In the case of organizing I am not the best one to talk to. My house is regularly a mess, and when I’m writing a paper, the same can be said about my documentation. However, as we’ve seen before, the definition of organization is not merely structure. Organization does not necessarily have to be predictable or continuing along a line for a long time. Organizing, as Pepper (1995) has explained is often linked to communication. Organization is not the mere set of rules, but rather relationships. But these relationships are created through the use of language and discourse.
To start with the latter. I have to say that this was one of the first words I came across when I started debating in English. The funny thing is that up until now I didn’t really know what it meant. Discourse is actually quite simply the way in which people construct reality through language. the way in which people communicate with each other defines what is accepted and what the people speaking see as the truth. Since discourse, or the perception of the world, is expreseed through language, the change of language can also describe the change in discourse (Taylor and Robichaud, 2004). So where we’ve previously defined that organizations are created through communication. And if communication is done through dialogues which are made up by text that is compiled through language, then organizations change if language change (Taylor and Robichaud, 2004).
So take for example the project I’m working on now in Bolivia. Part of the introduction of ICT (computers and internet) on schools is also the creation of educative games that help the students to learn faster about for example the different bones in the human body, or the names of the different departments of Bolivia. However there have been several terms used to define what this program is about. When I was still in the Netherlands preparing the trip to Bolivia, we were indeed talking about educative games. However it didn’t feel right to connect education to games, since the latter has the idea of fun and everything but responsible knowledge transfer. This idea is defined by the media and the large discussion that is happening on what kind of video- and computer games should be allowed for children of what age. However since I’ve been here, I’ve come across different references to these ‘games’. First of all the games are in Spanish also called games, but it is more important that throughout the discussions the professors do not know them as games but rather as part of the program J-click.
Two things are happening here. The first is that within the organization there is an internal contradiction on what actually is the project (J-click, Aprender Creando or educative games), but on the other hand the climate here is also differently defined. Games here for example are much less seen as the bad things that learn kids to be violent and that keep them from playing properly like you and I did when we were their age. You know with footballs and stuff. So what happens is that within this complex inside and outside the organization differences, the language differs accordingly. Thereby the discourse, or reality changes. Depending on either the external or the internal context or especially the differences between them.
Mind however that discourses are not something that exists for the period that language is used, but are rather something long-lasting. Language changes but not fast and because it transcends the organizations it is hard to change faster than the world outside. Because the language we use inside our organizations just as much finds its roots outside the organization. We can only change one if the other situation accepts it. Therefore language is dynamic but only slowly and discourses change but can best be seen as more enduring language patterns (Taylor and Robichaud, 2004). Last note, language is not the same as speech. Language is enabling and restraining speech, but it is not the same. I can for example, here in Bolivia, speak, as much as I like. But I can only use the language (Spanish) that I know. So the language is enabling me to speak with people but it does also restrain me through the limited knowledge of words I have.
So now that we’ve had a course on when to use what word, let’s look into one of the problems that appears within this context in companies. One of the biggest problems as Wolfe Morrison and Milliken (2000) illustrate is that there is no communication in companies. Or rather how there are forces within a company that keep employees from speaking up, avoiding communication and thereby organization. As we’ve seen before this is a crucial element of an organization, because within this ever-fast changing world we need to anticipate on what to do and how to work.
A company could be seen as kind of a mini-society. Here as well people derive meaning from their surroundings through the use of language and the meaning then comes through interaction. Within this company however we have to bear in mind that relations between the different people are very close. Like a small village in the Netherlands, everyone knows everything about everyone else. So what happens is what Wolfe Morrison and Milliken (2000) call social contagion, this is the ‘spreading of attitudes and perceptions from one person to the other’. People that have more opportunity to talk and people who have more in common are more likely to interact and this is defined by both formal and informal networks.
What happens however in many companies is that this initial very positive idea of sharing and interacting has a negative influence on the exchange of ideas. Wolfe Morrison and Milliken (2000) assume in their paper a clear and hard distinction between management and employees, mind that they are only talking about the organizations that suffer from organizational silence. Reasons for managers’ implicit forces on employees to hold their tongue are mainly enforces through the fear of negative feedback and implicit beliefs about employees. Through these forces employees get the idea that they are not invited to talk. Mind that not all managers do this consciously, it might just be their way of working. One of the examples mentioned in the text refers for example to the compilation of the top management. In many cases these are people that have an economical or financial background. In their knowledge of behavioral models self-interest and untrustworthiness are rooted in their economic models of behavior. You can therefore hardly comment them personally on the way in which they run the company, thereby causing a sphere of silence among employees. Rather should you then look into the diversity of the group in top management.
But let’s move back to the results of this issue. Because if, as we have seen before, discourse is created through language, but language is not used in a company, then there is no discourse, or common ground, created between managers and employees. This is problematic for a company because first of all speaking up is needed for organizational health and effective organizational decision making. But maybe even more, as we’ve seen before in worlds of change it is important to include as many different people as possible in the processes in order to deal with change and development. If certain people in an organization hold their tongues without anyone knowing that there might be ideas, which is the case assuming managers are not aware that people keep silent because of internal forces, than the development of an organization is about to come to a hold. Another technical aspect of this lies in the learning experience. The most effective learning, as we will come to see later, is the double-loop learning. In which you do not only act, but you also reflect on that act in order to later perform that act even more effectively. In organizations with silenced employees a big part of the feedback and thereby the double-loop learning falls away, damaging even further the possibility of making good decisions by managers. And let’s not forget the general happiness of employees that is damaged since they feel undervalued, they lack control and they start to behave differently from their beliefs.
So here again we see that creating discourse through the use of language is important. Not only for organizational development, but just as much for personal interests. And then we’re back again on the internal and external interests that define what are to become discourses.
Pepper, G.L. (1995). Organizations as Communication Events. In Communicating in Organizations; a cultural approach. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 3-25.
Taylor, J.R. & D. Robichaud (2004). Finding the Organization in the Communication: Discourse as Action and Sensemaking. Organization, 11, 395-413.
Wolfe Morrison. E. & F.J. Milliken (2000). Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World. The Academy of Management Review, 25/4, 706-725.