As you might know already I organized a series of interviews with internal communicators in 2014. The overall aim was to gather data from semi-structured interviews in order to gain a better understanding of how these professionals make sense of their work. I consider this research to be valuable because at this point we know relatively little about how PR practitioners reflect on their own work (L'Etang, 2006, p. 27). My impression, that I still need to prove with empirical results, is that internal communicators have a strong feeling that practices in their field of expertise are changing.
Although most of my PhD work revolves around qualitative methods I have also included some quantitative data. This is because I am convinced that different techniques inherited from both methodological traditions can enrich the research by allowing the scholar to approach a problem from different perspectives. During my series of interviews I asked my respondents to answer a limited number of questions from a structured interview. Since it was my first survey and given my focus on the ensuing semi-open interview I was not able to get much useful data from the quantitative questions. I will briefly mention pitfalls that I stepped into and of which I hope that future research will take note.
This being said, a question that did generate interesting answers was a question designed to measure the impression communication professionals have of the degree to which different hierarchical groups within the organization value internal communication. I asked my respondents to give a score ranging from 0 to 100 to higher management, line management and employees as an indication of how important these groups consider internal communication to be.
I analyzed the scores with the statistical software package SPSS. With the help of this program I compared the mean scores of the three groups using a repeated measures ANOVA. The descriptive statistics show that line management receives a decidedly lower score than higher management and shop-floor employees. This seems to resonate with my impression I got during the interviews, being that internal communicators are not over-enthusiastic about the (internal) communication skills of line managers.
In the next table I find that the multivariate tests all indicate a significant difference in the mean scores of the different groups. However, we must be careful with interpreting these results. I have found several statistics websites with warnings about the power of multivariate tests in case of a repeated measures ANOVA. On the website of Originlab for example the authors write: "In most cases, multivariate tests are not as powerful as repeated measures ANOVA, so we should use repeated measures ANOVA. However, under certain circumstances, for example large sample size and a serious violation of sphericity assumption, the multivariate tests would be a better choice. " Since I do not have a large sample size (we will get back to sphericity in a moment) it seems that I will need to look more closely at the Tests of Within-Subjects Effects.
It is important, when using a repeated measures ANOVA, to test the assumption of sphericity. To quote from Laerd Statistics: "Sphericity is the condition where the variances of differences between all combinations of related groups (levels) are equal. It therefore shows much resemblance to the homogeneity of variances assumption in a between-subjects ANOVA." To test the assumption of sphericity we used Mauchly's test of sphericity. The test, in our case, indicated that the assumption of sphericity has not been violated ( X^2 (2) = 4,172, p = .124). We can therefore assume sphericity.
Based on the Tests of Within-Subjects Effects I was not able to confirm the multivariate tests. In this table can be seen that, when assuming sphericity, the scores are not statistically different (F (2, 106) = 2,394 , p = .096). However, given that the p-value is not all that far removed from the critical value of .05 I believe that I might have found something here. With a more homogeneous sample (in this sample were included people who do not identify with the communication profession since their company decided not to hire a dedicated PR professional) and more data points (i.e. more completed surveys) I am overtly convinced my results would turn out to be significant on all tests.
Because I don't want to keep you waiting for another blogpost I can already share that the qualitative interviews revealed an important reason why I formulated the hypothesis that internal communicators have the impression that line management cares less about internal communication than members of higher management or shop-floor employees. Line management is believed to be a group of which the members are very concerned about their (operational) targets, leaving less room for "corporate affairs". They additionally act as important information gatekeepers who, according to one respondent, "like to receive information but are hesitant in passing on information". However, many communicators added that there is considerable variation in the group of line managers as regards their communication skills.
Most organizational communication scholars would agree that management has, at least until very recently, played a central role in the communication flows within the organization. At the very top usually sits a small group of senior managers who often make the organization's strategic decisions and have been the ones who could decide which information to share, when to share it, and which channels to use. In larger organizations they are often supported by a specialized communication department in charge of broadcasting the message to both internal and external stakeholders (Miller, 2014, pp. 188-194).
Given the structure of most organizations a substantial communication role has also been trusted to middle managers. Apart from distributing the more operation and task-related information they usually are key in ensuring that messages broadcasted from the top are also translated and clarified to larger sections of the workforce. The system of cascading the information from top to bottom clearly illustrates the idea of Johnson et al. (1994) that "formal hierarchical structures organize the flow of information (Stieglitz, Riemer, & Meske, 2014, p. 3)."
In order to better understand the role of management and their reaction towards the introduction of ESS it is useful to explore the concept of "gatekeeping". According to Shoemaker and Vos (2009, p. 1) "gatekeeping is the process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people each day." If we adopt the terminology used in the gatekeeping theory and apply it to organizational communication we could label management as "gatekeepers" and employees as "the gated". In acting as gatekeepers management has the power to affect employees' social reality (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009, p. 3). Management may therefore use this power to install unobtrusive forms of control. This reasoning is in line with the wider management literature in which the concept of scientific management has given way to the idea of systematic management, emphasizing a shift from systematizing work processes to systematizing the process of decision-making, which is deemed more suitable for work in the service industries (Wijnberg, van den Ende, & de Wit, 2002, p. 411).
With the introduction of ESS the gatekeeping role of management is being challenged. In many organizations information still equals power, which may explain why the practices of knowledge sharing are not yet embedded in all organizations. The desire to uphold the status quo could offer a partial explanation to the question why so many organizations are not getting the results they expected from introducing social technologies. A hesitant reaction from management can also be related to the widespread conviction that the managerial agenda is already full and that managing different communication channels in a responsive way is impossible given the existing workload (Robson & Tourish, 2005, p. 214). Quirke (1996) has additionally emphasized that managers are poor at evaluating their effectiveness as communicators.
Notwithstanding the fact that communication is often mentioned as an important factor in ensuring organizational information flows, there is still little understanding as to what the effects of ESS are on managers' ability to manage staff (Huang, Baptista & Galliers, 2013, p. 115). We are convinced that gatekeeping theory could prove valuable in analyzing this question. In the following section we will approach questions related to the adoption of ESS from an communication perspective.
There is substantial scholarly debate about the extent to which information technology affects organizational structure. Techno-optimists and internet-gurus have widely proclaimed that web 2.0 leads to empowerment. This discourse, emphasizing the "liberating" effects of social software, has been adopted by private and public actors alike (OECD, 2007; Evans, 2007). It is true that the interactive nature of digital communication is increasingly recognized (Servaes & Malikhao, 2005) and social software, including popular networking sites, have done their part to allow the public with ICT and internet access to voice their opinion in an increasingly globalized media-sphere. Therefore there is certainly truth to the observation of Groysberg & Slind (2009, p. 80) that "a shift toward greater interactivity reflects a shift in the use of communication channels."
Although the debate is certainly interesting, it is hardly new. When considering the impact of social software on organizations it is useful to look at older literature about the introduction of IT in work environments. Similar hopes and fears return when new media are introduced in businesses and society at large (Fenton, 2009, p. 6). Often the adoption of technology is pictured as a shock to which actors, or social entities like organizations, have to adopt (Mansell, 2012). Within the organization literature this line of thought has led to the development of New-form theory, sometimes labeled as "new-form" , of which the basic idea is that changes affecting organizations trigger structural modifications within these entities (Halal, 1994; Wigard, Picot & Reichwald, 1997; Palmer & Dunford, 1997; Schwarz, 2002).
However, we must be careful with technological determinism. Even in the management literature can be found that the mere availability of technology does not necessarily lead to its adoption. Additionally it would be wrong to simply assume that technologies with similar features are equally successful in different contexts. Organizations, although they are sometimes seen as "mini-versions" of society (Parent, 2008, p. 148), certainly have different characteristics that affect the way they operate and how to integrate technology into their system. We can therefore not rely solely on our knowledge about the adoption of Public Social Networks (PSN) in order to understand the adoption process of ESN.
It is true that technology can affect social structures but these structures can in turn affect the ways the technology can be used. Numerous authors studying the effect of IT and internet technology have made us conscious that new technologies can have what Schwarz (2012, p. 173) called "a power restricting bias" (Kraemer, 1991; Markus, 1983; Pinsonneault & Kraemer, 1997; Robey & Boudreau, 1999; Zuboff, 1988).
Powerful actors, such as high-ranking managers in organizations, can affect to a considerable extent how technology is used within the existing structure. It is therefore important to emphasize the political side of organizations and to consider the context in which these entities operate. Baltatzis (2008, p. 79), elaborating on the ideas of Foucault (1977), writes that "conditioning, surveillance and control can be just as as powerful as more traditional models of power."
Despite all the theory and speculation regarding the "democratizing" effect of social media, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence of the effects that these tools have on organizational structures and processes. Part of this problem can be related to the absence of longitudinal studies and the difficulties of researchers to get access to relevant data. A rare exception is the study of Stieglitz, Riemer & Meske (2014, p. 10) who have found that the presence of ESS can lead to a "rebalancing of influence" since they observed that communication activity is a better predictor of communication influence in the network than someone's formal position in the hierarchy. Nevertheless, most organizations are still managed along the lines of a pyramid-shaped "chain of command". As a result we cannot ignore the impact of the management class on how information technology is used.
Answering the question why organizations adopt Enterprise Social Software (ESS) is not as straightforward as providing an answer to the question why individuals were interested in adopting social media in their private lives. There are considerable differences that deserve to be highlighted. Although we do not assert that individuals act in total isolation from their social context we do argue that the organizational context offers a particular environment that affects the adoption process itself.
For starters, based on the work of Rousseau (1995) we use the concept of "psychological contract" to underline that the relationship between employee and employer is a social and psychological contract - often formalized in written form - in which the former generally refers decisions that affect the organization to the latter. This structure, visualized in the form of the classic pyramid-shaped organizational chart, affects the shape of the communication flow.
In most organizations official communication systems have always been introduced by a small group of decision-makers, sometimes advised and assisted by a "communication expert". Bound by their social contract employees have been expected to integrate these systems into their daily work routines. For most of the time these employees were treated as a passive audience and - in line with management systems - information was pushed down with the help of broadcast media of which the in-house organ was the most obvious form (Johnson et al., 1994).
The idea of "closed" media-systems was tenable as long as there was no alternative to expensive and technical systems to broadcast messages to a wider audience. However, previous studies have openly called into question what they call "the myth" of the passive audience (Blumler, 1979). There is evidence that even in these "closed media systems" audiences actively engage with the meaning of received messages. In some cases the official information channels were challenged by unofficial information, sometimes called "rumors" or "gossip" that spread through the "grapevine" (Crampton et al., 1998).
With the introduction of the internet and advanced information systems the borders of closed media systems have repeatedly been called into question. The enormous popularity of Social Network Sites (SNS) have put these borders under even greater stress. The first reaction of many organizations was to ban and outlaw the use of these channels from the workfloor (Li, 2010; Qualman 2011). However, the increasing popularity of mobile devices and wireless internet has turned these efforts into a lost battle. Software developers have grabbed this opportunity to develop systems that imitate the features of social web technologies but allow traditional gatekeepers, like corporate communication and IT departments, to stay in control over the communication flow. The threat was turned into an opportunity with considerable hopes that social technologies would be used for increased collaboration, knowledge sharing and interaction among employees (Omilion-Hodges & Baker, 2014).
Most of the scientific literature found on enterprise social software can be labeled "administrative" or "functional" (El Ouirdi et al., 2015). This means that studies often focus on how technological innovations can improve existing work processes in order to increase output through higher productivity, lower costs or both. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that most research has focused on the individual adoption of ESS or the functional aspects of these platforms like knowledge sharing (Razmerita, Kirchner & Nabeth, 2014; Cao et al., 2012). It is in this same trend that we can find studies focused on calculating the "Return On Investment" (ROI) of social media initiatives (Kask et al., 2012; Steinhüser & Smolnik, 2011).
The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) are just two of the most widely cited models to explain users' propensity to adopt a technology. Building on the Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) and adjusted for Information Systems (Davis, 1986) the TAM allowed scholars like Antonius and colleagues (2015) to determine the factors that affect employees' behavioral intention to adopt ESS. Although the authors recognize the influence of organizational factors and organizational culture, they admit the incapacity of the model to explain "why users choose to adopt the technology in question (p. 39)."
In some cases employees have already adopted an enterprise social network and traditional gatekeepers are forced to deal with what is essentially a "fait accomplis" (Miles & Mangold, 2014). There is, as far as we know, no existing research on what happens to these platforms once they are embraced by the organizational establishment and integrated into the corporate media mix. Are these platforms, if they were widely used before, still as popular after they have been adopted by traditional gatekeepers?
According to recent research ESS did nog bring about an open, participative and knowledge-sharing work environment in organizations around the globe (Denyer, Parry & Flowers, 2011). Several explanations can be found in the literature. Alarifi & Sedera (2013, p. 1) argue that Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) are often offered to the employees with a utilitarian focus in mind. This behavior can be partly explained by the techno-determinist assumption that the adoption of technology will automatically lead to users changing platforms when thinking about collaboration or information sharing. In some cases managers seem to have made the mistake of approaching the new tools to push content, using it as an extra "management propaganda" channel. This may lead employees to think that the company is the "ultimate beneficiary of Enterprise 2.0 (Denyer, Parry & Flowers, 2011).
Authors like Orlikowski (2008), Pickering and Guzik (2008) have asserted that a social constructivist perspective could offer a valid alternative to technocratic perspectives on the adoption of technology in organizations. Design aspects of the technology are important in gaining user acceptance (Bauer et al., 2006; Davern & Wilkin, 2008; Jung et al., 2010; Zhang, 2007) but so is the design of the social structure. Some claim the dawn of multivocality (Huang, Baptista & Galliero, 2013, p. 121) and advocate the development of "a supportive organizational context in which active participation and free exchange of viewpoints is valued and encouraged." Groysberg & Slind (2009, p. 84) take the idea even further by saying that "one-way broadcast messaging is a relic" and corporate communication will, in time, give way to organizational conversation in which the "power of interpersonal communication (p. 78)" is valued and "self-regulation by employees fills the void left by top-down control (p. 82)." These optimistic accounts of user empowerment through technology must be looked at in more detail.
Blogging away about my PhD. My goal is to keep you up to date about the progress made in my research. Stay tuned for more news and feel free to interact and comment.