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The OCR Glossary

Communicatively Constituted Organization Theory

Stefania Romenti

Communicatively constituted organization theory (CCO) concerns the idea that organizations are products of the communicative actions of the constituents involved. Organizations are built on individual and social processes of development of meanings, perceptions, social norms, and internal trust relationships. Since organizational reality is created through the cognitive processes of interpretation rooted in individual mental maps and shared among people, as Karl Weick wrote in the 1970s, communication is paramount for organizational functioning and effectiveness. Communication is the fuel that makes organizations come into being and survive. That being the case, the question that needs to be asked is “How does communication do that?”

This entry answers that question by first discussing what is meant by “communication constitutes organizations” and what are the four main flows of constitutive communication. Second, the links between CCO theory and reputation development are discussed.

The Constitutive Function of Communication

Constitutive communication can be categorized as belonging to constructivist studies. This means that developing flows of communication—more so than managing communication channels, messages, and networks, as the functionalist studies argue—should become the dominant concern of managers in successful companies.

Constitutive communication scholars have identified four main deeply interconnected processes of communication that constitute organizations’ CCO: (1) self-structuring, (2) membership negotiation, (3) activity coordination, and (4) institutional positioning.

  1. Self-structuring activity consists of communication that shapes an organization with a distinctive identity, which is formally controlled by internal members and positioned by external stakeholders. This type of communication is also fundamental to efficiently organizing daily work; it includes the design of regular activity patterns, the definition of internal connections and work processes, the development of norms, and the enhancement of internal trust relationships.
  2. Membership negotiation as a flow of constitutive communication deals with the cultivation of internal networks of relationships, which enhances employees’ commitment and their identification with the organization. If employees feel committed, they become strong advocates of the organization and support it during times of crisis. Managing this type of communication requires focusing specifically on how the characteristics of individuals affect their communication, such as how receivers’ attitudes, cognitions, and perceptions function as filters to the information they process.
  3. Activity coordination is a flow of constitutive communication that deals with solving practical problems, connecting work processes, and organizing work through communication. In other words, it is a step that completes the accomplishments of the flows of communication previously described, because it adjusts the policies and norms created by self-structuring processes. Activity coordination values employees’ cooperative networks, which affect the experience of empowerment, involvement, and collective participation at work.
  4. Managing organizational communication with an institutional positioning perspective means considering that the organization does not have symbols but is a constitutive part of symbolic communication. Institutional positioning is a flow of constitutive communication that develops legitimacy. In other words, communication builds “institutions” recognized as such by peer and related organizations.

Implications for Reputation Development

The CCO approach offers stimulating insights for corporate reputation development. Reputation is derived from self-structuring communication activity through the development of a distinctive corporate identity, which is the backbone of reputation because it reflects managers’ and employees’ perceptions about the organizational core. To enhance reputation, all the communication contents provided by and about an organization should be consistent with regard to its distinctive corporate identity over a given period of time. The reputation platform, on the one hand, becomes the input for plotting and implementing a corporate story or narrative about the organization’s activities and strategies for future development. On the other hand, reputation is strengthened by any corporate story that highlights the distinctiveness of the organization in the eyes of its stakeholders.

Reputation is produced by membership negotiation activity through communication that enhances organizational legitimacy. Internal communication is crucial to allow employees to negotiate their membership within an organization, by receiving information on the organization as a whole and on the specific function of each member. In managing internal communication, managers have to focus on how the employees’ attitudes, cognition, emotions, and perceptions function as filters to the information process. This permits, to a certain extent, an increase in the effectiveness of employees’ identification with the organization and ensures that employees’ cognitions and emotions have a positive role in building a company’s reputation.

Reputation is produced from activity coordination through the diffusion of problem-solving skills and the widespread implementation of effective communicative behaviors. Whatever the organization does, if it is consistent with its core values and related to ethical and sustainable principles of management, becomes the fundamental components of its corporate reputation. Internal communication activities that promote commitment, empowerment, and collective participation at work are crucial to the enhancement of alignment of behaviors with the corporate identity and ethical core principles of organizations, as the constitutive communication perspective states.

Finally, reputation is derived from institutional positioning through developing identity stories and stakeholder engagement processes. The way the company presents itself to its audiences through external communications to give positive impressions influences the level of legitimization and the reputation of the company. Reputation is enforced when a company is able to conform to social expectations associated with a particular group of companies, fulfill its social contact by operating within the norms of society, fit shared systems of rules that privilege some groups, and avoid sanctions for not performing according to the norms and rules settled on in an industry.

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McPhee, R. D., & Zaug, P. (2009). The communicative constitution of organizations: A framework for explanation. In L. L. Putnam & A. M. Nicotera (Eds.), Building theories of organization: The constitutive role of communication (pp. 21–48). New York: Routledge.

Putman, L. L., Nicotera, A. M., & McPhee, R. D. (2009). Communication constitutes organization. In L. L. Putnam & A. M. Nicotera (Eds.), Building theories of organization: The constitutive role of communication (pp. 1–20). New York: Routledge.

Romenti, S., & Illia, L. (2013). Communicatively constituted reputation. Applying the organizational communication perspective to reputation management. In C. E. Carroll (Ed.), The handbook of communication and corporate reputation (pp. 183–196). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizations (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

See Also

Institutional Theory; Legitimacy; Network Theory; Social Construction of Reality

See Also

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