It is widely accepted that within contemporary society there exists two overarching structures that facilitate the communication between individuals, organisations and various bodies. These two communication structures are commonly referred to as mechanistic and organic. When referring to contemporary society we can define this to mean the structural composition of today’s society in general (social, cultural and economic). For the purposes of this essay however we will concentrate on modern day corporate communication structures, which can be seen as microcosms of society (Raiborn 1990).
Mechanistic communication structures are characterised by a traditional top down hierarchy and are traditionally the domain of “large-scale, and low-complexity structures,” (Grunig 1992, p. 403) Mechanistic communication usually occurs vertically throughout the hierarchy – Top management to upper management, upper management to middle management, middle management to supervisory, supervisory to entry level personnel (and vice-versa). When mechanistic structures are viewed outside a business environment we can see them in force throughout our levels of government, in private enterprise, in schools and universities.
Organic communication is characterised by a non-linear communication structures within an organisation, and are frequently “Small in scale but high in complexity,” (Grunig 1992, p. 403). Communication usually occurs in a lateral method of “consultation rather than vertical commands” (Burns & Stalker 1961, p. 121), where “members can speak freely to anyone in the group,” (Bell & Smith 2010, p. 33). When looking for organic communication structures outside a business environment, we will see them in places such as public forums, brainstorming sessions, and response teams which are required to work autonomously (medical, police etc).
In a traditional mechanistic (also referred to as bureaucratic) structure, communication is centralised, meaning that it there is a clear structure in the flow of information from the decision makers down to the individuals tasked with actioning the decisions. This flow of few-to-many provides participants in the mechanistic structure of communication the inherent strength of knowing “the precise definition of rights and obligations and technical methods attached to each functional role,” (Burns & Stalker 1961, p. 119). While this method does provide stability in communication hrough everyone knowing their exact roles to perform, it can also be argued that it can become too rigid, and stifles responsiveness and flexibility within the communication structure. In contemporary society, an enforced mechanistic structure of communication could be seen as being authoritarian, however within a business environment it could be hailed as an efficient way to communicate. Organic communication structures tend to decentralise the decision making processes, allowing greater input from individuals who traditionally may have not had any say in the decision making process.
This is especially significant in relation to organisations and events such as think-tanks, public forums and businesses, where participants/employees that are highly educated, but may not be in a position of power, can contribute to the greater agenda. If applied to contemporary society, a more organic communication structure might be the sign of a liberal thinking community. However without a certain degree of enforced communication structures, it would be extremely likely for efficiency to suffer due to overarching lack of direction and centralised decision-making.
Stinchcombe (1965, pp. 142–193) argues that organic organisations can be prone to becoming too relaxed in their structures, to the point that role ambiguity occurs, where the lack of formal roles for individuals causes confusion as to who is supposed to perform what tasks. With no higher echelons of power present to make executive decisions or execute the decisions made by the organic communication process, this could potentially lead to a complete breakdown in the communication processes of organisations facing this particular problem.
Also argued is the fact that mechanistic communication environments lack the fostering of an innovative culture, which is essential for engaged participation by individuals (Robbins et al. 2000, pp. 466-469). Organic structures seek to create this innovative culture by encouraging a more informal communication to take place between members in the form of sharing of information and ideas. This organic communication structure is often lauded for what can be the mass sharing of information and empowerment between like-minded individuals, which is exactly the premise that think-tanks and brain-storming activities seek to exploit.
Mechanistic and organic communication structures are optimised according to specific environments, and where one form of communication may succeed, the other may suffer in its performance. “Mechanistic communication environments are typically suited to stable environments and conditions,” while “The organic form is appropriate to changing conditions, which give rise constantly to fresh problems and unforeseen requirements for action which cannot be broken down or distributed automatically arising from the functional roles defined within a hierarchic structure. ” (Burns & Stalker 1961, pp. 19-120) A poignant example of Burns and Stalker’s definition in contemporary society is the Egyptian riots of January 2011, where Egypt experienced a period of civil unrest, resulting in the government being overthrown. During these events, the traditional mechanistic structures of communication failed to be effective due to the massively unstable environment and the disruption of the traditional hierarchy of governance. In this climate of change, the most effective method of communication proved to be the organic structures of social media such as facebook and twitter. J. Grunig (1992, p. 07) points out that mechanistic communication and control structures continue to dominate and that organisations will often “sacrifice overall organizational needs” so that they may “retain power and control through a relatively stable, unchanging organisational structure,” The result of which are mechanistic structures operating in less than optimal efficiencies. When extrapolated from a business environment to contemporary society, this might be displayed in the failings of some types of governance, where organic communications in the form of grass-roots movements appear and attempt to fix these inefficiencies.
Obviously there are benefits and hindrances to both mechanistic and organic communication structures and their fields of use in environments such as contemporary society. A circumstance in which an organic structure of communication may be suited to affecting a desirable outcome might suffer cataclysmic problems if a mechanistic structure of communication is applied to it. Similarly, another circumstance that requires a more formal and mechanistic structure of communication (for example the legal system), would be thrown in disarray if an organic communication structure were applied to it.
The trick contemporary society faces is selecting appropriate combinations of mechanic and organic communication structures. The process then to achieve the most effective method of communication is to base the communication method (mechanistic, organic or a combination of the two) on the environment that the communication structure would be taking place in, and be prepared to modify the communication method depending on changes experienced within that environment.