Several university students decide to form a study group to prepare for an upcoming exam. After class, the students gather in the library and take stock of their situation. Some are male and some are female. Some have notes on the class lectures; several don’t. Two students currently have an ‘A’ in the course; everyone else has a ‘B’ or lower. One person can access the professor’s lecture slides with his smart phone, while another student has some lectures on tape. Three people have only one hour to devote to the group and need to make the most of their time. So, how will the study session proceed? Who will lead the group? Which resources will be used and in what manner? What style of study will the group employ: lecture, discussion or reading? What will the group aim to accomplish? What material will be covered? How will people ask questions and who will answer them?
The formation of group structures and their influence on communication and decision making is the domain of Adaptive Structuration Theory (AST). This broad and highly complex theory in the field of communication examines the process by which groups or organizations establish rules, utilize resources, achieve cohesiveness, accomplish goals, and adapt or evolve over time. AST asserts that group structures are created from the social, cultural or historical assumptions each group member brings to the table, and that such assumptions determine how members communicate, the types of resources they use, and how their rules and resources evolve with continued communication. At its most basic level, AST seeks to illuminate the relationship between group inputs (rules and resources) and outputs (decisions or feedback).
AST views organizations as systems of communication. When individuals desire to create a group, they begin by communicating. The individuals express their expectations for the group, and soon a set of rules, or structure, begins to emerge. The individuals establish the group by accepting the rules. As group members continue to communicate in the course of making decisions, weaknesses or limitations in the structure become apparent. Group members then modify the rules to better suit their needs. As members change, draw upon new resources to solve problems or experience shifts in environment, the group attempts to maintain stability by altering its structure. In this way, AST shows how communication allows groups to evolve while remaining stable. Indeed, without communication, organizations would cease to exist.
The complexity of AST results partly from its academic demands. Researchers wishing to accurately describe a group’s creation or evolution cannot begin with any generalizations or assumptions; they must study every group on an individual basis. This approach requires breaking groups down into their most fundamental parts and understanding all of the dynamics present in each group’s structure and function. These dynamics not only include the characteristics of the group’s members, but also factors like environment, social or organizational power, time constraints and use of technology. An all-male meeting of busy CEOs in a corporate conference room, for instance, would have a very different structure than a mixed group of artists discussing a collaborative project in a crowded, noisy cafe. According to AST, every organization and group is unique and should be treated as such.
However, AST has proven useful for understanding nearly every kind of organizational structure, from Redbook Magazine and Apple, Inc. to the U.S. Congress and the Vatican. The theory has been most successful in analyzing organizational communication and group decision making. It has also been used to examine the structures advanced technologies have introduced to groups, as well as the structures that have emerged from people interacting with such technologies. Experts say the theory can even help people realize and expand the scope of their influence as group members.