&M University communication professor Kevin Barge reminds us that membership negotiation doesn’t end after accepting a job offer.
- The next step of membership negotiation is socialization, or learning what it means to be a member of the organization.
- Self-structuring: Figuring out who’s who in the organization
- 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.
- McPhee reminds us that the official chart isn’t the final word on structure.
- Cooren and Fairhurst argue that employees seek closure, or a sense of shared understanding that emerges in back-and-forth interaction
- Activity coordination: Getting the job done
- McPhee believes all organizations have goals.
- 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.
- Activity coordination becomes quite complex at any organization with more than a handful of employees.
- Institutional positioning: Dealing with other people and organizations
- Institutional positioning is communication between an organization and external entities—other organizations and people.
- No organization survives on its own.
- Four Principles of the Four Flows
- McPhee claims that communication constitutes organization through the four flows of membership negotiation, self-structuring, activity coordination, and institutional positioning.
- It’s the intersection of the four flows, mixing and blending together, that constitutes organization.
- Four principles direct the four flows of communication.
- All four flows are necessary for organization.
- Different flows happen in different places.
- The same message can address multiple flows.
- Different flows address different audiences.
- Self-structuring is of little interest to those outside an organization.
- Membership negotiation targets new members or those who may be leaving.
- Activity coordination addresses specific groups within an organization.
- Institutional positioning focuses on external organizations.
- Diverting the flow: Crafting solutions to organizational problems.
- Some CCO scholars are pragmatists who try to use such insights to fix organizational problems.
- They can begin doing this by describing the four flows in an organization.
- It is likely that improvements to an organization must address more than just one flow.
- Critique: Is constitution really so simple?
- McPhee provides a degree of relative simplicity that few interpretive theories possess.
- But that simplicity doesn’t appeal to everybody.
- CCO researcher James Taylor is critical of McPhee’s top-down approach and instead prefers a ground-up theory that starts with everyday conversation.
- Taylor is critical of McPhee’s vague definitions, particularly of the term “flow.”
- 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.”
- According to Ryan Bisel (University of Oklahoma), both approaches are valuable but share a common fault.
- Taylor and McPhee identify sufficient conditions (co-orientation and the four flows, respectively) for organizing.
- Both may be necessary conditions rather than sufficient conditions.
- Although they may disagree on the details, CCO theorists share a broad community of agreement.
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