Orchestrating the Multi-Channel Character of Formal and Informal Communication in "Virtual Teams"

Orchestrating the Multi-Channel Character of Formal and Informal Communication in "Virtual Teams"

J. Kratzer (University of Groningen, The Netherlands), Roger Th. A.J. Leenders (University of Groningen, The Netherlands) and J.M.L. Van Engelen (University of Groningen, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-883-3.ch098
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Abstract

Communication is a basic process of organization. When one conceives the organization as an everchanging system of interactions (White, 1992), one notes that communication aids in the development and maintenance of organizational purposes as its members motivate, inform, and inspire each other. In other words, communication is the ‘nerve system’ that makes organizations and organizational units cohere and permit their members to coordinate all work efforts. It is conventional to make a distinction between the formal and informal aspects of communication in organizations. Informal communication arises from the people’s needs for relatedness, affiliation, and security, and emerges spontaneously, whereas formal communication describes the organizationally blue-printed work-related linkages between employees. Informal communication is ‘emergent communication’ naturally occurring (e.g., Monge & Contractor, 2003). In contrast, formal communication is imposed, or mandated, representing the legitimate authority of the organization and is reflected by the organizational chart (Aldrich, 1976). In the past, communication was solely based on face-to-face contacts. In history there have been several milestones that broadened the number of available communication channels and eased the way of communicating. Since the early beginnings, the predominantly face-to-face communication was gradually complemented with written media, in particular, since the production and use of paper (Johannes Gutenberg 1397-1468). This process gradually spread all over the world. Centuries later, in the 1870s, two inventors, Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell both independently designed devices that could transmit speech electrically. The telephone was invented. Again, a century later in the early days of computers, visionaries foresaw offices and factories humming with self-propelled robots. Today, a more likely vision has the firm humming with communicating employees. Most organizations have installed a complex network of interconnected computers that are embedded in a world of cyberspace, complemented with computer-based telephones and videoconferencing technologies. Organizations have now a very broad (and increasingly broadening) choice to orchestrate their formal and informal channels of communication, but at the same time the challenge to properly utilize the manifold possible media ensembles. Research is still in the very early stages to offer insights in how to managerially orchestrate the wide range of communicational channels. This article attempts to shed some light at the determination of media ensembles by formal and informal communication.
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Background

Most organizational activities are typically executed in a project-management like approach involving many routine activities, and the organizational nucleus is the team (Hinds & Kiesler, 1995). The traditional view of teams is one in which team members work together, are located closely to each other, and communicate with each other frequently, face-to-face. Whereas over the last two decades, ‘teams’ have become part of managerial vocabulary, ‘virtual teams,’ within and across organizations, are a recent phenomenon (Andres, 2002).

Virtual teams are groups of individuals collaborating in the execution of a specific project while geographically and often even temporally distributed, possibly anywhere within (and beyond) their parent organization. Virtual teams work across boundaries of time and space by utilizing modern computer-driven technologies (Montoya-Weiss, Massey, & Song, 2001). Increasingly, organizations move towards smaller, more numerous, and decentralized units that suit the increasingly complex and information-rich nature of work. The specialized skills and talents required often reside (and develop) locally in pockets of excellence around the company, or even around the world. Firms, therefore, disperse their units to access such dispersed knowledge and skills. Internationalization of markets, specialization of skills and knowledge, and the requirement to involve an increasingly large pool of knowledge, simultaneously have all pushed firms to rely more and more on ‘virtual teams’.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Teams: Virtual teams are groups of individuals collaborating in the execution of a specific project while geographically and often even temporally distributed. Working across these boundaries of time and space requires virtual teams to utilize modern computer-driven technologies.

Formal Communication: Formal communication is mandated communication representing the legitimate authority of the organization and is reflected by the organizational chart or blueprint.

Informal Communication: Informal communication is spontaneous communication, naturally occurring, and arises from the people’s needs for relatedness, affiliation, and security, independent of formal organization structure.

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