The Sign-Meaning Chain and its Implications for the Organization

The Sign-Meaning Chain and its Implications for the Organization

José Sanchez-Alarcos, Elena Revilla
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-883-3.ch116
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For anyone with an education in literary or philosophical confines, coming across the word “semiotics” in a business dictionary might seem strange. It is not among the terms that make up the common jargon of the manager, however, it is acquiring more importance as organizations become more complex. Although the concept is very old and it could be referred to, the philosopher, Umberto Eco (1991) was who got the concept out of the most tightly knit academic circles in his “treating general semiotics.” Eco defines semiotics as “the science that studies the life of signs within the framework of social life” while the R.A.E. (Spanish Society of Arts) defines it as “general theory of signs.” Towards the year 1995, the application of the principles of semiotics to organizations started to be used. The reason why a concept close to grammar or language construction should be of interest in business confines must be sought in the development of information systems (Gazendam, 2001). These have converted today’s organization into an ordered set of signs where, instead of “touching” a reality, it is represented by symbols which, at the same time are represented by other symbols, and so on, until n number of times. As a result, organizations have generated a language of electronic signs more and more distanced from tangible reality because the mobility of the sign is much higher than that which it actually represents. This is the phenomenon which has raised interest in semiotics from the confines of organizations.
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Any analysis of an organization, without being exhaustive, will show it as an ordered set of signs even from before the arrival of information systems. The formalization process, vital for any complex organization, consists in substituting a tangible reality for indicators that represent it and are easier to handle than reality itself.

The constant search for models useful to clearly understand what is happening in an organization, shows how important it is to use systems of signs that truly reflect reality. Models such as Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard (1993), the European Foundation Quality Management model, or even classic strategic models such as Porter’s 5 forces or others, respond to a common need: We have no direct perception of reality and we need to create system of signs which are useful to us as a map of this reality.

The problem is that the map is not the territory and maps can be more or less worthy in function of their quality and even the existence of cataclysms which can modify the territory. The map, understood as such a system of symbols used to make decisions about the reality it represents, has to refer to a meaning or “tangible reality,” however, the growing complexity of a system of symbols that make up the organization has lead users to, as a part of their work, handle them without having any clear idea of what they are supposed to represent (Revilla & Sánchez-Alarcos, 2004).

Information systems have introduced even more complexity in these systems of symbols resulting in representations of representations of representations ….nearly ad-infinitum. By doing it in this way, a fundamental weakness has also been introduced in the organizations: the longer the sign-meaning chain is, the more likely it is to break. We are so used to using a symbolic logic that we do not perceive the importance of this fact that surrounds us in all facets of life.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Reality (VR): A technology which allows a user to interact with a computer-simulated environment, be it a real or imagined one. Most current virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones.

Information System (IS): The system of persons, data records, and activities that process the data and information in a given organization, including manual processes or automated processes. Usually the term is used as a synonymous for computer-based information systems, which is only the information technologies component of an information system.

Knowledge Transfer: In the fields of organizational development and organizational learning, it is the practical problem of getting a packet of knowledge from one part of the organization to another (or all other) part of the organization.

Workforce: The labor pool in employment. It is generally used to describe those working for a single company or industry. The term generally excludes the employers or management, and implies those involved in manual labor. It may also mean all those that are available for work.

Scientific Management: Tendency founded by Frederick W. Taylor based on the fact that the workman best suited to actually doing the work is incapable of fully understanding this science, without the guidance and help of those who are working with him or over him, either through lack of education or through insufficient mental capacity. To fix that situation, it should be necessary that there shall be a far more equal division of the responsibility between the management and the workmen.

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