The management of meaning: organisational communication as sense making


Scott M. Bourke, Dr. Neil Béchervaise

Strategic Management Society Conference


Sydney, 2000





As we enter the information age, there is an opportunity, some might argue a pressing need, to re-appraise much of what we understand of organisational design, structure, practice and behaviour. If there is a shift in the balance of power among organisational stakeholders, economic uncertainty is heightened and the pace of change demanded of organisations is increased dramatically. These factors add weight to the need for a review of extant theories and models of both organisational change implementation and intra-organisational communication.


More importantly, they demand a profound understanding of the nature of communication within an organisation. Genesis of the blocks and withdrawals that traditionally hinder change implementation has frequently been identified in a failure to communicate without creating fear. Management driven change is generally couched in terms that support investor confidence while neglecting consideration for stakeholders whose roles and contribution will be critical in the actual implementation of the announced change.


Although researchers have been able to identify the influential role of factors such as design, leadership, culture, communication and organisational processes in change, there exists little consensus on the process or processes through which organisations can practically and successfully effect change (Nutt & Backoff 1997). Furthermore, there is evidence that the rate of success in effecting planned change is low and has not improved over time (Hodge 1998, Cornett-DeVito & Friedman 1995, Chaudhuri and Tabrizi 1999). This high failure rate of organisations undertaking change strongly suggests the need for alternative approaches and new theories.


Putnam (1997) proposes the need for new communications theories of organisation and organisational behaviour. There are also calls for new research on employee communication (Argenti 1996). The research reported in this paper is directed, in part, to addressing these calls for communications research in that it seeks to explore the way in which employees of an Australian based international corporation create and give meaning to change-related intra-organisational communication.


Organisational communication


Many large institutional organisations, by virtue of their size, design, structure and historically entrenched practices have adopted and maintained relatively 'conservative', austere and constrained approaches to stakeholder communication. Major policy, organisation and implementation changes are inevitably released from the office of the Chief Executive and/or senior executive and directed towards maintaining shareholder confidence in the face of scrutiny from media-directed economic commentators.


Intra-organisational communication (eg. management/employee communication), on the other hand, remains essentially uni-directional, formal in its character and most accurately characterised as the dissemination of information. Despite rather obvious pointers towards the impact of this communications approach on employee morale, the dominant organisational design structures communication systems and practices continue to constrain and limit the potential for communication rather than facilitate it (Senge 1990).


Senge (1990) suggests organisational communication is typically a process where participants share ideas in oppositional ways, seeking advantage and dominance over each other, failing to listen to each other, demonstrating an inability to compromise and failing to recognise the opportunities afforded for individual and collective learning through effective communication. This competitive approach to intra-organisational communication arguably reflects an implicit desire on the part of management, the central actor in much intra-organisational communication, to constrain and limit the potential for information dissemination and communication rather than to facilitate it (Senge 1990).


Managerial "efforts to fix meaning--to establish certainty in some area of knowledge" might be characterised as acts of "power and control" (Eisenberg 1998: page 99). Control over the selection of what organisational information is to be release, the distribution channel/s and timing, can be viewed from the perspective of the creation and maintenance of information asymmetry (Jensen and Meckling 1976, Fama and Jensen 1983). In this situation, the power of knowledge remains in the hands of management and is employed by management to exact its 'economic rent'.


In terms of research, organisational communication is generally regarded as an emerging field of academic inquiry (van Riel 1997). It is only relatively recently that organisational communication has come to be regarded by scholars and researchers in the field as a discipline in its own right (Mumby and Stohl 1996, Argenti 1996). Much about the subject, including its role in organisational change, remains relatively unexplored (Argenti 1996) so that while it has been ascribed various definitions and meanings (Argenti 1996, van Riel 1997) none has been accepted as operational.


For the purposes of this research, organisational communication has been defined very broadly as ‘the totality of internal and external communication between and among the key organisational stakeholders - management, shareholders, customers/clients, creditors and the public/government’. This 'operational' definition of organisational communication is aligned with emerging definitions of ‘business communication’ (Argenti 1996, Van Riel 1997). Employee communication, commonly regarded as a sub-discipline of management communication (Smelter 1996), could therefore properly be considered as a sub-discipline of the authors’ definition.


Much of the work on organisational communication originating from management schools has arguably been based on the industrial model of organisation. It has, for example, implicitly assumed that management is the central and dominant ‘actor’ in organising and organisations (Mumby and Stohl 1996). Improving organisational performance through the tactical use of communication remains a popular focus for communications researchers (van Riel 1997).


Organisational Change


As with organisational communication, researchers are also only just beginning to understand the nature and process of change, particularly as it occurs in organisations. Our understanding of organisational change is the product of the collective research from the fields of communication, social psychology, psychology and management and this list is not exhaustive.


Change can be classified as either transformational or operational (Nutt and Backoff 1997). The two forms of change can be differentiated on the basis of time, severity and significance. Operational change tends to be gradual and evolutionary and, in the face of sometimes determined and organised (eg trade union) resistance, is the more common form of change. It focuses on improvements in efficiency and effectiveness (Nutt and Backoff 1997) and can be classified as 'first order change'. The overall structure and vision of an organisation usually remains the same after an operational change. Operational changes don’t tend to question or affect the fundamental raison d’ êtrê (reason to be) of the organisation.


Transformations, on the other hand, tend to evoke images of immediate and profound alteration in the fundamental nature of an organisation and all aspects of its strategy. These ‘road to Damascus’ experiences suggest a paradigm shift in thinking and the abandonment of an orientation or strategy rooted in the past in favour of the adoption of new orientations and strategies firmly focused on the future (Hamel & Prahalad 1994). This type of change commonly results from changes in ownership, for example through merger or takeover or through rapid expansion in dynamic and complex competitive environments.


The impact of a transformational change on an organisation is pervasive. It alters fundamentally the vision, structure, strategy, culture and processes that constitute the organisation. It is considered more complex and difficult to effect than operational change and its classification as a 'second order change' reinforces this view. Any form of behavioural change requires, as a condition precedent, a shift in underlying human psychology (attitudes, values and intentions) and associated belief constructs. Altering conscious human behaviour is itself a formidable, complex and complicated process (Kanter 1999) as belief structures seem to be so resistant to change - which is some explanation for the difficulty organisations experience in successfully effecting change.


Communication and change


In acknowledging the ‘human’ element in organisational change and communication, we recognise that our knowledge of how human beings communicate and change might inform our understanding of their behaviour in an organisational context. Much of what is known about organisational change and communication has derived from, and been informed by, research in fields other than business or management (Reinsch 1996) including psychology, social psychology, medicine, nursing and teaching.


The capacity of communication based models to ground theories of organisational change is compelling (Taylor 1995). We recognise that communication is central to the process of organisation and the roles of individuals within it (Zorn and Violanti 1996). The research literature is replete with references attesting to the important role that employee communication plays in improving productivity. As Lewis (1999: page 44) notes, “organisational scholars have long acknowledged the importance of communication in explanations of organisational change processes".


Often classified as a subset of a subset of management communication (Smelter 1996), employee communication has also been explicitly recognised as playing an important role in successful organisational change (Lewis 1999). However, and notwithstanding the plethora of acknowledgment, very little research that empirically validates these claims has actually been published (Argenti 1996).




The objective of the two-stage research reported in this paper was to better understand the way in which stakeholders in an Australian corporation experiencing rapid change make sense of change related intra-organisational communications.


In stage one of the research, an initial content and discourse analysis of change-related announcements was undertaken to determine the apparently intended audience and to establish potential interpretations for the key stakeholders within the organisation. In the second stage, interviews were undertaken with identified stakeholders to establish the reliability of the content and discourse analyses and to establish the extent to which stakeholders integrated the intended communication into their personal understanding of their role and activity within the organisation.


Two major types of change announcements were identified: those primarily intended for public or external consumption and those that became classified as internal memoranda. Invariably, internal memoranda were found to focus on essentially change implementation issues with major personnel comfort implications – new organisational initiatives, shareholder changes, changed position descriptions and roles, human resource related announcements. Public consumption announcements, in contrast, focused on big-picture issues with share value implications which, while they implied internal change, were frequently phrased in terms of bold new initiatives, increased profit margins and expanded market share.


Interviews with senior and middle level managers suggested that the language of external announcements was accessible and essentially ‘coded’ to those who were initiated to ‘read’ the message. Line level employees and ‘storefront’ customers’ showed limited understanding of the ‘coded’ meaning of the external announcements.


Organisational communication: sense making as an alternative


The model of intra-organisational communication reflected in this Australian case study organisation is the ‘process’ or ‘transmission’ model wherein a ‘message’ is ‘transmitted’ from a ‘sender’ to a ‘receiver’. This model treats communication, as the name suggests, as a process of information transmission. It focuses on a presumed causal relationship between the sender/communicator and the receiver/message recipient.


The transmission model has been criticised on the basis that it fails to take account of the importance of meaning in language and communication (Dervin 1983). It has also been challenged on the basis that it isn't sufficiently dimensional to accommodate what we know to be the changing nature of communication practices in organisations over time (Yates and Orlinkowski 1995). Mismatch between the social context from which the message is sent and that into which it is received further complicates the sense in which the message might be seen as an unambiguous transmission of information. The facility of line employees and customers to translate external change announcements into internal memoranda confirms this weakness in the too commonly accepted transmission model.


In competition with the transmission model, several theories of organisational communication that reflect Senge's (1990) concern for the competitive discursive practices of organisations, have emerged (for example Faber 1999). These theories, and research in general, have yet to reveal much, however, about the way in which intra-organisational communication can be tailored through strategies of influence to achieve the objectives of the organisation and its stakeholders.


There has been a long history of academic philosophising and research into the concept of meaning within language and communication (Eisenberg 1998). Eisenberg suggests that a number of 'schools' of thinking have developed to describe the characteristics of meaning, whether it is fixed or variable and the factors that affect or influence its changing nature within defined social contexts. He argues that "the postmodern critique of fixed meaning offers some clear lessons for zealots of certainty and [they suggest] that  … communication … goes well beyond the symbolic transmission of information" (Eisenberg 1998: page 99).


Picking up on the need for theories of organisational communication that extend beyond "the symbolic transmission of information", an alternative approach termed 'sense making', which assists in understanding the data emerging from the research reported in this paper, has been developed by Dervin (1983). ‘Sense making’, is defined as "behaviour, both internal (i.e. cognitive) and external (i.e. procedural) which allows the individual to construct and design his/her movement through time-space (Dervin 1983: page 3)."


Sense making has its origins in philosophy and psychology and in the work of the Critical Theorists, many of whom Dervin (1983: page 5) suggests "have found the concepts and methods of communication as developed in the logical positivistic model both (useless) and troublesome in their contexts".


In contrast with the transmission model, sense making rejects the view of communication as a 'one-dimensional linear equation' with input / output relationships. Instead it proposes that communication is: neither complete nor constant but filled with gaps; subjective and constrained in that it is a function of human observing; contextual and thus is responsive to changing conditions Dervin 1983). Dervin (1983) argues further that studying communication in the context of existing institutional communication systems leads to distortion because it reinforces "low information sharing, homogeneity, constrained communicating and the assumed expertise of authority"(Dervin 1983: page 5).


The findings of this research suggest that line employees and ‘storefront’ customers would support Dervin’s view while middle and senior managers would see the observation as unnecessarily negative and seek to identify the employee for ‘punishment’. In contrast, communication in the 'information age' is characterised by a high degree of "information sharing, assumed heterogeneity, relatively open communicating and the continued erosion of expertise” (Dervin 1983: page 7). Such a view is heartily endorsed by managers though they interpret the ‘erosion of expertise’ as ‘development of increasingly collaborative strategies’ while neglecting to add that they still support the power structure that generates the internal memoranda.


Research in the field of sense making has followed one of three paths: understanding systems constraints to communication; understanding how sense and meaning are constructed by individuals under structural constraints; and, creating alternative models of communication based on sense making and assessing their utility (Dervin 1983). The research reported in this paper has been directed to the exploration of all three paths in the context of organisation.




The role of management is changing as the form, function and activities of organisations and the competitive environment evolves. The early findings of this research support sense making as a communication theory, In so far as it challenges the traditional power, position and role of management in the process of organisation, sense making suggests that the preferred work style of the senior management is an essentially collaborative process. In this environment, acceptance of change and change implementation are supported by employees who feel they are part of the change. As trusted organisational players, their understanding of management initiatives is a significant factor in the successful implementation of transformational change initiatives and their support is integral to the confidence of line personnel and, ultimately, to customer satisfaction with the change.

History suggests, nevertheless, that supplanting the dominant intra-organisational communicative process of transmission with a model based on sense making, even with the benefit of supportive research, will be an onerous task. However, as Eisenberg's (1998: page 105) commentary on the critical communication challenge facing management highlights "[it is] the ability to engage in creative dialogue -and through communication, to systematically question and abandon prior actions, practices, and mental models – [that] is the critical leadership competency. Attachment to accepted historical principles and personal investments in the long-standing story of the firm will more often than not prove one's undoing".


The results of the research reported in this paper suggest that a model of organisational communication grounded in meaning and reflecting the sense making approach of Dervin (1983) is useful in unpacking the complex of factors involved in determining the effectiveness of intra-organisational communication in implementing transformational change. Given that the study concentrates on change-related communication, the results to date offer the prospect of fresh insights into the sense making and information seeking behaviour of employees dealing with organisational change. They suggest a mismatch in perception of the effect and interpretation of organisational communications and they, furthermore, suggest that organisational power relationships are maintained in existing communications patterns.


The potential for greater understanding of the role of intra-organisational communication in organisational change implementation points, at this stage, towards the need for increased awareness among major organisational players of the crucial need for effective communication with employees to improve the outcomes of change for all organisational stakeholders. The objective must be to enable "social actors [to] more fully participate in the formation [and development] of organizations ….. through conscious consent rather than unconscious consent" (Markham 1996: page 393).


Selected references


Argenti, P.A. (1996). Corporate communication as a discipline. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.10 Issue 1 pp. 73-98.


Bohl, D. and Slocum, J.W. (1996). Ideas that will shape the future of management practice. Organizational Dynamics Vol. 25 Issue 1 pp. 7-15.


Cornett-DeVito, M.M. and Friedman, P.G. (1995). Communication processes and merger success. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.9 Issue 1 pp. 46-78.


Chaudhuri, S. and Tabrizi, B. (1999). Capturing the real value in high-tech acquisitions. Harvard Business Review. Issue Sept/Oct  pp. 123-130.


Dervin, B. (1983). An overview of sense-making research: Concepts, methods and results. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dallas, TX.


Eisenberg, E.M. (1998). Flirting with meaning. Journal of Language & Social Psychology Vol. 17 Issue 1 pp. 97-109.


Faber, B. (1998). Towards a rhetoric of change. Journal of Business & Technical Communication Vol.12  Issue 2 pp. 217-238.


Fama, E. and Jensen M. C. (1983). Separation of Ownership and Control. Journal of Law and Economics Vol. 88 pp. 288-307.


Foucault, M. (1988). Strategies of power. In L. Kritzman (Ed.), Michel Foucault: Politics philosophy, culture. New York: Routledge.


Hodge, K. (1998). The art of the post deal. Management Review Vol.87 Issue 2 pp. 17-21.


Kanter, R.M. (1999). Change is everyone's job: Managing the extended enterprise in a globally connected world. Organizational Dynamics Vol.28 Issue 1 pp. 6-24.


Jensen, M. C., & Meckling, W. (1976). Theory of the firm: Managerial behaviour, agency costs, and capital structure. Journal of Financial Economics  pp. 305-360.


Lewis, L.K. (1999). Disseminating Information and Soliciting Input During Planned Organizational Change. Management Communication Quarterly. Vol. 13 Issue 1, pp. 43-76p.


Markham, A. (1996). Designing a discourse. Management Communication Quarterly, Vol. 9 Issue 4 pp. 389-422.


Mumby, D.K. & Stohl, C. (1996). Disciplining organisational communication studies. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.10 Issue 1 pp. 50-73.


Nutt, P.C. & Backoff, R.W. (1997). Organisational transformation. Journal of Management Inquiry Vol. 6 Issue 3 pp. 235-254.


Putnam, L. and Poole, S. (1997). Organizational Communication in the 21st century. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.11 Issue 1 pp. 127-139.


Reinsch, N.L. (1996). Business communication: Past, present and future. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.10 Issue 1 pp. 27-49.


Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday.


Smelter, L.R. (1996). Communication within the manager's context. Management Communication Quarterly Vol. 10 Issue 1 pp. 5-26.


Taylor, J. R. (1995). Shifting from a hetronomous to an autonomous worldview of organisational communication: Communication Theory on the cusp. Communication Theory Vol. 5 pp. 1-35.


van Riel, C.B.M. (1997). Research in corporate communication. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.11 Issue 2 pp. 288-309.


Yates, J. and Orlikowski W.J. (1994). Genre repertoire: The structuring of communicative practices in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly Vol. 39 Issue 4 pp. 541-575.


Young, M and Post, J.E. (1993). Managing to communicate, communicating to manage: How leading companies communicate with employees. Organizational Dynamics Vol. 22 Issue 1 pp. 31-44.


Zorn, T.E. and Violanti. M.T. (1996). Communication abilities and individual achievement in organisations. Management Communication Quarterly Vol.10 Issue 2 pp. 139-168.