Organizational communication is generally defined as the creation of meaning and its exchange within a broader network of formally interdependent groups seeking to achieve a common goal. Organizational communication is commonly studied within business environments. However, contrary to popular belief, organizational communication goes far beyond the business setting. Organizational communication also takes place inside organizations like the military, churches, nonprofits, schools, and many other types of institutions.

Given its broad applicability, organizational communication is a very common area of study in graduate communication programs. Some schools place a greater focus on the theoretical study of communication dynamics within groups and larger organizations, while other programs are more interested in providing students with a practical, industry-focused perspective, helping them directly apply communication skills to careers in various industries.

Defining Organizational Communication

An organization is broadly defined as an assembly of formally interdependent groups that interact to achieve a common goal. Therefore, organizational communication is meaning creation and exchange within an assembly of formally interdependent groups that interact to achieve a common goal. The study of organizational communication is broadly interested in how communication is used to create and maintain organizations, support the achievement of the organization’s larger goals, and project the identity and purpose of the organization to external stakeholders.

A common misconception about organizational communication is to conflate it with business communication. While businesses are a type of organization, not all organizations are businesses. As mentioned above, religious institutions, nonprofits, and schools are examples of organizations that require effective communication with both internal and external stakeholders in order to function. With this in mind, all individuals engage in organizational communication in some capacity.

As with defining any field of study, it is difficult to set aside organizational communication as its own distinct area of research. In many cases, there is overlap between organizational communication and other types of communication research. For example, an interaction between a supervisor and subordinate is at once a form of interpersonal communication and organizational communication. Likewise, the communication within a specific department could be considered small group communication and organizational communication.

Ultimately, organizational communication researchers are interested in how various aspects of information exchange influence organizational outcomes. As a result, they will regularly leverage theory that is distinctly within the field of organizational communication while at the same time using theory from various other fields like interpersonal, group, and intercultural communication. Organizational communication researchers are interested in the sending and receiving of messages, how those messages are created and decoded, how various environmental factors influence communication exchange, and how communication exchange can succeed or fall short in helping an organization achieve its goals. The following list illustrates the type of questions asked by organizational communication researchers:

  • When a staff member is fired, how should that be communicated within their department? How should it be communicated to external stakeholders with whom the employee regularly interacted?
  • When an organization hires an external vendor to support an individual department, how should leadership frame the hiring of that vendor when communicating with the individual department?
  • Is it better to have a flat or vertical hierarchy? What factors influence the performance of one over the other?
  • When two departments have overlapping responsibilities and this results in conflict over that overlap, how should this issue be resolved?
  • To what extent should large donors be allowed to influence decisions in a nonprofit?
  • Should employers require that employees answer emails outside of work hours?
  • Should a leader treat high performers differently from low performers? In a case where they do, what are the results?

These questions represent just a few of the many asked by organizational communication researchers within the last several years. Given its encompassing scope, organizational communication offers new scholars many avenues as they begin their research and career endeavors.

Common Theories Examining Relationships Within Organizations

Although organizational communication stands as one of the older disciplines within Communication Studies and has many of its own theories, organizational communication does not exist in isolation. To reiterate a previous point, organizational communication builds upon concepts found in other communication disciplines. The following is a list of theories pertaining to relationships within an organization that are influenced by interpersonal and small group communication:

Leader Member Exchange Theory: This theory, often abbreviated as LMX theory, is used to analyze leadership from the perspective of relationships. This theory posits that every leader experiences a series of exchanges with their subordinates. Over the course of time, the aggregate exchanges that a leader has with a subordinate defines their relationship, which ultimately impacts the subordinate’s ability to influence decisions, determines their level of responsibility in the organization, and defines the access they have to knowledge and resources. This happens between a leader and all of their followers and, as a result, some subordinates end up with a higher quality relationship with their supervisor than others. This results in the development of in-group members and out-group members. As one might imagine, the in-group members have greater access to knowledge, influence, and resources.

Network Theory: Network theory offers a way of looking at communication as it happens across an organization. This theory suggests that, as individuals within an organization communicate, they create links that, in sum, create a network of communication exchange. Broadly speaking, there are two types of networks: formal and emergent. The formal network is that which is determined by the organizational chart. Emergent networks, in contrast, are those that develop organically as the result of informal communication over time.
For example, a sales executive may report to a sales manager who reports to a sales director. This is the formal network outlined by the organization’s communication chart itself. However, sales team members are often responsible for developing contracts. These contracts often determine how customers pay. As a result, a sales executive may regularly need to discuss billing and invoicing with members of the accounting team. This is part of the emergent network. Likewise, imagine that a company has a picnic and a member of the marketing team meets someone involved in research and development. These two might become friends and start meeting up for coffee once a week. This too would be representative of the emergent network.

Communication researchers and practitioners are interested in analyzing communication networks. Doing so can provide insight into how individual links and links between groups affect communication throughout the organization. In turn, this can give insight into how communication impacts organizational success.

Common Structural Theories in Organizational Communication

Organizational communication scholars also examine communicative phenomena as they occur across larger organizations. This big-picture, structural approach to organizational communication allows scholars to bring to the fore the ways in which power is communicated, and how that communication of power influences an organization’s culture and structure. In determining the ways in which communication occurs broadly within an organization, scholars can then investigate the ways these large-scale communicative practices affect the individual employee, as well as the organization’s purpose and performance as a whole.

Organizational Control Theory: This theory posits that everyday interaction within an organization can result in control over employees. This theory suggests that there are five ways control is exerted within an organization:

  • The first type of control is simple control — employees should do what they are told because of the benefits the organization gives them.
  • The second type of control is technical control. For example, if the IT department blocks Facebook on all of the computers, employees cannot use that website during the day.
  • The third type of control is bureaucratic control, which is control exerted through formal rules. To illustrate, forcing employees to submit expense reports in a specific format is a form of bureaucratic control.
  • The fourth type of control is cultural control, which is exerted through common practices, shared values, and beliefs. Imagine an individual who always takes their lunch to work. If this person were to join an organization where everyone went out to lunch together on a daily basis, this individual would be pressured to do the same to comply with the cultural norm.
  • Concertive control is the fifth and final form of control exerted by an organization. In many ways, it is an extension of cultural control that relies upon interpersonal relationships and team values. For example, an employee may think that 9-5 is a healthy work schedule, but if they are surrounded by team members who regularly work 11 hour days, they too will feel obliged to work long hours.

Structuration Theory: This theory is built on the idea of structuration, which is the development of norms, rules, roles, and responsibilities based on interactions that take place over time. Structuration takes place in all areas of life, and structuration theory applies this concept to organizations. This theory posits that structure is developed in three stages: conception, implementation, and reception.

For example, imagine a company that decides to make a new widget, a decision which will inevitably impact communication within the organization. The decision to make this widget is conception. The implementation stage takes place when a member of leadership puts rules and roles in place to manage the development of this new widget and makes the announcement to the company’s staff that this change is taking place. Finally, reception is the point at which employees begin to respond to this new change and the formal rules, roles, and responsibilities that emerged from the change. As one might imagine, communication researchers are interested in what communication takes place at each of these stages and how it impacts the organization overall.

Organizational Culture: Just as nations and states have cultures composed of common practices, rituals, values, and standards, so do organizations. Organizational culture can be described as a shared reality among organizational members that is developed over time through stories, rituals, and symbols that convey shared meaning and values. Organizational communication scholars are interested in how organizations develop culture, how culture can be changed, what contributes to a positive or negative culture within an organization, and how culture impacts organizational outcomes.

Additional Resources

Organizational communication is a very popular field of study given that it tends to be a hybrid subject with a vast number of opportunities for theoretical inquiry and practical application. Students interested in learning more about organizational communication should review the following resources:

About the Author: Caleb Malik is a digital marketing strategist. He earned his Master's in Communication from Illinois State University, where he focused on organizational communication and quantitative research methods.

About the Author: Christopher Wernecke is a Ph.D. student and Graduate Instructor at Georgia State University, where he is currently studying collective memory and American cancer rhetoric in the Department of Communication. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul University, and a Master of Arts in Communication and Media Studies from Texas State University.