Communication as the site for the emergence of Organization.

Christopher J. Wheeler


Date of Submission 18 April 2007

Lecturer: Colin Chasi

Content page 1. INTRODUCTION 2.WEICK AND THE PROCESS OF ORGANISING 2.1. Basic components of Weick’s theory 2.2. Sense-making and organizing 2.3. The nature of organizing sense making 3. ROLE ENACTMENT AND COMMUNICATION IN FILM PRODUCTION 4. CONCLUSION 5. SOURCE LIST

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1. INTRODUCTION The process of conceptualizing the modern organization is problematic in its scope and represents a dramatic change from the traditional approaches of Weber’s ‘classical organizational theory’ and Likert’s managerial perspective on human relations. These, and other, earlier approaches appear to have become obsolete in dealing with the complexities of postmodern environmental dynamics and adaptability. Past theorist have concentrated on the role of order and power in creating and maintaining stable structures in an attempt to control environmental fluxes as well as the internal architecture of an organization. However, the role of communication as the foundation to the organization has become the focus as the boundaries of organizations have become blurred through transnational dialogue and the resultant interactional displacement cause by communication technology. This essay will deconstruct the nominal understanding of ‘organization’ as pertains to its origin, function and operations, as well as challenge the traditional ontological assumptions of organization. In order to illustrate how communication acts as the site for the emergence of organizations the film production process will be discuss as it relates to coordination and role enactment within the temporary organization. ‘Communication’ has been defined in a number of specific schools of thought and its conceptualization as a term has proven to be contextual as opposed to an all-encompassing explanation, in this vein ‘communication’ will be defined as a “mode of exchange and a mode of knowledge production” (Taylor & Van Every in McPhee, 2000: 328-329). The notions of ‘exchange’ and ‘production’ are evolutionary terms used to describe the transference and creation of information in order to assess environmental interaction and the process of sense making in organizations. Therefore, organizations are a process of communication activity in which they are formed and reformed by communication discourse between the context in which they operate (i.e. the global economy) and the resultant organizational texts and culture. This dialogic process represents the double interact that lead Karl Weick to reformulate the notion of the ‘organization’ to that of ‘organizing’. 2.WEICK AND THE PROCESS OF ORGANISING Weick’s ‘organizing’ highlights the paradigmatic nature of organizations, as they are “something that people accomplish through a continual process of communication” and not defined by the positions and roles the members occupy (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005:245). The question of dualism between communication and organizations represents latter as a “symbolically realized construction” produced

by interactional process of the organizations members and the macro system they occupy (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004). These ‘symbolically realized constructions’ emphasis the importance of interlocked behaviors as they create, maintain, and are adjusted in accordance with the normative competencies necessary to reduce uncertainty or ‘equivocality’ (Weick in Littlejohn & Foss, 2005: 246). 2.1. Basic components of Weick’s theory In order for organizing to occur it is necessary that there is some form of basic statement that individuals produce. Weick refers to this primary unit as an ‘act’ and it is symbolically loaded with meaning, but in does not get recognized as meaningful until a response is supplied. Hence an ‘interact’ must follow in order for the ‘act’ to have value. However, in order for equivocally to be reduced or managed a dual process must take place that allows for adjustment or correction (called the ‘double interact’). Consider the relationship between a director and the cameraman as an example. The director asks the cameraman to frame a specific shot (act); the cameraman then asks for clarification (interact); and the director elaborates (double interact). This basic examples shows how interaction created understanding which results in a dually create meaning. It is important to recognize that all information from human interaction (as well as the environment) is equivocal or ambiguous to some degree, and organizing activities are designed to reduce this lack of certainty (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005: 246). Taylor’s approach to communication and organizing focuses on collective action, dialogue between partners, the context, and on micro and macro processes (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004: 396). This challenges the traditional ontological assumptions of organizations being concrete structures; instead they see communication, as does Weick, as boundaryless social structures formed and maintained by communication interaction. The theories of Taylor and colleagues also explore the terrain of what constitutes organizational structures and functioning. Similarly to Weick, Taylor deconstructs the notion of ‘organizing’ and identified two core components: the conversation and the text (the content and ideas embedded in language) and communication. Communication, according to Taylor, is a circular process that makes use of conversation and text in the production of shared meaning. However it should be noted that the text and the conversation cannot be functionally separated, instead a double translation is constantly present that acknowledges the duality of these two interdependent components (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). These basic terms used by Taylor act as the foundation for his multilayered conception of communication as both a mode of exchange and of knowledge production that emphasizes “shared meaning and interpretations that are constructed within the networks” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005: 249). Similarly Weick’s approach explores how these networks are created and maintained through

communication within these networks but his emphasis is on role of sense-making in reducing environmental equivocality. 2.2. Sense-making and organizing The equivocality experienced in the process of organizing results in the organization explicitly comprehending problematic circumstances into words that serves as the basis for action, a process know as sense-making (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005: 409). Sense-making starts with chaos, and an organization’s ability to create systems for meaningful action (in response to chaos) acts as a precursor to its adaptability. ‘Adaptability’ is determined by the nature of communication held by its members as they attempt to order the “intrinsic flux of human action to channel it towards certain ends”(Tsoukas & Chia in Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005: 410). This highlights the role of the communicative individual within the system of organizing as he/she contributes towards the shared understanding that permits collective response to equivocality. Organizational members first become aware of the events they are experiencing (be it environmental or relational) and then begin to ‘bracket’ these experiences according to something that has already occurred within the organizing process, but which does not yet have a name (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005: 411). This act of ‘bracketing’ is intrinsic to sense-making because equivocal information cannot be dealt with until it has been acknowledged and labeled within organizing structures. Therefore the organization must produce a system for ‘functional deployment’. In organizational terms ‘functional deployment refers to “imposing labels on independent events that suggest a plausible acts of managing, coordinating, and distribution” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005: 411), hence by initially ‘bracketing’ empirical information the organization is able to commence with the classification of that event/situation. This creates a socially constructed form (the label) that offers the organizational members a communal term that acts as the catalyst for meaningful action. This is because once uncertainty can be labeled within the organizing structures the original threat of equivocality is reduced due to the mere labeling of that uncertain event. Communication is a central component of sense-making and organizing. The importance of creating channels for the transference of information in order to create knowledge is what allows organizations to both challenge and rely on past events and courses of action. Strategies that are based on past experiences are only as useful as the degree of connectiveness between the then and the now, and they may often act as the source of inaccurate labeling that will ultimately impede developments. This is

largely due to failure to become aware that the events being observed are not concrete in existence, instead they are in the process of becoming. The paradox here is that even if zero-based planning is offered as an alternative, the speed at which uncertainty is labeled (and then action is taken) is hindered by the this continual information ‘groundzero’, whereby knowledge production is hindered and information is overwhelming. Therefore the channels and mediums through which an organization is able to transfer meaningful information should consist of progressive approximations, which would allow for a better linkage between the concrete (organizational norms) and the abstract (current and future equivocality). The question of sense-making raised here are placed into a conceptual framework through Weick’s position of organizing being an evolutionary process that involves enactment, selection, and retention as they relate to organizational members cognitive understanding of equivocality and meaningful action. 2.3. The nature of organizing sense making Donald Campbell’s application of evolutionary epistemology to social life proposes that sense making can be “treated as reciprocal exchanges between actors (Enactment) and their environment that are made meaningful (Selection) and preserved (Retention)” (Campbell in Weick & Sutcliffe, 2005). Firstly, enactment involves defining current equivocal information from the environment. This step is dependent on ecological change and hence must be acknowledged as part of the larger (or macro) system in which the organization is involved. The constant and reciprocal feedback cycles that occurs between the environment and the enacting organizing emerges from the need to ‘label’ events in order to progress and evolve the organizations core competency of adaptability. The second process is selection. This involves reducing the quantity of possible meanings, derived from ecological change, into tentative and provisional units of meaning to be acted upon (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). The selection process is a direct result of enactment and is hence dependent on it. What the organization considers of high or low priority is determined by how the organization is designed to achieved its goals as well as what situations would possibly destabilize and threaten the organizations ability to function in its environment. Thirdly, the ‘stock’ of information selected is then stored for possible future use; this process in the evolutionary process of organizing is called retention (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). Here the organization face a choice point is which organizational members must decide whether they should reenact the

environment in order to approach a particular problem from a different course of possible action or to acknowledge an area that was previously considered of less importance (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). This choice point is what acts as an adaptive measure that allows organizational structures to constantly create a bank of knowledge for the creation, and revision, of possible strategies for approaching ecological change as well as inter-organizational routines. Organizational routines, or behavioral cycles, are a collective understanding of a series of procedures that serve as a unified modus operandi for dealing with equivocality (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). Furthermore, the member’s actions are governed by assembly rules that “guide the choice of routines used to accomplish the process being conducted [enactment, selection, retention]” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). These rules prescribe to members what is considered plausible when dealing with the intrinsic flux of information from within the organizations communication structures as well as from the environment. For example, previous organizational perspectives view the decision-making process as a function carried out by elitist managers, hence these assembly rules de-emphasized the importance of collective efforts in achieving collective goals and instead reduced lower-level workers to functional position instead of knowledgably participants 3. ROLE ENACTMENT AND COMMUNICATION IN FILM PRODUCTION The film production process involves complex coordination and generally flexible structures in order to reduce costs and ensure the production process is successfully and timely completed. In any given production there are a number of specialized personnel and teams that have to coordinate their actions under a shared understanding of immediate and end goals. This requires extensive communication, or heedful interrelating, among organizational members (Weick and Roberts in Bechky, 2002). However, the level of sophistication required in achieving such a task is dependent on a clear understanding of each members role within the production, this is particular important given the fact that the film production process, by nature, forms temporary organizations that require the socialization of the technical personnel and teams in order to the smooth functioning of the organization. The manner in which members of organization interact with other members is based on previously constructed knowledge of the roles each member previously occupied. The role and purpose of the actor in the production is not defined after the merger of specialized personnel and teams, but rather through the act of communication prior to the production, and even pre-production, activities. More

specifically, the structures and the specific roles within the organization are made visible out of a need to create a smooth and functional process that allows individuals to be almost immediately socialized into their roles. The visibility of the organizations structures means that roles are easily associated with tasks and behaviors, additionally “as crew members enact their roles on a project, they are strongly socialized via a culture of direct feedback, excessive gratitude, and role-directed humor” (Bechky, 2002), this reinforces the crews’ role within the production and it allows future productions to be less equivocal. Although each new project produces a variant organizational culture the “generalized role structure is made visible through the career progression across projects” (Bechky, 2002). Hence Weick’s component of retention and behavioral cycles are highlighted, as these temporary organizations are dependent on previously established norms and acquired information to fulfill the tasks at hand. This role enactment contributes towards reducing the constant equivocal threats, common with each new production, by allowing members to understand their roles in response to production problems and setbacks. Consider the process of resolving the issue when a location is not longer viable for shooting. The production manager has to reevaluate the budget and importance of that segment of the production; the screen writer/s have to possible restructure the narrative in accordance to what location resources are available whilst still capturing the thematic elements required in the story; the director of photography might have to develop new visual compositions or approach to the story-telling process; and the actors might receive a new scene script and new direction from the director. What this scenario highlights is that when problems arise in temporarily organizations the role enactment present in such productions allows members to preempt the possible impact that the situation will have on their functioning. This role certainty allows for flexibility and responsibility within the organization as well as providing crew members with unambiguous role clarity in times of chaos. Although roles within film production are generally predetermined, the inter-organizational communication is highly complex and relies in constant cycles of interaction. Consider the interaction that occurs between crewmembers when setting up a basic in-door drama scene. Firstly the set designers have to correspond with both the director and screen writer/s as to what elements are of importance and how the actors will be moving within the scene. Then the director of photography has to communicate with the set designers whilst he/she arranges mise-en-scene and lighting, the camera

man then has to positioning himself accordingly and make is own adjustments in accordance to present lighting and colour conditions created by the set designers and the director of photography. Furthermore the director would comment and relay feedback to any of the members involved if changes are to be made. All this is achieved through a number of communication mediums (e.g. walkie talkies, non-verbal signals, face-to-face interactions, e-mail, group discussions, via the actual script, etc.). The important thing to note here is that the communication methods and means involved in just basic set construction is complex and integrated, and the use of technology in creating meaningful feedback loops is vital as these temporary organizations coordinate their actions in the production process. In summary, the film production process highlights the role of communication in the formation of temporary organizations that, by nature, rely on complex communication structures and channels for success. 4. CONCLUSION Organizations constitute many areas of society and the communication process lends to our understanding of how these structures come into being. A large body of literature has emerged on the nature of organizations and how they function within the context in which they arise and Weick’s theory of organizing acknowledges the context in which organizations find themselves, that being a environment that is constantly changes and affecting the manner in which communication shapes organizations and their culture. Although past organizational theories have suggested a seemingly selfcontained system of organizing, Weick’s perspectives have allowed for a more holistic standpoint on how organizations come too know themselves and the world they operate in. Furthermore, by using the preferred label of ‘organizing’ it is allowing theorist to embrace an organizational paradigm that acknowledges the means by which mankind comes to know their world-through communication. Weick’s sense-making process deals with organizational members need to infer pragmatic data from the environment in order to function effectively and more so to survive in the continually emergent globalized world. However sense-making goes beyond being able to reduce equivocality, it needs to be utilized and communicated to the organization in order to have an affect on the organizational operations and structuring. Therefore inter-organizational communication is just as vital in effective organizational practice and the weight of the two in a highly effective organization is equal. Taylor acknowledges this in his theories that emphasis the conversation in the process of organizing,

furthermore his sociocultural perspective grounds Weick’s basics components and reiterates the importance of communicative texts and the organizational culture towards them. It has been shown how communication acts as the site for the emergence of organization as well as how sense-making (as a communication activity) is a vital construct for reducing the uncertainty that affects organizational functioning and efficiency. In addition, the film production process serves as good example of how organizing and enactment can contribute towards organizational functioning in chaos. Through the use of Weick and Taylor’s theories this essay has illustrate how communication is actually the medium that makes organizations possible.

5. SOURCE LIST BECKLY, B.A. 2002. Coordination and role enactment in film production. Academy of Management Proceedings, B1 –eoa. FAIRHURST, G.T. & PUTNAM, L.L. 1999. Reflections on the organization – communication equivalency question: The contributions of James Taylor and his colleagues. Communication Review, 3(1/2): 1-eoa. LITTLEJOHN, S.W. & FOSS, K.A. 2005. Theories of human communication. 8th ed. Belmont: Thomson-Wadswoth, pp.388. MCPHEE, R. D. 2000. The emergent organization: communication as its site and surface. Management Communication Quarterly, 14(2): 328-334. ORTENBLAD, A. 2001. On differences between organizational learning and learning organization. The Learning Organization, 8(3): 125-133. TAYLOR, J. R. & ROBICHAUD, D. 2004. Finding the organization in the communication: discourse as action and sensemaking. Organization, 11(3): 395- 413, VAN EVERY, E.J. & TAYLOR, J. R. 1998. Modeling the organization as a system of communication activity: a dialogue about the language/action perspective. Management Communication Quarterly, 12(1): 128-147. VERWEY, S. & DU PLOOY-CILLERS, F. 2003. Strategic Organisational Communication: Paradigms and Paradoxes. Heinemann, South Africa. 283 p. WEIK, K.E. & SUTCLIFFE, K. M. 2005. Organizing and the process of sensemaking. Organizational Science, 16(4): 409-451. WEICK, K.E. 1996a. Drop you tools: An allegory for organizational studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2): 301-313. WEICK, K.E. 1996b. Preparing your organization to fight fires. Harvard Business Review, 74(3): 143148. WEICK, K.E. 2005. Organizing and the Process of sensemaking. Organizational Science, 16(4): 409451.

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