Let’s talk. The disconnected middle and communication challenges in a university setting

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


‘Without the right words, used in the right way, it is unlikely that the right actions will ever occur . . . Without words we have no way of expressing strategic concepts, structural forms, or designs for performance measurement systems. In the end, there is no separating action and rhetoric’.
(Eccles and Nohria, 1992 in Barrett, 2004:20).

This paper reports on the work of a Communication Task and Finish group on the issue of communication (or perceived lack of) in a higher education institution in the United Kingdom. In the Spring of the 2018-19 academic year, staff was asked to take part in the staff survey. Coming toward the end of the first year after the opening of the relocation to a brand new campus, the survey was an important way to judge the ‘health’ of the organisation after the move. Key findings were shared with relevant faculties and departments and discussed at the academic Senate.

The survey focused on a number of key areas, including staff wellbeing, satisfaction with staff development opportunities, overall agreement with institutional mission and strategy, evaluation of institutional leadership, and communication. While results varied across faculties and professional services departments, staff were overall positive about the new campus and its facilities, showed a strong alignment with the values and objectives of the current strategy, satisfaction with working environment at team levels, and collaboration across disciplines, issues remained in regard to satisfaction with leadership and work-life balance. Of more pressing concern were the findings related to ‘communication’. Quantitative responses showed a seemingly sharp difference in how communication was perceived and evaluated by academics and colleagues in the professional services. The University Management Team (UMT) was therefore interested to have more detailed evidence on staff’s feelings about communication to improve communication across the university and to the benefit of all members of staff.

Issues about perceived lack of communication are neither unique to the institution in this research, nor unique to the higher education sector. Rather, they are to be found in all major organisations and specifically at times of upheaval such as the move to new premises, mergers or downsizing (Tourish et al, 2004a). While the topic of organizational communication is well researched in business, it is surprisingly poorly researched in relation to academic institutions.

Given the conceptual and practical complexity of communication in general, and internal communication in particular, this project was broadly conceived as a communication audit applying Tourish and Hargie’s (2017) trident approach which gathered evidence on outcome, process and multiple stakeholders’ perspectives of communication purpose, function and effectiveness. The project started with the notion of Integrated Internal Communication (IIC), which Kalla (2005: 304) defines as,

‘all formal and informal communication taking place internally at all levels of the organization’.

Further to this, it was important to acknowledge, as both Spence (1994: 96) and Kalla do, that there is a difference between communication (in the singular) ‘as being the social process which ordinarily operates when personal interactions takes place’ and communications (plural) which is ‘used more specifically to indicate the channels and the technological means by which this process may be facilitated’. The above do not preclude the further incorporation of other foci pertinent to the specificity of the nature of communication or more relevant to other aspects of human relations, such as trust and the interpretation of meaning within the communicative process as Tourish and Hargie (2004b) and Thomas, et al (2009) suggest.

Methods/methodology (400)

The Communication Task and Finish Group was asked to provide evidence to explore staff perceptions of communication across the university to provide recommendations for improvements. In addressing this need, the project used Internal Integrated Communication and other models of organizational communication, including research on knowledge mobilisation (Ward, 2017), to map the adequacy, quality, frequency of communication, and the nature of the issues raised by staff.

In consultation with the Vice-Chancellor, and based on previous research on knowledge mobilisation (Devecchi and Mansour, 2018), an exploratory sequential mixed methods design as described below was applied:

Phase 1 – In depth analysis of survey data • In depth analysis of survey data (590 responses) including both quantitative and qualitative analysis of 1351 comments across 4 domains of communication

Phase 2 – appreciative inquiry • Interviews and/or focus groups/workshops/and other means to: improve understanding of issues around communication; identify good practice; provide feedback for further improvement

The research questions asked were:

1. What is the current state of communication (and specifically Internal Integrated Communication) in the university?
2. What are the key issues raised by academics and professional services that are a barrier to exchanging information?
3. Are these barriers at central, faculty, departmental, or line manager level?
4. What effective communication practices already exist and what can we learn which can be used to improve information exchange and management across the University?

Qualitative data for Stage 1 was analysed using a conceptual framework derived by the literature on organisational communication (McDonald & Mitra, 2019; Nicotera, 2020) and knowledge management (Canary et al, 2004) literature. Kalla’s (2005) multidisciplinary approach and 4 domains of IIC (see also Miller, 1996):
• Business – communication skills of employees
• Management – Development of management capabilities to communicate effectively
• Corporate - formal corporate communication function
• Organisational – the more theoretical and conceptual basis of communication, which ‘involves understanding how the context of the organisation influences communication processes’ (Miller, 2003: 1) and which Tourish and Hargie (2004c: 10) further define as ‘how people ascribe meaning to messages, verbal and nonverbal communication, communication skills, the effectiveness of communication in organizations, and how meanings are distorted or changed while people exchange messages in both formal and informal networks’.

Given the nature of the survey, ethical approval was sought and as a result qualitative data from small teams which would have likely revealed the identity of the respondents were omitted from the analysis.

Expected outcomes (300)
The analysis of the 1351 qualitative comments shows that concerns about communication are shared across both academics and professional services staff. Yet, the concerns, focus and comments are in many cases different. Professional service staff tends to focus on more instrumental and function-driven concerns, such as frequency and efficiency of data and information communication. Academics shares such concerns, but they also focus more on how information (or lack of) impacts on their teaching practice. Academics, more than colleagues in the professional services, also comment on the quality of the knowledge provided and their involvement in consultation and decision-making.

While a participative turn is advisable in knowledge intensive organisations (Mishra et al, 2014) during times of sustained change (Potter and Devecchi, 2020; Schulz-Knappe et al, 2019)) so as to support staff satisfaction and wellbeing and avoid the pitfalls of dissent and resistance (Kassing, 1997), the data also shows a lack of understanding of how academics can participate in decision-making through what the project identifies as the ‘institutional aspect’. This aspect, which was absent from what Fairhust and Putnam (2004) would define a ‘discursive practice’, relates to the flow of information and the establishment of communication channels between Senate and individuals through faculties and line managers.

In trying to explain this phenomenon, the project has identified a ‘disconnected middle’ layer where communication flow seems to be ineffective and which leads to individual academics being unaware and therefore unable to participate in decision-making processes which affect their teaching and research. Interim findings have already been shared and preparation is in place for Stage 2 of the project which will look further into understanding how knowledge is mobilised at the institutional level and where either good practice or barriers to effective communication and participation are to be found.

Intent of publication
Corporate Communications: An International Journal
Journal of Communication Management
Studies in Higher Education

References (400)

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Period12 Jun 2020
Event titleUniversity of Northampton’s (UON) Learning and Teaching Conference 2020 (Online).
Event typeConference
LocationNorthampton, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionLocal


  • organisation change
  • organisational culture
  • Communication
  • Communication strategy