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The value of communication within organisations:

approaches to assessment of employee valuations of internal


communication

Kevin Ruck
Lancashire Business School, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK
kevin.ruck@pracademy.co.uk

1. Introduction

In the development of the understanding of the value of intangible organisational


assets, the role of communication is becoming an increasingly important factor
(Ritter, 2003 p. 50). Communication within organizations is linked to higher levels of
performance and service (Tourish and Hargie, 2009 pp. 10-15) generating
communication capital (Malmelin, 2007 p. 298). This is related to the concept of
social capital that is becoming a more popular management topic (Lee, 2009),
grounded in organisational relationships. Intrinsic to this is the importance of
assessing internal communication. Many well established tools developed in the
1970s are still used, such as the Communication Satisfaction Questionnaire (CSQ),
the ICA Audit, the Organizational Communication Development audit, and the
Organizational Communication scale (Clampitt, 2009 pp. 58-61).

This paper explores the value of internal communication for organizations and
employees and argues that, in a fast changing communication environment,
traditional approaches to assessment are becoming outdated. They are focused on
process, volume and channels rather than content and dialogue. They also omit the
link to organisational identification and engagement and are too reliant on a positivist
research philosophy and questionnaires. Furthermore, assessment of internal
communication should now be revised to take more account of the impact of social
media, within a wider context of medium theory.

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2. Philosophies of assessment

Hargie and Tourish (2009) and Downs and Adrian (2004) outline a broad range of
approaches to assessing organizational communication. These include
questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, data collection log-sheets, and
communication network analysis. However, little attention is given to the underlying
philosophy for the approach taken. An audit, according to Tourish and Hargie (2009
p. 410) is by its nature is designed to be setting specific and uses already validated
approaches. An epistemological approach reflects a researcher’s beliefs or
“worldview” (Creswell, 2009, p.6) though this may not always be explicit (Easterby-
Smith et al., 2008, p. 63). According to Crotty (1998, p.4), epistemology drives
research; it is the starting point that leads on to the theoretical perspective, which
leads to the methodology and then the methods used. Research methods are
consequently “characteristic” of the epistemological position (Easterby-Smith et al,
2008, p62).

This is most evident in the assertion that “there is a fundamental difference between
the subject matter of the natural sciences and the social sciences and that an
epistemology is required that will reflect and capitalize upon that difference” (Bryman
and Bell, 2007, p. 20).The positivist position is associated with natural science based
upon discovery, hypotheses, experiments, measurement, verification/falsification,
and causality (Easterby-Smith et al, 2008, p63). In effect, the philosophical
assumption is that there is a social reality that is external and objective and “data,
evidence, and rational considerations shape knowledge” (Cresswell, 2009, p7). This
is associated primarily with a quantitative research methodology. However, data,
evidence, and rational considerations are also intrinsic to a qualitative methodology,
albeit from a more reflective than objective perspective. The term “rational” here is
loaded, as it may be used to imply more useful, “scientific” and therefore credible
thinking.

An alternative relativist (or realist) position allows for observers to have different
viewpoints (unlike positivism); “what counts for the truth can vary from place to place
and from time to time” (Collins, 1983) cited in Easterby-Smith et al (2008, p62).
Relativism is linked to exposure, propositions, triangulation, survey, probability, and
correlation (Easterby-Smith et al, 2008, pp62-3). This sets it apart from positivism,
with its allegiance to experimentation that removes alternative explanations. It does,
however, remain firm to the position that social science can be investigated in the

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same way as natural science and there is an external reality (Bell and Bryman, 2007,
p 18).

Interpretivism (or social constructionism in Easterby-Smith et al, 2008) is founded on


knowledge generated through subjective meaning (Bell and Bryman, 2007, 19), based
within social realms, from an internal perspective (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2003, p.
336). The difference between a positivist and an interpretivist position is summarised
by Bryman and Bell (2007, pp17-18) as a focus on explanation (in positivism) in
contrast to understanding (in interpretivism). Interpretivism is therefore underpinned
by a belief that the study of people and workplaces requires an entirely different
approach to the study of natural sciences. The philosophical underpinning is drawn
from a range of intellectual thinking, including phenomenology and symbolic
interactionism (Bryman and Bell, 2007, pp18-21). There is no assumption as to any
pre-existing reality and a priority given to the use of language and the creation of
meaning. This results in research methodologies that incorporate meanings,
reflexivity, conversation, sense-making and understanding (Easterby-Smith et al,
2008, p63).

Worldviews or research philosophies can extend to beliefs about the nature of the
topic of study. For example, Grunig (2009, p.9) outlines two competing paradigms for
public relations that also apply to internal communication; “the symbolic, interpretive,
paradigm and the strategic management, behavioural, paradigm”. This divergence of
view on how to research public relations is summarised by Grunig as a difference
between “buffering” (the symbolic, interpretive approach – centred on messaging)
and “bridging” (the strategic management approach – centred on dialogue and
relationships). Creswell (2009, p. 5) argues that researchers should “make explicit
the larger philosophical ideas they espouse”. It could be argued that pragmatic
worldviews are most appropriate for research in the field of internal communication
assessment based, as it is, on real world practice. However, an
advocacy/participatory worldview is also valid, for example, investigating internal
communication from the perspective of the employee rather than the organisation,
which is currently the common level of analysis.

Research conducted as an audit is instigated primarily from a pragmatic worldview


philosophy. The approach is to ascertain how internal communication is practised in
a given organisation so that some form of useful problem identification is established
that can be addressed. In the course of conducting audits, the employee perspective

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does also often emerge. For example, in an audit of a paper mill, one of the
conclusions that became established was that “Employees expressed dissatisfaction
with feedback about how they were judged”. Though Hargie and Tourish (2009, p.
18) do not make any explicit argument for empowerment of the employee, it is clear
that they do see internal communication audits as change oriented:

In the long term, business success is vital for individual as well as societal
well being. However, the evidence reviewed here suggests that, in order to
grasp this wider picture, the fundamental human needs that people bring into
the workplace with them must be addressed.

The consequences of actions are therefore given primacy over theory generation.
However, the challenge is to establish what communication audits are being used to
test. If no established theory exists to guide practice, what is the epistemological
knowledge that the audit is using as a framework?

3. Channels and content

Shortcomings in establishing theory in internal communication have often led to a


predominance of the assessment of channels used, or volume of information
generated (the what); essentially explanations rather than the content of the
communication itself, how well it is provided, or understanding. The well established
International Communication Association (ICA) survey is a comprehensive approach
made up of eight main sections. In an adapted version set out by Hargie and Tourish
(2009, pp.420-437) one of the sections explores content and another channels, four
are more generally about processes and volumes of information sent and received
and two can be tailored to specific organisational issues. The range of content topics
in section 2 is mainly job related; pay, performance, promotion, development, with
only one question in the set related to wider organisational goals. Respondents use a
five point Likert scale to rate the topics according to the how much information is
provided. The balance of job related questions and organisational related questions
is skewed towards the individual job level and this underplays the importance of
organisational identification. Furthermore, some important topics, such as job
security and the general support provided by the organisation, are omitted. In terms
of channels, section 4 in the audit provides a list of channels and asks the question,
“how much information are you receiving through these channels?” This may provide

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a useful snapshot of channel use in a given organisation. However, it does not
explore what content is provided through specific channels and whether or not this is
appropriate from an employee perspective. The overriding focus on the volume of
information within the ICA also suggests that internal communication can be reduced
to a transmission process and this ignores the question of how well the information
was provided, including tone and clarity. It also fails to address questions of
credibility of the information provided and how far it led to two-way dialogue.

Another well established survey, the Communication Satisfaction Questionnaire


(CSQ) takes a different approach to the ICA and focuses on primary dimensions of
communication satisfaction that include: general organizational perspective,
organizational integration, personal feedback, relation with supervisor, horizontal-
informal communication, relation with subordinates, media quality, and
communication climate (Downs and Hazen, 1977). This also focuses mainly on
information specific to an individual but also includes some wider organisational
aspects, such as clarity of communication and openness to ideas (Pincus, 1986 p.
399). It is grounded more in general satisfaction than volume of information. The
findings of the studies that have used the CSQ indicate that the areas of greatest
employee satisfaction are the supervisory communication and subordinate
communication, while the area of least satisfaction tends to be the personal feedback
factor (Clampitt and Downs, 1993). The shortcomings of the CSQ are, according to
Clampitt (2009, p. 58), the omission of top management communication and
decision-making. Other surveys often explore preferences for channels and as White
et al (2010, p. 78) explain, e-mails are appropriate for quick notices and updates,
printed paper signifies importance, and web sites are archives for retrieval-as-needed
information. However, interpersonal, dialogic communication remains important to
employees at every level of the organization.

An analysis of recent assessments of internal communication is provided in table 1


below. The assessments include large scale consultancy based reports, such as
Towers Watson and IABC, and academic research. What emerges from this meta-
analysis is a disjointed picture of internal communication. Despite the existence of
well established tools, these are not always used. Consultants and academics use
different question sets and approach the topic from different perspectives. This
analysis reveals an overwhelming reliance on a positivist position, using
questionnaires to ascertain the state of internal communication. It is not clear what
validated approach to the subject these are based on, though there is a tendency

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towards a paradigm that is focused on messaging rather than dialogue and
relationships (Grunig, 2009). On the other hand, some themes do emerge, such as
the reliance on newsletters and email and the decrease in print channels. In terms of
content, where this is assessed, there is a focus on job related topics and wider
organisational dimensions are often marginalised.

Source Content Channels


Towers Watson (2010) Understanding the business Social media – less than half of
60% effectiveness respondents are using this
328 organizations that Organisational performance and channel
collectively represent 5 financial objectives Electronic communication –
million employees in 56% effectiveness substantial increase in use
various regions around Rewards (health care, bonus, pension, Face to face communication –
the world. pay) 45% effectiveness significant increase in use
Actions affecting customer Print – increase in use in some
45% effectiveness areas but significant decline in
Job security other areas
24% provide no information on this topic
IABC Research Formal list of values or description of Frequently used channels,
Foundation the desired culture published – 74% ranked in order
and Buck Involve senior leadership in orientation Emails (83%)
Consultants programs to transmit vision, values, Intranet (75%)
Employee and culture – 54% Face-to-face meetings (54%)
Engagement Survey Consistency between a manager’s Website (47%)
(2010) behavior and the cultural values of the Print employee newsletters or
organization checked – 30% newspapers (32%)
877 respondents from Posters/flyers (28%)
various regions around Town hall meetings (27%)
the world. Virtual meetings (21%)
Videos (19%)
Social media (12%)
Business television (8%)
Home mailings (5%)
Podcasts (4%)
White et al (2010) Even when respondents said they Employees who were most
had sufficient information to perform satisfied with internal
147 interviews conducted their job and sufficient information communication were those
in a large, about policies and goals of the who received information
multicampus, organization, they still wanted from a variety of sources,
geographically information about administrative including interpersonal
dispersed university in decisions, budgets, channels. Despite the
US. personnel decisions, pending convenience of e-mails, a
changes, goals, and future high value was placed on
directions, etc. face-to-face communication,
even though many employees
noted that meetings are time-
consuming.

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Melcrum Social Media Not assessed. Newsletters and emails
Survey (2010) 68.8 per cent of leaders use
More than 2,600 internal online newsletters and
communication companywide emails to get
professional respondents; messages out to their staff.
1,800 from organisations
with more than Online video was chosen as the
500 employees. most popular "social media" tool
with 52.6 per cent, with blogs
(51.9 per cent – respondents were
told they could tick all the tools
that applied to their use of social
media), instant messaging (47 per
cent) and social networks,
including Twitter, Facebook and
Yammer, in fourth place with 37.6
per cent.

Marques (2010) Criteria for successful communication: Several participants listed the
timely, clear, accurate, credible, pertinent, aspect ofexecution or delivery
A qualitative study responsible, concise, professional, and format of the message, stressing
(entailing a sincere that communication should be
phenomenological delivered in a responsible format
approach) with 20 given its content. Not every
subjects. message lends itself for email, but
not every message requires face-
to-face settings either.
CIPD (2009) Employees are most likely to say their Not assessed.
managers rarely/never coach them on the
A representative sample job (44%); this is particularly the case with
of more than 3,000 people larger organisations. They are also more
in employment in the UK. likely to say their managers rarely/never
discuss their training and development
needs (35%) nor provide them with
feedback on their performance (26%).

More than one in five (26%) are either


dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the
opportunities that exist within their
organisation to feed their views upwards.

Al-Ghamdi et al (2007) Not specifically assessed. The eight highest rated


methods used by employees to
187 responses from learn about their
employees in one firm’s strategy were:
company based in Riyadh (1) Plant Manager meetings
and Jeddah. (2) Group meetings conducted by
employee’s immediate supervisor
(3) Employees’ immediate
supervisor
(4) Information placed on bulletin
boards, posters, and signs in the
plant
(5) E-mail
(6) video
(7) Tele/Video conference
(8) The firm’s Division
management in employee groups.

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Truss (2006) Training and development Not assessed.
32% rarely/never discussed
Stratified sample of 2000 Performance
employees in the UK. 30% rarely/never discussed
Vision
48% say senior managers have a clear
vision
Well informed about organisation
42% say they are not well informed
Voice
37% satisfied with opportunities for
upward feedback
Byrne and LeMay (2006) Information Lean/Rich media

598 fulltime employees Satisfaction of company wide information Satisfaction with lean media –
from the US based offices – 3.2 3.43
of a high technology Satisfaction of business unit information
oriented organization, -3.05 Satisfaction with rich media – 3.76
using an adaptation of the Satisfaction of job information
International -3.37
Communication
Association (ICA) Response scale of (1) strongly
Communication Audit Response scale of (1) strongly disagree to disagree to (5) strongly agree
Survey (5) strongly agree

Akkirman and Harris Communication Satisfaction Not assessed.


(2005) Questionnaire (CSQ)
Survey in a Turkish
subsidiary of an Communication satisfaction 3.66/3.24
international company Personal feedback 3.38/2.92
based in Germany. Virtual Organizational integration 3.57/3.12
office workers returned 46 Relationship with supervisor 4.02/3.73
surveys (a response rate Communication climate 3.69/3.26
of 70.7 per cent) and Horizontal communication 3.66/3.17
traditional office workers
returned 22 surveys (a Results are shown for virtual
response rate of 62.8 per workers/traditional workers
cent).

Clampitt and Downs Communication Satisfaction Not assessed.


(2004) Questionnaire (CSQ)
Around 1300 people from Supervisor communication – 34.18
organisations in different Subordinate communication – 33.43
countries. Horizontal communication – 31.81
Organizational integration – 29.62
Media quality – 29.17
Communication climate – 26.56
Corporate information – 26.35
Personal feedback – 23.99

Scale of 0-50, (50 is max satisfaction)

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Quinn and Hargie (2004) ICA questionnaire ICA questionnaire
Information - respondents thought they Information received through
were receiving between “little” and “some” various channels - these results
Interviews, questionnaires information, but wanted a “great” amount were the only ones that showed a
and critical incident of information. statistically non-significant result,
analysis in a police force in that respondents did not wish to
in Northern Ireland The greatest shortfalls related to: receive any more information
with131 respondents to how decisions that affect my job are dealt through the grapevine and did not
the survey. with; want to receive very much more
self development opportunities; via the media.
major management decisions;
development and changes in policing;
things that go wrong in the organisation.

Table 1 Review of internal communication assessment

Hargie and Tourish (2009, pp. 235-6) highlight recurring themes in the
communication literature as:
• The need for adequate information flow concerning key change issues
• The central importance of supervisory communication as a preferred
communication source
• The importance of inter-departmental communication in promoting enhanced
innovation
• The role of participation as a means of enhancing corporate cohesion
• The notion of communication as a foundation of teamwork and positive employee
attitudes, and thus an agency for enhancing performance
• The need to maintain face-to-face communication as a primary method of
information transmission
• The benefits obtained from conceptualising dissent as a source of useful
feedback, rather than simply as resistance to overcome.

They conclude (2009, p. 236) that there is a “…disabling gap between theory and
practice”. This is reinforced by the results in the meta-analysis in table 1. Change
issues are not specified in any of the assessments reviewed, the overwhelming use
of e-mail and newsletters dominates information transmission and the omission of
facets linked to participation and useful feedback is very apparent. The approaches
adopted to assessment also lack congruence with the themes outlined. However, the
themes themselves may not necessarily form a complete validated underlying theory
of internal communication. For example, they do not fully incorporate research
findings that link internal communication to employee engagement (Truss, 2006). So,
there are gaps at both the theoretical and practice levels. If an audit or assessment is

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conducted to obtain an accurate, objective, picture of the state of internal
communication, then it is clearly important to understand what an ideal state is.
However, this assumes that an accurate, objective, state ever exists that can be
assessed. A more fluid and relativist or interpretivist position for internal
communication research is more appropriate for the field.

Downs and Adrian (2004, p. 51) stress the importance of understanding the task
processes necessary for directing, controlling, and coordinating work assignments
alongside any communication assessment. This highlights the importance of linking
communication theory to wider management theory and this too is missing from most
current assessment models. Downs and Adrian also argue (2004, p. 245) that
communication theories are still incomplete, and as there are many of them, “theory
needs to be used judiciously”. Furthermore, Downs and Adrian suggest that:

The state of our art is such that no umbrella theory of communication exists.
Therefore, each problem in the organisation may require auditors to use
different kinds of theories, always watching for their contradictions and
inconsistencies.

If it is too much to expect that in the complex social world of internal communication
scholars can establish an umbrella theory, there remains a requirement for emerging
public relations theories such as relationship theory, critical theory, the excellence
theory of public relations and rhetorical theory to be more explicitly acknowledged in
the assessment process. For example, these are not explained as underpinning
theories within the themes shown above. Many of these theories point to a new
direction in assessment based more on bridging than buffering. As the assessments
reviewed in table 1 indicate, the focus remains on the circulation of information; type
of information, timing, and load, flow; downward, upward and horizontal and use of
channels (2004, pp. 52-60). These are all indicative of a focus on buffering. In the
next section, medium theory is explored in more detail in relation to the continuing
interest in channels, as it too suggests that assessment needs to change to reflect
the growing emergence of the importance of social networks.

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4. Medium theory and social networks

Much of the research and assessment of internal communication includes the use
and preferences of channels. According to Daft and Lengel (1986, p. 560) this is
linked to the concept of information richness and in order of decreasing richness,
media classifications are (1) face-to-face, (2) telephone, (3) personal documents
such as letters or memos, (4) impersonal written documents, and (5) numeric
documents. Rich media are personal and involve face-to-face contact between
managers, while media of lower richness are impersonal and rely on rules, forms,
procedures, or data bases. Downs and Adrian (2004, p. 57) argue that
communicators need to match communication that is high in ambiguity with rich
media and communication that is low in ambiguity with lean media. This basic
principle, in terms of matching content to media, is not an aspect of assessment that
is assessed in most current approaches.

It is worth noting that, according to some theorists, the channel itself conveys its own
message. Medium theory, developed first by Marshall McLuhan and then extended
by Donald Ellis (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008, p. 290), is based on the idea that the
media, irrelevant of the content, impacts individuals and society. As media change,
for example from print to television and more recently to internet, this affects the way
people think and relate to each other. Littlejohn and Foss (2008, p. 292) summarise
thinking on a first, broadcast, media age as a social interaction approach, based on
transmission of information and the second media age as a social integration
approach which is more interactive and personalized. This analysis can be likened to
Grunig’s (2009) differentiation between buffering and bridging. In the second age
there is less emphasis on the media and information per se and more on the way
that it creates communities. However, Poster (1995, p. 22) argues that the first age
may not have been an age at all, “Until now the broadcast model has not been a first
age but has been naturalized as the only possible way of having media – few
producers, many consumers”. Relating this to internal communication today, it could
be argued that its first real age has yet to arrive, with practice focused as it is on a
model of transmission of messages from senior management (the few) using email
and newsletters (broadcast channels) to employees (the many).

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The dawning of a new age of social integration in internal communication raises new
questions about theory and assessment. According to Poster (1995, p. 28) it
amounts to “users having decentralized, distributed, direct control over when, what,
why, and with whom they exchange information”. This leads to critical thinking,
activism, democracy, and quality. Poster’s approach is related to external
communication and the question is how far it applies to the world of internal
communication. Bennett et al (2010) claim that social networking sites provide
opportunities for both formal and informal interaction and collaboration with fellow
employees and clients/customers which aids knowledge transfer and communication.
This, in turn, leads to a shift in culture from “information gathering” to “information
participation”. Lange et al (2008, pp4-5) argue that the benefits of social networking
can be classified into three broad categories:

(1) Community. Defined as the use of social networking tools and capabilities to
interact with people who share your interests and passions.

(2) Collaboration. Defined as the use of social networking tools and capabilities to
connect people, expertise and resources in search of solutions that cannot be
created with any one of those ingredients alone.

(3) Contribution. Defined as the use of social networking tools and capabilities to
make it easier for customers or citizens to contribute their ideas, expertise,
concerns and preferences in the process of designing new products, services or
policies.

Cook (2008, p. 37) outlines four similar components in a classification of enterprise


2.0; communication, cooperation, collaboration, and connection. Fraser and Dutta
(2010) highlight examples of corporations which have started to adopt social
networking sites as a business tool such as General Motors which uses an internal
blog, and FastLane, which uses a corporate “focus group” that attracts around 5,000
daily visits. The approach to assessment of internal social media has to date focused
on basic techniques, using website data and analysis or intranet traffic figures. A
recent Melcrum survey (2010) involving more than 2,600 internal communication
professionals found that:

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Internal communication teams enjoy sticking to the basics with 61.6 per cent
suggesting they measure the success of social media initiatives by using
website data and analysis or intranet traffic figures.

The survey also reinforced assessment from other research regarding the use of
newsletters and emails; 68.8 per cent of leaders were found to be using online
newsletters and companywide emails to get messages out to their staff. The use of
social media technologies becomes increasingly important as organisations offer
different working styles, such as teleworking, hot-desking, and virtual offices.
Interestingly, despite concerns that virtual working provides a challenge for internal
communicators, research conducted by Akkirman and Harris (2005) found no
evidence to support the idea that a virtual workplace would have a categorically
negative impact on organizational communication. In fact, they found the opposite,
virtual office workers experienced higher levels of communication satisfaction than
office workers on all measured factors.

Currently, internal communication theory and assessment has not caught up with the
impact of social networks and media within organizations. This is an example of what
Poster (1995, p. 74) refers to as contingency in communication theory,
“Communication theory begins with a recognition of necessary self-reflexivity, of the
dependence of knowledge on its context”. He goes on to argue that “The first
principle of communication theory in the age of electronic technology, then, is that
there is no first principle, only a recognition of an outside of theory, an other to
theory, a world that motivates theory”. Poster warns against the temptation, at an
epistemological level, to try to secure a firm knowledge of communication theory.
This is a steer towards research and assessment of internal communication that is
more grounded in a relativist or interpretivist worldview, based on understanding
more than explaining or seeking to find absolute principles.

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5. Conclusion

This paper argues that internal communication theory and assessment are
intrinsically linked and that the field requires a stronger appreciation of
epistemological approaches to research that should be clearer in assessment
models. The techniques used in the majority of the assessments reviewed for this
paper are questionnaires, many based on scales that were developed in the 1970s.
The advantage of using such well developed tools is the potential benchmarking of
data on a significant scale. The disadvantages are that the tools do not reflect a
broad, current, range of theories. They also reflect a narrow, positivist, worldview
approach to the complex field of human communication and do not take account of
the changing world of work that is resulting from the introduction of social media
technologies.

Internal communication theory, or, more accurately, theories, are multidimensional


and have wider connections to fields such as employee engagement and effective
management. Establishing a single theory is therefore unlikely. Establishing an
essential “truth” for practice in any given organisation through assessment is also
unrealistic. It is more meaningful to work towards assessment models that reflect a
combination of buffering and bridging approaches to internal communication.
Buffering should not be ignored or downplayed as it is an effective way of keeping
employees informed. However, it is over represented in assessment and future
approaches need to include assessment based more on bridging to reflect current
theory and social networking in the workplace.

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List of references

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