Impacts of Culture and Technology on Organizational Communication

July 17, 2000

This statement addresses two dynamics: 1) culture powerfully impacts communications, yet 2) technology can change communications, organizations, and cultures.

The meaning conveyed in any communication is determined by the receiver rather than the sender. Communication is efficient when intended meanings are transferred at low cost. Fads such as management by walking around (MBWA) overestimate the value and underestimate the costs associated with such communications. In the long run, no organization can sustain a competitive advantage by such costly, feel-good means. Two causes of communication failure are: 1) no systematic attempt is made to measure whether the intended results are achieved, and 2) managers do not ask what information employees need.

The energy organizations draw from their environments is called inputs, and the use of all inputs should effectively reflect the goals of the organization. When organizations produce outputs that fail to reflect their goals, they lack accountability. Accountability requires that transformations occur within an organizational structure but the primary objective of traditional organizations is to sustain themselves, which may or may not coincide with the interests of their stakeholders. Corporate constructs insulate individuals from consequences, and by their very nature, bureaucratic organizations foster inefficiency and diminish accountability. Those may be necessary tradeoffs to apply energy and align resources toward desired results. However, old organizational assumptions and paradigms should be critically and continuously reevaluated.

Groups and organizations do not exist in isolation. They are embedded within larger organizational systems. The theory of the firm holds that organizations form when the cost of transactions becomes too great without them. However, transaction costs are being dramatically reduced through the application of information technology. Many organizational constructs previously required to transact business are being disintermediated. On the other hand, countervailing against the general trend toward increased efficiency are the powers of politics, entrenched bureaucracy, monopoly, and winner-take-all markets.

Most employees are involved in several networks at once, and much of what occurs in organizations has more to do with informal relationships than the formal hierarchy. Generally, organizations are plagued with too much communication, rather than too little. The purpose of culture and of organizations is to empower human beings to resolve common problems. Four dimensions of empowerment include: impact, choice, competence, and meaningfulness. Impact means making a difference. Choice means self-direction and self-determination. Competence means skill, knowledge, experience, and other qualifications. Meaningfulness means harmony with one's own beliefs, ideals, and standards.

By definition, conformance to any organizational imperatives and structures that conflict with one's own values leads toward meaninglessness. While we live in an imperfect world, we need not be doomed to failure to learn to strive toward lesser degrees of imperfection. Integrity is willingness to communicate truth, regardless of the consequences for the individual. Polls have demonstrated that both government as well as corporations are commonly viewed as being untrustworthy. Despite increasing efforts to promote more ethical behaviors, the problem persists and worsens - suggesting that we ought to try something different. The best and easiest thing that organizations can do differently is simply to start managing as organizational assets the myriad E-records that their employees are now generating in the routine course of their business processes. It is virtually unfathomable that organizational leaders are too blind or ignorant to see the need, implying that other factors may play significant roles.

Research has shown that organizational cohesiveness neither increases nor decreases group productivity. Rather, it merely heightens the susceptibility of group members to mutual influence. If highly cohesive groups establish low productivity and ethical standards, group members are likely to conform to those norms. Groups and organizations commonly make poor decisions, in part because their cohesiveness contributes to a mindset that discourages dissent and the rational examination of alternative courses of action.

When people engage in dialog, their attitudes are characterized by honesty, trust, concern for others, open-mindedness, empathy, humility, sincerity, and directness. By contrast, monologue is characterized by deception, superiority, exploitation, domination, insincerity, and distrust. Monologue stifles freedom of expression and treats its targets as objects to be manipulated. Ethical behavior can best be fostered by addressing problems that are systemic to our organizations, cultures, and communications modes. Monologue is characteristic of static hierarchical bureaucracies, whereas dialog is characteristic of dynamic peer-to-peer networks.

In most cultures, oral communications skills are highly valued in the work place and written communications skills are substantially discounted. Talking a good game is more important than delivering the goods. This is disappointing but not surprising. It is a variation on the closely related themes that: a) whom one knows is generally more important than what one knows, and b) form is valued over substance. It is also reflected in the distinction between implicit or tacit knowledge versus explicit knowledge as evidenced in records. Cultures vary in the degree of specificity in their verbal messages. In the United States, for example, effective verbal communication is expected to be relatively explicit, direct, and unambiguous. In Hall's conceptualization of high-context cultures most of the message is embedded in the physical context or internalized in the people, while relatively little is in the explicit, coded portion of the message. Communicators use restricted codes and rely on contextual cues, demonstrating inexact, implicit, and indirect communication patterns. Conversely, low-context cultures rely on elaborated verbal messages and precise, explicit, and straightforward communication patterns.

By definition, technology embeds knowledge and thereby frees human beings from having to assimilate it within the confines of their skulls. To the degree that information is not embedded in technology but is shared among people, it must either be inculcated by socialization or explicitly conveyed in each transaction. Efficiency and effectiveness of business transactions can be served by embedding as much of the necessary information as possible in the technology itself, while making the rest as explicit as possible. Doing so will minimize the amount of resources required to successfully complete transactions. Technology is more easily diffused across cultures because the benefits are more readily apparent than with social patterns or beliefs. Technology exists in the physical world and thus is subject to standards, constraints, and the scientific method. While there may be multiple technological solutions to any problem, when the full truth is known, one is superior. The same is not true in the realm of the unknown and unknowable, where beliefs are the only possible solution and beliefs are fungible.

The introduction of technology may set off a series of related changes. New communication technologies change the nature of work, particularly office work. Katz and Kahn conceive of organizations as open systems, with highly malleable lines dividing them from each other as well as their constituencies and environments. By their very nature, organizations are always involved in transformation processes to fill voids and meet perceived needs. The Internet is not yet open and dynamic enough to eliminate the need for more traditional organizations. However, it has generated enough glimmers of the future so as to enable us to begin to contemplate its dimensions, or lack thereof. Successful organizations will be characterized by voluntary learning networks comprised of informal contacts, self-rule, limited corporate government, and widely distributed decision-making. Such organizations will be continually engaged in putting themselves out of business - by enabling and empowering their constituencies to serve their own enlightened self-interests.

Epitomized by Frederick Taylor, the classical school of organizational theory emphasized structure and mechanization. It will be ironic if the networking capabilities of the cyberage result in renewal of the classical school - by helping to identify and obviate the need for many of the arbitrary organizational artifacts that stand needlessly between suppliers and customers in each minute segment of myriad value chains, worldwide. It has been said that "the computer is the network." It might also be said that the network is the organization. As a network of networks, the Internet has already changed organizations in ways no one could have imagined a few short years ago. What the future holds is equally unknown. However, it will definitely be different, and in the context of an open, dynamic, and personally empowering network, the classical principles take on a much different hue than in the rigid, personally disempowering hierarchies of the past.

Interacting groups with decentralized networks perform better on complex tasks, while coacting groups with centralized networks do well on simple tasks. Interacting groups work closely together on tasks. Coacting groups work on tasks independently while linked through some form of central coordination. Too often, groups working on complex tasks are either treated as coacting groups and over-controlled or they are not supplied with the tools to work effectively together via decentralized networks.

Haiman believes that the development of the human capacity to reason is a goal to which our American society is inherently committed. He labels as unethical any behavior or technique that attempts to circumvent or demean the individual's ability to reason. That is one of the insidious, unrecognized effects of groupthink, which not only afflicts small work groups but is commonly celebrated in the culture of large organizations. It has been said that an informed citizenry is a prerequisite for democracy. Equally important is the need for individuals to exercise independent judgment in applying the power of reason to what they see and hear.

Note: This is a distillation of observations from the reflection journal required for my course in organizational communications and group development.