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Organizational Listening

The Missing Essential in Public Communication

Jim Macnamara

Organizations, which are central in contemporary industrialized and post-industrial societies, including government departments and agencies, corporations, and non-government organizations, claim to want and practice two-way communication, dialogue, and engagement with citizens, customers, employees, and other stakeholders and publics. But do they in reality? Voice – speaking up – is recognized as fundamental for democracy, representation, and social equity. But what if governments, corporations, institutions, and NGOs are not listening? This book reports the findings of a two-year, three-continent study that show that public and private sector organizations devote substantial and sometimes massive resources to construct an ‘architecture of speaking’ through advertising, PR, and other public communication practices, but listen poorly, sporadically, and sometimes not at all. Beyond identifying a ‘crisis of listening’ in modern societies, this landmark study proposes and describes how organizations need to create an architecture of listening to regain trust and re-engage people whose voices are unheard or ignored. It presents a compelling case to show that urgent attention to organizational listening is essential for maintaining healthy democracy, organization legitimacy, business sustainability, and social equity. This research is essential reading for all scholars, students, and practitioners involved in politics; government, corporate, marketing, and organizational communication; public relations; and all those interested in democratic participation, media, and society.
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Chapter 4: Creating an ‘Architecture of Listening’ and Doing the Work of Listening

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CREATING AN ‘ARCHITECTURE OF LISTENING’ AND DOING THE WORK OF LISTENING

The challenges of large-scale listening have been referred to several times in this analysis. These are not to be underestimated. Indeed, organizational listening could well be described as a wicked problem—a notion that was first outlined in management literature by C. West Churchman (1967) and defined in more detail in the context of social planning by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber (1973). There are many characteristics of a wicked problem, but those considered key are the following: (1) there are no totally true, false, or perfect solutions; (2) wicked problems are usually unique; (3) there is no ‘stopping rule’ for wicked problems (i.e., a precise mechanism to know the optimal time to stop or continue a resolution process); and (4) every wicked problem is a symptom of or linked to other problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Furthermore, wicked problems are mostly social and humanistic, unlike scientific problems that can be resolved using systematic approaches and following precise rules such as mathematical formulae. So an overall feature of wicked problems is that they are complex and usually require multifaceted approaches.

There is often a tendency to seek simple solutions to problems, however. In the case of poor organizational listening, one such approach is to see technology as the answer. Technology, particularly digital technology, is ← 245 | 246 → being hailed as a panacea in many fields of politics, science, and social...

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