Assignment 1 Organizational Environment Definition

Organization development (OD) is the study of successful organizational change and performance. OD emerged from human relations studies in the 1930s, during which psychologists realized that organizational structures and processes influence worker behavior and motivation. More recently, work on OD has expanded to focus on aligning organizations with their rapidly changing and complex environments through organizational learning, knowledge management and transformation of organizational norms and values. Key concepts of OD theory include: organizational climate (the mood or unique “personality” of an organization, which includes attitudes and beliefs that influence members’ collective behavior), organizational culture (the deeply-seated norms, values and behaviors that members share) and organizational strategies (how an organization identifies problems, plans action, negotiates change and evaluates progress).[1]


Organization development as a practice involves an ongoing, systematic process of implementing effective organizational change. OD is known[by whom?] both as a field of applied science focused on understanding and managing organizational change and as a field of scientific study and inquiry. It is interdisciplinary in nature and draws on sociology, psychology, particularly industrial and organizational psychology, and theories of motivation, learning, and personality. Although behavioral science has provided the basic foundation for the study and practice of OD, new and emerging fields of study have made their presence felt. Experts in systems thinking, in organizational learning, in the structure of intuition in decision-making, and in coaching (to name a few) whose perspective is not steeped in just the behavioral sciences, but in a much more multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach[citation needed], have emerged as OD catalysts or tools.[citation needed]

Organization development, as a growing field, is responsive to many new approaches.[citation needed]


Kurt Lewin (1898–1947) is widely recognized[by whom?] as the founding father of OD, although he died before the concept became mainstream in the mid-1950s.[2] From Lewin came the ideas of group dynamics and action research which underpin the basic OD process as well as providing its collaborative consultant/client ethos. Institutionally, Lewin founded the "Research Center for Group Dynamics" (RCGD) at MIT, which moved to Michigan after his death. RCGD colleagues were among those who founded the National Training Laboratories (NTL), from which the T-groups and group-based OD emerged.

Kurt Lewin played a key role in the evolution of organization development as it is known today. As early as World War II (1939-1945), Lewin experimented with a collaborative change-process (involving himself as consultant and a client group) based on a three-step process of planning, taking action, and measuring results. This was the forerunner of action research, an important element of OD, which will be discussed later. Lewin then participated in the beginnings of laboratory training, or T-groups. After Lewin's death in 1947, his close associates helped to develop survey-research methods at the University of Michigan. These procedures became important parts of OD as developments in this field continued at the National Training Laboratories and in growing numbers of universities and private consulting-firms across the country[which?]. Leading universities offering doctoral-level[3] degrees in OD include Benedictine University and the Fielding Graduate University.

Douglas and Richard Beckhard, while "consulting together at General Mills in the 1950s [...] coined the term organization development (OD) to describe an innovative bottom-up change effort that fit no traditional consulting categories" (Weisbord, 1987, p. 112).[4]

The failure of off-site laboratory training to live up to its early promise was one of the important forces stimulating the development of OD. Laboratory training is learning from a person's "here and now" experience as a member of an ongoing training group. Such groups usually meet without a specific agenda. Their purpose is for the members to learn about themselves from their spontaneous "here and now" responses to an ambiguous hypothetical situation. Problems of leadership, structure, status, communication, and self-serving behavior typically arise in such a group. The members have an opportunity to learn something about themselves and to practice such skills as listening, observing others, and functioning as effective group members.[5]Herbert A. Shepard conducted the first large-scale experiments in Organization Development in the late fifties.[6] He also founded the first doctoral program in organizational behavior at Case Western State University, and his colleague, Robert Blake, was also influential in making the term "organizational development" a more widely recognized field of psychological research. [7]

As formerly practiced (and occasionally still practiced for special purposes), laboratory training was conducted in "stranger groups" - groups composed of individuals from different organizations, situations, and backgrounds. A major difficulty developed, however, in transferring knowledge gained from these "stranger labs" to the actual situation "back home". This required a transfer between two different cultures, the relatively safe and protected environment of the T-group (or training group) and the give-and-take of the organizational environment with its traditional values. This led the early pioneers in this type of learning to begin to apply it to "family groups" — that is, groups located within an organization. From this shift in the locale of the training site and the realization that culture was an important factor in influencing group members (along with some other[which?] developments in the behavioral sciences) emerged the concept of organization development.[5]

Core values[edit]

Underlying Organization Development are humanistic values. Margulies and Raia (1972) articulated the humanistic values of OD as follows:

  1. providing opportunities for people to function as human beings rather than as resources in the productive process
  2. providing opportunities for each organization member, as well as for the organization itself, to develop to their full potential
  3. seeking to increase the effectiveness of the organization in terms of all of its goals
  4. attempting to create an environment in which it is possible to find exciting and challenging work
  5. providing opportunities for people in organizations to influence the way in which they relate to work, the organization, and the environment
  6. treating each human being as a person with a complex set of needs, all of which are important to their work and their life[8]

This is a separate concept from change efforts known as:

  1. Operation management
  2. Training and Development
  3. Technological innovations....etc.


The objectives of OD are:

  1. to increase the level of inter-personal trust among employees
  2. to increase employees' level of satisfaction and commitment
  3. to confront problems instead of neglecting them
  4. to effectively manage conflict
  5. to increase cooperation and collaboration among employees
  6. to increase organizational problem-solving
  7. to put in place processes that will help improve the ongoing operation of an organization on a continuous basis

As objectives of organizational development are framed[by whom?] keeping in view specific situations, they vary from one situation to another. In other words, these programs[which?] are tailored to meet the requirements of a particular situation. But broadly speaking, all organizational development programs try to achieve the following objectives:

  1. making individuals in the organization aware of the vision of the organization. Organizational development helps in making employees align with the vision of the organization
  2. encouraging employees to solve problems instead of avoiding them
  3. strengthening inter-personal trust, cooperation, and communication for the successful achievement of organizational goals
  4. encouraging every individual to participate in the process of planning, thus making them feel responsible for the implementation of the plan
  5. creating a work atmosphere in which employees are encouraged[by whom?] to work and participate enthusiastically
  6. replacing formal lines of authority with personal knowledge and skill
  7. preparing members to align with changes and to break stereotypes
  8. creating an environment of trust so that employees willingly accept change

According to organizational-development thinking, organization development provides managers with a vehicle for introducing change systematically by applying a broad selection of management techniques. This, in turn, leads to greater personal, group, and organizational effectiveness.

Change agent[edit]

A change agent in the sense used here is not a technical expert skilled in such functional areas as accounting, production, or finance. The change agent is a behavioral scientist who knows how to get people in an organization involved in solving their own problems. A change agent's main strength is a comprehensive knowledge of human behavior, supported by a number of intervention techniques (to be discussed later). The change agent can be either external or internal to the organization. An internal change agent is usually a staff person who has expertise in the behavioral sciences and in the intervention technology of OD. Beckhard reports several cases in which line people have been trained in OD and have returned to their organizations to engage in successful change-assignments.[9] In the natural evolution of change mechanisms in organizations, this would seem to approach the ideal arrangement.[citation needed]

Researchers at the University of Oxford found that leaders can be effective change-agents within their own organizations if they are strongly committed to "knowledge leadership" targeted towards organizational development. In their three-year study of UK healthcare organizations, the researchers identified three different mechanisms through which knowledge leaders actively "transposed", "appropriated" or "contended" change concepts, effectively translating and embedding these in organizational practice.[10]

The change agent may be a staff or line member of the organization who is schooled in OD theory and technique. In such a case, the "contractual relationship" is an in-house agreement that should probably be explicit with respect to all of the conditions involved except the fee.


The initiative for OD programs often comes from an organization that has a problem or anticipates facing a problem. This means that top management or someone authorized by top management is aware that a problem exists and has decided to seek help in solving it. There is a direct analogy here to the practice of psychotherapy: The client or patient must actively seek help in finding a solution to his problems. This indicates a willingness on the part of the client organization to accept help and assures the organization that management is actively concerned.[11]

Applied behavioral science[edit]

One of the outstanding characteristics of OD that distinguishes it from most other improvement programs is that it is based on a "helping relationship". Some believe that the change agent is not a physician to the organization's ills; that s/he does not examine the "patient", make a diagnosis, and write a prescription. Nor does s/he try to teach organizational members a new inventory of knowledge which they then transfer to the job situation. Using theory and methods drawn from such behavioral sciences as industrial/organizational psychology, industrial sociology, communication, cultural anthropology, administrative theory, organizational behavior, economics, and political science, the change agent's main function is to help the organization define and solve its own problems. The basic method used is known as action research. This approach, which is described in detail later, consists of a preliminary diagnosis, collecting data, feedback of the data to the client, data exploration by the client group, action planning based on the data, and taking action.[12]

Systems context[edit]

The holistic and futuristic view of organization[edit]

OD deals with a total system — the organization as a whole, including its relevant environment — or with a subsystem or systems — departments or work groups — in the context of the total system. Parts of systems — for example, individuals, cliques, structures, norms, values, and products — are not considered in isolation; the principle of interdependency — that change in one part of a system affects the other parts — is fully recognized. Thus OD interventions focus on the total cultures and cultural processes of organizations. The focus is also on groups, since the relevant behavior of individuals in organizations and groups is generally a product of the influences of groups rather than of personalities.[11]

Improved organizational performance[edit]

The objective of OD is to improve the organization's capacity to handle its internal and external functioning and relationships. This includes improved interpersonal and group processes, more effective communication, and enhanced ability to cope with organizational problems of all kinds. It also involves more effective decision processes, more appropriate leadership styles, improved skill in dealing with destructive conflict, as well as developing improved levels of trust and cooperation among organizational members. These objectives stem from a value system based on an optimistic view of the nature of man — that man in a supportive environment is capable of achieving higher levels of development and accomplishment. Essential to organization development and effectiveness is the scientific method — inquiry, a rigorous search for causes, experimental testing of hypotheses, and review of results.

Self-managing work groups allows the members of a work team to manage, control, and monitor all facets of their work, from recruiting, hiring, and new employees to deciding when to take rest breaks. An early analysis of the first-self-managing work groups yielded the following behavioral characteristics (Hackman, 1986):

  • Employees assume personal responsibility and accountability for outcomes of their work.
  • Employees monitor their own performance and seek feedback on how well they are accomplishing their goals.
  • Employees manage their performance and take corrective action when necessary to improve their and the performance of other group members.
  • Employees seek guidance, assistance, and resources from the organization when they do not have what they need to do the job.
  • Employees help members of their work group and employees in other groups to improve job performance and raise productivity for the organization as a whole.

Organizational self-renewal[edit]

The ultimate aim of OD practitioners is to "work themselves out of a job" by leaving the client organization with a set of tools, behaviors, attitudes, and an action plan with which to monitor its own state of health and to take corrective steps toward its own renewal and development. This is consistent with the systems concept of feedback as a regulatory and corrective mechanism.[11] To this end, OD scholars and practitioners use tools such as simulations with their clients, to be used in workshops and classroom settings. One example of a self-renewal simulation, authored by researchers from Cornell University and Indiana University, can be found here (see citation).[13]

Understanding organizations[edit]

Weisbord presents a six-box model for understanding organizations:

  1. Purposes: The organization members are clear about the organization's mission and purpose and goal agreements, whether people support the organization's purpose.
  2. Structure: How is the organization's work divided up? The question is whether there is an adequate fit between the purpose and the internal structure.
  3. Relationship: Between individuals, between units or departments that perform different tasks, and between the people and requirements of their jobs.
  4. Rewards: The consultant should diagnose the similarities between what the organization formally rewarded or punished members for.
  5. Leadership: Is to watch for blips among the other boxes and maintain balance among them.
  6. Helpful mechanism: What must the organization attend to in order to survive and thrive - procedures such as planning, control, budgeting, and other information systems.[14]

Modern development[edit]

In recent years, serious questioning has emerged about the relevance of OD to managing change in modern organizations. The need for "reinventing" the field has become a topic that even some of its "founding fathers" are discussing critically.[15]

With this call for reinvention and change, scholars have begun to examine organization development from an emotion-based standpoint. For example, deKlerk (2007)[16] writes about how emotional trauma can negatively affect performance. Due to downsizing, outsourcing, mergers, restructuring, continual changes, invasions of privacy, harassment, and abuses of power, many employees experience the emotions of aggression, anxiety, apprehension, cynicism, and fear, which can lead to performance decreases. deKlerk (2007) suggests that in order to heal the trauma and increase performance, O.D. practitioners must acknowledge the existence of the trauma, provide a safe place for employees to discuss their feelings, symbolize the trauma and put it into perspective, and then allow for and deal with the emotional responses. One method of achieving this is by having employees draw pictures of what they feel about the situation, and then having them explain their drawings with each other. Drawing pictures is beneficial because it allows employees to express emotions they normally would not be able to put into words. Also, drawings often prompt active participation in the activity, as everyone is required to draw a picture and then discuss its meaning..

The use of new technologies combined with globalization has also shifted the field of organization development. Roland Sullivan (2005) defined Organization Development with participants at the 1st Organization Development Conference for Asia in Dubai-2005 as "Organization Development is a transformative leap to a desired vision where strategies and systems align, in the light of local culture with an innovative and authentic leadership style using the support of high tech tools. Bob Aubrey (2015)[17] introduced KDIs (Key Development Indicators) to help organisations go beyond performance and align strategy, organisations and individuals and argued that fundamental challenges such as robotics, artificial intelligence and genetics prefigure a regeneration of the field.

Action research[edit]

Wendell L French and Cecil Bell defined organization development (OD) at one point as "organization improvement through action research".[12] If one idea can be said to summarize OD's underlying philosophy, it would be action research as it was conceptualized by Kurt Lewin and later elaborated and expanded on by other behavioral scientists. Concerned with social change and, more particularly, with effective, permanent social change, Lewin believed that the motivation to change was strongly related to action: If people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new ways. "Rational social management", he said, "proceeds in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of action".[18]

Lewin's description of the process of change involves three steps:[18]

"Unfreezing": Faced with a dilemma or disconfirmation, the individual or group becomes aware of a need to change.

"Changing": The situation is diagnosed and new models of behavior are explored and tested.

"Refreezing": Application of new behavior is evaluated, and if reinforced, adopted.

Figure 1 summarizes the steps and processes involved in planned change through action research. Action research is depicted as a cyclical process of change. The cycle begins with a series of planning actions initiated by the client and the change agent working together. The principal elements of this stage include a preliminary diagnosis, data gathering, feedback of results, and joint action planning. In the language of systems theory, this is the input phase, in which the client system becomes aware of problems as yet unidentified, realizes it may need outside help to effect changes, and shares with the consultant the process of problem diagnosis.

The second stage of action research is the action, or transformation, phase. This stage includes actions relating to learning processes (perhaps in the form of role analysis) and to planning and executing behavioral changes in the client organization. As shown in Figure 1, feedback at this stage would move via Feedback Loop A and would have the effect of altering previous planning to bring the learning activities of the client system into better alignment with change objectives. Included in this stage is action-planning activity carried out jointly by the consultant and members of the client system. Following the workshop or learning sessions, these action steps are carried out on the job as part of the transformation stage.[5]

The third stage of action research is the output, or results, phase. This stage includes actual changes in behavior (if any) resulting from corrective action steps taken following the second stage. Data are again gathered from the client system so that progress can be determined and necessary adjustments in learning activities can be made. Minor adjustments of this nature can be made in learning activities via Feedback Loop B (see Figure 1). Major adjustments and reevaluations would return the OD project to the first, or planning, stage for basic changes in the program. The action-research model shown in Figure 1 closely follows Lewin's repetitive cycle of planning, action, and measuring results. It also illustrates other aspects of Lewin's general model of change. As indicated in the diagram, the planning stage is a period of unfreezing, or problem awareness.[18] The action stage is a period of changing, that is, trying out new forms of behavior in an effort to understand and cope with the system's problems. (There is inevitable overlap between the stages, since the boundaries are not clear-cut and cannot be in a continuous process). The results stage is a period of refreezing, in which new behaviors are tried out on the job and, if successful and reinforcing, become a part of the system's repertoire of problem-solving behavior.

Action research is problem centered, client centered, and action oriented. It involves the client system in a diagnostic, active-learning, problem-finding, and problem-solving process. Data are not simply returned in the form of a written report but instead are fed back in open joint sessions, and the client and the change agent collaborate in identifying and ranking specific problems, in devising methods for finding their real causes, and in developing plans for coping with them realistically and practically. Scientific method in the form of data gathering, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses, and measuring results, although not pursued as rigorously as in the laboratory, is nevertheless an integral part of the process. Action research also sets in motion a long-range, cyclical, self-correcting mechanism for maintaining and enhancing the effectiveness of the client's system by leaving the system with practical and useful tools for self-analysis and self-renewal.[5]

OD interventions[edit]

"Interventions" are principal learning processes in the "action" stage (see Figure 1) of organization development. Interventions are structured activities used individually or in combination by the members of a client system to improve their social or task performance. They may be introduced by a change agent as part of an improvement program, or they may be used by the client following a program to check on the state of the organization's health, or to effect necessary changes in its own behavior. "Structured activities" mean such diverse procedures as experiential exercises, questionnaires, attitude surveys, interviews, relevant group discussions, and even lunchtime meetings between the change agent and a member of the client organization. Every action that influences an organization's improvement program in a change agent-client system relationship can be said to be an intervention.[19]

There are many possible intervention strategies from which to choose. Several assumptions about the nature and functioning of organizations are made in the choice of a particular strategy. Beckhard lists six such assumptions:

  1. The basic building blocks of an organization are groups (teams). Therefore, the basic units of change are groups, not individuals.
  2. An always relevant change goal is the reduction of inappropriate competition between parts of the organization and the development of a more collaborative condition.
  3. Decision making in a healthy organization is located where the information sources are, rather than in a particular role or level of hierarchy.
  4. Organizations, subunits of organizations, and individuals continuously manage their affairs against goals. Controls are interim measurements, not the basis of managerial strategy.
  5. One goal of a healthy organization is to develop generally open communication, mutual trust, and confidence between and across levels.
  6. People support what they help create. People affected by a change must be allowed active participation and a sense of ownership in the planning and conduct of the change.[9]

Interventions range from those designed to improve the effectiveness of individuals through those designed to deal with teams and groups, intergroup relations, and the total organization. There are interventions that focus on task issues (what people do), and those that focus on process issues (how people go about doing it). Finally, interventions may be roughly classified according to which change mechanism they tend to emphasize: for example, feedback, awareness of changing cultural norms, interaction and communication, conflict, and education through either new knowledge or skill practice.[20]

One of the most difficult tasks confronting the change agent is to help create in the client system a safe climate for learning and change. In a favorable climate, human learning builds on itself and continues indefinitely during man's lifetime. Out of new behavior, new dilemmas and problems emerge as the spiral continues upward to new levels. In an unfavorable climate, in contrast, learning is far less certain, and in an atmosphere of psychological threat, it often stops altogether. Unfreezing old ways can be inhibited in organizations because the climate makes employees feel that it is inappropriate to reveal true feelings, even though such revelations could be constructive. In an inhibited atmosphere, therefore, necessary feedback is not available. Also, trying out new ways may be viewed as risky because it violates established norms. Such an organization may also be constrained because of the law of systems: If one part changes, other parts will become involved. Hence, it is easier to maintain the status quo. Hierarchical authority, specialization, span of control, and other characteristics of formal systems also discourage experimentation.[19]

The change agent must address himself to all of these hazards and obstacles. Some of the things which will help him are:

  1. A real need in the client system to change
  2. Genuine support from management
  3. Setting a personal example: listening, supporting behavior
  4. A sound background in the behavioral sciences
  5. A working knowledge of systems theory
  6. A belief in man as a rational, self-educating being fully capable of learning better ways to do things.[19]

A few examples of interventions include team building, coaching, Large Group Interventions, mentoring, performance appraisal, downsizing, TQM, and leadership development.

See also[edit]

OD Topics


OD in context


Further reading[edit]

  • Argyris, C.; Schon, D. (1978), Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, ASIN 0201001748, ISBN 0-201-00174-8 
  • Carter, Louis L. (2004), Best Practices in Leadership Development and Organization Change, Jossey Bass, ASIN 0787976253, ISBN 0-7879-7625-3 
  • Nonaka, I.; Takeuchi, H. (1995), The Knowledge Creating Company, New York: New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-509269-4 
  • Sullivan, Roland (2010), Practicing Organization Development: A Guide for Leading Change, Jossey Bass, ASIN 0470405449, ISBN 0-470-40544-9 
  • Western, S. (2010), What do we mean by Organizational Development, Krakow: Krakow: Advisio Press 
  • Rother, Mike (2009), Toyota Kata, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-163523-8 
  • Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency, ISBN 0-385-26094-6  see also: The Fifth Discipline
  • Cummings, Thomas G.; Worley, Christopher G., Organization Development & Change, Thomson South-Western, ASIN 0324260601, ISBN 81-315-0287-2 
  • Schultz, Diane P. Schultz, Sydney Ellen (2006) Psychology and work today: and introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (9th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall p262. ISBN
Figure 1: Systems Model of Action-Research Process
  1. ^"Organizational Development Theory". Retrieved 2016-01-20. 
  2. ^Child, John: 'Organization Contemporary Principles and Practice',292. Blackwell Publishing,2005>
  3. ^exampl_OD
  4. ^Weisbord, Marvin. (1987). Productive Workplace: Organizing and managing for dignity, meaning and community. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.
  5. ^ abcdRichard Arvid Johnson (1976). Management, systems, and society : an introduction. Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co. pp. 223–229. ISBN 0-87620-540-6. OCLC 2299496. 
  6. ^Herbert Shepard Foundation. About the Author Herbert Allen Shepard, Essence of a Proactive Lifeshepard.pdf
  7. ^Cameron, Kim S, and Gretchen M Spreitzer. “The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship.” Google Books, Oxford University Press, 22 Aug. 2011,
  8. ^Newton Margulies (1972). Organizational Development: Values, Process, and Technology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Co. p. 3. 
  9. ^ abRichard Beckhard (1969). Organization development: strategies and models. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. p. 114. ISBN 0-87620-540-6. OCLC 39328. Cite error: Invalid tag; name "Beckhard" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  10. ^Fischer M.D. Dopson, S. Fitzgerald, L. Bennett, C. Ferlie, E. Ledger, J. & McGivern, G. (2015) "Knowledge leadership: Mobilizing management research by becoming the knowledge object" Human Relations, doi:10.1177/0018726715619686
  11. ^ abcRichard Arvid Johnson (1976). Management, systems, and society : an introduction. Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co. pp. 219–222. ISBN 9780876205402. OCLC 2299496. 
  12. ^ abWendell L French; Cecil Bell. Organization development: behavioral science interventions for organization improvement. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. Cite error: Invalid tag; name "Wendell" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  13. ^Lyles, M. A., Near, J. P., & Enz, C. A. (1992). A simulation for teaching skills relating to organizational self-renewal [Electronic version]. Retrieved [12/11/2017] from Cornell University, School of Hotel Administration site:
  14. ^Bradford, D.L. & Burke, W.W. eds, (2005). Organization Development. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
  15. ^Bradford, D.L. & Burke, W.W.(eds), 2005, Reinventing Organization Development. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
  16. ^deKler, M. (2007). Healing emotional trauma in organizations: An O.D. Framework and case study. Organizational Development Journal, 25(2), 49-56.
  17. ^Aubrey, Bob (September 2015). The Measure of Man: Leading Human Development. McGraw Hill Education. 
  18. ^ abcKurt Lewin (1958). Group Decision and Social Change. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 201. 
  19. ^ abcRichard Arvid Johnson (1976). Management, systems, and society: an introduction. Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Pub. Co. pp. 224–226. ISBN 0-87620-540-6. OCLC 2299496. 
  20. ^Wendell L French; Cecil Bell (1973). Organization development: behavioral science interventions for organization improvement. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. chapter 8. ISBN 0-13-641662-4. OCLC 314258. 

Dr. Berger’s article outlines the subject of employee/organizational communication, describing its importance and basic internal communication processes, networks and channels. Highlighting important issues in current practices, the article concludes with 15 principles of effective communication and an interactive list of recommended readings.

“The greatest continuing area of weakness in management practice is the human dimension. In good times or bad, there seems to be little real understanding of the relationships between managers, among employees, and interactions between the two. When there are problems, everyone acknowledges that the cause often is a communication problem. So now what?” Jim Lukazewski, 2006

Executive Summary

This article reviews the research-based knowledge regarding employee/organizational communications, a complex process that is vital to organizational success in a dynamic global marketplace. I first define the subject, summarize its importance and describe basic internal communication processes, networks and channels. The benefits of internal communication are then highlighted, followed by a history of the changing perceptions and practices of internal communication. I then discuss the roles of professional communicators and four important issues in current practice–social media, measurement, employee engagement and organizational identity. The article concludes with 15 principles of effective communication, a list of references and some suggested readings.

I want to thank internal communication experts Keith Burton, Gary Grates and Sean Williams, whose valuable insights and suggestions greatly enriched this article.

Definition of the Topic

Employee/organizational communications refer to communications and interactions among employees or members of an organization. I use the terms internal communications and organizational communications to mean the same thing. Internal communications also have been called internal relations (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006) and internal public relations (Kennan & Hazleton, 2006; Kreps, 1989).

Deetz (2001) described two ways of seeing and defining internal communications. The most common approach focuses on internal communication as a “phenomenon that exists in organizations” (p. 5). In this view, the organization is a container in which communication occurs. A second approach sees internal communication as “a way to describe and explain organizations” (p. 5). Here, communication is the central process through which employees share information, create relationships, make meaning and “construct” organizational culture and values. This process is a combination of people, messages, meaning, practices and purpose (Shockley-Zalabak, 1995), and it is the foundation of modern organizations (D’Aprix, 1996).

The first approach has dominated, but the second perspective is gaining wider acceptance as more organizations recognize the crucial role of communication in dealing with complex issues and rapid changes in a turbulent global market.

Why Internal Communication Matters

Communication is one of the most dominant and important activities in organizations (Harris & Nelson, 2008). Fundamentally, relationships grow out of communication, and the functioning and survival of organizations is based on effective relationships among individuals and groups. In addition, organizational capabilities are developed and enacted through “intensely social and communicative processes” (Jones et al., 2004). Communication helps individuals and groups coordinate activities to achieve goals, and it’s vital in socialization, decision-making, problem-solving and change-management processes.

Internal communication also provides employees with important information about their jobs, organization, environment and each other. Communication can help motivate, build trust, create shared identity and spur engagement; it provides a way for individuals to express emotions, share hopes and ambitions and celebrate and remember accomplishments. Communication is the basis for individuals and groups to make sense of their organization, what it is and what it means.

Communication Processes, Networks and Channels

Internal communication is a complex and dynamic process, but early models focused on a one-way transmission of messages. The Shannon-Weaver Model (1949), concerned with technology and information distribution, is a classic example. In this S-M-C-R model, an information source [S] encoded a message [M] and delivered it through a selected channel [C] to a designated receiver [R], who decoded it. Later versions of the model added a feedback loop from receiver to sender. Nevertheless, the model suggested that all meaning is contained within the message, and the message would be understood if received. It was a sender-focused model.

Berlo’s (1960)S-M-C-R model provided a richer interactional perspective. He emphasized relationships between source and receiver and suggested that the more highly developed the communication knowledge and skills of sources and receivers, the more effectively the message would be encoded and decoded. Berlo also acknowledged the importance of the culture in which communication occurs, the attitudes of senders and receivers and strategic channel selection. Later models emphasized the transactional nature of the process and how individuals, groups and organizations construct meaning and purpose (Harris & Nelson, 2008).

Today, the model is more complex due to new media and high-speed, multi-directional communications (Burton, 2008; Williams, 2008). However, the core components live on in formal communications planning and implementation. Organizational leaders and communication specialists first develop strategies to achieve objectives, construct relevant messages and then transmit them through diverse channels to stimulate conversations with employees and members. Increasingly, formal communications are grounded in receivers’ needs and concerns. Employees communicate informally with others inside and outside the organization through high-speed communications, too.

Communication Levels

Internal communication occurs on multiple levels. Interpersonal or face-to-face (F-T-F) communication between individuals is a primary form of communication, and for years organizations have sought to develop the speaking, writing and presentation skills of leaders, managers and supervisors. Group-level communications occur in teams, units and employee resource or interest groups (ERGs). The focus on this level is information sharing, issue discussion, task coordination, problem solving and consensus building. Organizational-level communications focus on such matters as vision and mission, policies, new initiatives and organizational knowledge and performance. These formal communications often follow a cascade approach where leaders at hierarchical levels communicate with their respective employees, though social media are changing communications at this level.

Communication Networks

A network represents how communication flows in an organization. Networks can be formal and informal. In a formal communication network, messages travel through official pathways (e.g., newsletters, memos, policy statements) that reflect the organization’s hierarchy. Informal communications move along unofficial paths (e.g., the grapevine, which is now electronic, fast and multidirectional) and include rumors, opinions, aspirations and expressions of emotions. Informal communications are often interpersonal and horizontal, and employees believe they are more authentic than formal communications (Burton, 2008). Employees and members use both networks to understand and interpret their organizations.

Communications also can be described as vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Vertical communication can be downward–flowing down the hierarchy of an organization–or upward, i.e., moving from lower to higher levels in the chain of command. Horizontal communication refers to communication among persons who have no hierarchical relationship, such as three supervisors from different functions. Diagonal or omni-directional communication occurs among employees at different levels and in different functions, e.g., a quality control supervisor, accountant and systems analyst. Evolving organizational structures and technologies create opportunities for new and conflicting communication flows (Williams, 2008).

Studies regarding the effectiveness of communication flows often reveal employee dissatisfaction with both downward and upward communications. Findings by the Opinion Research Corporation, which has examined employee perceptions of internal communication for more than 50 years, generally show that more than half of employees are dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with both downward and upward communications (Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006). Less is known about the effectiveness of horizontal and diagonal communications.

Communication Channels

A communication channel is a medium through which messages are transmitted and received. Channels are categorized as print, electronic or F-T-F (interpersonal). Common print channels include memos, brochures, newsletters, reports, policy manuals, annual reports and posters. New technologies have spurred the use of electronic channels, e.g., email and voice mail, Intranets, blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, business TV, video conferencing, instant messaging systems, wikis and electronic town-hall meetings. Face-to-face channels include speeches, team meetings, focus groups, brown bag lunches, social events and gatherings and management by wandering around.

According to Harris and Nelson (2008), the most used channel is listening, which consumes about half of our communication time (Johnson, 1996). Effective listening is crucial to learning, understanding, conflict resolution and productive team work. It helps leaders at all levels improve employee morale, retain employees and uncover and resolve problems. Yet, many studies suggest that most people are not good listeners, and few organizations devote resources to developing listening skills in managers and leaders (Alessandra & Hunsaker, 1993).

“The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan, 1964

Selection of Media

Today, organizations and their employees and members have access to many communication channels. Selecting the most appropriate medium or media is an important issue for professional communicators once they have determined objectives and strategies, assessed relevant audiences and constructed messages. Perhaps no one made this point more strongly than McLuhan (1964), who claimed that “the medium is the message.” He argued that each medium, independent of content, engages receivers in different ways and affects the scale and pace of communication.

McLuhan distinguished between “hot” and “cool” media, each of which involves different degrees of receiver participation. Hot media (e.g., print channels, film, lecture, radio) require less active participation and involvement than cool media (e.g., TV, comic books, F-T-F channels). Hot media are more segmented and linear, while cool media may be more abstract and require more participation to understand.

Daft and Lengel (1984) developed a media richness model to explain media choices. They said that media choice should match the ambiguity of any communication task with the richness of particular media. Ambiguity refers to the difficulty of interpreting or understanding a message. Media richness refers to the capability of media to effectively convey information. Capability is differentiated by the availability and speed of feedback of the channel, the use of multiple cues and natural language to facilitate understanding and the personal focus of the message.

The researchers proposed a continuum of media choices: At one end are channels that possess most or all of these capabilities (rich media); at the other end are channels with few of these characteristics (lean media). F-T-F communication is the richest medium and optimal channel for communicating complex information or resolving conflicts, for example. Lean and impersonal media include simple announcements, data reports and posters. Electronic mail, phone calls, personal written communications and other channels fall in the middle of the continuum.

Later research has shown that media selection also is influenced by the social environment in organizations, which affects member attitudes toward a channel or medium and how it is or should be used in their organizations (Fulk et al., 1987). The dual-capacity model of media use (Sitkin, Sutcliffe, & Barrios-Choplin, 1992) argued that any channel carries two types of messages–a “data” or task-related message, and a “meaning” or symbolic message. The data-carrying capacity of media is similar across organizations, but the symbol-carrying capacity varies from one organization to another due to cultural differences. Thus, communicators should select channels based on message ambiguity, media richness, organizational culture and available resources.

Measureable Benefits

Internal communication continues to evolve in a dynamic world characterized by an explosion of new technologies, intense global competition and rapid change. Today, many would agree with Harris and Nelson’s (2008) assertion that internal communication is an essential aspect of organizational change–it is “the key variable in almost all change efforts, diversity initiatives and motivation” (p. 95). Some even argue that internal communication is the most “fundamental driver of business performance” (Gay, Mahoney & Graves, 2005, p. 11).

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that effective internal communications help increase employee job satisfaction, morale, productivity, commitment, trust and learning; improve communication climate and relationships with publics; and enhance quality, revenues and earnings. Here are some examples:

  • Employees who are disloyal to their organizations, or lack commitment to helping organizations achieve their goals, may cost business $50 billion per year in quality defects, rework and repair costs, absenteeism and reduced productivity, according to Alvie Smith, former director of corporate communications at General Motors (cited in Cutlip, Center & Broom, 2006).
  • Improving the quality, adequacy and timeliness of information that employees receive about customers, the organization or their own work can improve their individual performance by as much as 20-50 percent (Boyett & Boyett, 1998).
  • More than 80 percent of employees polled in the US and UK said that employee communication influences their desire to stay with or leave an organization. Nearly a third said communication was a “big influence” on their decision (Burton, 2006).
  • The 200 “most admired” companies spent more than three times as much on employee communications as the 200 “least admired” companies (Seitel, 2004).
  • Employees’ satisfaction with communication in their organizations is linked to organizational commitment, productivity, job performance and satisfaction and other significant outcomes (Gray & Laidlaw, 2004).
  • Organizations with engaged and committed employees were 50 percent more productive than those organizations where employees weren’t engaged. In addition, employee retention rates were 44 percent higher in organizations with engaged and committed employees (Izzo & Withers, 2000).
  • Positive communication climate and effective employee communication strengthen employees’ identification with their organizations, which contributes to an organization’s financial performance and sustained success (Smidts, Pruyn & van Riel, 2001).
  • Sears Roebuck found that creating a more compelling place to work for employees led to a significant increase in employee attitude scores, customer satisfaction scores and revenues (Rucci, Kim & Quinn, 1998).
  • A significant improvement in communication effectiveness in organizations was linked to a 29.5 percent rise in market value (Watson Wyatt, 2004).
  • Effective communication facilitates engagement and builds trust, which is a critical ingredient in strong, viable organizations (Grates, 2008). Engaged employees enhance business performance because they influence customer behavior, which directly affects revenue growth and profitability (Towers Perrin, 2003).

The Evolution of Internal Communication

Social theorist James Coleman (1974, 1990) traced the rise of large organizations and claimed they have changed communications practices and personal relationships through two powerful interactions: big organizations communicating with other big organizations and with individuals. Large organizations were relatively new in the early 20th century, apart from government and the military, so theories developed to explain how organizations worked and tried to achieve their goals. This section outlines five theoretical approaches that evolved in the last century–the classical, human relations, human resources, systems and cultural approaches. Communication features or characteristics of each approach are briefly described. More comprehensive treatments may be found in many communication texts, e.g., Harris & Nelson, 2008; Miller, 1995; and Modaff, DeWine & Butler, 2008.

Classical Approaches

Sometimes referred to as the machine metaphor because of how employees were viewed as interchangeable parts, this approach is grounded in scientific management theories of work and workers in the early 20th century. Frederick Taylor (1911) was the best known proponent of this approach. He studied factory production lines and concluded that work processes could be improved by applying scientific principles to jobs and workers. These included such things as designing each task to improve performance, hiring workers who possessed characteristics that matched each job and training workers and rewarding them for productivity achievements.

Henri Fayol (1949) believed that operational efficiency could be improved through better managerial practices. He prescribed five elements of managing (planning, organizing, command, coordination and control) and 14 principles of administration. Fayol also introduced the “Scalar Chain,” which represents organizational hierarchy, and said that communication needed to follow this chain to reduce misunderstanding. During times of emergency, however, he indicated that employees might communicate with each other across the organization. This first notion of horizontal communications came to be called “Fayol’s bridge.”

The German sociologist Max Weber (1947) developed a theory of bureaucracy as a way to formally establish authority and structure operations and communications. Some key components of this approach included: a distinct chain of command with centralized decision-making; clear delineation of tasks and responsibilities; and writing everything down to avoid misunderstandings.

Communication features: Two key communication goals were to prevent misunderstandings, which might impair productivity or quality, and to convey decisions and directives of top management. The formal structure of organizations drove top-down communication, primarily through print channels. The content of most communications was task or rule oriented. The social side of communication was largely ignored, and employees relied heavily on the grapevine for such information.

Human Relations Approaches

In the 1930s, the focus shifted from work tasks to employees and their needs, and the Hawthorne Studies spurred this movement. Carried out at the Western Electric Company in Chicago, the studies revealed the importance of groups and human relationships in work. Elton Mayo (1933) and his Harvard colleagues discovered that employees who worked in friendly teams, with supportive supervisors, tended to outperform employees who worked in less favorable conditions. This and related research became the basis for the “human relations” approach.

Chester Barnard (1938), an AT&T executive, highlighted the functions of organizational executives and their role in communication. He emphasized the importance of formal and informal communications to the organization’s success and argued that cooperation among workers and supervisors was crucial to improving productivity. In his view, the key to cooperation was communication: “The most universal form of human cooperation, and perhaps the most complex, is speech,” he wrote (1938; cited in Modaff et al., 2008, p. 50).

Though writing later, McGregor (1960) perhaps best articulated principles of the human relations organization through his “Theory X” and “Theory Y” presentation. These approaches focused on opposing assumptions that managers may hold for workers, and the corresponding behaviors of managers. Simply put, Theory X managers believe workers lack motivation, resist change and are indifferent to organizational goals. Thus, managers must provide strong, forceful leadership to direct and control employees. Theory Y managers believe employees are highly motivated, creative and driven to satisfy their needs for achievement. The role of managers, then, is to elicit those tendencies through employee participation in decision making, managing by objectives and problem solving in work teams.

Communication features: This approach included more F-T-F communication and acknowledged the importance of internal communications. Downward communication still dominated, but feedback was gathered to gauge employee satisfaction. Some social information was added to the task-oriented content of communication, and managerial communications were less formal.

Human Resources Approaches

The human resources approach (Miles, 1965) was widely adopted by organizations in the 1960s. This participative, team approach to management-employee relations recognized that employees can contribute both physical and mental labor.

Blake and Mouton (1964) developed a Managerial Grid to help train managers in leadership styles that would stimulate employees’ cognitive contributions, satisfy needs and help the organization succeed. The preferred team-management style–high on concern for both people and production–became the basis for management development practices in a number of companies. Quality control circles, decentralized organizations, total quality management and employee participation groups are manifestations of this approach.

Focusing more on organizational structure, Rensis Likert (1961, 1967) theorized four organizational forms and labeled them System I through System IV. Likert believed that a System IV organization, characterized by multi-directional communication and a participatory style and structure, would spur productivity gains and reduce absenteeism and turnover.

Other theorists argued that the best leadership style would vary from one event to another, depending on contingencies in the environment. Fiedler (1967) said that leaders should first define a contingency and then determine the most appropriate leadership behaviors to deal with it. Contingency theory recognizes that organizations and environments are constantly changing, and there is a need to monitor environments and carefully analyze information before making decisions.

Communication features: Communication became multidirectional and more relational. Feedback was sought to enhance problem solving and stimulate idea sharing. Innovation content was added to social and task information in communications. Concepts of employee trust and commitment emerged as important issues, and organizations began to share communication decision-making among employees.

Systems Approaches

In the 1970s some theorists adopted a systems perspective, viewing organizations as complex organisms competing to survive and thrive in challenging environments. In general systems theory, any system is a group of parts that are arranged in complex ways and which interact with each other through processes to achieve goals (vonBertalanffy, 1951, 1968). An auto supply company, for example, consists of a number of departments or units (production, marketing, finance, sales), each of which includes individuals and teams. The functioning of any of these units or subsystems relies on others in the organization; they are interdependent. The company is also part of a larger supra system–the automobile industry.

Systems and subsystems have boundaries that are selectively opened or closed to their environments, allowing the flow of information and other resources. Open systems use information exchange (input-throughput-output) to grow and thrive; closed systems don’t allow much information to move in or out. To survive and adapt, all social systems require some degree of permeability (Stacks, Hickson & Hill, 1991).

As Almaney (1974) suggested, communication is a “system binder” that links the system to its environment and its various subsystems to each other. Individuals who exchange information with other systems or groups (customers, government personnel, suppliers) are boundary spanners. Media outlets provide other important links between organizations and the environment.

Weick (1979) used systems theory to explain organizational behavior and the process of sense making. He argued that communication is the core process of organizing; through information produced by processes or patterns of behavior, systems can increase their knowledge and reduce uncertainty about the complex environments in which they operate.

Communication features: Communication is vital for exchanging information in and among subsystems through multidirectional channels which are used in internal communications. Feedback processes help systems adjust, change and maintain control. Collective decision-making processes and shared responsibilities for communication are more prevalent.

Cultural Approaches

Cultural approaches emerged in the 1970s in the context of increasing competition from Japan and other nations in the global marketplace. Culture refers to an organization’s distinct identity–the shared beliefs, values, behaviors and artifacts that an organization holds, which determine how it functions and adapts to its environment (Schein, 1985). As the performance of American corporations declined, management scholars looked for other explanations of the behaviors and practices in the troubled companies. The cultural approach was attractive because of its dynamic nature and the kind of depth insights it can provide (Schein, 1996).

Two popular books in the 1980s influenced organizational practices and structures and helped culture gain mainstream recognition. Deal and Kennedy’s (1982) book, Corporate Culture: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, claimed that companies could improve their performance by developing a “strong” culture based on shared values, celebration of heroes and performance of rites and rituals, among others. The Peters and Waterman (1982) book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, captured characteristics of “excellent” cultures at high-performing businesses. These included customer focus, employee empowerment, trust, shared values and lean organizational structures. A decade later, Larkin and Larkin’s (1994) book, Communicating Change, highlighted the importance of F-T-F and supervisory communications during cultural changes or other major organizational initiatives.

Miller (1995) distinguished between prescriptive and descriptive approaches to examining organizational cultures. A prescriptive approach views culture as “something an organization has” (p. 108) and prescribes interventions to create or manage a “winning” or strong culture. However, scholars often adopt a descriptive approach, which considers culture “something an organization is” (Miller, 1995, p. 108). This approach rejects the notion of a one-size-fits-all cultural formula for success and focuses on how communications and interactions lead to shared meaning. Descriptive approaches also call attention to other important aspects of organizational culture, e.g., power relationships and gender and diversity issues.

Communication features: The cultural approach valorizes communication, seeing it as a culturally-based process of sharing information, creating relationships and shaping the organization (Brown & Starkey, 1994). Communication and culture share a reciprocal relationship (Modaff et al., 2008). Communications help create and influence culture through formal and informal channels, stories, shared experiences and social activities. Culture influences communications because employees interact though shared interpretive frameworks of culture, e.g., distinctive company vocabulary, valued media channels and established protocols and practices.


These five approaches demonstrate how internal communication changed as organizations grew and evolved. Today, elements of all five approaches live on in organizations–work rules, hierarchies, policies, training programs, work teams, job descriptions, socialization rituals, human resource departments, job descriptions, customer focus and so forth. Corresponding communication practices also are present today in formal, top-down communications, bottom-up suggestion programs, horizontal communications among team members, myriad print and electronic communications and new dialogue-creating social media that are changing communication structures and practices.

New perspectives continue to appear. Some use metaphors to depict organizations (Morgan, 1986) and internal communication (Putnam & Boys, 2006). Others focus on power, gender or hegemony issues in modern organizations (e.g., Mumby, 1993, 2001). Still others theorize companies as learning organizations, arguing that the only sustainable source of advantage for any organization is its ability to learn, acquire knowledge and change faster than others (e.g., Senge, 1990; Senge et al., 1994). Increasingly, researchers adopt cultural or co-creational views wherein employees and members share stories and construct interpretations and meanings through internal communications and conversations (Botan & Taylor, 2004).

“As their role has evolved from ‘conveyors of information’ to strategic business partners, communication professionals are being asked to better connect employees to the business, equip leaders with the skills and tools to effectively communicate, ensure that the right messages are ‘breaking through the clutter,’ and show measurable results–all daunting challenges.” Gay, Mahoney and Graves, 2005

The Internal Communication Professional

Curiously absent in many scholarly research articles are professional communicators or public relations specialists (Kennan & Hazleton, 2006). Much of the literature in this review suggests that internal communication has long been a struggle between the needs and desires of managers and those of employees. Professional communicators, if mentioned at all, are seen as technicians who carry out the compliance-gaining directives of executives.

But this view is changing, as is the role of communicators. Practitioners today are moving from historical roles as information producers and distributors, to advocacy and advisory roles in strategic decision making, relationship building and programs which foster trust, participation and empowerment. They help their organizations create a strong foundation for success in a dynamic world–a culture for communication that is conducive to open, transparent, authentic two-way communications and conversations.

Culture for Communication

Public relations excellence theory is grounded in a systems perspective (Dozier et al., 1995; J. Grunig, 1984, 1992; L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & D. Dozier, 2002). The role of public relations is to help organizations develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with internal and external stakeholders through excellent communications. Excellence theory also describes some factors that facilitate or impede creation of a culture for communication. These include: 1) a participative culture where employees are empowered, 2) a two-way system of communication, 3) a decentralized, less formal structure and 4) programs that treat men, women and minorities equitably (Grunig, & Grunig, 2006).

Sanchez (2006) claimed, “How an organization conceives and manages communication does more to tell about its culture than any other single process element” (p. 40-41). He was referring to communication planning, budgeting, staffing and policies. Seitel (2004) cited a Fortune magazine report in which the top 200 “most admired” companies spent more than half of their communication budgets on internal communications. This was more than three times as much as the 200 “least admired” companies. Colvin (2006) reported that the 100 “best companies” share the view that effective and ongoing two-way communication is the foundation for employee motivation and organizational success.

Rhee (2003) found in a comprehensive case study that employees who have positive relationships (high levels of commitment) with their organizations help develop positive relationships with the organization’s publics. In addition, publics assess an organization based on the quality of employee relationships with their organization. Important factors in employee-public-organization relationships include: leaders’ communication behaviors, the extent and quality of F-T-F communication, listening skills, opportunities for dialogue and the involvement of leaders in PR activities (

Internal Communication and Social Capital

Kennan and Hazleton (2006) outlined a theory of internal public relations based on social capital theory. Social capital is “the ability that organizations have of creating, maintaining and using relationships to achieve desirable organizational goals” (p. 322). Social capital accrues through communication, interaction and development of relationships inside and outside of the organization. The use of social capital gained through communication may increase employee satisfaction, commitment and productivity, as well as customer satisfaction.

Trust is the basis for productive relationships, cooperation and communication. Shockley-Zalabak et al. (2000) argued that trust is social capital which directly affects an organization’s ability to deal with change and crisis. They found that trust impacts the bottom line because it influences job satisfaction, productivity and team building; it also was linked to lower incidences of litigation and legislation. Brad Rawlins has provided a comprehensive review of trust on this web site ( ).

Four Contemporary Issues

Organizations confront many challenges in today’s turbulent global market. They must process continuous changes and shifting workplace demographics, assimilate new technologies, manage knowledge and learning, adopt new structures, strengthen identity, advance diversity and engage employees–often across cultures and at warp speed. Internal communication lies at the center of successful solutions to these issues, and professional communicators must play key leadership, strategic and tactical roles to help their organizations resolve them. This section briefly reviews four issues affecting current practice:

1. Organizational Identity

Identification is a big concern for organizations because of the difficulties of being heard in a noisy world and disappearing organizational boundaries (Cheney & Christenson, 2001). Thus, organizations seek to create an identity that distinguishes them from others and ties employees more closely to them. Organizational identity has its roots in social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1976, 1986), which refers to an individual’s self-concept that grows out of membership in social groups. Group identity refers to an individual’s sense of what defines “us” versus others. Employees or members also can develop an identity with their organizations (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Mael & Ashforth, 1992). Haslam (2000) found that communication reflects and creates social identities, and shared identity helps build trust and shared interpretations.

Smidts, Pruyn and van Riel (2001) found that effective internal communication strengthened employees’ identification with their organizations, more so than perceived external prestige. A strong company identity can boost employee motivation and raise confidence among external stakeholders (van Riel, 1995). As Williams (2008) noted, however, a new generation of employees, less inclined to identify with their employers, requires new approaches to identity building. This may include greater use of new dialogue-creating media and e-communication groups. It also may require more employee interactions with customers and social causes, improved leaders’ listening skills and higher quality F-T-F communication (Rhee, 2003).

2. Employee Engagement

According to D’Aprix (2006), engaging employees more fully in their work is the most important issue facing organizations. Engagement refers to “unleashing the full energy and talents of people in the work place” (p. 227). Long an issue, it is more crucial today due to a dynamic marketplace, an information-saturated work place and trust and morale problems exacerbated by waves of downsizing, restructuring and corporate governance problems in the past 15 years (Burton, 2008). Employees are inundated with so much information today that they are overwhelmed, confused and work with the “volume off” (Grates, 2006).

Professional communicators can help by aligning words with actions, building relationships and conversing with employees rather than communicating at them, and helping guide authentic executive actions which reflect organizational purpose. Burton (2008) suggested that new technologies help engage employees by personalizing executive communications and reinforcing face-to-face initiatives. Edelman’s white paper (“New Frontiers,” 2006) on employee engagement provides a number of ideas for using social media to better reach and engage employees. (

The benefits of an engaged workforce are clear. Izzo and Withers (2000) found that organizations with engaged and committed employees were 50 percent more productive than those where employees weren’t engaged. Employee retention rates also were 44 percent higher. A Watson Wyatt (2002) study found that companies with more engaged employees produce greater financial returns. Engaged employees contribute discretionary efforts, which they otherwise may withhold (D’Aprix, 2006).

3. Measurement

Professional communicators agree that measurement of their work is crucial, but they share few standards for what or how to measure. As a result, many measurement practices are tactical in nature rather than strategic and ongoing (Williams, 2008). In addition, organizations are struggling to set objectives for new social media and to measure their effects in internal and external communication initiatives (Edelman, 2008).

Sinickas (2005) and Williams (2003) provide useful guidelines for conducting audits, developing surveys and other measurement tools, evaluating program results and analyzing and reporting data. Gay et al. (2005) outlined a variety of approaches communicators use to measure the ROI on their work. These include: cost savings measures (e.g., idea development programs); employee surveys, pulse surveys and focus groups for specific communication projects; and business outcome measures (e.g., retention, productivity, customer satisfaction and quality factors). A significant but seldom measured ROI on employee communication is the reduced cycle time for change associated with mergers, acquisitions and other culture-changing initiatives (Berger, 2008).

Employee communication case studies for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and General Motors ( offer specific examples of company measurement approaches. The GolinHarris Corporate Citizenship Index provides a larger picture ( of the contributions that effective and authentic communications make to developing public perceptions of corporate citizenship.

Though steady advances are occurring in evaluating internal communication projects and programs, better measures are needed to assess linkages among communications, longer-term outcomes and desired behavioral changes.

4. Social Media

The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine et al., 2000) put businesses on notice that the Internet and Intranets were radically altering the marketplace and the nature of stakeholder relationships. New social media facilitate a “powerful global conversation” in which everyone can participate and share opinions, ideas, knowledge and images with each other, and circumvent traditional gatekeepers. Middleberg (2001) claimed that apart from F-T-F communication, no other channels “allowed people to say things more creatively, expressively, precisely, and powerfully than the Internet” and other new media (xii).

Social media refer to new electronic and web-based communication channels such as blogs, podcasts, wikis, chat rooms, discussion forums, RSS feeds, web sites, social networks (e.g., MySpace and Second Life) and other dialogue-creating media. Social media are revolutionizing communications and reconfiguring the long-time S-M-C-R model of internal communication (Williams, 2008). New media increase the volume, speed and every-way flow of communication, connecting people, giving them a voice and stimulating discussions about topics of common interest (Smith, 2006).

Holtz (1999) wrote one of the first comprehensive resource works for practitioners to help guide strategic use of new media. He also co-authored books explaining how practitioners can develop and use blogs (Holtz & Demopoulos, 2006) and podcasts (Holtz & Hobson, 2007) to dialogue and interact more effectively with employees and other stakeholders. However, external PR specialists and marketers have adopted new media more quickly than internal communication professionals. In part this is because organizations no longer control communication, so new media require professional communicators to rethink tactics, strategies and their own roles.

Burton (Insidedge, 2007) referred to social media as “me” communications, which challenge communicators to use them to stimulate employee engagement, provide relevant information and capture employee insights and issues. This means moving the professional role from one of information distribution to open dialogue, letting go of the notion of control, listening closely to others in the conversations, communicating honestly and equipping managers and supervisors as primary communicators.

Edelman’s Trust Barometer ( found that trust in media is increasing in part because new social media are now perceived as being an important component of more traditional mass media. A comprehensive study by The Society for New Communications Research ( underscored the growing use of social media by professional communicators to disseminate information and engage publics. Communicators in the survey also rated highly the effectiveness of such media in achieving campaign goals, though measurement of social media is in the early stages.

For communicators, social media are here to stay. They also will continue to evolve, possibly to the point blogger Shel Israel suggests, where “people will be able to behave and interact online as they do in everyday life” (

On the other hand, new media have not killed or replaced traditional media, but rather influenced them and forced them to adopt (Holtz, 2006). Like all channels, new media represent advantages and disadvantages, and communicators must carefully analyze and assess their best use.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” George Orwell, 1946

15 Principles of Successful Internal Communications

Effective internal communication is hard work, but research findings and case studies point to some practices and principles which seem crucial to successful internal communications for organizations, employees and members. Here are 15 of them:

Timeliness and Content

  • Providing timely and relevant information to individuals, through channels they use and trust, and in language they understand, remains the basis for successful and strategic internal communications.
  • Communication content should provide context and rationale for changes or new initiatives as they relate to the organization, but especially to the relative performance or requirements of employees in local work units. This underlines the importance of the supervisor’s front-line role in communication.


  • Face-to-face communication is the richest medium. It should be emphasized in internal communications, especially to resolve conflicts or crises, communicate major changes and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Excellent listening skills reduce errors and misunderstanding, help uncover problems, save time, improve evaluations and facilitate relationship building. Development of excellent listening skills among leaders at all levels in organizations is crucial.
  • Social media are fast and powerful dialogue-creating channels which can empower and engage employees and members. They influence and alter traditional media and their uses, but don’t eliminate them. Communicators should blend new and traditional media in ways that help organizations best achieve their goals and enhance relationships with internal and external publics.

Leadership Roles

  • The CEO or senior leader(s) must be a visible and open champion for internal communication. Visibility is the first and most basic form of non-verbal communication for leaders.
  • The communication style of leaders should invite open, ongoing and transparent discussion so that people are willing to voice their opinions and suggestions.
  • The actions of leaders at all levels must match their words. This has everything to do with credibility and the extent to which employees will trust, commit to and follow leaders. As author Carolyn Wells said, “Actions lie louder than words.”

Professional Communicator Roles

  • Professional communicators must see themselves as internal experts on communication who serve as facilitators and counselors to executives and managers and provide strategic support for business plans.
  • Communicators must also be organizational experts. They must possess knowledge of the organization’s structures, challenges and objectives, as well as understand employee issues and needs and marketplace requirements and realities.

Participation and Recognition

  • Encouraging employee participation in decision making builds loyalty and commitment and improves the overall climate for communication. Participative decision making also often improves the quality of decisions.
  • Recognizing and celebrating achievements at all levels helps build shared values and organizational identity. Similar social events, rites and rituals contribute to and reflect an organization’s distinctive culture.


  • Measurement is a key to successful communication in any organization. Through diverse forms and approaches, measurement helps define problems, determine the status quo, record progress, assess value and provide a factual basis for future direction and action. Improving measurement knowledge and practice is an ongoing professional requirement.


  • Ongoing two-way communication is the foundation for employee motivation and organizational success. Two-way (now every-way) communication provides continuous feedback, which is crucial to learning and to processing organizational change.

In addition to achieving specific goals, internal communications should help create and reflect a culture for communication, where employees at all levels feel free to openly share ideas, opinions and suggestions. This will enhance employee understanding, build trust, stimulate engagement and encourage greater diversity.


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