AEJMC2004 Conference, Toronto, 4-7 August
EMERGENT POSTMODERN APPROACHES TO CORPORATE COMMUNICATION STRATEGY
Media, Arts, Communication and Information
University of Technology, Sydney
Paper for the AEJMC Public Relations Division
Toronto conference, August 2004
Address for correspondence
Department of Media, Arts, Communication and Information
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Technology, Sydney
PO Box 123
Broadway, NSW, 2007
Tel: +61 (0)2 9514 2708 Mobile: +61 (0)418 216 435 Fax: +61 (0)2 9514 1976
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EMERGENT POSTMODERN APPROACHES TO CORPORATE COMMUNICATION STRATEGY:
Within the views of Newtonian science, and the classical ontology of
management, organizations are operated according to deterministic modes.
This worldview implies that structures determine the information needed and
that perceptions must be managed by feeding the `right' information and
withholding information that might lead to disorder and chaos. The formal
planned approaches to strategic management have forced managers to be
structured when communicating organizational goals and strategic issues.
Current public relations theory in terms of management and corporate
communication strategy is very much in line with the general strategic
management views of structured planning and decision-making.
A more recent approach to corporate communication has developed because of
the fact that fast changing environments demand more contingent methods.
This has moved organizations to postmodern approaches such as those
described through the chaos and complexity theory.
In this paper I suggest a new approach to corporate communication strategy
in line with these postmodern theories. I argue for a more participative
approach with high ethical and moral meaning creation through action
science and research rather than the structured approaches suggested by
current corporate communication theorists. I further more call for
relationship management based on the basic interpersonal relationship
principles where ethics, integrity, trust, openness, and listening skills
determine the success of relationships. Organizations that favor their
shareholders above other stakeholders and believe that business determines
success and drives policy should be replaced with organizations that
function as responsible, moral, and honest citizens of a larger
environment. This approach ensures a positive reputation for the
organization through socially responsible change processes that have
relational influences into a larger societal community structure.
Communication practitioners and students in the field of public relations
often look for a step-by-step guide to follow in order to design a `proper'
communication management strategy, which will be accepted by top management
structures in organizations, as well as reflect the contribution this
function makes to the overall success of the organization. Students are
taught how to go through certain carefully designed processes, and they do
assignments that are evaluated accordingly. Textbooks show detailed methods
of long term strategic planning and they design communication programs
derived from strategic management theory (Broom, Casey, & Ritchey, 1997;
Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 1994; D'Aprix, 1996; Ferguson, 1999; Kendall,
1992; Oliver, 2001; Smith, 2002; B Steyn & Puth, 2000). There are now also
theorists who are developing software that enables corporate communicators
to plan strategies and communication plans that include budgeting and
research aspects - a very worthwhile contribution to traditional corporate
communication theory (Btschi, 2004).
New developments in management theory, as well as in corporate
communication theory, have however extended the thoughts surrounding
strategic planning, and these new developments are what I will put forward
in this paper. Before looking at these new developments I will briefly
discuss the traditional approaches to communication management strategy and
Traditional approaches to strategic management and corporate communication
The traditional ontology of management science relies very heavily on
strategic planning and strategic thinking. Management sees its role within
this paradigm as reducing conflict, creating order, controlling chaos and
simplifying all the complexities created by the environment. Goals and
objectives are set, possible outcomes are predicted and alternatives for
action are planned, and these are communicated throughout the organization.
The traditional approach to strategic management describes it as a process
of analysis where the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of
the organization are used to develop the mission, goals and objectives of
an organization (Harrison, 2003:6). The management of tactics to plans and
programs are short-term and adaptive whereas strategy would be more
continuous and changes are geared toward broader goals and the vision of
Structured and planned approaches of strategic management imply fixed
patterns, plans and positions that influence the way the organization is
managed and controlled. "For most people, strategy is generally perceived
as a plan - a consciously intended course of action that is premeditated
and deliberate, with strategies realised as intended" (Graetz, Rimmer,
Lawrence, & Smith, 2002:51). Strategy and management is constantly referred
to as the way to provide a framework for planning and decision-making that
control and manage influences from the environment. Although flexibility is
mentioned, it is still within the paradigm of a strong foundation and firm
The planned approach to strategic management is a current overarching
paradigm in management literature - especially from the perspective of
change and transformation (Genus, 1998). (Examples can be seen in Burnes,
1996; Cummings & Worley, 2001; Ghoshal & Bartlett, 2000; Gouillart & Kelly,
1995; Head, 1997; Hill & Jones, 2004; Mintzberg & Quinn, 1996; Sanchez &
Aime, 2004; Senior, 1997). With this approach the importance of strong
leadership and strategic management teams are emphasized. This paradigm is
tightly linked to strategy and on identifying and managing processes
designed to make organizations more successful and competitive (Sanders,
1998). All these processes are focused on providing solutions to help
management obtain improved productivity and competitive advantage.
Strategic planning makes the results tangible, help control the processes,
guide decision-making, and provide security around uncertainties.
Current public relations theory in terms of management and corporate
communication `strategy' is very much in line with the aforementioned
general strategic management views of structured planning and
decision-making. Public relations literature portray a very traditional
view of `strategic communication management' and the emphasis is very much
on the planning process of campaigns and communication plans - a very
tactical and technical view of the communication management process. The
planning process is usually described as well defined steps or stages that
follow one another comprising broadly of research (formative and
environmental scanning), planning (sometimes called the strategy stage),
implementation (or tactics stage) and evaluation (Cutlip et al., 1994;
Kendall, 1992; Oliver, 2001; Smith, 2002). The authors referred to are
examples of this approach to communication management.
Steyn and Puth (2000), Grunig and Repper (1992) and White and Dozier (White
& Dozier, 1992) call this process `communication management planning' and
distinguish it from `corporate communication strategy'. One of the leading
theorists in current views of corporate communication strategy, Steyn
(2000) refers to this difference when she explains that `where strategic
thinking determines the strategy (i.e. what the organization should be
doing), strategic, long-term and operational planning helps to choose how
to get there by programming the strategies, making them operational' (p.
38). She mentions that plans should be linked to strategies, but she
emphasizes that a strategy is the outcome of strategic thinking and it has
external, long-term focus and is pro-active.
Steyn (2002) describes the corporate communication process of strategic
thinking as `senior communicators and top managers taking strategic
decisions with regard to the identification and management of, and
communication with, strategic stakeholders' (2002:126). She proposes
corporate communication strategy on a functional level where each
functional unit of the organization will contribute to the higher-level
strategies associated with strategy implementation. Grunig, L et al. (2002)
support this when she explains that the model by Grunig, J & Repper (1992)
has developed to adjust to a more postmodern view where the participation
from all management disciplines amalgamate all their resources to create
and implement a strategy. Steyn (2000) suggests that the contribution of
the corporate communication function should be the provision of information
about stakeholder interests through research. She proposes a model for the
development of a corporate communication strategy where a process of steps
provides guidelines to follow. The same basic model is also proposed by
Ferguson (1999), and suggests to start with an analysis of the internal
environment of the organization in terms of the mission, culture, vision,
etc. The most important part is to establish the organizational goals and
objectives as the communication strategy should support and flow from these
The next step in this proposed strategy formulation process is the
identification of the strategic stakeholders and publics of the
organization through an environmental analysis (Ferguson, 1999; J. E.
Grunig & Repper, 1992; L. A. Grunig et al., 2002; B Steyn & Puth, 2000).
This is followed by the `issues stage' where problems are identified that
could have an impact on the organization or the stakeholders. This would
then lead to the setting of communication strategies, goals and objectives
out of which communication plans are developed. All of these newer and very
sophisticated approaches to strategic communication management emphasize
the importance of relationship management as the core principle around
which these strategies have to operate.
Grunig and his research colleagues (J. E. Grunig, 1992) refer to the terms
`manage' and `strategy' as "thinking ahead or planning rather than
manipulation and control" (123) and they describe it as a symmetrical
process where the organization considers its strategic interest and will
change its behavior in order to accommodate stakeholders in its
environment. They further describe it as "an approach, design, scheme, or
system" (123). This view of strategic management coincides with the
strategic management perspective of the organization as a network of
relationships with stakeholders (Harrison, 2003; B Steyn & Puth, 2000), but
this view has only emerged in the past two decades together with postmodern
approaches to strategic management.
I have a few concerns with the above perspectives and I will address them
in the following section of the paper with reference to the postmodern
approaches of the chaos and complexity applications to strategic
communication management. Some of these problems relate to the fact that
the above models still follow deterministic, logical, causal, linear
`steps' and processes. The improved model by Grunig and Repper (L. A.
Grunig et al., 2002) suggests a more interactive and cyclical approach, but
the `three stages' still suggest chronological inputs and consequences.
A further issue that I will address is the issue of top management
strategic decision making, which suggests a top-down approach, and although
the necessity of the corporate communication function is emphasized
throughout, I want to question the initial assumption that strategy lies
with the upper levels in the organization. If communication managers become
part of the decision making process, they become part of the problem. I
also question whether relationships can be managed by formulating corporate
communication strategies. These statement and questions warrant further
explanation. In order to explain these statements I will discuss the basic
principles of relevant postmodern approaches.
Emergent approaches to strategy and management
Modernist approaches seemed to have seized to contribute to the development
of strategic management theory and postmodernism have stripped modernist
concepts of its rational objectivity (Chia, 1995; Jackson & Carter, 1992).
According to Jackson & Carter (1992:2) many theorists have criticized the
body of management knowledge used in industry and training. They describe
management theory as distinctly unusual in the sense that it comprises `a
body of "knowledge," taught repeatedly, that is widely acknowledged to be
deeply flawed, and as not producing the returns promised' (Jackson &
Carter, 1992:2). The integrity and effectiveness of management theory is
being questioned on all levels.
From a management perspective postmodernism emerged out of
postindustrialism as a way to question and criticize the relevance of
business thinking during the Industrial Age (Sherman & Schultz, 1998). The
whole thinking paradigm shifted from a mechanistic view to a more organic
worldview of science, management, and basic thinking
methodologies. Organizations are now viewed as organisms submitting to
natural laws of evolution, transformation, and process. Kreiner (1992:38)
says that in postmodernism the frames of reference of management and
organizational theory is blurred because of the improbability to identify a
common theoretical paradigm, i.e. it is difficult to distinguish basic
assumptions with well-defined methodological borders. The use of scientific
methods to create and understand organizational epistemology is ignored and
even popular literature on organizational experience is accepted as valid
depictions of reality.
The chaos theory and the complexity theory are relevant postmodern
approaches that contribute to emergent views of management philosophies and
application. Chaos and complexity theory both accentuate the importance of
interaction, relationships and self-regulation - concepts that will be
explored in more depth in this discussion relevant to communication
management and strategic management in organizations.
Postmodernism spreads over different fields of study and domains and it
offers a reconceptualization of how we view the world around us (Chia,
1995:579; Cova, 1996:16). Postmodernism underwrites a worldview that relies
on constructivism where knowledge is created through the process of
interaction making communication central to the social construction of
truth and reality (Littlejohn, 1992:32). Although there can be no unified
postmodern theory or collective set of approaches to mark postmodernism
(Kilduff & Mehra, 1997:455), it is possible to say that there are
countervailing trends of postmodernism. The more academic definition of
postmodernism is: `incredulity towards meta-narratives' (Cilliers,
1998:114) compared to modernism, which implies an appeal to
meta-narratives. In organizational terms this implies that an organization
would challenge what it traditionally holds as sacrosanct, such as its
culture, legends, its strategic intent, how it creates meaning - its
meta-narratives (Kreiner, 1992:37; Sherman & Schultz, 1998:28).
Post modernism is termed as a response to the failure or natural
consequence of the shortcomings of modernism therewith also implying an
underlying questioning of the rationality of the scientific approach to
strategic management theory (Chia, 1995; Cova, 1996; Jackson & Carter,
1992). Singh and Singh (2002) goes as far as saying that postmodern
approaches provide explanations of why strategic planning will not work and
that these approaches throw strategy formulation out the window. Cova
describes postmodernism as the integration of new models into a `generic
perspective on life and human condition' (1996:15) and an epochal swing
from modernity, breaking free from functionality and rational thinking.
These authors state that postmodernism rejects epistemological
postulations, contends methodologies, refutes accepted theories, and
contrasts the modernist realities in almost every sense.
It is important to mention though that postmodernism is inexplicably
connected to modernism in that postmodernism is the modern in an embryonic
state. It can only be articulated through the modern while the modern can
only be expressed as a passing image of the postmodern (Chia, 1995;
Cilliers, 1998; Cova, 1996). This also applies to strategic management
theory and all the comments on the applications of chaos and complexity to
strategic corporate communication expressed in this paper should be seen
against the background of modernist strategic planning. I do not argue to
discard strategic planning altogether. Instead I appeal for it to be less
positivistic, controlled, linear and planned, and for it to be more
flexible, emotional, and understanding.
Chaos and complexity theory are both postmodern approaches. Similarities
between postmodernism and the chaos and complexity theories are:
View of the organization is organic and flexible;
Structure and linearity is considered impossible because of the
unpredictability of the environment;
Diversity is a common feature and conformity is criticized;
Change and transformation is inevitable and is uncontrolled;
Relationships are essential and are the crux of all interactions;
Conflict is natural and necessary. It is seen as growth and creativity;
Perspectives, ideas, and views are contradictory and irrational;
Knowledge is a process of learning and is not linear. It is borne out of
discourse and debate;
Systems should not regulate people or values. The concepts of
self-regulation through interaction and relationships apply.
These features are all portrayed in the postmodern views of organizations
and the principles of connectivity and self-organization.
Postmodernist views of Organizations
Chia (1995) distinguishes between modernist and postmodern thinking in
terms of organizational studies when he describes modernism as a style of
thought that sees organizations as `isolatable real entities or attributes
which can be systematically described and explained and, therefore,
meaningfully compared' (p. 583). He argues that even when modernist talk
about `process' they are referring to `static process' where a process
would be discrete, linear, and sequential - exactly what we see in proposed
methodologies of strategic communication management formulation and
planning. In contrast postmodernists would refer to `process' in terms of
intricate patterns and networks of interaction and relationships. I thus
question the linear, objective, and positivistic approaches currently
presented for strategic communication management and place emphasis on
ambiguity, conflict, debate, uncertainty, ideology, subjectivity,
relativity, diversity, and most importantly on relationships. Some of these
concepts and ideas of networks and relationships are coming through a few
of the current literature on strategic communication management (L. A.
Grunig et al., 2002; B. Steyn, 2002), but not to the fullest extent as
suggested by this paper and postmodern public relations theorists such as
Holtzhausen (2000) and Murphy (1996). With the use of applications from the
chaos and complexity theories I challenge the unquestioned soundness of
capitalist practices and make room for humanistic values such as quality of
relationships and fun through creativity and uncertainty.
Postmodernism is characterized by the co-existence of different discourses
and paradoxes but with the important distinction of being part of a complex
set of relationships and interlinked networks (Cova, 1996; Holtzhausen,
2000). This network of our society fabricates knowledge and results in an
explosion of information. The different clusters in the network of society
have an organic life of growth, constant interaction, participation,
change, and self-organizing processes by which meaning is created. The
non-linear relationships in the network of society interact around the
competition for resources, processes, and boundaries are constantly
challenged. In order to create meaning it is necessary for systems to be
unstructured and as diverse as possible as diversity creates rich
information that can be managed to become knowledge and wisdom.
Postmodernism has an implicit sensitivity to complexity and it acknowledges
the importance of philosophical perspectives such as self-organization and
connectionism (Cilliers, 1998:113) - important attributes that influence
the way chaos and complexity theories are approached and that are relevant
to this paper.
Complexity theory - connectionism/ relationships and self-regulation
Complexity refers to the fact that in a system `there are more
possibilities than can be actualised' (Cilliers, 1998:viii; Luhmann,
1985:25). Cilliers (1998:viii) distinguishes between `complicated' and
`complex' by arguing that a complicated system consists of a huge number of
components (such as computers and jets), which can be analyzed accurately,
whereas in a complex system the interaction between the components of a
system and between the system and the environment are so intricate that it
is impossible to completely understand the system by simply studying the
components thereof. Examples of complex systems are societies, the brain,
organizations, and language.
A further important characteristic that makes systems complex is the fact
that the relationships and interactions of complex systems shift, change
and transform, which makes them even more difficult to study. `A complex
system is not constituted merely by the sun of its components, but also by
the intricate relationships between these components' (Cilliers, 1998:2).
It is not merely a linguistic occurrence, or merely the way we describe
systems that make them simple or complex, but complexity results because of
the interactions and relationships between subsystems. This is often also
referred to as artificial intelligence.
According to Cilliers (1998:10) the interaction of all the subsystems of a
complex system and the role of the relationships formed, as well as the
creation of information and knowledge through these interactions, form the
basis of the complexity approach. In societal terms this would apply to
people in any context and would imply that a person or group of people
derive their meaning from the relationships they have with other
individuals or groups in their environment.
`Structure' relates to the internal device developed by a system to
receive, encode, change and store information and at the same time the
system reacts to such information by some form of output. These internal
devices can transform and evolve without the interference of any external
creator or some centralised form of internal control. Cilliers (Cilliers,
1998) contends that a system will develop a self-organising process as a
result of complex interaction between the environment, the current state of
the system, and the history of the system. This self-organising process
refers to a `spontaneous emergence of order and structure' (Cilliers,
1998:89). He further defines self-organization as `a property of complex
systems which enables them to develop or change internal structure
spontaneously and adaptively in order to cope with, or manipulate, their
Cova (1996) argues from a postmodern perspective when he refers to the need
of individuals in society to have a personal link to the rest of the
community and he goes as far as saying that the individual wants to become
part of the firm. Building relationships between organizations and publics
are becoming the most important function of the practitioner (Ledingham &
Brunig, 1997:24). At the same time the borders between the organization and
the publics should also be eliminated so that the publics become part of
the organization and the creation of meaning (Sherman & Schultz, 1998:169).
Another comparison is the movement away from data based segmentation in
marketing and public relations to qualitative and participatory approaches
such as action research and ethnography (Holtzhausen, 1999:28).
This same shift is present in public relations where publics want to be
active participants in the creation of meaning (two-way symmetrical model)
in contrast with being merely told and persuaded by the organization -
asymmetric models (J. E. Grunig, 1992; Holtzhausen, 1999:39; Spicer, 1997).
According to Cova `participation is the essence of postmodernity' (1996:22)
and while he describes this as ethno-marketing from a marketing
perspective, from the viewpoint of public relations `ethno-public
relations' should enable practitioners to transfer meaning ascribed to
issues from to publics and vice-versa in an atmosphere of trust.
Stakeholders and publics want to participate fully in strategy creation and
not merely be the recipients of well formulated messages from the top
structures who created those strategies - a top-down approach.
Chaos theory and chaotic concepts
The Chaos theory started out with the basic principles of the systems
theory and grew into what is summarized by Overman from various definitions
by other authors as `the study of complex, dynamic systems that reveal
patterns of order out of seemingly chaotic behaviors.the study of complex,
deterministic, non-linear, dynamic systems.so complex and dynamic, in fact,
as to appear chaotic (Overman, 1996:487)'.
Chaos is `the final state in a system's movement away from order'
(Wheatley, 1994:122). It can be understood as the state where a system can
no longer sustain a stable pattern of behavior because of an increasingly
changing environment, and subsequently leads to the system reorganizing
itself to adjust to these changes (Dennard, 1996:498). Chaos theory
attempts to understand why systems seem to not function in linear,
predictable, conventional ways, but when studied from a distance, display
patterns and structures (Murphy, 1996:96). It is a term that can be used to
explain a number of both natural and artificial phenomena such as the
weather patterns, stock prices, economies, traffic patterns and even
biological aspects such as heart arrhythmia (Overman, 1996:487).
The term `chaos' is actually a misnomer because although it seems as if it
implicates total disorder and no traceable pattern, chaos is still
deterministic and basically Newtonian in that it provides definite answers
and methods (Overman, 1996:489). Behind all the order and nonlinearity
observed in chaos states lie an order and pattern, and new relationships
and structures emerge out of what seems to be incomprehensible and out of
control. According to Wheatley (1994:20), `there is so much order that our
attempts to separate out discrete moments create the appearance of
disorder'. If we view chaotic systems over time and from a distance they
always demonstrate inherent orderliness (Briggs & Peat, 1989:14; Wheatley,
1994; Youngblood, 1997:47).
Importance of interdependence, participation and relationships
A very important contribution of the chaos approach is the participatory
nature of the new approaches to strategic management. Wheatley (1994)
suggests a way out from the non-objective, chaotic and complex world of the
new sciences. Traditionally the interpretation of data and information was
done by management, which in turn led to filtering, subjectivity,
exclusivity, and over-control. She suggests that there is interdependence
between different subsystems in an organization (as the extension of the
systems theory to the post-modern and complexity theories imply). This
interdependence suggests that all the subsystems should take part in the
processes of the system. Participation could add to the richness of
information, shared responsibility, more trust and transparency and,
ultimately, to healthier relationships. This interdependency and
participation in turn imply relationships, the sharing in decision making,
as well as in the dissemination and interpretation of information
throughout the organization.
The process and the building of relationships are vital, and development
and maintenance of these relationships are of more importance than the
outcomes, players or objects themselves. Meaning is derived from
relationships and not from the party in isolation. Because of the
interdependency of systems with the environment, relationships actually
give meaning to the entities and processes and meaning is not situated
within the entities or processes themselves (McDaniel, 1997:24).
Youngblood (1997:247) defined a relationship as the `commitment of two or
more people to supporting each other in the pursuit of a common goal'. He
adds that relationships are not only relevant between people but include
all living systems. The key concepts here are commitment, mutual support
and common goal. Grunig & Huang (2000) further applied the concepts of
control mutuality - which could include mutual support - (joint acceptance
of degrees of symmetry), trust, and satisfaction with the relationship to
communication management. Relationship building in is an indicator of
successful public relations and communication management . The order seated
in the holism of systems and subsystems co-create environments and
relationships (Dennard, 1996:497). The natural flow and flexibility of
living systems contribute to greater access to information, power levels,
new technology and developments that renew and change more effectively
Self renewal and the self organizing ability of systems from a chaos theory
According to Jantsch (Dennard, 1996:497) living systems have an ability to
`continuously renew themselves and to regulate this process in such a way
that the integrity of their structure in maintained.' While systems change
there is an underlying recognizable structure that maintains it. This order
is seated in the holism of the system and not in separating different
subsystems that co-create environments and relationships.
Overman (1996:488) illustrates the self-organizing ability of systems with
the use of an example. He equates it to a `parking lot' after a big game.
At first the parking lot is quiet and `balanced' or in equilibrium.
Suddenly, when the game is over everybody tries to leave at once. Now it
moves to a state of not being in equilibrium at all. Everybody moves to the
exit simultaneously. Strangely, amidst all the chaos, people start forming
lines and although it is a totally unpredictable situation, with a lot of
frustration and uncertainty, oddly the drivers start organizing a system
without the help of any traffic controller. This self-organization
eventually leads to fewer cars until the whole parking lot is empty.
Disordered systems are driven by what is called a strange attractor. This
is a deep structure within any system that is a natural order behind the
disorder and this order is taken from an attractor that traces a path in a
regular pattern (Evans, 1996:492). Even systems that appear to be totally
out of control and unpredictable have underlying deep structures that are
termed attractors. `An attractor is an organizing principle, an inherent
shape or state of affairs to which a phenomenon will always tend to return
as it evolves, no matter how random each singe moment may seem' (Murphy,
Most chaotic systems never go beyond certain boundaries - it is contained
within a shape with a `strange attractor' holding it together (Wheatley,
1994:21). Briggs and Peat (1989) talk about systems being constantly pulled
apart and iterated toward change, transformation and disintegration
although at the same time there are magnetic powers drawing these systems
into order and shapes. `.eventually all orderly systems will feel the wild,
seductive pull of the strange chaotic attractor' (Briggs & Peat, 1989:77).
Some authors describe organizational culture as the strange attractor that
keeps organization from oscillating into total chaos and disintegration
(Murphy, 1996:98). Others describe it as purpose and information. Wheatley
(1994) described organizations that were in total chaos because of
reorganization and buyouts and yet there were employees who created meaning
for themselves and carried on working productively: `Employees were wise
enough to sense that personal meaning-making was their only route out of
chaos' (Wheatley, 1994:135).
If the often quoted function of communication as `the process of creating
meaning' (Spicer, 1997) is taken into consideration, the importance of
communication management in organizations as possible strange attractor, is
rather obvious. If relationships are the core ingredient that
organizational systems are based on, no event could move this system into a
crisis in the sense that the event might have the potential of forcing the
system into total breakdown. Strong relationships can hold the system
together when it seems to be in chaos and disorder, as it would seem to be
in times of a crisis.
Fragmentation and interdependence
By looking at systems from a holistic perspective, provides the observer
with the possibility to identify correspondences or relationships between
forms that vary in scale but compare in terms of patterns of successfully
greater magnification as well as complexity (Murphy, 1996:100). Each
pattern takes on something from the one that preceded it and so builds a
history that can be traced over time. These patterns are all interdependent
and changes in the one affect the other. The relationships are to many
physicists of the quantum world `all there is to the reality' (Wheatley,
1994:32) and they see particles as a set of relationships and interactions.
The differences of entities in different relationships make for fluid and
flexible systems and also make predictions and strict lines or boundaries
of order impossible (Wheatley, 1994:34).
An important affirmation of the chaos theory is `that the stronger the
connections between the diversity of elements comprising a system, the more
capable the system will be of sustaining itself when far-from-equilibrium'
(Fitzgerald, 1996:29). The ability to change and strategically manage an
organization will lie in the challenges of relationship management, and not
in changing the structures or functions of individuals, or of neatly
packaged strategic formulations (Fitzgerald, 1996). Communication
strengthens the connections between different functions in an
organizational system and binds those relationships into attractors that
keep the processes and functions of the organization together.
The ethics of self-organization
According to Cilliers (1998) ethics is not merely a `nicety' to have values
in a system but it is essential for the survival and growth of a system. A
flexible system increases its survivability by decentralizing control and
organizing itself to adjust to changes in the environment. It is not a
question of `good' or `bad', but a strategy to decrease entropy. He takes
on a rather teleological approach and argues that the consequences of
unethical behavior of a system would ultimately have negative consequences
for that system and lead to its collapse. The strategy of a system should
ultimately aim to be ethical. The question arises as to what it exactly is
meant by `ethical' behavior of a system such as an organization. From a
public relations perspective this could mean the building and maintaining
of healthy relationships toward harmony in society.
Discourse is an important concept in postmodernism and refers to the use of
language in communication by `forming structures and conveying meanings'
(Holtzhausen, 1999). Holtzhausen (2000) explains that meaning is not formed
through language itself but by the debate or discourse of different points
of view as well as in the ways knowledge is structured. Discourse thus
creates and structures ideas, beliefs, and ideology extending these to
images and semiotics.
Individuals want to feel part of the organization they support and deal
with as customers, clients, or any other stakeholders (Cova, 1996). Publics
need to become part of the organization and the creation of meaning through
two way symmetrical communication. They do not merely want to be
`identified', `described', `researched' and `communicated to' (as suggested
by most models of strategic corporate communication management), but they
want to be part of strategy formulation. Research findings show that a
higher degree of participation in organizations will lead to significantly
more positive overall relationships between an organization and its
internal publics than with lower degrees of participation and planned
approaches to strategic management and change (Str"h, 2002). But this
participation does not merely suggest interaction (communication) with
stakeholders, but suggests participation (negotiation, discourse) by all
stakeholders in the creation of the strategic process itself - a bottom-up
approach to strategic management. Steyn (2000) alludes to this notion when
she refers to participation of and partnering with stakeholders of an
organization (p.192), though the rhetoric used in her suggestions still
indicate traditional management ontology, such as the use of `appointment
to board of directors', `management', `control', `included in major
decisions', implying that the processes are still managed by the
organization and stakeholders are appointed or included in decision-making
by management. The control is still in the hands of management. A
postmodern perspective would suggest taking a step back where diverse
stakeholders are part of a network of relationships where decisions resolve
and flow naturally out of discourse and constant change. The emphasis is on
the relationships and not on the decision-making processes. If the
relationships are strong the outcomes of decisions would almost not matter
because whatever the outcome of a decision, the consequences would work out
to be to the benefit of the organization on the long run.
Postmodern theorists and corporate communication managers are starting to
move away from the models of strategic planning, objective setting and
positivistic measurement. New approaches suggest environmental scanning to
identify stakeholders that might be affected by organizational actions,
building relationships with those stakeholders by building decision-making
processes with them, and thereby affecting the goal achievement and
reputation of the organization (L. A. Grunig et al., 2002; Holtzhausen,
2001). Conflict management, discourse and participation are emphasized.
Measurement is focused on qualitative methodologies, action research and
ethnographic research - a more emic approach as an insider view of
organizational problems and issues.
Traditional and conventional strategic management approaches are linear in
essence, but the unpredictability of business environments is so acute that
managers are unable to control the implementation of strategies and
strategic plans. Long term planning becomes impractical and impossible
(Singh & Singh, 2002:29). The chaos and complexity approaches demonstrate
that strategic management should be more about facilitation than
management. Corporate communication managers should be more concerned with
the building of relationships with stakeholders through the facilitation of
participation, than with `strategic planning' and `strategic management'.
The role of the communication manager should thus not be one of technician,
facilitator between management and stakeholders, or internal problem
solver, but should be one of organizational activist (Holtzhausen, 2000).
They should be involved with the facilitation of conflicts rather than the
resolution of conflicts, and they should instigate dynamic instability.
Communication managers should create and maintain channels for discourse
and they should not manage information but rather open all information
systems to allow self-regulation of communication. They should not seek
unanimous control and equality but should work toward diversity and
different voices in order to keep the system creative and on the edge of
chaos. They should not measure - they should try to understand the
complexity of the environment and the interaction of all the different
components of the organization.
The role of the communication manager should be one of facilitator, but not
as part of top management to be perceived as a mouthpiece for management.
The facilitator role should be one of negotiation facilitator between
conflicting parties, as well as of facilitator of conflict creator through
the provision of channels and forums for discourse. The role should be
strategic but not as part of the management team, rather as one of
outsider/agent and organizational critic (Holtzhausen, 2001). The
communication manager should facilitate a climate of constant change,
conflict and diversity where the communication management function becomes
the `strange attractor' keeping the organization from entropy and
instilling a culture of `positive chaos' (Str"h, 1998).
If we think about the concept of `relationship' and return to some of the
basic relational theories, we might find some alternatives to linear
strategic management processes. People are in relationships because they
have the need to share and create something better for themselves rather
than being alone. Handy (2002) referred to the reason for the existence of
an organization as not being simply for profit, but he quoted Dave Packard
in saying that an organization is a group of people who get together `to
accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately
- they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is
fundamental' (p.36). People also get into relationships without planned
strategies of how they are going to achieve success in those relationships.
Healthy relationships exist when a new entity is formed out of the
togetherness of two individuals and the relationship becomes more important
than the two individual units. As High Prather put it (Adler & Towne,
2003:314): `For communication to have meaning it must have a life. It must
transcend "you" and "me" and become "us".. In a small way we then grow out
of our own selves and become something new.' If an organization can put the
relationships with stakeholders first and not focus on its own bottom line,
the relationship will give back a lot more than it is taking and the bottom
line will look after itself. Respect for the environment and for the
stakeholders will create exponential returns.
Another element of good interpersonal relationships that organizations can
learn from is the principle of trust, which develops out of moral and
ethical behavior toward each other. Running an organization should be a
moral issue (Handy, 2002). Many organizations have lost the trust of their
stakeholders because people believe that corporations `are immoral in that
they have no purpose other than themselves' (Handy, 2002:52). Organizations
will have healthy relationships by being good citizens and by leading in
areas such as `environmental and social sustainability' (p.53). We don't
constantly measure or plan our personal relationships, yet they just
happen, and they go well if we are good partners in that relationship. If
we are ethical and moral and if we share the same visions and values, we
become part of growing, loving and trusting relationships. If we apply this
to organizations Handy consoles by stating that `doing good does not
necessarily rule out making a reasonable profit' (Handy, 2002:55).
Further interpersonal theories such as the social penetration theory of
Altman and Taylor teach honest self-disclosure and companies could learn by
being totally transparent regarding financial statements and accountability
(Griffin, 2003). Relational dialectics(Adler & Towne, 2003) teach that
relationships are full of paradoxes and that there is a constant struggle
between connectedness and individual separateness. Relationships are always
in flux and are complex contradictions, but with growth and enjoyment -
very much what the chaos approach teaches about organizational
relationships (Wheatley, 1994). In healthy interpersonal relationships we
listen to our partners and care about their concerns, and we try to reduce
uncertainty (Littlejohn, 1992). By conducting action research with full
participation of all involved, by constantly sharing open and honest
information, by being involved in discussions and discourse regarding
shared interests, organizations can maintain strong relationships with
stakeholders who will commit over the long term. Further similarities
between interpersonal relationships and postmodernist approaches to
organizational relationships are too many to be explored and covered in
this paper, but might be of interest for future examination.
The postmodern ontology that I propose recognizes that organizations are
not merely units of analysis or physical objects or resources, but consist
of complex relationships between the entities that make up an organization.
Postmodern communication management should play an important role in
empowering marginalized groups by empowering all stakeholders through
participation. It should furthermore create dialogue and especially
recognize differences and dissensus between the organization and its
publics. I thus argue for a more participative approach with high ethical
and moral meaning creation through action science and research rather than
structured approaches suggested by current corporate communication
theorists. This approach will ensure a positive reputation for the
organization through socially responsible strategy making, which will have
relational influences into a larger societal community structure.
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