In organizations and organisms, lateral communication works in contrast to traditional top-down, bottom-up or hierarchic communication and involves the spreading of messages from individuals across the base of a pyramid.
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Examples of lateral communication in organisms include:
It is argued that communities communicate and store collective knowledge through lateral communication, and that it is an essential ingredient to make hierarchies work, by compensating for errors in hierarchies' information flows.
The term lateral communication can be used interchangeably as horizontal communication. In his text entitled “Organizational Communication,” Michael J. Papa defines horizontal communication as “the flow of messages across functional areas at a given level of an organization” (Papa and Daniels 55). With this system people at the same level are permitted “to communicate directly without going through several levels of organization” (Papa and Daniels 55). Given this elasticity, members within an organization have an easier time with “problem solving, information sharing across different work groups, and task coordination between departments or project teams” (Papa and Daniels 56). The use of lateral or horizontal communication in the workplace “can also enhance morale and afford a means for resolving conflicts (Koehler et al., 1981) (Papa and Daniels 56).
According to research done by John E. Spillan, Mary Mino, and M. Susan Rowles, “lateral communication involves not only the movement of information from the upper levels to the lower levels of the organizational hierarchy but also is defined primarily as the quality of information sharing among peers at similar levels (McClelland and Wilmont, 1990). Specifically, lateral communication occurs among coworkers, during staff meetings and informational presentations, throughout shift changes, and among employees regardless of peer types. In short, lateral communication’s purpose is to keep organizational personnel informed of all current practices, policies, and procedures” (Spillman and Mino 100).
“Communicating effectively laterally involves the exchange of information between and among all organizational members. While we may perceive that organizational information flows vertically or from top to bottom, in reality, information moves laterally. In other words, as information directives are communicated from an upper to a lower position on the hierarchy, peers at each hierarchical level should quickly interpret and communicate these directives between and among peers at similar hierarchical levels. Thus, it is critical for an organization to understand its structure and culture, which are the two major determinants of the quality of lateral communication” (Spillman and Mino 101).
Quality of Lateral Communication: Structure and Culture
Structure 1. Mechanistic Structure “A mechanistic or hierarchical organizational structure emphasizes specialization in position. Examples include healthcare and governmental organizations where information is communicated based on chain of command. This organizational structure type is not conducive to lateral communication and, in fact, discourages it. Since direction and coordination is achieved through upper hierarchical levels, peer information sharing is limited. Overall, a mechanistic structure promotes vertical communication or top down communication with strict alignment and unity of command within the organization” ( Spillman and Mino 101).
2. Organic Organizational Structure “An organic organizational structure is built upon an entrepreneurial concept. Here, the decisions made are decentralized and coordinated by mutual adjustment rather than command and control. Examples include a small business or a manufacturing facility where communication is promoted at all levels of the organization. This organizational structure allows for greater autonomy, promotes individual initiative, and allows employees to be involved in the decision-making process thus enabling employee decision-making to contribute to or detract from organizational goals. In short, an organic organizational structure can encourage and facilitate lateral communication” (Spillman and Mino 101).
“Organizational culture refers to the organization's shared visions, values, beliefs, goals, and practices (Gilsdorf, 1998). Deals and Kennedy (1982) have connected culture with effective communication. Strong cultures and effective communication result in employees who are more productive because they know exactly what is expected of them in organizational settings. Gilsdorf (1998) has implied that the more employees perceive a positive or strong organizational culture, the more productive they will be. Poole (1985) has contended that an organization's quality of communication is summed-up in its culture. In many cases, a strong positive organizational culture or climate can encourage employees to communicate effectively laterally when sharing achievements and disappointments. Thus, as Comer (1991) has asserted, managers should actively encourage employees to communicate effectively laterally with their peers. In sum, lateral communication allows for a spirit of collaboration and teamwork by empowering employees at every level of the organizational hierarchy to work effectively together (see, for example, Thamara, 2000)” (Spillman and Mino 102).
Problems with Horizontal Communication
Although this system of communication can be effective, problems can often ensue within organizations. According to Papa’s book “Organizational Communication,” “horizontal communication problems occur because of territoriality, rivalry, specialization, and simple lack of motivation.” In addition to these problems and in general, “organizations that traditionally have functioned under rigid authority structures with fixed lines of communication may find that the values and expectations that members have acquired under such systems inhibit attempts at horizontal communication.” (Papa and Daniels 56). Other problems with this form of communication can happen between multinational corporations. “Horizontal communication between subsidiaries of the same multinational corporation (MNC) is a problem faced by staff as the demands for communicating across borders are pushed downwards in the organizational hierarchy.” (Mirjaliisa and Marschan-Piekkari 9).
Territoriality often occurs when members of an organization “control task-related activity within a defined and fixed jurisdictional area” and as a result “regard others’ involvement in that area as territorial encroachment.” “Departments value their turf and strive to protect it. This problem may be compounded through interdepartmental rivalries that arise from win/lose competition for rewards and resources” (Papa and Daniels 56).
Rivalry within organizations occurs for example when the different levels of an organization fail “to cooperate with one another”(Papa and Daniels 56). For example, Papa gives an example of “corporate executives in a national department store chain” who “encountered territorial rivalry when they discovered that local stores within each of the company’s major sales districts refused to cooperate with one another on sales promotions”(Papa and Daniels 56). “Stores within the same sales region literally were in competition with one another as well as with other department store chains” (Papa and Daniels 57). Rivalries such as the example stated in this paragraph inhibit the effectiveness of horizontal communication.
Specialization is a problem that often happens when organizations do not have uniformity within departments, causing communication difficulties. Specialization can occur with procedures or vocabulary used by different departments. For example when “different specialties use the same terms in different ways,” this can create confusion and miscommunication. When this occurs organizations have trouble functioning properly and do not run smoothly (Papa and Daniels 57).
Lack of Motivation
“Horizontal communication often fails simply because organization members are unwilling to expend the additional effort that it requires.” “Horizontal communication may require contact with people in units that are well removed from our own. The channels and rules of interaction may be unclear. We do not really know these people. The need to communicate with them makes us uneasy or takes too much time, so we avoid or ignore it”(Papa and Daniels 57).
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