Nature and functions of communication

Communication may be formally defined as any process whereby decisional premises are transmitted from one member of an organization to another. It is obvious that without communication there can be no organization, for there is no possibility then of the group influencing the behavior of the individual. Not only is communication absolutely essential to organization, but the availability of particular techniques of communication will in large part determine the way in which decision-making functions can and should be distributed throughout the organization. The possibility of permitting a particular individual to make a particular decision will often hinge on whether there can be transmitted to him the information he will need to make a wise decision, and whether he, in turn, will be able to transmit his decision to other members of the organization whose behavior it is supposed to influence.

Communication in organizations is a two-way process: it comprehends both the transmittal to a decisional center (i.e. an individual vested with the responsibility for making particular decisions) of orders, information, and advice; and the transmittal of the decisions reached frnm this renter to other parts of the orpanization. Moreover, it is a organization. The information and orders that flow downward through the formal channels of authority and the information that flows upward through these same channels are only a small part of the total network of communications in any actual organization.1

The information and knowledge that have a bearing on decisions arise at various points in the organization. Sometimes the organization has its own “sensory organs”—the intelligence unit of a military organization, or the market analysis section of a business firm. Sometimes individuals are recruited and installed in positions for the knowledge they are presumed already to possess—a legal division. Sometimes the knowledge develops on the job itself—the lathe operator is the first one to know when his machine breaks down. Sometimes the knowledge is knowledge of other decisions that have been made—the executive turns down one request for expenditure of funds because he knows that he has already committed these funds to another use.

In all these cases particular individuals in the organization are possessed of information that is relevant to particular decisions that have to be made. An apparently simple way to allocate the function of decisionmaking would be to assign to each member of the organization those decisions for which he possesses the relevant information. The basic difficulty in this is that not all the information relevant to a particular decision is possessed by a single individual. If the decision is then dismembered into its component premises and these allocated to separate individuals, a communication process must be set up for transmitting these components from the separate centers to some point where they can be combined and transmitted, in turn, to those members in the organization who will have to carry them out.

Only in the case where the man who is to carry out a decision is also the man best fitted to make that decision is there no problem of communication— and in this exceptional case there is of course no reason for organization. In all other cases means must be devised for transmitting information from its organizational sources to decisional centers, from centers where component decisions are made to centers where these are combined, and from the latter to the points in the organization where the decisions are to be carried out.

Military organization has developed especially elaborate procedures for accomplishing the gathering and transmittal of information. An important reason for this is that the information on which military deci- sions— particularly tactical decisions—depend is of a rapidly changing nature, ascertainable only at the moment of decision.

Military information is essential to the efficient preparation and execution of strategical and tactical plans. It constitutes a vital element in the commander’s estimate of the situation and decision. Continuous research of information by all available means throughout the course of operations is necessary to the successful operations of all units .. .

Information collected by combat units in the field relates chiefly to the enemy forces with which they are in contact. ..

The necessary orientation is given to the research of information by the issuance of instructions to subordinate units indicating the points of greatest importance to the execution of the commander’s plan of operations and to the security of the command.. . .

Each unit commander, in his own zone of operation, directs the research of information in accordance with instructions received, and in addition independently carries out such researches as are dictated by his special situation or required for the execution of the operation in which he is engaged.

The evaluation, collation, and analysis of military information is the duty of the intelligence division of the general staff of large units and of the intelligence agencies of brigades, regiments, and battalions.. .

Analysis of the information received leads to a more or less com- plete reconstruction of the enemy’s situation and activities and fre- quently furnishes the best indication of his intentions.2

The difficulties of transmission from sources of information to decision centers tend to draw the latter toward the former, while the difficulties of transmission from decision centers to points of action create a pull in the opposite direction. The task of properly locating decision centers is one of balancing these opposing pulls.

The pulls that tend to bring about a centralization of the decisionmaking functions and a consequent separation of decision from action have already been discussed from a slightly different viewpoint in the previous chapter. These pulls are the need for responsibility, expertise, and coordination. The two principal pulls in the opposite direction— that of decentralization—are, first, the fact that a very large portion of the information that is relevant to decisions originates at the operating level, and second, that the separation of decision from action increases the time and man-power costs of making and transmitting decisions.

The formal system of communications in any organization—those channels and media of communication which have been consciously and deliberately established—is soon supplemented by an equally important informal network of communications based on social relations within the organization. The relationship between the formal and the informal system is best understood through an examination of the media of communication.

1. Media of Formal Communication

The most obvious media of communication are the spoken word and memoranda and letters addressed from one member of an organization to another. A number of specialized written media need to be distinguished from the ordinary memorandum or letter. First, there is “paper flow”— the movement of a document from one point to another of an organization where it is successively processed. Next there are records and formal reports. Finally, there are manuals of organization practice and procedure.

Oral Communications. Only to a limited extent is any formal system of oral communications ordinarily established in the scheme of organization. To a certain degree the system of formal authority creates a presumption that oral communication will take place primarily between individuals and their immediate superiors or subordinates; but these are certainly never the exclusive channels of communications.

To a certain degree, also, the formal organization may place limits upon the ease with which upward communication takes place. Individuals at higher levels of the organization may be relatively inaccessible to all except their immediate subordinates. In military organizations, formal rules are developed to govern this matter of “accessibility”—the private speaks to the captain by permission of the sergeant—but in other organizations, even when the executive maintains an official “open door” policy, accessibility is regulated by informal social controls plus the device of a private secretary. In this case accessibility is really governed by the informal rather than the formal organization.

Physical propinquity may be a very real factor in determining the fre- quency of oral communication, and hence, the layout of offices is one of the important formal determinants of the communication system. Even the advent of the telephone has not very much diminished the importance of this factor, since a telephone conversation is by no means equiv-

Memoranda and Letters. The flow of memoranda and letters is more often subjected to formal control, particularly in large organizations, than is oral communication. In some organizations it is actually required that all written communications follow the lines of authority; but this is not common. Slightly more common is the requirement that communications skip not more than one link in the chain of authority. That is, if two individuals in different divisions of the same department wish to communicate, the communication must go to the first division head, from him to the second division head, and thence to the second individual, by-passing the head of the department.

In most organizations, however, no such strict requirements are imposed, except in the transmission of orders—a topic that has been covered in the previous chapter. “Clearance” rules are quite frequently established, however, that require copies of communications to be sent up the regular channels when the communication itself has cut across lines.

Paper-Flow. In certain cases—this is typical of organizations handling financial matters, like insurance companies, accounting departments, and Federal lending agencies—the organization’s work, or some part of it, centers around the processing of a piece of paper. In a life insurance company, for example, applications are received, examined, accepted or rejected, policies issued, policy-holders billed for premiums, premiums processed, and benefits paid. The file representing the individual policy is the focal center of the organization’s work. This file is moved from one point in the organization to another for various types of action—reviewing the application, recording a change of beneficiary, approving payment of benefits, and so on. As it moves it carries with it all the information regarding that policy which is needed in taking the required administrative action. The individual at that point to which it is moved for a particular action presumably possesses the knowledge of company regulations that must be applied to the policy information in order to reach a decision as to its disposition. The file permits the combining of the information relating to the individual policy-holder, which originates in the field, with the information relating to the company’s practices and obligations, which originates in the central office. In this case the combining is accomplished by moving the information obtained in the field into the central office for decision through the flow of paper. In other situations this might be done by transmitting the central office information to the field through instructions, manuals, and the like.

The distinguishing characteristic of records and reports is that they specify for the person who makes them out on what occasions he is expected to make reports (peri- odically or on the occurrence of a particular event or circumstance), and what information he is to include in them. This is highly important, for it largely relieves each organization member of the important but difficult task of continually deciding what part of the information he possesses should be passed on to other organization members, and in what form.

Manuals. The function of manuals is to communicate those organization practices which are intended to have relatively permanent application. In their absence, permanent policies will reside only in the minds of permanent organization members, and will soon cease to have any great influence upon practice. The preparation and revision of manuals serves to determine whether the organization members have a common understanding of the organization structure and policies. An important use of manuals, either in connection with or apart from a period of vestibule training, is to acquaint new organization members with these policies.

An almost inevitable consequence of the preparation and use of manuals is to increase the degree of centralization in decision-making. In the interest of “completeness” and “uniformity” the individuals preparing a manual almost always include in it matters that have previously been left to individuals to decide, and embody these matters in organization policy. This is by no means all sheer gain, for “completeness” and “uniformity,” unless required in the interest of coordination, do not have any particular value for an organization.

2. Informal Communications

No matter how elaborate a system of formal communications is set up in the organization, this system will always be supplemented by informal channels. Through these informal channels will flow information, advice, and even orders (the reader will recall that, in terms of our definitions, an authority relation can exist even though the superior is not vested with any sanctions). In time, the actual system of relationships may come to differ widely from those specified in the formal organization scheme.

The informal communications system is built around the social rela- tionships of the members of the organization. In this way “natural leaders” secure a role in the organization that is not always reflected in the organization chart.

The informal communication system takes on additional importance when it is remembered that the behavior of individuals in organizations is oriented not only toward the organization’s goals but also to a certain extent toward their personal goals, and that these two sets of goals are not always mutually consistent. Hence, when organization members deal with one another, each must attempt to assess the extent to which the other’s attitudes and actions are conditioned by personal rather than organizational motives. When a primary relationship has been established between them, it becomes easier for each to make this assessment, and easier for them to be frank in regard to their motives. Requests for cooperation will less often meet with the reaction: “You run your department, and I will run mine.” (This problem of identification with, or loyalty to, a particular segment of the organization will be discussed more fully in Chapter X below.)

Primary relationships can be unfriendly, of course, just as easily as they can be friendly, although there is what might be called a “presumption of f riendliness” in most social relationships in our society. It becomes a major task of the executives, then, to maintain attitudes of friendliness and cooperation in these direct personal relationships so that the informal communication system will contribute to the efficient operation of the organization rather than hinder it.

The informal communications system is sometimes used by organization members to advance their personal aims. From this arises the phenomenon of cliques—groups that build up an informal network of communications and use this as a means of securing power in the organization. Rivalry among cliques, in turn, may lead to general unfriendliness in social relationships and defeat the purpose of the informal communications system.

There has been little systematic analysis of the way in which the formal organization structure encourages or hinders the formation of cliques, or of the techniques that can be used by executives to deal with cliques and minimize their harmfulness. On the first score, it may be conjectured that weakness of the formal system of communications and failure to secure an adequate measure of coordination through that system probably encourage the development of cliques. The coordinating function that cliques perform under such circumstances is closely analogous to the coordinating function performed by political machines in a highly decentralized governmental structure like the American system.

of executives who lunch together. In addition to these there is the great mass of communication that goes under the head of “gossip.” In most organizations the “grapevine” probably plays, on the whole, a constructive role. Its chief disadvantages are, first, that it discourages frankness, since confidential remarks may be spread about, and, second, that the information transmitted by the grapevine is very often inaccurate. On the other hand, in addition to transmitting information that no one has thought to transmit formally, the grapevine is valuable as a barometer of “public opinion” in the organization. If the administrator listens to it, it apprises him of the topics that are subjects of interest to organization members, and their attitudes toward these topics. Even for this latter purpose, of course, the grapevine needs to be supplemented by other channels of information.

3. Personal Motivation and Communication

We have just seen that personal motivation may have considerable influence upon the growth of the informal communication system. In particular, individuals may develop this system as a means of increasing their own power and influence in the organization. There is another way in which personal motivation affects communication—both formal and informal. Information does not automatically transmit itself from its point of origin to the rest of the organization; the individual who first obtains it must transmit it. In transmitting it, he will naturally be aware of the consequences its transmission will have for him. When he knows that the boss is going to be “burned up” by the news, the news is very likely to be suppressed.3

Hence, information tends to be transmitted upward in the organization only if (1) its transmission will not have unpleasant consequences for the transmitter, or (2) the superior will hear of it anyway from other channels, and it is better to tell him first, or (3) it is information that the superior needs in his dealings with his own superiors, and he will be displeased if he is caught without it. In addition, there is often failure to transmit information upward simply because the subordinate cannot visualize accurately what information his superior needs in order to make his decisions.

A major communications problem, then, of the higher levels of the administrative hierarchy is that much of the information relevant to the decisions at this level originates at lower levels, and may not ever reach the higher levels unless the executive is extraordinarily alert. As has already been pointed out, an important function of a system of formal records and reports is to transfer from the subordinate to the superior the responsibility for deciding what information will be transmitted upward.

There is a converse problem that arises when a superior withholds information from a subordinate. This, again, may be accidental—the superior does not realize that his subordinate needs the information. On the other hand, the superior may use his exclusive possession of information as a means of maintaining his authority over the subordinate. It is hard to see that the latter, which is usually a symptom of an incompetent and insecure executive, has any constructive function in organization. The former, equally unfortunate, is of frequent occurrence in most organizations, largely because of lack of sufficient consideration to the needs of downward transmission of information other than orders.

4. Receptivity to Communications

Consideration has been given thus far principally to the source of com- munications. Attention must be given also to their destination. It has been pointed out that the attention that will be given a communication by its recipient is not simply a matter of logic. The source of the communication, and the way in which it is presented, will determine for its recipient how much consideration he will give it. If formal channels are maintained, communications flowing through these channels will have their effect enhanced by the authority which their “official” character gives them. Unsolicited information or advice, on the other hand, may be given little or no attention.

This dependence of the weight of a communication upon its source applies in upward as well as downward transmittal—suggestions transmitted upward may receive scanty consideration unless the person offering the suggestion is in a formal advisory position and transmits it “through channels.” Much frustration results therefrom, particularly in the lower levels of the organization, but it is hard to see how this can be completely eliminated without destroying the organization structure.

The attention a communication will receive will also depend upon its form. In the discussion of the authority relation in the previous chapter, emphasis was placed on the acceptance of authority by the subordinate. The crucial point is whether the recipient of an order, or of any other kind of communication, is influenced by the communication in his actions or decisions, or whether he is not.

In some cases formal authority may be a sufficient inducement for the subordinate to comply; but usually the communication must reason, plead, and persuade, as well as order, if it is to be effective.

In the same connection, consideration must be given to whether the communication should be oral or written; and whether it should be in formal or informal language. In every case the state of mind of the recipient, his attitudes and motivations, must be the basic factors in determining the design of the communication. The function of the communication, after all, is not to get something off the mind of the person transmitting it, but to get something into the mind and actions of the person receiving it.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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