Does Organizational Communication Research Matter?

60th

Bruce Berger, Ph.D. and research editor of the Organizational Communication Research Center, reflects on the development of organizational communication in honor of IPR’s 60th Anniversary. 

IPR’s Commission on Organizational Communication launched its Research Center in autumn 2012. The goals were twofold: 1) create a go-to resource for professionals and academics to access brief summaries and practical implications of new research in employee communication (EC), and 2) share insights and perspectives on EC via blogs and electronic conversations.

I’m happy to report these goals are being achieved, and the OCRC is growing robustly. The site contains 150 easy-to-read abstracts of EC studies and 50 blogs on the topic written by 18 academics and professionals. The abstracts, blogs and conversations expand our knowledge about EC, highlight best practices and provide strategic insights on employee engagement, trust, change management, supervisor/leader communications and organizational culture, among others.

The 800-pound Gorilla in EC Practice  

But does this terrific resource really matter? Is anyone using these—or other research studies and databases—to enrich EC practice or outcomes? Is our profession moving from knowing what to do to enhance EC, to actually doing it? Or is the 800-pound gorilla in the knowing-doing conundrum winning out? How large is the gap between knowing and doing?

Plenty of evidence suggests the needle hasn’t moved much this Millennium. By virtually any measure—e.g., employee engagement and trust levels, job alignment, transparency, diversity, empowerment and cultural indicators—internal communication issues and employee needs continue to fester. For example:

  • Gallup’s research on employee engagement last year (here) found that only 32% of American workers were engaged—and just 13% worldwide—and these numbers have been stable for 15 years. Smaller companies fare better than large companies.
  • Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer (here) reveals a significant and continuing deficit of public trust in organizations and in their leaders and their communications.
  • The Plank Center’s recent Leadership Report Card (here) revealed significant employee and leader concerns about trust, empowerment, diversity, transparency and the quality of their organizational cultures.

The Dynamic Context for Practice

Excellent public relations begin inside organizations, but my 40 years of EC practice and research have confirmed the difficulties in building and sustaining a culture for effective internal communication. Longtime obstacles include: 1) leaders and supervisors who still (STILL!) view EC as a top-down process of message injection; 2) a focus on messages sent, rather than responses received; 3) and the stubborn belief that a lot of talk, meetings, directives and catchy slogans are more powerful change drivers than behaviors and lived values.

Newer barriers include complexities presented by the digital media revolution, globalization, a tough new employee contract and ongoing pressures to do more with less. At the same time, a new generation of digitally savvy workers seeks more involvement in decision making, faster and more personal communications and greater transparency and social responsibility.

So the long-time EC paradox persists: communication professionals and leaders know from extensive research and practice what to do to achieve EC effectiveness, but too many just don’t do it. Some communication leaders believe the situation is so grim they advocate blowing up the EC function, as Shel Holtz described in an extended post on LinkedIn (here).

Of course, some organizations have moved from knowing to doing. Some focused on their culture and training programs (Whirlpool). Others linked the workplace closely to the marketplace for employees (FedEx, Southwest Air), or tied efforts to quality programs like Six Sigma (GE). Still others brought company values to life (Starbuck’s), or appealed to employees’ intrinsic motivations (3M and Google).

These and other organizations know that EC is the central process through which employees make sense of their work and organizations, share information, build relationships, engage in work, build trust and construct culture and values. The payoffs are worth it: more engagement and trust, improved decision making, greater retention, improved customer satisfaction and superior financial returns.

The Bottom Line

Our OCRC abstracts and research articles help us better understand key drivers and approaches for effective EC, but they reveal little about how to move from knowing to doing. That’s off-stage, out-of-sight stuff, and it’s a crucial gap in EC research today. We need studies that open up this issue. We need studies and cases that reveal how to convince skeptical or reluctant front-line managers and leaders to change mind sets, change behaviors and embrace employee communication. We need some best practices for understanding how to sell and bring to life EC best practices with organizational leaders and influencers.

In 2016, my OCRC colleague, Dr. Rita Men, and I will continue to provide the latest EC research insights and grow the database. We also will dedicate this year to the stubborn issue of moving from knowing to doing—by soliciting blogs from professionals and researchers who can highlight successful examples of such movement, identify obstacles and how to overcome them, or describe how they sold EC best practices to their executives.

We’d love to have you join the conversation.

Bruce BergerBruce Berger, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, University of Alabama, and research director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Prior to joining academia he was a PR professional and executive for 20 years. He worked on communication projects in more than 30 countries.

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4 Comments

  1. This work in effective Employee Communication is important — indeed, it’s arguably our most important work, to the extent that an engaged, informed workforce can do so much to accomplish many other PR effects / head off so many other PR headaches! This dedicated focus on research and best practices is bearing fruit; speaking for myself only: I leveraged a case study presented to the IPR Research Conference in 2007 (or was it 2008? : ) — I borrowed the survey instrument used and tailored it to my organization and our research needs and have used it four times in 6 years at my present organization to provide actionable data toward continuous improvement and development of a solid all-way employee communication program. Please keep up the great work on this front!

    • Thank you for your note. At the IPR we are always delighted to learn how individuals and companies have benefitted from research. And as you know, the International PR Research Conference held each year in March in Miami is a great place to discover many ideas and approaches. If you are interested, I would invite you submit a blog about how you “sold” your team/company on the research instrument and especially how you tailored it to better fit your organization. Culture is often one of the biggest impediments in transferring best practices from one organization to another. Drop me a note at berger@apr.ua.edu

  2. Thanks, Bruce. I really look forward to hearing what comes from this. Melcrum just published some work on authenticity and how leaders make or break strategy, as part of a series on the “new” EC function. I really started thinking about how I, as an EC professional of more years than I’d like to admit, have contributed to the problem of making managers fearful of their role in employee engagement and communication — by overscripting them to the point they just do the easy thing and press “forward” on their email. I’m working with a new management team now and we are developing the 5 year plan. Employee communications is embedded into the planning process this year, and we are engaging employees several layers down in the organization to help us build the roadmaps to meet our priorities. But, the mantra for our top 2 layers of management is “teach don’t tell” — meaning they have to understand the strategy to the point that they can teach it to others in their own words. It really is a change in mindset, but the mindset of the employee communications department has to change first.

    • Jody, thank you for sharing your insights and testifying to some of the issues and concerns we all confront in EC. I am familiar with some of the fine work that Melcrum does in this area. The fact that EC is now embedded in the planning process in your organization is a crucial step forward. If you are willing at the appropriate time to share progress on changing mindsets, and especially how that was accomplished, we would be very interested in learning more. Please drop me a note (berger@apr.ua.edu) if you would be willing share your story.

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