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Formal Communication



Formal communication represents a repertoire of communication genres that are goal oriented and function related, flow through the hierarchy, follow prescribed norms, and transcend time and space. Formal communication may vary in substance and form, but all formal communication shares the characteristics of being rational, structured, and goal oriented. Formal communication is foundational to the emergence of organizational communication as a discipline and critical to the communication as constitutive of organizations perspective. However, formal communication often deprives organizational groups of their voice and may filter out critical information. The strength of formal communication lies in its capacity to standardize communication to ensure reliability, and in its capacity to document, and hence constitute, organizations.
Formal Communication
San José State University, USA
Texas State University, USA
Formal communication is a critical aspect of the eld of organizational commu-
nication. Whereas many scholars do not explicitly study or use the term “formal
communication,” most theory and research in organizational communication deal,
at least indirectly, with this key concept. Aer dening formal communication, we
discuss the characteristics of formal communication and trace the term as a foun-
communication to theories in the eld and address advantages and challenges of formal
Formal communication can be dened as goal-oriented, explicitly stated, function-
related communication that ows through the hierarchy, follows prescribed norms, and
transcends time and space (Katz & Kahn, 1978; Lammers & Barbour, 2006; McPhee &
Poole, 2000). Formal communication is function related because the communication is
addressed to the organizational function rather than the person occupying the organi-
zational role. In other words, the individual who occupies the role is not as relevant as
the individual’s position in the organization. For example, organizational members (e.g.,
managers) send messages to the appropriate organizational functions (e.g., front-line
employees, other managers), which represent dierent members of the organizations
hierarchy. Because the messages are sent to the function that individual organizational
members represent, the emphasis on these messages is to the organizational functions
(Operations Manager, CEO, HR Department) rather than the individuals representing
those functions.
In most organizations, messages containing directives, courses of action, and
decisions ow downward through the hierarchy, whereas messages containing perfor-
mance reports of organizational functions ow upward through the hierarchy. Because
it is addressed to organizational roles rather than individuals, formal communication
follows specic norms to standardize communication across organizational functions
and, in some instances, across organizational boundaries. For example, a formal
memorandum follows very specic norms, regardless of the content:
e International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication. Craig R. Scott and Laurie Lewis (Editors-in-Chief),
James R. Barker, Joann Keyton, Timothy Kuhn, and Paaige K. Turner (Associate Editors).
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118955567.wbieoc083
sized in the memo is the organizational role of that person. is standardization also
organizational function can send the same memorandum to several other organiza-
tional functions, making sure those functions are included in the “To:” section of the
Formal communication, in the form of memorandums, committee minutes, and
reports, can reach organizational functions that are separated from each other in
time and space. For example, committee minutes may include decisions that become
policies and rules for all organizational members. e policies developed through
these committees are impersonal and constitute a form of formal communication
that reaches all organizational members throughout the organization. ese formal
communication policies will constrain and inuence the actions of organizational
members years aer they have been implemented (Canary, Blevins, & Ghorbani, 2015).
is denition of formal communication implies certain characteristics that emerge
from a rational perspective on organizations.
Characteristics of formal communication
We conceptualize formal communication in at least three ways. First, formal commu-
nicationisperceivedtoberational, based on rules and routines that promote eciency
and reduce personal biases. e idea of formal communication as rational is based on
a machine metaphor of organizations and a Weberian model of organizations as func-
tioning through rules and routines (Katz & Kahn, 1978). e Weberian model views
communication as impersonal because it focuses on organizational roles rather than
personal attributes. Accordingly, many forms of formal communication do not tailor
the content of their message to the specic individuals receiving the message; rather,
the focus is on an individual’s organizational role. Memos and committee minutes, for
example, do not have a social component directed at individuals in order to make the
are doing well ” or other social sentiments. By focusing on organizational functions,
formal communication provides the illusion of rationality and the achievement of cer-
tain eciencies. Job titles, which are impersonal labels, become more important than
personal characteristics in a formal structure because formal relationships are based on
roles within the organizational hierarchy (Johnson et al., 1994). By being impersonal,
formal communication reduces personal biases and provides a sense of rationality and
objectivity (McPhee, 1985).
Similarly, a rational design of communication allows for eective communication
because it restricts communication across all functions of the organization, which
has the potential to be chaotic and ineective. Formal communication channels are
designed to contain the ow of communication in order to maintain eective and
ecient communication within the organization. Informal communication networks
are messy, hard to decipher, and sometimes illogical when observed solely through
a functional lens (Katz & Kahn, 1978). In contrast, formal communication channels
are simpler, designed to be ecient by establishing the ow of communication across
functions rather than individuals, and are based on the organizations hierarchy. Formal
communication can be designed for ecient allocation of information according to
three dierent directions of ows, based on the classical model of organizations:
down the line, up the chain of command, and horizontally across peers (Tompkins,
back, and ideological socialization to subordinates. For example, selection interviews,
new employee orientation programs, and training manuals formally teach newcomers
about the mission and values of the organization as well as the roles and responsibilities
of employees’ positions. Communication audits oen measure the eectiveness of
downward communication, seeking to understand the extent to which employees
have received certain organizational information (Tompkins, 1967). Tompkins sug-
gested downward communication should be redundant, including written and oral
media, since redundancy increases communications eectiveness by ensuring that
organizational members get the intended meaning.
Upward formal communication is generally focused on performance reports,
clarication of directives, and sometimes suggestions to improve work procedures.
Oentimes, such opportunities for formal upward communication manifest through
formalized or routine feedback mechanisms endorsed by the organization, including
suggestion boxes and quality circles, which seek to improve organizational functions.
According to Tompkins (1967), communication up the hierarchy is “noteworthy only
because it serves as a feedback for management” (p. 11).
Horizontal or lateral communication allows for certain exibility and the
dissemination of timely “need to know” information. For example, formal men-
communication among colleagues working in the same position. Rather than devel-
oping voluntarily through a process of trust and mutual attraction, formal mentoring
relationships are oen coordinated by a third party and initiated when newcomers join
organizations. Although research support for the benets of formal mentoring as a type
of horizontal communication has been mixed, many organizations continue to assign
formal mentors to accelerate the socialization of newcomers into the organization
(Jablin, 2000). is is consistent with the view of formal communication as focused on
eciency and reliability.
A second characteristic of formal communication is that it is structured.Drawing
from McPhee’s (1985) denition of structure, formal communication includes ocial
job titles, descriptions, and objectives for employees, along with their conditions
of employment or “employment contracts”; the ocial dierentiation of divisions,
departments, and work units; the book or books of standard operating procedures;
the “corporate charter” and other documents establishing the legal basis of the
organization (p. 149). Structured communication shares several common features:
it is explicitly stated and recorded, prescriptive in nature, and “generally involve[s]
statements that apply to members of the organization, to employees’ activities, roles,
relationships, and rewards” (McPhee, 1985, p. 150). Organizations require formal, or
structured, communication so that employees know what to do, whose directives to
follow, how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, and whom to inform about
their work.
Formal communication is part of the formal structure of organizations. ese forms
of structure depend on formal communication channels to be disseminated to internal
and external organizational audiences. At the same time, because these structures are
Indeed, employees evaluate formal communication channels as more comprehensible
and credible than informal channels (Johnson et al., 1994).
ird, formal communication is goal oriented. Unlike informal communication,
which can be social and relationship maintaining, formal communication is purposive
nication oen includes directives, information, or feedback to improve organizational
functions or eciencies (Tompkins, 1967). Policies, for example, are implemented with
the goal of inuencing organizational practices, changing behavior, or enabling certain
types of activities (Canary, Blevins, & Ghorbani, 2015). Formal communication is a
key factor in managing and controlling performance in organizations (Yates, 1989).
ese characteristics of formal communication – rational, structured, and goal ori-
ented – encompass most forms of formal communication from the beginning of the
discipline. Formal communication has been considered a critical component of orga-
nizing since the beginning of the 19th century (e.g., Barnard, 1938). As the eld of
organizational communication emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the eld con-
tinued to consider formal communication as critical for organizational functioning.
Formal communication as foundational in organizational
e rst summary of organizational communication research distinguished between
formal and informal channels of communication (Tompkins, 1967), establishing formal
communication as a root construct in the eld. In his discussion, Tompkins focused on
formal communication under a prescriptive/functional perspective, reviewing studies
that centered on improving messages’ eectiveness through designing and choosing
the appropriate communication channels. Tompkinss focus in this early review of
organizational communication was on diagnosing and improving communication
systems in order to improve the eectiveness of downward, upward, and horizontal
Moreover, Redding, whose work has been foundational in the discipline, suggested
message exchange as the core of organizational communication and advocated for the
investigation of messages that travel up and down formal hierarchies (e.g., Redding,
1979). In his seminal work, Redding (1972) proposed 10 postulates of organizational
communication, providing a lens to understand organizational communication.
Importantly, formal communication plays a role in several of Redding’s postulates.
e rst three deal with the characteristics of communication phenomena regardless
of whether they are formal or informal: that meanings are not transferred (postulate
one), that anything is a potential message (postulate two), and that communication
relies as much on input (listening) as output (message sending, postulate three).
Redding’s (1972) postulates four through ten relate closely to formal communication
because they represent prescriptive views of how communication needs to be designed
and implemented within organizations. is design is embedded in postulate four,
where Redding notes that how the message is received is inuenced in large part by the
functional position of the receiver within the organization. Accordingly, in postulate
ve, Redding suggests that feedback is “crucial for the successful functioning of a
large organization” (p. 40). By considering structural positions and hierarchy, Redding
promotes a formal structuring of communication in organizations that focuses on the
need to balance the importance of feedback (postulate ve) and redundancy to achieve
eective communication (postulate seven) with the fact that every communication
behavior has a cost (postulate six).
Redding (1972) also drew on systematic management and the need to design a sys-
tematic internal communication system when he introduced postulate eight: commu-
nication overload. He suggested that individuals’ limited capacity for attention led to
the creation of organizations in which the division of labor reduces the communicative
demands on each individual. Consistent with postulate four, the attention to informa-
tion communicated depends on the functional area of the individual and his or her role
in the organization. e need to consider this division of labor and spans of control
also reects Redding’s ninth postulate: there is a serial transmission eect in which the
number of communication relays increases message distortions and the potential for
biases in communication.
Redding’s (1972) postulate ten, providing an appropriate communication climate
for eective coordination, provides a link between formal and informal organizational
communication. Redding goes on to suggest these characteristics of an ideal organi-
zational communication climate: trust, supportiveness, participative decision making,
credibility, openness and candor, and emphasis on high performance goals. ese char-
acteristics link formal and informal communication because some of the features of an
ideal climate can be designed and structured (i.e., formal communication), while others
are emergent and have to be nurtured (i.e., informal communication).
Formal meetings are an example of the link between formal communication and
communication climate. Because meetings are a genre of formal communication that
can structure interaction (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992), meeting agendas and procedures
can enhance participative decision making. Formal meeting procedures can ensure that
everybody attending a meeting has a speaking turn. Moreover, who attends the meeting
is also a formal design that can enhance participation. Participative decision making can
thus be designed and formalized to a certain extent. Similarly, high performance goals
can be formalized in organizations. Organizations can formally set goals to functional
areas, and even to individuals within each functional area.
Although participative decision making and high performance goals can be
formalized, trust, credibility, openness, and candor are emergent properties of an
ideal communication climate in organizations. ese characteristics emerge from
the interaction experiences of organizational members, which are inuenced by the
formal communication structures. In this interaction within formal communication
structures, trust, openness and candor, and credibility can emerge. Redding’s ideal
communication climate thus represents the intersection between formal and informal
communication in organizations.
In addition to Tompkins (1967) and Redding (1972), whose early work in organi-
zational communication highlighted the importance of formal communication, Yates
(1989) provided an overview of how the rise of systematic management at the beginning
of the 20th century gave way to formal communication systems as a form of man-
agerial control. Although control has negative connotations when viewed through a
critical perspective, Yates emphasized a functional perspective where managerial con-
trol equates to managing. Control in this sense implies steady maintenance and the
reduction of deviations from goals. Formal communication systems allow for evalua-
tion, feedback, and control in order to coordinate activities across time and space.
Yates’s (1989) view of the formal communication system focused on systematic
processes. Unlike informal communication, which emerges when there is a specic
need to communicate, formal communication is scheduled to be systematic and
standardized. Reports and meetings are scheduled regularly, and directives and control
are standardized and systematic. Similar to other work surrounding formal communi-
cation, Yates’s view of formal communication focused on eectiveness and reliability,
with the assumption that formal communication can be designed and managed.
However, despite this depiction of formal communication as functional and designed
to follow prescribed norms, Yates (1989) does not discount the notion that organiza-
tions are socially constructed and that communication and organization are recursively
related. Yates’s study of the coevolution of communication technologies and formal
internal communication systems demonstrates that both shaped each other’s develop-
ment. Further, Yates noted how both communication technology and formal commu-
nication systems provided the opportunity to expand geographical markets, which in
turn promoted further developments in formal communication. We can consider for-
mal communication as a genre repertoire, a set of formal communication genres that
can be drawn upon in dierent organizational exigencies.
Formal communication as a genre repertoire
Because formal communication follows certain characteristics, it can be considered a
genre repertoire. A genre repertoire is a set of recurrent communication structures that
organizational members draw on to enact organizing (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994). Orga-
nizational members can select dierent genres of the formal communication repertoire
depending on the context and the situation. Yates and Orlikowski (1992) dened genre
as “a typied communicative action invoked in response to a recurrent situation”
(p. 301). By not having to develop a completely new communication action, formal
communication genres promote eciency and eectiveness, provided the situation is
recurrent. Genres both shape and are shaped by organizational members’ interactions.
Formal communication genres (typied communication actions) incorporate both
substance and form, based on their history and context. Substance refers to the purpose
of the genre, its topic and content, whereas form refers to the “physical and linguistic
features of the communication” (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992, p. 301).
For example, a résumé and a curriculum vitae, both formal communication materi-
als, may have the same purpose: providing an accurate image about a job candidates
abilities, knowledge, and experience. Yet a résumé and a curriculum vitae are con-
siderably dierent in both their substance and their form. A résumé is designed to
evant information about a candidate. In contrast, a curriculum vitae may be several
pages long, detailing every project, publication, and job-related activity the job candi-
date has ever done. is dierence in substance and form reects a dierence in their
history and context. A résumé is oen expected in organizations where daily activi-
ties of several years can be summarized into a couple of résumé lines. In contrast, in
very specialized elds such as academia, the t to the academic position is so narrow
that it requires detailed information about the candidate to nd the appropriate candi-
date for the position. us, the form of formal communications genres includes several
features. Yates and Orlikowski (1992) identied three features of the form of commu-
nication genres: structural features, communication medium, and language or symbol
system (pp. 301–302). To illustrate these three aspects of communication genres, those
authors reviewed the historical progression from business letters to memoranda, to the
evolution of electronic mail in organizations.
As Yates and Orlikowski (1992) noted, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, business
letters were usually geared toward external audiences and had a polite and formal tone.
Organizations still use this genre of formal communication today. For example, business
guage. Business letters are written as essays, usually on stationery, using formal language
and proper grammar, and are personally signed. Before typewriters became common-
place, these letters were handwritten (Yates, 1989). Although now business letters are
written using word processors, most of the other aspects of the form of this genre have
When the need for systematic communication within organizations became critical
in the late 1800s and early 1900s, organizational members drew upon the business let-
ter genre and adapted it to internal audiences (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992). Over time,
a new genre, the formal business memorandum, evolved from the business letter. e
substance of the internal memorandum was dierent from the business letter because
documentation was equally or more important than communication per se. is docu-
format of headings and subject lines for eective archiving became more important
systematically stored. e use of typewriters facilitated formatting the memos into lists
rather than essays.
New genres, such as the memo, emerge through the interaction of previous genres
and new communication technologies (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992). For example, the
email genre began with the emergence of the Internet and computers in the workplace.
Yet even with the current prevalence of email, the memo and the business letter genres
still coexist. ey now interact with email and become attachments within emails. By
being attachments, formal memos and business letters maintain the (digital) paper form
and the formal tone they convey, while leveraging the new email technology to reduce
the cost of distribution.
Sometimes email replaces the use of a memorandum or a business letter altogether
in its own identiable and less formal genre. Orlikowski and Yates (1992) noted how
email designers drew upon the memorandum genre to develop the features of email,
keeping the subject line as one of the features appropriated into email. e structural
characteristic of email having a subject line similar to the memorandum is related to
both having a similar substance: emails are also used for documentation. However, as
most of us have experienced, this feature gets diluted once emails start turning into
ongoing conversations where the same subject heading is used. Another issue that also
changes in the email genre is that subject headings are not changed when address-
ing the same person with a dierent substance or topic. us, the ling of emails has
changed from how memorandums were archived,whichispossiblythebiggestchal-
lenge to the eective documenting of email. At the same time, given that email tech-
editing, the expectation is that typos and personal sentiments are more acceptable in
email communication than in memoranda and business letters, making them less for-
mal in nature.
As Yates and Orlikowski’s (1992) work illustrates, the formal communication genre
repertoire helps organizations function and coordinate. Formal communication genres
evolve with the contextual and technological characteristics of organizations. In addi-
tion to serving as a genre repertoire, formal communication also plays a key role in
other communication perspectives, including the process of organizing and the com-
municative constitution of organizations.
Formal communication as organizing and as constitutive
of organizations
In addition to foundational literature acknowledging the role of formal communication,
several key communication perspectives have also accounted for formal communica-
tion. Here, we discuss two theoretical frameworks in organizational communication
that consider formal communication: Weick’s (1979) model of organizing and the com-
municative constitution of organizations (CCO) perspective (McPhee & Zaug, 2000).
Formal communication plays a role in Weick’s (1979) model of organizing.
According to Weick, people make sense of equivocal information environments
through three phases of organizing: enactment, selection, and retention. When
organizational members engage in unfamiliar environments, they attend to equiv-
ocal information and construct their decision environments. is is the process of
enactment. Because organizations are sites of collective action (Barnard, 1938), this
enactment has to be agreed upon by organizational members and formalized through
minutes, memos, and reports.
In the second phase of organizing, called selection, people begin to make sense of
equivocal information through assembly rules and communication cycles. Assembly
rules refer to procedures or recipes that help individuals make sense of the information
environment. Oen, assembly rules come in the form of formal communication, such
as an employment résumé or standard operating procedures found in a manual. For
example, when unsure how to address a panelist at a research conference, a student
might revert to the standard protocol for referring to academics, addressing the panelist
by a formal title (Dr.) and last name (Gómez). Communication cycles involve indi-
viduals acting, responding, and adjusting to assign meaning to equivocal information.
Although communication cycles do not necessarily rely on formal communication, in
meanings are agreed upon, retained, and formalized, they create and recreate organi-
zational structures. Just as communication is critical to organizing, it also becomes a
Additionally, formal communication has been considered as a structure under the
communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) perspective, which proposes that
communication constitutes the structure of organizations (McPhee & Zaug, 2000) – a
structure that is mostly considered as formalized. McPhee and Zaug (2000) noted that
organizations are constituted in four ows of communication, as each communication
ow generates social structure through interaction. Specically, each ow links organi-
zations to other entities, including its members (the “membership negotiation” ow),
itself (via the “self-structuring” ow), specic work situations and issues (the “activ-
ity coordination” ow), and the environment (through the “institutional positioning”
ow). Formal communication plays a role in each of these ows.
When new members negotiate their position within an organization, part of this ow
happens through formal communication. When individuals join an organization, they
sign a written contract that contains a formal description of their job. Newcomers also
receive an employee handbook, which they are asked to review. Frequently, the for-
mal written communication with newcomers is complemented with formal, structured
training about their role in the organization. Both the written documents and the formal
training newcomers receive keep evolving over time through the interaction of organi-
zational members.
e organizational self-structuring ow considers processes that institute rules
about work, create policies and procedures, guide the allocation of resources, and serve
to design the organization. McPhee and Zaug (2000) suggested that examples of this
communication ow are common in organizations, communicate formal structure, and
include: “Ocial documents such as charters, organization charts, policy and proce-
dure manuals; decision-making and planning forums; orders, directives, and the more
casual announcements that oen substitute for them; processes of employee evaluation
and feedback; budgeting, accounting, and other formalized control processes” (p. 9).
As McPhee and Zaug (2000) noted, these ows are interrelated. e activity coor-
dination ow is accomplished in great part as a result of the self-restructuring ow.
Formal internal communication systems allow for the coordination of activities across
time and space. For example, formal communication about agreed upon accountability
and areas of responsibility are critical to activity coordination and are also related to
the self-structuring ow. Memos, reports, committees, and interdepartmental meetings
shared across functional areas are also examples of formal communication that reect
activity coordination.
Institutional positioning, the fourth communication ow, represents communication
from the organization to outside audiences. Although some of that communication is
charts, to promote the image of rationality (McPhee & Zaug, 2000). Other examples of
formal communication for institutional positioning to external audiences are annual
reports, letters to shareholders, and other messages that interface with the external envi-
ronment, such as press materials.
In short, the CCO perspective, and the self-structuring ow in particular, suggests
that communication creates and documents formal structure. e ability of formal
communication to document organizational activities allows for the constitution of
organizations. Further, formal communication plays a critical role in the institutional
positioning of organizations. Formalization institutionalizes communication as
Formal communication as form of legitimacy
A healthy stream of research focuses on how communication constitutes organizations.
is research dates all the way back to Barnard’s (1938) assertion that organiza-
tions – coordinated activity – cannot exist without communication. However, the
idea that communication needs to be formalized to be organizational has only been
explored recently.
Formal communication legitimates collective action as organizational. Orga-
nizational actions are established, recorded, and legitimized through formal
communication, such as minutes, committee decisions, policies, handbooks, and
formal reports. In their institutional theory of organizational communication, Lam-
mers and Barbour (2006) proposed that “institutions operate in organizing through
formal communication” (p. 365). Organizational beliefs are almost always formally
recorded and archived, as policies, laws, regulations, contracts, or guidelines. is
communication directs institutions and members to solve problems and conduct
relationships (Canary, Blevins, & Ghorbani 2015). Research suggests that employees
evaluate formal communication channels as more credible (legitimate) and compre-
hensible than informal communication channels (Johnson et al., 1994). ese ndings
indicate that formal communication is less ambiguous and more specic than informal
communication, reinforcing the idea that communication is not organizational until it
is formalized and documented.
Communication is organizational when it becomes formalized. Lammers and
Barbour (2006) propose that formal communication maintains institutions by the
recreation of formal rules. ey also note that the standardization of these formal
communication genres facilitates communication across organizations. Formal com-
munication allows the maintenance of institutions, and interaction across organizations
because it is documented (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992).
Because it is documented, communication becomes legitimized as organizational.
For example, consider a faculty member who proposes a new course in a commu-
nication studies department. In order to prepare the proposal, the faculty member
had a couple of informal conversations with the chair of the curriculum committee
and a cover letter. All these documents were standardized and became the main
communication from the faculty member to the curriculum committee that discussed
the proposal. Although the informal interaction between the faculty member and the
curriculum committee chair was essential to the preparation of the formal commu-
nication, only the formal communication became documented and hence became
organizational – only the formal communication became legitimate organizational
e department’s curriculum committee then discussed the new course proposal.
eir interaction was structured and formal, legitimizing the meeting as formal because
it followed specic standard rules of the committee meetings genre, such as a structured
agenda, a set time, and a predetermined decision procedure. Although many issues may
have been voiced at the meeting, the only legitimized organizationalcommunication was
what was documented in the meeting’s minutes and the signature of the forms. ese
minutes reected what “the committee” decided in an impersonal, organizational tone.
is same process was then repeated at the college level and then again at the univer-
sity’s curriculum program level. At each stage, department chairs, deans, and admin-
istrators engaged in informal conversations. Nevertheless, regardless of the personal
conversations that may have occurred surrounding the proposed course, the commu-
nication legitimized as organizational was the formal communication, where specic
individual voices were made anonymous, impersonal, and organizational through the
committees minutes and the standardized forms.
As the example illustrates, formalization reconstitutes communication as organiza-
tional through the impersonalization and standardization of communication. Because
formalizing communication provides legitimacy (Lammers & Barbour, 2006), formal
communication may be pervasive in organizations even when it may not be the most
eective form of communication. Tompkins (1967) noted that employees oen did not
receive the information that leaders communicated by formal written media such as
memos and policies. Nevertheless, even if it is not the most eective, this formal com-
munication gets legitimized as organizational. Without formalization (focusing on the
organizational function, being recorded in written form, and being impersonal) com-
munication is not institutionalized as organizational.
Advantages and challenges of formal communication
ere are several advantages that explain a continued interest in designing and
implementing formal communication systems. Because formal communication
is explicitly stated, standardized, and perceived as reducing personal bias, formal
communication promotes a sense of trust and fairness (McPhee & Poole, 2000). ese
same characteristics, standardization and these standardized codes being explicitly
stated, allow for knowledge integration through information technology. Johnson and
his colleagues (1994) note that source credibility is critical for both the socialization of
newcomers and for upward ow of information and nd that formal communication
is perceived as more credible than informal communication. Information that would
otherwise be held by individual organizational members can be codied and integrated
into the organizational memory in the form of reports, policies, handbooks, and
space leads to eciencies in the forms of policies and routines that replace the need for
personal communication (McPhee & Poole, 2000).
In addition to these advantages, a systematic internal communication system also
ensures safety and reliability. Yates (1989) advocated that one of the main benets of
formal communication in the railroad industry was increased reliability and the avoid-
ance of potential accidents, increasing safety in the procedures. Formal communication
is thus critical in the case of high reliability organizations, where adherence to specic
rigid procedures reduces the risk of deviations and errors that could be catastrophic.
that represent a trade-o between eciency and eectiveness in communication.
Several types of formal communication, such as policies, can be considered as hege-
monic devices to control organizational members. Whereas formal communication
can transcend space and time, it also allows for long-distance control because formal
communication is embedded with disciplinary power. e rational authority attributed
to formal communication artifacts such as policies and handbooks promotes control
that goes unquestioned by organizational members. For example, scholarship has
demonstrated that the powerless oen do not have a voice in shaping policies (Canary,
Blevins,& Ghorbani, 2015). Furthermore, studies have shown that most employees
learn organizational norms and the cultures of organizations through informal, not
formal, channels (Johnson et al., 1994).
Formal communication may also deprive organizational members of their voice.
Hierarchy as a type of formal communication separates “conception” from “execution.”
Few organizational members – oen only those at the top of the hierarchy – are in
control of planning, designing, coordinating organizational strategy, and assigning
the actual labor to lower-level employees (McPhee, 1985). Furthermore, although
individuals may be consulted or informed before a formal policy is written, people
whose lives are directly impacted by policy rarely shape or truly participate in the
formal communication itself (Canary, Blevins, & Ghorbani, 2015). Research suggests
that employees prefer to use informal channels to get feedback on their performance
and to solve nonroutine problems (Johnson et al., 1994).
Because formal communication is usually designed to restrict the ow of informa-
tion to promote ecient communication ows through the hierarchy, it necessarily
creates a problem of ltering out potentially critical information. Organizational mem-
bers only receive messages that have been standardized and considered relevant to the
organizational function. Communication ows that restrict information dissemination
to increase eciency may lead to ltering out of relevant information. is ltering to
focus on function-specic information may lead organizational members to not attend
to system-wide information – to see trees while forgetting the forest.
ese weaknesses of formal communication are founded on the assumption that
formal communication forms, such as handbooks, manuals, and policies, are set in
stone once they are designed, and cannot be changed. Nevertheless, formal communi-
cation represents elements of the formal structure of organizations and has a recursive
relationship to the interaction of organizational members, even if they are interacting
employees may not follow formal policies or use formal communication channels when
instructed. Johnson and colleagues (1994), for example, found that employees not only
prefer informal channels to solve nonroutine problems but also perceive their voices
are heard more oen through informal channels.
Because formal communication has advantages and disadvantages, we should not
think about formal–informal as a dichotomy. Formal and informal communication are
interrelated: “the entire communication structure of an organization is composed of
elements of both, with other ingredients as well, and is not reducible to either” (John-
son et al., 1994, p. 152). For example, Johnson et al. (1997) found that elements of
formal structure, such as levels of decentralization, formalization, and slack resources,
complemented features of informal communication networks to promote an innovative
communication environment within organizations.
Conclusions and future directions
Taking these advantages and disadvantages into account, future research should explore
how new technologies in organizations, such as social media, align with or eschew our
understanding of formal and informal communication. For example, external social
media, such as a company’s Twitter account, may be used to communicate formal
information, just as a press release traditionally would be sent. Other internal social
media platforms, however, may be used more informally. Zhao and Rosson (2009), for
instance, studied the use of microblogging as a new informal communication medium
at work, showing how employees used Twitter dierently from other communication
media to share personal life activities and real-time work updates.
Communication plays a central role in a socially constructed view of organization. It
is in the interaction of organizational members that both their prescribed roles and for-
mal communication are reinforced or recreated. Formal communication is embedded
within the formal structure of the organization. Formal and informal communication
structures complement each other and may not be understood in isolation. e rich
and complex interrelationship between formal and informal communication could be
a critical issue within the CCO perspective. Future research may explore how formal-
izing and structuring informal channels and conversations enhance their legitimacy
as communication that is organizational. In conclusion, even though organizational
communication scholars may not oen use the term “formal communication,” this key
construct is crucial to the foundation of the discipline and oers several opportunities
for future inquiries in the eld.
SEE ALSO: Communication Load; Content of Communication; Feedback; Informal
Communication; Institutional eory/Approaches; Organization; Structure
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Luis Felipe Gómez is assistant professor in communication studies at San José State
University. His research includes organizational temporality, socialization, and organi-
zational interventions to foster organizational attention.
Stephanie L. Dailey is assistant professor in communication studies at Texas State
University. Her research focuses on the processes of organizational identication
and socialization, particularly through the use of technology and narratives in
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