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 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.