Saturday, May 10, 2008

Rumormongering, Grapevine, Modern journalism and blogging

As I experiment with this blog, I am often reminded of papers I wrote in graduate school (too many years ago). I once wrote an in-depth research paper on the Grapevine. Now, blogging did not exist back then, and the internet was in its infancy. I would love to have done some of my research based on today's rumor and grapevine mechanisms -- Twitter, facebook, texting, IM, etc.

I currently know someone who works in a small start-up, where one would think there would not be too many communication issues. But, time and time again, the company hires remote employees, and formal and informal communications don't occur at frequent intervals. In the early stages, they sometimes developed patterns of only speaking via IM, even if the person was only a few offices away (or MILES away). Currently, they have many changes going on in the company and changes in product focus again. Yet, still people are seeking direction (uh, there are other issues here, but that is not the focus of this blog). Much of the communication is informal and often based on second-hand reporting or the grapevine.

Grapevines can provide a number of valuable services in the workplace. For management, they can provide feedback about almost anything going on. Roman empires used to send rumor wardens, called "delatores," out into the street to collect scuttlebutt because it was useful. For employees, the grapevine translates formal company orders into their own lingo, spreads information about job performance and employment opportunities and makes the workplace more close-knit and cohesive. In addition, it is a great source of entertainment, conferring special status on those who pick up on the juiciest nuggets.

To some extent, productivity in organizations depends on spontaneous cooperation and coordination through informal contacts and relationships. Also, the "informal" organization can make less tangible, but equally valuable contributions. Properly guided, it can help build teamwork, loyalty, and motivation that makes individuals desire to do their best. Have you had group Skype "chat" sessions?

Some managers use the grapevine as a tactical maneuver (a common device in collective bargaining). The grapevine is also a primary source of upward communication, especially information about what people are doing and how they feel toward certain situations. The grapevine brings both facts and feelings, rumor and truth, and it is the managers task to sort and interpret them. The grapevine is a useful emotional safety valve. When individuals get irked at their boss, they are NOT likely to tell him or her -- but they do need to tell someone in order to the the problem off their minds. They best not write it down in e-mails, but many will "text" it to others, or leave mood messages in their IM tools.

Grapevines and rumors thrive during periods of uncertainty and when formal communication is missing. Upper management has not announced my pending departure (nor the reasons), yet most people seem to know I am leaving and I am left to "explain" the "unexplainable nonsense." This is an example of how the absence of clear communication from management can leave employees with the need to explain the reasons themselves...

Managers can use these informal systems to their advantage if used correctly. I know a president of a company who developed informants in lower echelons. He knew he sometimes needed to ignore the lines on an organizational chart to develop relations and to help him view the organization as a whole. He also used these relationships to communicate "downward" informally. Although no executive can totally control the grapevine, he or she needs to think about how employees use the grapevine to fill information voids.

UPDATE: You might also want to read this later post of mine here.


Anonymous said...

I actually just took a class about online communication and it was really interesting. One of the biggest problems with using the internet for communication is that young kids don't understand that what they put out there could affect their future jobs, etc. Blogging is still not recognized as a legitimate form of reporting, but I think it will get there in the next 5 or 10 years.

I took another class this semester about gender and communication. Of course, we discussed the work grapevine and how certain people, especially women and minorities, can be left out because they are not included in the grapevine, or networking, process.

Even though you did your paper before the new forms of online communication, I think the basic results would still be the same today.


Mojo said...

I've been thinking about this a bit more. What is the affect of communication if someone in a group doesnt use a particular electronic means of communication and everyone else does -- For example"Twitter." Are they missing out on communication? Or is IM'ing enough?