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Classical Approach to Organizational Communication

by Stephanie Faris ; Updated October 31, 2018
Team of professionals in discussion

Starting and growing a business can be complicated, especially since each leader chooses his own approach to managing and interacting with employees. Two major communication theories have been embraced as an important part of organizational structure. One of those is the human relations theory, which became popular around the 1920s during the Industrial Revolution. This theory states that people long to be part of a supportive team. The classical theory, on the other hand, takes a more task-based approach to managing people and businesses. Although classical management theory has been dismissed by some as being outdated and less effective, a few variations on the theory make it more feasible for certain types of organizations.

Classical Model of Communication

The original version of the classical approach was introduced in the 1900s when managers needed a way to efficiently run assembly lines. It made sense at the time since efficiency was a top priority for businesses. The classical model, also known as scientific management theory, takes a look at all of the variables involved in completing a specific task and finds the best method possible.

The early problem with the classical communication model was that many felt it prioritized an assembly line method of working that wasn’t the best work culture to create in every business type. This is especially true in the 21st century, when startups and large tech companies strive to create a culture that engages their employees rather than worrying specifically about streamlining operations. However, several authors have proposed twists on the classical method that work well with some organizational structures.

The Four Basic Principles of Classical Theory

Before you can consider a classical approach for your organizational communication, it’s important to know what it entails. There are four basic principles that form the foundation of classical theory.

  • Standard Operating Procedures – Management must develop standard operating procedures for every role within the organization.
  • Employee Selection – During the hiring process, hiring managers must strive to find the perfect fit for each position based on the candidate’s skills and abilities.
  • Interruption-Free Environment ­– To ensure workers are as productive as possible, managers must make an effort to minimize interruptions in the workplace.
  • Incentivizing Workers – In order to ensure productivity, managers should offer routine wage increases.

The focus of classical theory is on processes, not people. Although people are an important part of getting the job done, managers are thinking more about how to build more mousetraps than nurturing the workers putting those mousetraps together. The employees are merely a means to an end in this scenario. For that reason, the classical approach is usually better suited to an environment where employees perform repetitive tasks, such as on an assembly line or in a mailroom.

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The Classical Approach and Bureaucracy

In the late 1800s, German sociologist Max Weber made important observations about the bureaucracy found in the ways organizations were set up. He was the first known person to use the term “bureaucracy,” with his theory becoming known as both the bureaucratic theory of management and the Max Weber theory. His theory was that bureaucracy was the best way to structure an organization since it created an environment where all employees were treated equally with work split evenly among everyone.

Weber described three types of power found in organizations. Those are traditional power, charismatic power and legal power, with legal power being a bureaucracy. For bureaucratic management to be successful, Weber believed all regular activities needed to be regarded as official, management must have the authority to make and enforce rules and rules should be easily respected within the established setup of the organization.

Fayol’s Theory on Managing People

Henri Fayol’s theory wasn’t dissimilar to Weber’s approach. His theory, which includes 14 principles, focuses on effectively managing people. From those 14 principles come five ways that management should interact with employees.

  • Planning – To be most effective, Fayol believes management must schedule every part of a business’s processes.
  • Organizing – An important part of efficient production is having all of the materials and resources in place when needed.
  • Commanding – Effective management means being able to direct employee activity.
  • Coordinating – Employee cooperation and teamwork are important to success, and good managers facilitate that.
  • Controlling – No matter how commanding a supervisor is, she’s only successful if employees actually follow her commands.

Taylor’s Scientific Approach

Another theorist with his own approach to the classical theory was Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor and his associates are considered the first team to take a scientific approach to studying work processes. As part of their research, they looked closely at how work was performed and how those methods directly impacted individual productivity levels. His belief was that optimizing how tasks were performed was more important than pushing employees to work harder.

The result of Taylor’s research was "The Principles of Scientific Management," published in 1909. Taylor’s publication suggested that organizations optimize and simplify jobs, which would in effect improve productivity. His suggestion that managers and workers needed to collaborate was revolutionary for its time because before his publication, work had not been performed that way. Factory managers were separated from their workers, with employees left with a set of procedures that they carried out each day as they produced their work product. The main incentive for workers to do a good job was to simply not get fired. Taylor’s suggestions included rewarding employees for hard work through “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” which involved rewarding employees who were more productive with higher pay than those who fell short.

Classical Approach in Today’s Business

Although there are many different communication approaches in an organization, the classical method can be a great start as you’re setting up your business structure. Even if you opt for more of a human relations strategy, you can implement principles of the classical approach, particularly Taylor’s more modern take. Taylor believed businesses could see better results if they worked together on things, with employers rewarding those employees who performed better. This structure is seen in many of today’s businesses, whether they’re brand-new startups or large corporations.

The element of a classical approach that can benefit you most is the hierarchal structure you can put in place that ensures your processes are efficient. Even if you’re fostering communication among your team members, you can take a scientific look at your processes and eliminate those items that bog down your teams. They’ll be able to work smarter, not harder, which will save them valuable energy that they can put toward other work duties. Many people today call this approach “lean manufacturing.”

Human Relations Management Techniques

The other item on the organizational communication theories list is the human relations approach, which is in sharp contrast to the classical approach. However, since the human relations approach is considered more modern by many experts, you can combine elements from the human relations theory with your classical communication strategy.

The human resources management theory states that workers want to feel good about the work they do on a daily basis. They want to see where they fit into the greater scheme of things and feel as though they’re part of the team. This is more of a collaborative approach between management and their employees rather than supervisors issuing commands and ensuring they’re followed. Although there are elements of the classical approach that can complement this strategy, human resources management theory puts the humans first, prizing their own morale and career aspirations above the work itself.

About the Author

Stephanie Faris is a novelist and business writer whose work has appeared on numerous small business blogs, including Zappos, GoDaddy, 99Designs, and the Intuit Small Business Blog. She worked for the State of Tennessee for 19 years, the latter six of which were spent as a supervisor. She has written about business for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2011.

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