Transformative Organizational Communication Practices

Transformative Organizational Communication Practices

Philip J. Salem (Texas State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2823-4.ch007
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Most efforts at transformational organizational change fail. In order to explain that failure and the potential for success, this chapter introduces the construct of organizational communication practices and develops a theory to explain how these processes constitute organizations as complex adaptive social systems. Five axioms anchor the theory, and the author derives theorems explaining the important features of attempting to change transformative organizational communication practices.
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Communication and Organizational Change

First order organizational change is about simple learning and minor adaptations—the continuous, incremental adjustments that lead to differences in degree and more efficient outcomes (Argyris, 1992). Second order change, transformational change, involves altering the core features of organizations – goals, authority relationships, organizational structures, markets, or technologies (Aldrich & Ruef, 2006; Rao & Singh, 1999). Transformational change may appear to be discontinuous or episodic (Nadler, Shaw, & Walton, 1995), but it involves learning that challenges the premises behind first order change (Argyris, 1992). First order change refers to differences in degree, but second order change denotes differences in kind (Adler, 1967). First order change is about doing things better, but second order change is about doing better things. Change management is an expression that refers to efforts at controlling and directing both types of change.

Strategic initiatives are efforts at managing transformational change. These are typically top-down efforts aimed at employee commitment to the changes. Enduring improvements appear to be impossible without a change of culture (Cameron & Quinn, 1999). Some classic research indicated transformational change efforts were successful only about a third of the time (Cameron & Quinn, 1999; Meyer, Goes, & Brooks, 1995) and more recent estimates place the figure at or below 20 percent (Cabry & Haughey, 2014; Towers Watson, 2013). Strategic initiatives with the purpose of changing organizational culture succeed less than 20 percent of the time (Smith, 2002). There is a body of literature just dealing with these failures and a multitude of explanations (see Robbins & Finley, 1996), effective communication separates those that were most successful from those that were not (Cabrey & Haughey, 2014), and there are specific identifiable communication patterns associated with failed change efforts (Salem, 2008). Transformational change may be less a product of strategic initiatives and more about the natural ways changes emerge in any social system.

Most organizational change literature treats communication as a separate part of “the organization”. Weick (1969) argued that investigating the process of organizing was more true to the experiences of people than researching organizations. Farace, Monge and Russell (1977) offered one of the first organizational communication textbooks attempting to focus on process. Johnson (1977) contended “the ’organizing’ of organizations can be examined as communication. Without communication, no organizations exist. Communication is not just something that happens within organizations. Communicating is organizing” (p. 3). Extending her earlier work (Johnson, 1976/1999), she went on to describe three communication coordination formats that organize social activity. These works were some of the earliest attempts to investigate the constitutive nature of communication (cf. Putnam, Nicotera, & McPhee, 2009).

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