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Internal communication in theory and practice

What is the difference between formal and informal communication? 

GoldenLine, a Polish business- and employment-oriented social networking service, together with invited internal communication experts prepared an e-book dedicated to communication in the organization. My contribution to the publication was a short text about differences between formal and informal communication, focused mainly on communication tools and their use. You can download the e-book here.

Formal communication vs. informal

Internal communication in companies consists of both formal and informal communication. The use of tools from these two areas differs – they require a different context and serve diverse goals. Below I discuss three main areas of internal communication with an emphasis on informal communication actions and tools.

Corporate internal communicationcommunication from the company’s head and/or board members to all employees

It is a vertical communication conducted by the key people in the company (management board members), usually with the support of an internal communication specialist, directed to all employees. This kind of communication usually includes information about business strategy, organizational changes, company achievements and market plans. Corporate internal communication primarily uses formal communication channels, such as:

  • meetings with employees, town halls;
  • e-mail announcements;
  • videos;
  • intranet chats;
  • visits to offices, roadshows;
  • large project meetings, e.g. a kick-off of a new program;
  • company celebrations and special events such as company Xmass meetings.

Although the use of informal communication actions and tools in case of corporate internal communication is rare, under certain circumstances it could be very useful. The goals of informal communication between the company’s management and its employees could be:

  • building an open communication and organizational culture;
  • establishing a dialogue with employees;
  • gathering feedback and building two-way communication with employees;
  • engaging employees in the company’s affairs;
  • encouraging employees to participate in managing the company;
  • building a positive image of the board in the eyes of employees.

Examples of informal communication in this area include:

  • informal meetings with the CEO, e.g. breakfasts;
  • board members’ working visits to the company’s offices in different cities used as an opportunity for informal conversations with employees;
  • managing by walking around – CEO’s informal conversations with employees e.g. in the company’s kitchen or in the open space;
  • employee consultation groups – inviting employees from various levels of the organization to thematic meetings in the form of a workshop, devoted to specific initiatives and projects.

It is worth mentioning that informal communication with employees doesn’t come easy for all senior managers. Personality and traits of character are of great importance here – ability to build quick rapport, approachability and openness in interpersonal relations are essential. Before suggesting less formal communication actions it is worth making sure that both sides of a communication process will feel comfortable with it. While for younger employees informal forms of communication might be acceptable, for example for employees with long-term experience, it may be awkward and will not add to building positive relationships with the management.

Project and team communication

This area of ​​communication usually includes operational communication within working and project teams. This is mostly horizontal communication – it takes place between employees of similar positions, often from different teams and departments.

Project communication is largely described by the project management methodology. Its range includes both formal tools, including IT PM systems as well as informal ones. Due to the nature of the communicated issues, for the most part it is operational communication of a medium degree of formalization.

It should be noted that the communication tool or channel does not determine whether the communication is formal or not. The context and form of communication are of importance here, for example, an e-mail can be both formal and informal – the difference will be the language used and the message itself.

The goal of team communication is primarily to efficiently exchange information between team members and enable their cooperation, it is most often based on:

  • regular meetings;
  • regular tele- and videoconferences;
  • periodic e-mail summaries and announcements;
  • informal, everyday contacts.

While these activities could be classified as formal communication, more informal activities include:

  • integration meetings and team trips;
  • team meals, coffee etc.;
  • team off-sites and events;
  • team trainings.

Communication between manager and employees

Communication between the supervisor and his subordinates is very important for employees’ commitment and satisfaction. For the most part, it should be based on a direct, honest relationship in which open communication plays a major role. Informal contacts, such as meetings, e-mails or telephone conversations, should definitely prevail in it. Managers may also meet their teams from time to time outside the office, for example, at a lunch. This will create an opportunity to better get to know each other and speak more freely.

In the relations between the superior and subordinate formal communication is used less frequently, but also have an important role to play in team management. Official team meetings, formal 1:1 meetings and e-mail memos to team members give the opportunity to:

  • inform about the successes of employees and the entire team;
  • show recognition and appreciation of employees’ efforts;
  • motivate and engage employees.

The choice between the use of formal and informal communication should always be made in relation to its purpose and the preferences of the communication process’s participants.

 

Magdalena Selwant-Rozycka communication theory - Pic1

 

Magdalena Selwant-Rozycka communication theory - Pic2


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