Organization as Chinese whispering: misunderstanding as the normal case

Nice cartoon…

Source: Rady Wire Blog @ UC San Diego

Organization outside organizations: Forthcoming article by Ahrne & Brunsson

Regarding the question “what is an organization?”, it makes sense to start with specifying criteria that need to jointly come together whenever we speak of organization or organizing (i.e. where does organization as a phenomenon start and where does it end). In a forthcoming article in the journal “Organization” , Ahrne and Brunsson argue that beyond conventional or “complete” forms of organizations, e.g. a multi-national enterprise or a governmental organization, there are a number of rudimentary organizational phenomena that would best be described as “partial organization”. Whereas complete organizations incorporate all the criteria of organization, partial organization is based on only one or a few of these. I think that this paper very well feeds into recent debates on what characterizes organization (as communication) in contrast to other social phenomena, e.g., networks, communities, markets, social movements, etc. (Sillince, 2010).

The forthcoming article by Ahrne and Brunsson was published online ahead of print and is available as of today.


Ahrne, G. & Brunsson, N. (forthcoming): Organization outside organizations: the significance of partial organization. Organization.

Sillince, J. A. A. (2010). Can CCO theory tell us how organizing is distinct from markets, networking, belonging to a community, or supporting a social movement? Management Communication Quarterly, 24(1), 132-138.

Now Available: Workshop Videos

Thanks to the gracious help of the eLearning-Büro at the University of Hamburg, we now
have videos of our short intros to organization as communication or, more precisely, the communicative constitution of organization as put forth by the Montreal School. For example, here’s the keynote by Prof. Alfred Kieser.

Going radically interactionist – in a world full of agencies

The theoretical debate on communication and/as organization oscillates between the agency-structure and micro-macro gap, which dominate many theoretical conflicts in organizational studies. How can the CCO approach deal with this problem?

It does not have to, claims Francois Cooren (2006) in his book chapter The organizational world as a plenum of agencies. Influenced by the conversational analysis micro-approach by Garfinkel and the actor-network theory by Latour, Cooren goes interactionist and stresses, that “we live in the terra firma of interations (and only interactions)” (p. 91). This position requires a remodeling of agency: rather simple stated, agency is everything that makes a different and an agent is somebody or something that makes a difference.

How does an organization come into being, when everything from a door sign, a co-worker or a administrative form can be an agent? By teleaction an agent can speak for a principle and crosses space and time (e.g. by a symbol, a memory or a speech act). By representation – the act of making something present – the total of all agents and agencies materialize the organization. Therefore, “all entities (whether they are human, technological or textual) constitute the organization in one way or the other, because the all represent it in one way or another” (p. 92). This aptly conjures the image of the organization as a Leviathan (see the illustration below for an attempt to sketch this relationship).

The chapter impressed me on the one hand because of its radical empirical and interactionist approach. On the other hand, when everything is reduced to the interaction and everybody/-thing can become an actor or have agency, what is the specific use of this approach? How do we deal with intentions or stronger: power and domination in organizations? Surely it widens our perspective to include non-human actors into the constitution of the organization and to “see or study things that we would not have noticed otherwise” (p. 99). This leads to a radical empiricist approach of analyzing the organization by precise description and building theory from the ground up. But by totalizing the actor we often loose the specific vantage point theory has to offer. The only solution is to go radical empirical and build the organization one interaction at a time, because “organizing (..) emerges from human and nonhuman interaction (Cooren 2006, p. 100).

Transcending the Transmission Model of Communication

Tracing back the emerging CCO perspective (“communication constitutes organizations”) to some of its origins: In a 1984 AMR article, Axley shows that most publications in management and organization studies at least implicitly draw on an instrumental understanding of communication (what he refers to as the “conduit metaphor” of communication; or what also has come to be called the “transmission model” of communication). Here, communication is simply a tool for transporting packages of meaning from one place to another. The constitutive perspective of communication (as outlined by Craig, 1999), in contrast, conceives communication as the fundamental mode of social reality and, of course, also organizations: “Communication is theorized as a process that  produces and reproduces – and in that way constitutes – social order“ (Craig, 1999: 128). For more info, here you will find the presentation I held at the First Meeting of the OaC Network in Hamburg (partly in German): Presentation Instrumental vs. Constitutive View of Communication.

  • Axley, S. R. (1984). Managerial and Organizational Communication in Terms of the Conduit Metaphor. Academy of Management Review, 9(3), 428-437.
  • Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication Theory as a Field. Communication Theory, 9(2), 119-161.
  • Video of the presentation (in German)

CCO: A Framework for Explanation by McPhee & Zaug

Presenting the core ideas of the four flows framework by McPhee and Zaug (2000) allowed me to get a deeper understanding of the CCO discourse. Given the comparatively broad diffusion of this framework (e.g. Putnam & Nicotera 2009), I was intrigued to see the various theoretical links emerging from this framework to other theoretical approaches, not only structuration theory as set forth by Anthony Giddens, but also neo-institutionalism. With respect to the scope of our interdisciplinary project network, I was wondering if it wouldn’t be better to speak of communicating as constitutive of organizing, not the least because of the diverse referrals to the language game of structuration theory.

What is more, the articles stimulates inquiry into the nature of CCO as a fruitful conception. For me, this stems primarily from the observation that the authors offer first insights into the USPs of a CCO perspective, but – and you have to excuse my ignorance at this point due to being a novice to the CCO field – they are rather silent about the exact criteria or themes that differentiate this theoretical approach from other lenses.

  • McPhee, R. D., & Zaug, P. (2000). The Communicative Constitution of Organizations: A Framework for Explanation. The Electronic Journal of Communication, 10(1/2).
  • Putnam, L. L., & Nicotera, A. M. (Eds.) (2008). Building Theories of Organization: The Constitutive Role of Communication. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Video of the presentation (in German)

Join Us for the Opening Keynote on CCO

The first workshop of our scientific network on the communicative constitution of organization (CCO; for a recent review, see Ashcraft et al., 2009) will be held in Hamburg on 9 and 10 September. While the workshop’s sessions are closed to the public, we cordially invite you to join us for the opening keynote of Alfred Kieser, professor emeritus at the University of Mannheim.

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With the first meeting of the network only a week away, here’s a short list of the introductory literature that we’re gonna review. Neither are all papers in favor of the communicative constitution of organization, nor are they representative of the approach as such. Nonetheless, we figure the make a good reading to begin with.

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