A Brief History of Team: The Rise of the Briefing Group in Internal Communication – Source of the Month (February 2023)

Many routines in our everyday lives we do without thinking. If you are involved with management or communication in a large organization, then team meetings are one of those routines. People are rarely trained in how to do a team meeting. Managers take it for granted that this is how information is conveyed to their staff and the opportunity for their team to respond.

This workplace routine happens so naturally because it has become institutionalised. It was not always the case. Were you to travel to the mid-twentieth century and speak to a manager in a major organization, they wouldn’t know what you meant by a team meeting. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that this approach to communication began to be introduced. At the time it was not called a ‘team meeting’ but a ‘briefing group’. It was seen to be so cutting edge that training courses were run for managers on how to run a briefing group. Pictured are some surviving training materials of the Industrial Society that accompanied such courses.

A training pack of booklets from the mid-1980s. Held at the Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/AP/C. 

Looking at the past from a twenty-first century perspective, it is surprising just how significant a step this was. Since the late nineteenth century, company magazines had been the main form of communication. The rise of briefing groups fundamentally changed internal communication, making it a two-way dialogue. Even so, the old channels didn’t disappear. Instead, the magazine continued alongside the new briefing groups. Increasingly, though, they were to play a supporting role, rather than being the main method of communication to employees in their own right.

So why do we no longer need to train all managers in how to run a team meeting? It is because this form of communication has become institutionalised. Running a team meeting is now second nature and has become the default way to communicate with staff.

This process of institutionalisation, the means by which social and organisational behaviour and practice becomes embedded and taken for granted, is at the heart of this project’s research. Hence its appearance in the project’s full title. Institutionalisation is a process that has been researched by a number of business scholars. Royston Greenwood, Roy Suddaby, and C. R. Hinings (2002), for example, studied the institutional process of how Canadian accountancy firms transformed themselves into all-round business consultants in the 1990s. Little attention has been given so far to how forms of internal communication became institutionalised. This is a gap that our project will fill.

One interesting question is whether those involved in institutionalisation are conscious of the process. February’s source of the month suggests the answer, at least in some cases, is yes! It shows that some managers themselves were very conscious that this process of institutionalisation would need to take place for briefing groups to take off.

The August 1966 issue of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, the publication of the Industrial Welfare Society, contained an article entitled ‘Management Communication with Employees’ by Arthur Priest. Priest had been an Industrial Relations Officer for the north-west electricity supply industry for twenty-five years, and saw internal communication as an alternative way for managers to mediate relations with workers to traditional negotiations through trade unions.

The eleven-page article criticised notice boards because they were rarely read by workers and were irrelevant to them. It also argued that magazines often went unread by employees since they were full of articles of concern primarily to managers, alluding to the issue of one-way communication. Priest argued that open-door policies were an improvement, but caused discontent because supervisors felt they were cut out of communicating with workers. Instead, he argued for briefing groups which resolved the above issues and were in his opinion an optimal form of internal two-way communication. Most interestingly, the article does not simply advocate briefing groups but also the process by which they should be introduced. It emphasizes the importance of holding them regularly rather than in an ad hoc manner.

In this way they become accepted, institutionalized and a matter of habit. If they are not held regularly then men will take the view that the meetings are only held when management wants something and they will be suspicious of them as yet another management dodge.’

From Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, vol. xlviii no. 8 (Aug 1966), p. 203. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/48.

Priest is conscious of the fact that there must be a process by which the practice can transition from being unfamiliar to second nature. What will be interesting to investigate is whether manager consciousness of the process of institutionalisation plays a role in determining its success.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Team: The Rise of the Briefing Group in Internal Communication – Source of the Month (February 2023)”

  1. Stephen Morgan

    The thought that occurred to me reading this was how poorly universities (still) do this. I says this as both a participant and a leader of such sessions in the past. They often set performance pieces and dialogue is constrained for all but the most intrepid rank and file. Most assume a passive role. In industry, I suspect this even more so.

  2. I suspect the evolution in thinking about the role of managers has a lot to do with the development of team briefing.
    The old Industrial Society model was still alive and well in the mid 1990’s (I’ve got a 1995 edition of Phil McGeough’s book) and I think I was still having conversations with HR managers about using managers as animated noticeboards into the early part of the next decade.
    But a lot of the literature about the role of managers was changing by then as I recall. Supervisors were expected to be leaders and the work of people like Gary Hamel, Senge, Goleman, Welch and Kotter were challenging ideas about command and control management. I remember consulting assignments where it became rapidly apparent that the biggest challenge to the flow of information and ideas was the old obsession with control. It was an exciting time to be in IC because there was an openness to discuss comms as a driver of change …

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