Differences between Formal and Informal Communication Channels

Article excerpt

This research focuses on a central problem in organizational communication structures, the relationship between formal and informal structures (Hartman & Johnson, 1990). An organization's communication structure consists of formal and informal elements, as well as other ingredients, and is not reducible to either (March & Simon, 1958). However, to most organizational researchers this fundamental distinction captures two different worlds within the organization, worlds that have different premises and outlooks and most importantly, different fundamental assumptions about the nature of interaction (Allen, 1977; Dow, 1988).


Very few research studies have attempted to compare these approaches directly, to assess how they may differ along critical dimensions. A recent attempt to systematically compare formal and informal groupings and their impact on the levels of role ambiguity found more similarities than differences and suggested a complex set of contingencies in which one or the other would have the most impact on organizational variables (Hartman & Johnson, 1990).

A formal structure identifies individuals who are the official sources of information and the information that is their special concern. This has been the traditional view of managers and professional business communicators. Since relationships are determined by one's role, structure is viewed by managers as a static entity which conforms to a top down configuration (Monge & Eisenberg, 1987). This perspective, which has been termed the configurational view, emphasizes the authoritative coordination of work in the service of stated organizational objectives (Dow, 1988). Recent reviews suggest that formal approaches focus on the configurations resulting from formal authority relationships represented in the organizational hierarchy (Dow, 1988; Jablin, 1987), from differentiation of labor into specialized tasks (Dow, 1988; Jablin, 1987), and from formal mechanisms for coordination of work (Dow, 1988). These characteristics, along with the notion of goal or purpose, have been seen by Schein (1965) as representing the very essence of an organization.

On the other hand, informal approaches recognize that a variety of needs, including social ones, underlie communication in organizations and that, as a result, the actual communication relationships in an organization may be less rational than formal systems (Johnson, 1993). Informal structures function to facilitate communication, maintain cohesiveness in the organization as a whole, and maintain a sense of personal integrity or autonomy (Smelser, 1963). The coactivational perspective recognizes that communication relationships are not solely based on the positions individuals occupy within formal organizations. Informal groups often arise out of a combination of human needs and formal factors (Schein, 1965). For example, increasingly business communicators have focused on the role of informal communication in generating innovations within organizations (Johnson, 1990).

Scholars in the two camps have completed many research projects, but have rarely attempted to examine the relationships between the two perspectives, especially in terms of specific organizational factors such as salience, channel factors, and channel usage.


Three means of characterizing salience, personal, effect, and cultural, will be used in this research to compare the relative importance of formal and informal channels.

Personal Salience

"Information is valued to the degree it is salient. Salience to an individual means the perceived applicability of information to a problem that he or she faces" (Evans & Clarke, 1983, p. 239). Individuals use particular channels for a variety of motives, including some intensely personal ones, such as securing information related to advancement and merit increases. Using a channel to seek feedback about performance can be seen as an instrumental response on the part of employees who desire to earn positive evaluations (Ashford & Cummings, 1985). …