Continuing the conversation about collaborative advantage, in our interdependent world, organizations are intelligent networks that thrive on connectivity.
Companies are not lifeless “brick-and-mortar” buildings, financial balance sheets filled with numbers, or warehouses stacked with products, but dialogical human enterprises that flourish and serve customers through the application of human ingenuity and engagement.
Spirited workplace communities that are not confined by traditional organizational structures and processes allow for open, spontaneous interaction to take place often. This interaction can be a vital source of revolutionary innovation and problem solving. In these settings, the organization can be described as an intricate communication and innovation web—a system of social networks—with an overarching identity, purpose or mission, set of operating processes and delineated tasks that focus on achieving the organization’s goal to provide a particular product or service.
Unlike in the past, an organization’s collective knowledge does not primarily reside in written documents or individual people, but in the ever-evolving collaborative networks that make up the very fabric of the organization’s being and daily activity.
An organization’s health is dependent upon its ability to readily access and utilize its collective knowledge and practical wisdom, and creatively apply it to the situation or task at hand.
In 2005, I delivered a paper at a conference in Trento, Italy. The gathering, titled “Passion for Learning and Knowing,” explored how organization’s generate and apply knowledge so they can grow and remain viable.
That paper, coupled with insights drawn from many discussions with a wide range of professionals over the years, has made it quite evident to me that the 21st century organization is a dispersed but collaborative workplace society—a rather complex social system involving living knowledge networks and evolving learning communities. Reflective dialogues and engaging relationships are essential aspects of these networks and communities. Not only do they help ensure that work is meaningful, but reflective dialogues and engaging relationships also enable organizations to effectively and expediently respond to the complex and unforeseen issues that they routinely face.
From this vantage point, one can say that organizations are the sum total of all of the networks—relationships and conversations—in which they participate.
Continuing this line of thought, modern agile organizations are emergent enterprises created by interactive conversations that both foster inquiry, dialogue, and critical analysis and enable solution building. They are adaptive, knowledge-generating ecologies rooted in diverse information-sharing relationships that promote “out-of-the-box” thinking, new learning, and creative decision-making. While information is a key building block of business viability, knowledge (or valued information that can be applied) and practical wisdom are its foundation.
Today’s organizations are paradoxical in nature. They strive to reach stasis and be a well functioning institution while remaining fluid dialogical networks that ebb and flow. They are complex realities that simultaneously strive to be a recognizable entity in time and space, and a phenomenon that continuously emerges through face-to-face and electronic communication connections. In the former, information flows throughout the organization and is stored in data banks while in the latter, knowledge and practical wisdom is the dynamic interactive social communication network.
Further, since today’s workplace is global and not co-located, organizations are a web of intelligent conversation networks mediated by information, communication, and collaboration technology—a sociotechnical matrix of dynamic relationships comprised of diverse, disparate individuals and work groups.
A sophisticated strategic human and technological infrastructure coupled with a collaborative culture are critical to an organization for they enable and support the formation, evolution, and function of the organization’s dynamic system of interactive formal and informal networks that link people within the organization as well as with other organizations.
Information systems professionals, then, are vital knowledge network architects who are challenged to craft technological knowledge management processes and tools that enable social ties and collaboration, as well as create virtual places where people are actually present to and interact with each other.
An organization’s communication and network capital, that is, its information and communication infrastructure, as well as its capability to link individuals and teams in order to establish and maintain productive intra and inter-organizational working relationships regardless of time or distance, is a critical asset.
In conclusion, one can say that organizations are complex sociotechnical systems, diverse societies, and dialogical networks that are continuously evolving in order to provide a product or serve a segment of the local or global community. They exist as a tension between being a static entity with a clear identity and an emerging process of formal and informal, planned and spontaneous conversations and relationships.
Organizational communication, then, is concerned with how organizations self-organize, that is, how they choose to structure themselves as either hierarchies, democratic relationships, a web of networks, or societies rooted in espoused cultures. Such self-organizing principles give rise to how communication and relationships are used by organizations to make meaning so all know what to do and how to do it so an organization can reach its goals.
Charles Conrad and Marshall Scott Poole refer to organizational communication as strategic discourse that is systemic in nature.
To successfully function in a global marketplace and address complex issues, organizations need to draw upon the collective intelligence and expertise in the web of networks that comprise their daily operations. This involves not only the internal work environment, but the myriad of interactions—connections—the organization has with other organizations, such as business partners, vendors, supply chain members, as well as with their customers.