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.
It has been a while since I published anything on here. I have been busy doing research and as for now I am working on a paper. Meanwhile I figured I could as well publish pieces of text that should be seen as "work in progress". I am open to any comments, suggestions, as always, feel free. I wanted to start with a topic that is closely linked to the general theme of my PhD (to refresh your memory: my PhD should be seen as work at the intersection between internal communication (situated within the broader domain of PR) and social media studies (situated within numerous domain, amongst which the "Information Systems" domain), namely enterprise social media.
Some issues with definitions
Although some authors argue that "Web 2.0 defies a widely agreed upon concise definition" (Murgeson, 2007, p. 35) we would argue that the phenomenon is omnipresent in our digital lives. Building on Castell's (2007) concept of mass-self communication we consider all technology built upon this principle to be social technology. The defining element is the simplicity with which everyday users can publish something on the web and as such defy the traditional gatekeeping role of mass media actors (Meraz, 2009). Web 2.0 applications gained considerable attention with the increasing popularity of Social Network Sites (SNS) like facebook and microblogging services like twitter. It took a substantial part of our global population less than a decade to integrate these new digital platforms into their daily patterns of media consumption (Arora & Predmore, 2013).
Maybe some thought that the rise of social media was just a fad but as we move forward it seems as though we have grown used to the conveniences these digital tools offer (Baltatzis, 2009, p. 2). Even today there is considerable discussion about the speed with which organizations have followed the developments of "the social web". Those organizations that rely on market mechanisms to ensure their existence were fast to adopt the new technologies because they realized that the customer gained the power to subject the organization's reputation to social scrutiny. Social media have given customers the potential to make their voices heard globally (Constantinides, 2008).
Because many organizations are profit-oriented, and customer-centrality is an essential element in the struggle for survival in a competitive marketplace, these enterprises were forced to accept the new reality of being subject to the wishes of an empowered customer who has the power to affect the organization's reputation. However, it is important to add that "the web" is not equal (DiMaggio et al., 2001). Some voices can be heard louder than others and traditional power in off-line social systems can often be transferred to a strong position in the digital social network (Davis, 2010).
The idea that not everyone is equal on the web and that user empowerment has to be put in perspective is an interesting point of departure to look at the introduction of social media technologies in the work environment. Although there is still considerable discussion about the speed with which organizations have appropriated social media for internal use, it is safe to say that this process has been slower than the adoption rate of social media in people's private lives (Baltatzis, 2008, p. 78). There are several explanations why this process has been slower. We will briefly outline current existing knowledge on this topic.
A first important remark we have to make is that large organizations, most likely the ones operating in commercial market environments (although we did not find strong comparative data on global social media adoption between sectors), have been amongst the fastest to adopt social media into their systems. One could argue that they are the ones who had most to gain from the technologies as they allow for a more direct contact with important stakeholders, whether they be customers or employees (Jones, Temperley, Lima, 2009). Large enterprises, sometimes pejoratively called "Behemoths", saw a chance to reinforce their "human face" (Peppers & Rogers, 2012). Since their reputation is often international, even global, social media damage could substantially harm bottom-line results. Several studies have shown that the adoption rate of social media tools amongst SMEs is lower (Chui et al., 2012, p. 6).
Secondly, we must differentiate between what Alarifi & Sedera (2013) have called Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) and Public Social Networks (PSN). PSN or Public Social Media are the platforms, like facebook and twitter, that are adopted by the general public and act as the social media interface between the organization and its external stakeholders. Enterprise social networks are platforms that build on the technology of Web 2.0 but were explicitly designed for communication purposes inside an organization. Today, organizations can choose between dozens of platforms. Amongst the most popular are Yammer, SocialCast, IBM Connections, Tibbr and Mumba Cloud. Some have labeled the introduction of social media technologies in the organization the shift from enterprise 1.0 to enterprise 2.0 (Backhouse, 2009, p. 2). The technology itself has been labeled "enterprise social network", "internal social media", "enterprise social media" and "enterprise social software".
"Internal communication will fall to the pressures of Web 2.0 and social media will become the mainstream inside companies just as it is on the outside (Wright, 2009, p. 430)."
WRIGHT (Marc). First steps in implementing Social Media. In: Wright (Marc) (Ed.). Gower handbook of internal communication. Farnham, Gower, 2009, pp. 429-433.
Can we already confirm or reject this claim? Do we have the necessary hindsight anno 2015?
Stumbled upon something interesting:
"Symmetrical communication inside the organization and participative culture largely result from the structure that top management chooses for the organization. Communicators cannot be successful, therefore, unless they have access to the top-management team that develops an organizational structure (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2006, p. 55)."
Is it possible to determine an exact monetary value for the relationships created through the work of the public relations function?
==> Possibility rejected for reasons explained on p. 35 (more elaborated upon in the first and last of the Excellence books by Grunig)
In a nutshell (p. 35):
"Compensating variation, as economists term this process, provides a way of transforming nonmonetary values, such as the benefit of good relationships to the organization and to society, into monetary values. The idea behind the method is simple. You ask people how much they would be willing to pay to have something. For public relations, you ask members of the dominant coalition or public relations managers how much public relations is worth to them on either a monetary or nonmonetary scale (p. 36)."
Working with a "fractionation scale" in which 100 stands for the typical department "our survey research showed that CEOs and communicators alike agree that public relations returns significantly more than it costs - and more than the typical department in their organization. CEOs estimated the average return-on-investment for public relations to be 186%. This ROI increased to 225% under conditions of excellence. It was 140% for the least excellent public relations departments. CEOs estimated values for public relations in comparison with other management functions to be 160 (where 100 was average) for all departments, 232 for excellent departments, and 109 for less excellent departments (my emphasis, p. 37)."
All this information comes from the following book:
BOTAN (Carl) & HAZLETON (Vincent) (Eds.). Public Relations Theory II. Mahwah (New Jersey), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006, 528 p.
This won't be the most "sexy" blog post I have ever written but it might help researchers to straighten their thoughts. Unfortunately when working on a research project on internal communication you won't find academic conferences dedicated to the subject matter. As researchers in this domain we still need to present our work at PR or corporate communication conferences. The same goes for publishing your work. As far as I know (if there are other scholars reading this, please comment and feel free to contribute to this website if you think I'm omitting important information) there are only a handful of conferences where you can go to. I will make a short list. I'm planning to make a more "formal" list/tab one of these days, so people won't have to go through the blog to find this post.
This month I am analyzing the interviews I had with fifty professionals who are the ones most closely involved with internal communication responsibilities. I selected them from the Belfirst database. I only contacted organizations who were mentioned in the list of the top 250 largest employers in Belgium. Apparent from my data is that facilitating the communication flow both top-down as well as bottom-up is considered the most important function of internal communication. A second related finding is that most internal communication professionals are mainly used to pushing information towards the employees. I have identified four different kinds of interaction and plotted them on an axis which I have named the "communication flow axis". Traditionally, communication professionals assume the role of gatekeeper and feel more comfortable pushing information. This results in talk without (or with very limited) interaction.
Reminds me of the saying: "If a tree falls in a forest..." Out of necessity and self-preservation some communication professionals occasionally organize "employee engagement" or "communication climate" surveys. These forms of interaction are remnants of a patriarchal past. The introduction of interactive collaboration platforms have introduced the possibility to listen instead of talk, to reply instead of harvest.
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.