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Journal of Management
Volume 23, 1994

Select Articles

Organisational Communication:
A Critical Literature Review
V Suchitra Mouly
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

This paper exhaustively reviews the past four decades' literature on organisational communication.  A major finding is that there are hardly any ethnographic studies on organisational communication.  While pointing out the inherent weaknesses of non ethnographic approaches for studying organisational communication, this paper makes a case for using ethnographic approaches in the field. the thrust of the argument is that these approaches offer richer and more substantive insights into communication in an Organisation, compared to non ethnographic or survey approaches.

Communication has long been considered a key variable in organisational life.  Studies on organisational communication abound in the literature on management and organisational behaviour as well as human resource management.  There have been attempts to link communication with other organisational variables, such as leadership and motivation, and to project communication as a key factor in improving inter-personal relationships.  It is worthwhile to quote Drucker (1970) in this regard:

"Communication in management has long been a central concern of students and practitioners in all institutions business, the military, public administration, hospital administration, university administration, and research administration.  In no other area have intelligent men and women worked harder or with greater dedication than psychologists, human relations experts, managers, and management have worked on improving communications in our major institutions .... yet 'communication' has proved as elusive as the unicorn".

By showing the relevance of communication to students of varied disciplines, Drucker emphasises its importance.  Nevertheless, he clearly points out that despite the quantum of studies on communication, the field is still not well understood.

In bibliographic study on R&D management, Allen, George (1989) tried to identify trends of interest in the field of management and technology over the last two decades.  They identified organisational communication as one of the five primary topics that have been studied in the literature.  However, the enormous literature on communication is focused only on certain aspects of it.  Allen, George (1989) infer that the current emphasis is on communication among the functional areas, such as marketing, R&D, and manufacturing.

Since communication has been an area of great interest to researchers throughout the last four decades, it is worthwhile to review the literature on the field.  This paper is a selective review of the literature on communication in organisational and industrial settings.  The studies in the field have been grouped into two categories ethnographic (also referred to as process oriented), and non-ethnographic, (also referred as survey or product-oriented).  This classification is based on five criteria - the aim of the study, relationship between the researcher and the community, research tools involved in data collection, the research process per se, and the nature of findings obtained.

The objective here is to identify the main trends in the literature on organisational communication.  It is found that most of the studies on communication link it with other organisational variables.  Communication is generally perceived as a variable which either affects or is affected by other variables considered important in understanding the organisational life.  However, there are hardly any studies in which communication is treated as an ongoing process by itself.  Only a few researchers have focused on the ongoing interactions between members of an Organisation in order to understand its communication practices.  There are, however, inherent drawbacks in using non-ethnographic approaches to study organisational communication.  While pointing these out, here a case is being made out for the process-oriented ethnographic studies on communication.  The thrust here is that ethnographic approaches offer richer and more substantive insights into communication in an Organisation, compared to non-ethnographic or survey approaches.

The paper thus, first presents a brief overview of the literature on organisational communication; then, it describes the categorisation stated earlier.  In the third section, studies in the literature that use ethnographic approahces are compared and contrasted, followed by studies that are either explicitly or implicitly ethnographic in approach.  Finally, a case has been made out for using ethnographic approaches to study communication in organisations.

Overview of Studies
The review is based on II 0 papers on organisational communication.  As mentioned earlier, these studies have been classified into two groups, based on their emphases.

The first group comprises studies on managerial communication - its relationship to other aspects of organisational life, such as job satisfaction, motivation, leadership, and productivity (Conrath, 1973; Katz, 1982; Sibson, 1958; Walton, 1963).  The other group is made up of studies focusing on communication itself - its importance, content, process, ways of improving it, and barriers to good communication (Brinker, 1956; Brown, 1976; Geotzinger, Milton, 1964, Kikoski, 1980; O'Donnel, 1967).

These two groups of papers constitute a subtantial literature, but it is difficult to trace a progressive history of research trends, or to relate a particular trend to a specific time period.  In other words, papers which appeared in the late 40s and early 50s are similar in terms of scope, goals, and perspectives to the recent papers written in the mid-80s.  Two review papers Sexton, Staudt (1959), Epton (1982) - show how static studies in organisational communication has remained.  The first paper, which organised the literature by type of study, aruged that there is a lack of process-oiiented studies in investigations of organisational communication.  To quote Sexton, Staudt (1 959, 1 1 0- 1): "the vast literature on communication includes a variety of theoretical and speculative articles as well as reports of experiences of particular organisations.  In this field, however, there is a dearth of sound, adequately planned, and carefully designed research".

The second paper by Epton (1982) reviews the major themes in R&D over a period of ten years in an R&D management journal.  He identifies three well-researched topics in communications research - the relation of communication to performance, the effect of physical separation on communication rate, and the role of communication "stars" (symbols of appreciation, incentives) in information transfer.

Epton argues that despite the importance of communication as a research topic, many questions about R&D, such as, the relationship between communication and performance, the influence of cultural factors and the role of communication in improving organisational life focusing on the ongoing communication processes, have yet to be answered.  In other words, most of the studies emphasise the "product" - the ultimate results/benefits of communication - and not the process itself, which is crucial in understanding the work culture of an Organisation.

The present review confirms these perceptions.  It was difficult to trace the chronological history of developments in the communication literature.  This could reflect another general inadequacy - the lack of theory in the management sciences.  Management as a discipline has been influenced by theories of different social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, economics, etc., but does not seem to have its own integrative theories.  Hence, the focus is often on the use of new techniques and methods to study new settings, rather than on developing a theory over a period of time.  This observation was strengthened by the fact that the studies conducted over the past few decades repeated the themes borrowed from other disciplines.  Since it is difficult to trace a 'history" of this field, a thematic summary focusing on the various themes characterising the communication literature is presented here.

Communication Studies: Thematic Categorisation
This thematic categorisation aims at summarising various representative themes of the past communications literature.  These themes are: (i) Importance of effective communication; (ii) Methods of communication; (iii) Factors affecting cornmunication / ways to improve communication; and (iv) Communication failure, and barriers to successful communication.

Importance of Effective Communication
Almost all the studies, such as Breth (1952), Garvey, Griffith (1971), Peters (1983), and Short (1976) recognise the importance of effective communication though these writers differ in the values ascribed to types (formal/informal) or to a particular medium of communication (oral/written).  In very broad terms, these papers and other similar writings essentially emphasise that (i) teamwork attitudes may be developed by good communication, (ii) good communication is a means of increased productivity, (iii) good communication leads to good managerial decision-making, and (iv) two-way communication is vital.  These studies were based on large surveys conducted in various organisational settings.

Methods of Communication
Several studies have focused on the methods, and media of communication.  Some (Zelko, 1951) have emphasised the written medium, while others, such as Spence (1954), have focused on the oral medium.  While the written medium is considered a formal, appropriate, and safe mode by some others, the oral medium was considered quick and efficient, by others.

Cohen (1964), Keogh (1959), Lovegren (1961), Moonman (1959), and Stanton (1981) have also studied the effectiveness of oral and written media in organisations.  Some of the constraints in, and conditions for, using these modes have been discussed by them.  Drucker (1970) has provided detailed accounts of the value of communication, as well as suggestions on how communication could be improved.

Factors Affecting/Ways of improving Communication
Many authors have listed the principles of effective communication and ways to improve it (Black, 1959; Farrell, 1960; Kikoski, 1980; Lucas, 1964; Nilsen, 1956; Olsen, 1979; Sharp, 1983; Simon, 1955; Wycoff, 1981; and Selko, 1951)).  The factors that were considered important for effective communication are: (i) willingness of both the parties (the employer and the employees) to communicate, (ii) effective listening, (iii) showing understanding, (iv) displaying empathy, (v) having meetings where every person could voice his/her opinions, (vi) establishing good human relationships, (vii) having role clarity and task clarity, (viii) being motivated to work, and (ix) having interest in the work.

Some researchers have examined as to how communication practices vary in different cultures and have conducted comparative studies on different cultures.  Ebadi, Dilts (1986) have elaborated on the communication practices followed in Afghanistan.  Pascale (1978) compared the communication practices in Japan and the US. He reported the perceptions on, and differences in, communication modes in these two cultures.

Some authors have emphasised one specific factor as influencing communication. Otis, Treuhaft (1949), for instance, identified team-work attitudes as being important in improving communication.  Gerald (1958) highlighted the importance of disagreement and its influence on organisational functioning.  He explained that by being aware of disagreement among people, one could avoid communication breakdowns.  Mellinger (1956), and Perry (1976) considered inter-personal trust as a crucial factor affecting organisational life, as "trust" is important in promoting understanding, co-operation, and team-work attitudes. Sibson (1958) has attached importance to employee meetings where they can voice their opinions.  Motivation and  participation were considered crucial by some authors (Katz, 1982-, Walton, 1963).  They identified willingness to work, interest and enthusiasm in work, and co-operative attitudes as the important factors inducing better performance.  Cohen (I 964), and Snadowski (1972) studied the leadership patters in organisations, and established that communication patterns differed when leadership styles differed.  They showed that better communication was present where there was democratic leadership and when the members were given freedom to express their feelings. Huseman, Alexander, et al, (1978), Nathan (1969), Presley, Keen (1975), and Summers (1959), have suggested specific communication training programmes to improve communication skills. Prasad (19$'6) enumerated the types of communication that take place between superiors and subordinates.

Communication Failure and Barriers to Successful Communication
Here, the factors that are seen to cause breakdown or failure in communication are discussed.  Brinker (1956), Goetzinger, Milton (1964), and O'Donnel (1967) studied the factors leading to communication failure.  Some of the factors discussed in these papers are: (i) lack of understanding, (ii) lack of clarity, (iii) improper judgments about others' understanding, and (iv) poor comprehension.

Classification Scheme Based on Ethnographic Criteria
Having thematically summarised the existing literature on communication in organisations earlier, the task now is to attempt a methodological classification based on ethnographic critera.  The idea of using ethnographic criteria to assess the past literature is based on a similar attempt by Joseph (1986), in which he identifies a minimal set of ethnographic criteria that could be used to recover an ethnography of scientific communication from earlier work.  The criteria he lists are: whether (i) the starting point of the research is the social unit, (ii) the approach sees the interplay between communication and social groups as vital, (iii) unstructured fieldwork was used, (iv) the members' perceptions and their tacit knowledge were tapped, and (v) the resulting description is seen as being relevant to the goals of the community.

  1. The criteria evolved for the present paper (Mouly, Ramani, 1990), which is written in a context where survey research is the dominant mode, also include the following:
  2. The aim of the Study: whether the focus is on understanding human communicative behaviour in depth or on studying relationships among pre-specified variables.
  3. The relationship between the researcher and the community: whether it is a one-off encounter or an ongoing interaction,
  4. The research tools involved in data collection: whether open-ended and flexible or rigidly predetermined.
  5. The research process itself-. whether linear (moving from one stage to another in a pre-specified sequence) or cyclic (moving repeatedly from data collection to analysis and back in a process of gathering deeper insights about the community).
  6. The nature of the findings: whether solely quantitative, involving the use of sophisticated statistical techniques or qualitative, resulting in a "thick" description.

Using these criteria, a classification is derived which is presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Classification of Organisational Communications Literature

Non ethnographic Ethnographic
Mechanistic [Shannon Weaver, 1949] Implicit [Nagpaul, Pruthy, 1979]
Prescriptive / Idealistic [Drucker, 1970] Explict [Donnellon, 1986]
Survey based [Peters, 1983]  

As can be seen, there are two levels of classification: non-ethnographic, and ethnographic studies.  The non-ethnographic literature can be categorised into three classes: mechanistic, idealistic-prescriptive, and survey-based.  The ethnographic literature is further classified into those that are implicitly or explicitly ethnographic.

The dichotomous research methodologies, namely, ethnographic and non-ethnographic (or survey-based), are comprehensively appraised in the paper by Mouly, Ramani (1990).  Their analysis proceeds along the lines similar to those expoused in this paper.  Mouly, Ramani (1990) argue that an ethnographic approach is more appropriate than a survey-based approach for studying the life of a community from "an insider's point of view".

Non-Ethnographic Studies
Mechanistic Studies:

These studies can be traced back to the beginnings of communications research, when communication models were based on and represented by the functioning of electronic and mechanical devices like the telephone. the Shannon-Weaver model developed in 1949 was one such mechanistic model (Fig.  I).

However, this and other similar models (Lasswell, 1948) were inadequate as a representation of human communication as (i) they did not take two-way communication
into consideration; (ii) the emphasis was on the flow of the communication and not on the interaction between two or more persons; (iii) the context of communication was not considered; (iv) individuals were perceived as machines or devices and not as vital parts of a social structure, and M there was an inclination to view communication as static and not as a dynamic process of human interaction.

It is quite revealing that this mechanistic view of communication has persisted, and even papers written up to the late 60s (for example, Riley, Riley, 1969) were based on this communication model.  Models based on the Shannon-Weaver model but extending it to include some featues of human communication are those developed by Gerber (1956), and Schramm (1954).

Figure 1: The Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication

Prescriptive / Idealistic Studies:

Prescriptive studies are those in which very general observations based on an intuitive and impressionistic understanding of the importance of communication in the life of an Organisation are presented.  Most of these papers have been written by consultants and experts who base their views on their experience in organisations (Drucker, 1970; St. John, 1983).  The inadequacy of these studies is that they are not based on empirical investigation; hence, they do not reflect the complexity of real communication but an outsider's perception, which may not be close to the reality of any particular Organisation.

Idealistic studies, which overlap with prescriptive studies, are based on intuition and experience, and appeal to commonsense ideas about effective communication.  For example Drucker (1970), and Likert (1967) offer general guidelines and recommendations to improve communication, and thus enhance the quality of organisatiotial life, but do not base these guidelines on empirical studies of how communication actually occurs within organisations.  These general and hypothetical recommendations are based on "what communication ought to be" and throw no light on "what communication is".  They are, therefore, too broad and abstract to reflect or guide the practices of specific organisations.

Survey-Based Studies:
The third major strand of non-ethnographic research includes the surveys conducted on communication in organisations.  As indicated earlier, there are very few such studies, but where they have been conducted, the emphasis has been on the coverage of large samples, and on generating data which can be statistically treated to obtain correlations between predetermined variables.  Such studies have not resulted in any in-depth understanding of communication practices in specific settings.

Ethnographic Studies
Let us now discuss the ethnographic research studies belonging to the second strand in Table I. This literature can be broadly classified into two categories: explicit, and implicit ethnography.  This classification is based on the degree of articulation of ethnographic principles and practices that characterise specific pieces of research.  When researchers have deliberately and consciously placed themselves within an ethnographic paradigm, and have shown awareness of ethnographic principles, their work has been classified as explicitly ethnographic.  Sanday (1970) refers to such studies as falling within the domains of 'paradigmatic ethnography".  All the other writings, if they adhere to the aforesaid criteria, but do not use the term ethnographic", have been classified as implicitly ethnographic.

Implicit Ethnographic Studies:

The main features of the ethnographic research are in-depth, and ongoing interaction with the members, and an open ended, flexible (as opposed to predetermined) research methodology involving unstructured ethnographic interviews, with the aim of getting the insiders' point of view.

With these criteria in mind, one can find a few studies where the researchers have conducted an implicit ethnography.  One such study was conducted by Nagpaul, Pruthy (1979) in their own Organisation.  An advantage in studying one's own community is that the researcher knows what areas to focus on, and the explicit rules and implicit norms of the community.

Though Nagpaul, Pruthy (1979) have not used the term "ethnography" in their work, they studied the Organisation over eight months and collected their data through extensive interviewing.  Due to the participatory nature of the research, their study could be described as an "implicit ethnography".

Allen's (1977) monumental work on R&D organisations which deals with the problem of communication in project life over a period of I 1 years (1963-1973) is another example of an implicit ethnography.  This study was designed to be a "user study" in which data were collected to provide tools that management of R&D organisations "can use to keep their staff more current with the state of art in their technologies" (p.9.).

As it seems to be the only indepth study, it deserves a detailed look.  The study was carried out in two phases.  In the first phase, the chief concern was to determine the information consumption patterns of research and development projects so that their needs could be better met.  The focus at this stage was the project itself.  In the second phase, the focus was on the overall laboratory Organisation in which the project was performed.  The goal of this phase was to determine how information enters and flows through R&D organisations.

Data were collected through time-allocation forms, including the amount of time spent on each problem, solution development records providing the indices of problem-solving progress, detailed interview, and periodic tape-recorded progress on the projects.  Person-to-person communication networks were studied using these methods.

By presenting various types of communication patterns that occurred among the project members, this study described the organisational communication and aimed to predict the relationships of its various facets to other organisational variables.  The communication patterns in science and technology, communication within the project, communication level and frequency, communication within the laboratory and among organisations were also studied.

Explicit Ethnographic Studies:

These studies are those in which the researchers extensively used the tools of ethnography, such as participant observation and ethnographic interviews.  Such ethnographic research has been conducted in many urban settings in the West.  However, here the focus is on the ethnographic studies of organisational communication.

Over the last decade, ethnographic studies have been increasingly conducted in organisational settings.  Donnellon, Gray, et al (1986) used an ethnographic approach to study language and communication in organisations - how communication can be used to construct and destroy meanings in organisational life.  Their study revealed different communication mechanisms that generate and sustain equi-final meaning metaphor, logical argument, affect modulation, and linguistic indirection.  In their study, communication was shown as a link between meaning and action.

The different concepts of time in high technology organisations are brilliantly explored in the anthology entitled Making Time.  This book is a landmark in the development of explicit ethnographies.  In his paper entitled Janus Organisations which appears in the antology, Dubinskas reveals his understanding of the cultural contrast and conflict in genetic engineering firms.  He traces the roots of this conflict to the contrasting images of self-hood held by scientists and engineers.  He argues that the differences within organisations can shape organisational life more powerfully than a blanket "corporate culture".

In a more recent study, Mouly (1990) provides a descriptive analytical case study of an R&D team in a government-sponsored and funded research institution located in southern India.  A significant feature of her research is the use of an ethnographic mode of research as opposed to a quantitative, survey-based approach.

Conclusions and Discussion
Studies in the literature available on organisational communication predominantly use non-ethnographic or survey approaches.  Such approaches often provide a superficial, one-off picture of an Organisation.  In the survey approach (which may be regarded as "product-oriented"), the relationships between variables are studied.  This approach lacks the detail and richness of process-oriented approaches which focus on the ongoing communication practices in the everyday life of an Organisation.

Besides reviewing the literature on organisational communication over the past four decades, this paper highlights the need

for ethnographic studies on organisational communication.  It advocates the line of research followed by researchers, such as Donnellon (1986), and Dubinskas (1988) to study communication in various organisational settings belonging to different sectors.

The case for ethnographic approaches is founded on the premise that ethnographic studies are richer in content and are more meaningful.  One basis for this premise is that they take into account the underlying social context.  Another basis is that the emphasis in these studies is on projecting a picture, as perceived by the members of the community under study.  This projection is better accomplished through ethnographies (in both the sense of procedures and descriptions), than by product-oriented surveys.

This paper is based on doctoral work supported by a scholarship from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.  I gratefully acknowledge the support and guidance given by my adviser Prof. Esther Ramani.  I also thank Dr Jayaram K Sankaran for suggesting improvements in an earlier version of the paper.  His suggestions have greatly enhanced the readability of the paper.

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