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The role of communication at work

By François Cooren, Eero Vaara, Ann Langley, and Haridimos Tsoukas


“Communication matters in organizations!”

We all know this catchphrase. Both employees and managers experience problems daily with coordination, and when news (good or bad) is released about their organization. There is, however, a different way of studying communication at work, a way that does not merely reduce it to the transfer of information, but also explores its constitutive aspects: how communicative events literally constitute what organizations are all about.

Connect communication to the very processes, activities, and practices that constitute organizations or organizational phenomena. This echoes what Phillips and Lawrence (2012) recently labeled “the turn to work” in organization studies. These authors referred to notions such as “identity work,” “institutional work,” and “boundary work” as part of a trend in which scholars have been highlighting “the role of actors in socially constructing elements of work and organizations that were previously seen as either ‘natural’ or beyond the control of individual actors.”

Phenomena such as identity, routines, boundaries, or organizations themselves are thus seen as communicative processes, which means that ongoing “work” is implicated in the construction, maintenance, and adaptation of organizational identities, boundaries, and operations. Communication is the essential way through which much of this “work” takes place, whether or not conscious intentions lie behind it.

Depart from abstract and static considerations to concentrate on communicational activities and practices that constitute the daily life of organizations, or capture the ways in which they change over time. These types of study focus on cultural, artifactual, ideological, or technological aspects of work, and systematically scrutinize and highlight the communicational dimension of these activities, whether from a theoretical or empirical perspective.

The study of language and communication at work could prove to be a fruitful way to study organizational life in all its aspects (meetings, speeches, routines, operations, expeditions, etc.). Organizations should not only be viewed as ‘things made’ but also as what Hernes (2007) calls “processes in the making,” whether we want to study reproduction, development, or change. If analyzing and conceiving of processes is indeed a difficult thing to do, it is, we believe, the price we need to pay to study organizational matters in a very concrete and incarnated manner.

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If organizations are dynamically constituted, we thus need to start thinking processually, that is, we need to invent new ways of studying and conceiving of these “works in process” we call companies, firms, businesses, institutions, NGOs, and associations. In keeping with Derrida’s (often misunderstood) concept of differance, this processual way of thinking leads us to study any organizational course, sequence, or practice in terms of both its passive and active dimensions, i.e. in terms of what leads it to be what it is, but also in terms of what it produces, enacts, and contributes. Studying processes indeed means that there cannot be an absolute point of origin and that we need, as analysts, to always pay attention to what is ongoing.

Methodologically speaking, this could have serious consequences, as thinking and analyzing the organizational world processually will also lead us to rely more and more on actual recordings of activities, conversations, and practices. Although interviews certainly remain relevant ways to access what is taking place in organizational settings, they seem poorly equipped to study processes per se, as they rely on post-hoc reconstructions that cannot always do justice to what really happens ‘in the making’ (except, of course, if the interviews themselves are analyzed processually). Whether video or audio recordings, the detailed study of communication at work seems to require that we “pay our due” to the phenomena themselves.

But studying processually means that we also have to develop tools and methodologies that allow us to not only make some gains in terms of details, but also in terms of longitudinality. The detailed study of processes indeed implies, by definition, that we follow them through time and space, a methodological requirement that often seems hard to reconcile with the thoroughness of detailed analyses. It is, we believe, in this uncomfortable tension that the future of process studies might lay.

François Cooren is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Université de Montréal; Eero Vaara is Professor of Management and Organization at Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki; Ann Langley is Professor of Management at HEC Montréal; and Haridimos Tsoukas is Professor of Strategic Management and Professor of Organization Studies at University of Cyprus, and at Warwick Business School. Their book Language and Communication at Work. Discourse, Narrativity and Organizing was published May, 2014.

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Image Credit: Businesspeople at boardroom table. © monkeybusinessimages via iStock Photo.

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One Response to “The role of communication at work”
  1. Reminds me of a quote by Peter Druker – “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

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