What do we mean by an Institutional History of Internal Communication?

The suggestion scheme box of the Hercules Cycle and Motor Company in Aston, Birmingham. From The Journal of Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management, vol xxx no. 5 (Sep-Oct 1948), p. 164. Held at the Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/30.

Institutional accounts of organizational history do not simply write a narrative of events, nor do they see organizational history as necessarily being driven by a need for greater efficiency and functional optimization. Instead, our institutional approach will consider how developments in internal communication serve to legitimize and provide meaning and value to organizations. Institutionalization is the process in which practices come to be expected and our project will look at the structural templates that have determined organizational behavior and practice in internal communication.

Internal communication originates from the late nineteenth century, with the earliest identified house journal being the 1878 Ibis magazine of the Prudential Life Insurance Company (Heller, 2008). During the interwar period, the publications underwent an initial period of professionalization and institutionalization, although consumer magazines continued to greatly outnumber staff magazines at this time (Heller & Rowlinson, 2020). Following the Second World War, however, the number of house magazines rose rapidly, and Britain had by far the largest number of company magazines in Europe. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the managerial practice of Internal Communication developed, emphasizing two-way communication. The principal tool was the briefing group (later rebranded team meetings), which began to be implemented across Britain in the 1970s. While much of internal communication in the UK today has been digitalized, Internal Communication remains the dominant institutional form of internal communication.

Adopting an institutional history asks how did internal communication as a social practice emerge, and over time institutionalize and reify within British organizations? The research will adopt the historical institutional process of emergence, diffusion, maintenance, deinstitutionalization and reinstitutionalization as a framework to study the institutional history of internal communication in the UK. We will briefly discuss each of these stages in relation to our institutional history.

A key aim of the research will be to examine the relationship between the professional associations of internal communication that did so much to institutionalize it, and the practice of internal communication amongst the organizations that adopted its institutionalization. What is particularly interesting here is that compared to professions in the UK such as medicine, law and accountancy, internal communication professions are and have been historically weak. They do not exert a regulatory command of the profession and there is no obligation to belong to a profession to practice internal communication. In fact, there have been very few legal regulations in relation to internal communication, with the State advocating rather than enforcing its adoption. In addition, internal communication has created multiple professional associations, with the field being balkanized and professionally weakened as a result. While the IOIC (and its forerunner the British Association of Industrial Editors), CIPR, and IWS/IS have tended to represent management interests, the much larger CIPD, with its origins in industrial welfare workers and personnel and human resources management, has tended to advocate the interests of workers, with emphasis being placed on employee voice and workplace rights. This has had important ramifications for the institutionalization of internal communication, and more broadly for understanding its process of institutionalization. Scott (2001, p. 140), for example has noted that, ‘… the strength and unity of dominant field participants, such as professional and trade associations, affect the diversity of field logics.’ We will investigate whether the fragmentation of internal communication’s professionalization has resulted in the creation of multiple institutional logics and forms of institutional practice which have distorted and weakened its institutionalization. This links to Greenwood, Suddaby, and Hinings’ (2002) suggestion that change in bifurcated professional fields may be more difficult than in those which are more monopolistic. The authors have suggested that this could be the basis for new institutional research, noting that, ‘An interesting comparison would be between the role of professional associations in which membership is mandatory and participation high (like accounting institutes) and associations in which membership is voluntary and participation lower’ (Greenwood, Suddaby, & Hinings, 2002, pp. 74-75). Studying the institutionalization of internal communication through its professions should shed light on the role that professions historically play in institutional change.

The research will examine how internal communication diffused as an institution during its history. Particular attention will be paid to the role that professional institutions played in the diffusion of company magazines and internal communication along with management associations such as the IWS/IS and the interwar Rowntree Lecture Series and Rowntree organized Management Research Groups (Maclean, Shaw, Harvey & Booth, 2020). Equally important is the question of maintenance through professional associations’ strategies of enabling work via professional membership, education, codes of practice and jurisdiction, and valorizing and demonizing work through the institutionalization of competitions and prizes since the 1950s (Anand & Watson, 2004). In relation to diffusion, a pertinent observation is that this often involves the translation of institutions across domains, such as from work to non-work life or from market-based fields to non-market arena (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006, p. 247). Lawrence and Suddaby (2006, p. 247) emphasize, ‘the practical, creative work necessary to make diffusion happen: organizations rarely take on the structures and practices of other organizations, wholesale, without conflict and without effort.’Translation will be used to develop a more nuanced understanding of the diffusion of internal communication within the UK over its history, and to draw attention to the ways in which interpretations of internal communication inevitably changed as it travelled across organizations.

A core area of the project’s research will be institutional change in internal communication in the UK, particularly the deinstitutionalization of the company magazine as the main tool of internal communication in British organizations in the late 1960s and 1970s, and its replacement by Internal Communication. This provides a very interesting example of the process of deinstitutionalization and reinstitutionalization, and will be one of the first of its kind in relation to historical institutional practice in the UK (Barley & Tolbert, 1997). Of particular interest here is the process of deinstitutionalization and reinstitutionalization, and the role that professional associations played in this (Greenwood, Suddaby & Hinings, 2002; Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005).

A final area that the project will study is the role that internal communication played in creating and broadcasting rhetorical histories to organizations in the past. Since their inception, a core area of content that house magazines and Internal Communication have published are rhetorical histories of organizations, both in relation to regular features that have sustained organizational memory and special features such as anniversary issues. While rhetorical history has underscored the role of language and rhetoric in creating institutions and crafting historical narratives that establish relations with stakeholders and garner resources, it has been strangely quiet over the role of internal communication in organizations in crafting and communicating rhetorical histories (Suddaby et al, 2010; Foster, Suddaby, Minkus, & Wiebe, 2011; Suddaby et al., 2022). Our institutional history of internal communication offers comparative research and deep historical analysis to study institutions (Scott, 2001, p. 14). This is sustained not only by a very generous grant from the ESRC, but also from our detection of a wealth of historical sources and archives from our previous research. Barley and Tolbert have stressed the rarity of discovering the formation of a new institution and the importance of archival sources for documenting the creation of an institution (Barley & Tolbert, 1997, p. 100). We have been blessed by a combination of both luck and prescience, aided by the wealth and depth of work that has been carried out on institutional theory and historical institutionalism. Our institutional history is grounded in a history of the social, temporal, and linguistic aspects of internal communication in the UK from its emergence in the 1880s to the present. It will use the institutional framework of emergence, diffusion, maintenance, and change to write an organizational history that foregrounds the importance of society and culture over the purely economic and functional. Internal communication has created meaning, value, and community in organizations across Britain for more than a hundred years, and it has done this through language, history, work, and professional associations. By carrying out this research, we hope to show that it is individuals, organizations, and associations that create, sustain, and manage institutions, and not the converse as is sometimes thought (Suddaby et al., 2014).

For references, see Publications

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