A Message in a Battle: Contested Interpretations in Communication – Source of the Month (January 2024)

From Industrial Welfare, the magazine of the Industrial Society, in April 1965.

What did you take as the message of this picture? For many of you, it was probably the environmental consequences of a throw-away culture. When this advert was produced in 1965, the complete opposite reaction was anticipated from readers. The hope was that they would be impressed by the hygiene of a cup that would only ever be used once. Context is everything when communicating a message!

For internal communicators, one of the challenges in crafting messages is understanding how context will influence the way in which that message will be interpreted. A story that resonates positively in one organizational culture may be met with resistance in another. Likewise, a communication strategy that aligns with prevailing societal values today could become outdated and ineffective in the future. One of the jobs of the internal communicator is to navigate the ever-changing nature of organizational culture, societal values, and technological advancements. Contextual sensitivity is crucial in fostering effective communication that both aligns with the ethos of the organization and resonates with its members.

Historical Context

Context is also everything for historians. Just as internal communicators have to be sensitive to changing societal values, historians must be attuned to the different cultural values of past societies. Historical sources are, by definition, examined out of context.

Historians find themselves working with a wide range of sources. Often these are written documents, but anything that gives us a clue about the past can be a source, such as objects, architecture or even the landscape. Sadly, these sources were not created to assist the people of the future with understanding the past! One of the challenges of the historian is to understand the actual motive behind the creation of the source. Written sources, in particular, are often penned with a very specific agenda.

For much of the twentieth century, magazines were the main form of internal communication. Although the earliest magazines originated in the late nineteenth century, they became widespread across British industry after the First World War. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, many managers were greatly concerned about the growing labour movement and the power of the trade unions in Britain. When today’s historians read early company magazines, they must remember that they are looking at tools that were designed to cut out trade unions and build direct bonds between the employer and employee. This is a strategy that is often referred to as union substitution.

Michael Heller suggests there should be three key elements to a historian’s approach to source material. The first is ‘contextual analysis’, which entails a consideration of the context in which a source was created and the agenda behind it. Given sources are shaped by their context, we can be more confident in our historical detective work if we find different types of sources that support our view of history. This process of looking for multiple types of sources that are linked to and validate each other, known as ‘triangulation’, is the second of Heller’s elements of historical research. The third is ‘colligation’, which involves considering how the different sources can be combined together to create narratives about the past.

The Challenges of the Historian

A consequence of contextual analysis is that a key element of historical research is immersing yourself in another culture. In this sense, it is not so different from what an anthropologist aims to do with modern-day cultures. Historians and anthropologists alike face the difficulty that you can never truly step into another person’s shoes. This is particularly difficult for historians, though, who do not have the option of going to live in the society that they are studying! Much assumed cultural knowledge has been lost with time and it can be difficult to bring it back to life.

Historians wrestle with a struggle between detail and the big picture. Due to the challenge of understanding context, historians have an obligation to examine the topic that they are studying in detail. The tricky part is that this is not the only consideration The danger of focusing on details is losing sight of the bigger picture. Among historians, there are often debates between those who favour creating theories about the bigger picture and those who see these theories as abstract to the point that they have failed to take account of the context of the source material.

Another challenge faced by historians is that they cannot avoid being influenced by their knowledge of developments that have happened since the time they are studying. In looking at early company magazines, we are aware of what internal communication has now grown into. Knowing the result of a football match before watching it can make the outcome seem inevitable as the game unfolds and, in the same way, it is difficult to examine company magazines in their own right rather than as precursors to modern internal communication.

This challenge of viewing history backwards is known as ‘teleology’. During our research, it came as a surprise to us to find that a number of long-standing magazines that we considered a great success actually faced the possibility of being disbanded in their early years. The reason this seemed a surprise is because we allowed ourselves to see modern internal communication as an inevitability rather than remembering that even the most successful magazines were only an experiment in the context of the time.

The Benefits of History to Internal Communication

Historians may face many challenges but studying history is not futile! On the contrary, this project has received support from many partner organizations because it has a lot to offer for internal communication. Even if we can never put ourselves in the shoes of people from past cultures, looking at how communication functioned in radically different contexts provides perspective on the trending topics of the twenty-first century like remote working or the emergence of AI. We can gain a greater understanding of the fundamental principles of good communication by seeing how it functioned in a radically different society.

Communication between employees has been vital for as long as large organizations have existed. For this reason, the practice of internal communication predates the actual use of the term. While organizations operate very differently today than they did in the late nineteenth century, the important ideas about cooperation and communication have not changed to the same extent. When we are deciding how to deal with social and technological change, it can be helpful to remind ourselves of these underlying principles of good communication and to see how the challenges of the past were tackled. Although the past is a foreign country that we can’t visit, with good historical research practices it is one that we can learn from.

Sources

Industrial Welfare, April 1965, p. 87. The Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.303/B19/1/47.

Heller, Michael (2023). Rethinking Historical Methods in Organization Studies: Organizational Source Criticism. Organization Studies, 44(6), 987-1002.

Maclean, Mairi, Charles Harvey, and Stewart R. Clegg (2016). Conceptualizing Historical Organization Studies. Academy of Management Review, 41(4), 609-32.

Rowlinson, Michael, John Hassard, and Stephanie Decker (2014). Research Strategies for Organizational History: A Dialogue between Historical Theory and Organization Theory. Academy of Management Review, 39(3), 250-74.

Ruck, Kevin, & Heather Yaxley (2013). Tracking the Rise and Rise of Internal Communication from the 1980s. The Proceedings of the International History of Public Relations Conference.

Wadhwani, R. Daniel, Roy Suddaby, Mads Mordhorst, & Andrew Popp (2018). History as Organizing: Uses of the Past in Organization Studies. Organization Studies, 39(12), 1663-83.

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