When Communication Should Be Formal

Sometimes channels known for their speed and flexibility bog down organizations with errors and inefficiency.

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Informality has become ubiquitous in modern organizations: The use of first names for everyone, including executives, is the norm, as are casual dress, flattened hierarchies, and self-organization. Business communication has grown more informal as well. We keep things casual so we can be fast and flexible and get things done. We email, Skype, Slack, and Yammer.

Formal, protocol-guided communication — such as face-to-face meetings or teleconferences, where leaders from different business units use standard agendas to review concerns and coordinate responses — is increasingly seen as an old-fashioned bureaucratic time sink.

Informality helps an organization’s daily operations run more smoothly, to be sure. And unnecessary meetings that serve no real business purpose can plague a workplace. But no one would argue against the value of formal, reliable communication in, say, aviation or the military. In those mission-critical contexts, protocols for a communication’s timing, content, and participants ensure clarity, transparency, and accountability.

Prompted by those models, we decided to study companies that manufacture high-tech machinery — businesses that need precise, cross-functional communication to get the job done. Our data shows that overreliance on informal communication can harm performance because it is often imprecise and erratic, and that formal communication offers specific, crucial advantages that no company should overlook.

Over the course of two years, we studied 73 manufacturing sites encompassing 163 production processes for customized industrial machinery and instruments. We analyzed both ongoing informal communication (such as emails and phone calls) and periodic (typically weekly) cross-functional meetings with standard agendas and prespecified participants. On-time delivery — a critical performance dimension in this industry — was our primary measure of communication effectiveness.

The results showed that processes that used periodic protocol-guided meetings had a consistent performance advantage over those that relied solely on informal communication. Indeed, use of formal communication protocols improved the rate of on-time delivery by an average of 5 to 8 percentage points, representing substantial value for the companies we studied. (See “About the Research” for more detail about the methodology and results.)

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