The Communication Channels

The communication channel selected for transmitting a message plays a significant role in maintaining the quality of the original message in its passage from the sender to receiver. The sender, given the opportunity to weigh the merits of using an oral or written communication, or a combination of the two, selects the most effective for the situation. Regardless of the communication channel selected, the sender will encounter obstacles. Considering the possible barriers, the sender must choose the channel which he feels will best guarantee transfer of the essence and meaning of his message without misunderstanding or distortion.

  • To counteract possible interference in the communication channel, the message should attract attention, contain redundancy, continue repetition, or use a combination of these approaches.
  • To attract attention, the message must be different from others competing for the recipient’s time. A short handwritten message instead of the usual typed message is one method that can attract attention.
  • To provide redundancy, the message must be rephrased several times (the technique used in newspaper articles), and/or summarized in the final paragraph. The sender should avoid too much redundancy because this tends to clutter the communication channel.
  • To provide repetition, the message must be transmitted through more than one channel, as in spoken and written form, or transmitted more than once through the same channel, as in TV advertising.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the basic communication channels within an organization. There are three channels: formal, informal, and unofficial.

1. Formal. The communication within the formal organizational structure that transmits goals, policies, procedures, and directions.
2. Informal. The communication outside the formal organizational structure that fills the organizational gaps, maintains the linkages, and handles the one-time situations.
3. Unofficial. The interpersonal communication within (or among) the social structure of the organization that serves as the vehicle for casual interpersonal exchanges, and transmittal of unofficial communications.

A more detailed examination of each of these communication channels will provide a better understanding of these functions.

Formal Communication

  • Formal communication – written or oral – follows the chain of command of the formal organization; the communication flows from the manager to his immediate subordinates. Each recipient then re-transmits the message in the selected form to the next lower level of management or to staff members, as appropriate. The message progresses down the chain of command, fanning out along the way, until all who have a need to know are informed. 
  • Formal communication also flows upward through the organization on the same basis. 
  • Formal communication normally encompasses the transmittal of goals, policies, instructions, memoranda, and reports; scheduled meetings; and supervisory-subordinate interviews.

Informal Communication

No organization operates in a completely formal or structured environment. Communication between operations depicted in an organizational chart do not function as smoothly or as trouble-free as the chart may imply. In most organizations operating effectively, channels of communication have developed outside the hierarchical structure.

  • The informal communication process supplements the formal process by filling the gaps and/or omissions. Successful managers encourage informal organizational linkages and, at the same time, recognize that circumvention of established lines of authority and communication is not a good regular practice. When lines of authority have been bypassed, the manager must assume responsibility for informing those normally in the chain of command of the action taken.
  • There is a fine line between using informal communications to expedite the work of the organization and the needless bypassing of the chain of command. The expediting process gets the job done, but bypassing the chain of command causes irritation and can lead to hard feelings.

To be effective, the manager must find a way to balance formal and informal communication processes.

Unofficial Communication

Astute program and functional managers recognize that a great deal of communication taking place within their organizations is interpersonal. News of revised policies and procedures, memoranda, and minutes of meetings are subjects of conversation throughout the organization. These subjects often share the floor with discussions of TV shows, sports news, politics, and gossip.

The “grapevine” is a part of the unofficial communication process in any organization. A grapevine arises because of lack of information employees consider important: organizational changes, jobs, or associates. This rumor mill transmits information of highly varying accuracy at a remarkable speed. Rumors tend to fall into three categories: those reflecting anxiety, those involving things hoped for, and those causing divisiveness in the organization. Some rumors fade with the passing of time; others die when certain events occur.

Employees take part in the grapevine process to the extent that they form groups. Any employee not considered a part of some group is apt to be left out of this unofficial communication process.

The grapevine is not necessarily good or bad. It serves a useful function when it acts as a barometer of employees’ feelings and attitudes. Unfortunately, the information traveling along the grapevine tends to become magnified or exaggerated. Employees then become alarmed unnecessarily by what they hear. It is imperative that a manager be continually alert to the circulation of false information. When discovered, positive steps should be taken to provide the correct information immediately.