Communication Channels

Communication Skills

Information technology has seen traditional communication channels expanded to include new ones. Organizations can harness these new channels to derive competitive advantage. We will explore some of the communication channels used today, their advantages and disadvantages, their influence on communication and how organizations can leverage them for benefit.

Types of Communication Channels

In the basic communication model, a sender encodes a message, transmits the message to a receiver through a channel with channel noises, the receiver decodes the message, and may or may not give feedback. Robbins and Judge (2013). The communication channel is the medium through which the message is transmitted. Collins (2012), identifies the following communication channels:

  1. Formal channels mediated through memos, letters, emails, reports, websites, blogs, social media, meetings, presentations, speeches, video conferencing, newsletters, advertisements, etc.
  2. Informal channels mediated through face-to-face conversations, telephone, messaging, team networking tools, etc.
  3. Internal channels using formal and informal channels 
  4. External channels using formal and informal channels

The flow of communication can be:

  • Lateral or horizontal flow channels
  • Vertical or upwards and downwards flow channels

Formal and Informal Communication Channels

Formal channels tend to follow the organizational structure, chain of command and reporting relationships as envisaged in a Weberian bureaucratic organization and classical scientific management perspective. Communication flow is vertical from superior to subordinate (downwards) and from subordinate to superior (upwards). The downwards channel carries instructions, directions, and announcements. The upwards channel carries reports, suggestions, complaints and requests.

Formal channels also have lateral flow of communication between employees at same level. Lateral flow involves team member collaboration and coordination around joint tasks. Informal channels are casual communication e.g., chatting in the cafeteria, the car park or the elevator. They are also called “rumor mill” and “grapevine” due to distortions and misinformation prevalent with them. Internal channels are formal and informal channels within the organization; while external channels are formal and informal channels with external stakeholders like suppliers, customers, and government.

Impact of Technology

Recent technology changes impacted communication with shifts towards electronic and digital mediated channels; with shift from print to digital, from personal to virtual, shift from speeches to presentations with electronic and digital visuals, from face-to-face meetings to virtual teams meetings and video conferencing, face-to-face customer support to virtual and online customer support, from newspaper advertisements to online advertisements, from radio announcements to websites and social media notices, etc.

Electronically mediated channels increased the communication channels available to organizations. On the positive side it gives greater choice in channels and increases the collective richness of information derived from the various channels. On the negative side it creates information overload which increases stress and work-life-balance problems. Intel Inc. conducted a trial study of blocking 4 hours away from electronic communication every Tuesday. The results showed improved productivity and 75% employees asked to be included in the expansion program. Robbin and Judge (2013).

Advantages and Disadvantages

Survey reports show that 71% of organizations use electronic mediated channels of communication. Robbins and Judge (2013). Electronic mediated channels have the advantages of quick writing, editing, storage and retrieval of messages. They are easily distributed to large numbers of recipients and are cheap. Messaging is a convenient way to send one or two liner communication. Websites, social media, blogs and podcasts offer a cheap advertising. Virtual teams save travel time and offers convenience of collaboration for teams in different locations. Social media and customer support portals offer real-time communicating with customers. Robbins and Judge (2013).

Pros and Cons

The advantage of quick writing, editing, storage and retrieval of electronic messages has its downside. Privacy issues, information overload, intrusive and distractive are serious drawbacks. Emails and messages can be forwarded to unauthorized recipients. Social media can bring negative publicity. Digital channel pervasiveness, intrusiveness creates distractions that reduce employee productivity. Robbins and Judge (2013).

Formal channels have the advantages of professional outlook, rationality and making communication more convincing and the downside of by-passing others and ignoring potential input and dissuading employee engagement. Collins, K (2012). Thus, download channels of communication create a functional barrier to communication. Most organizations are shifting towards cross-functional teams with all network communication channels. Robbins and Judge (2013). Using all channels has the advantage of balancing channel richness, countering the disadvantages with advantages of other channels.

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