Formal and Informal Information

Information is traditionally categorized as formal and informal information. As information technology removes barriers to communication, is the distinction between formal and informal information still relevant?

Formal and informal information are closely aligned with formal and informal communication channels as the channel through which the information is presented is one factor that affects the categorization of information. Formal information is prepared and disseminated through formalized communication channels determined by the organization structure and by the communication policies and procedures of organizational functions. In contrast, informal communication is usually more spontaneous with little time given to prepare the information conveyed.

Table 1 lists some of the characteristics of formal and informal information. Information is affected by the:

  • Communication channel in which the information is communicated (authorized or unauthorized).
  • Presentation of the information (prepared documents or casual conversation).
  • Provenance of the information (auditable or unauditable).
  • Source of the information (official or unofficial).

It is important to note that formal information can be conveyed through informal communication channels, for example, an official report can be leaked to the media.

Formal Information Informal Information
Documented Undocumented
Authorized unauthorized
Follows defined communication structures Follows emergent social structures
Scheduled Ad hoc
Official Unofficial
Prescribed Flexible
Based on organization structure Based on grape vine
Auditable via an audit trail Unauditable, therefore deniable
Official Casual
Prepared Spontaneous
Accountable Deniable
Prepared Impromptu

Table 1: Comparison of Formal and Informal Information

Information technology removes communication barriers and enables formal communication structures to be bypassed. For example, customers frustrated by the lack of help offered to them by a customer services function may choose to bypass the complaints procedure by sending an email direct to an organization’s chief executive officer or communicating their dissatisfaction via social media. This reflects the development of informal communication channels when formal communication channels are perceived to be ineffective.

Is social media a formal or informal channel for communicating formal and informal information? To private individuals, social media reflects the characteristics of informal communication in that it is casual, spontaneous and emerges from social structures. Organizations need to embrace these informal characteristics of social media but also need to embed social media within formalized communication structures. Previous work (Cox, 2013) has discussed the organizational transformation needed to successfully implement social media to support both:

  • External communication of marketing initiatives and to provide a forum for customer queries and complaints.
  • Internal communication of news and events.

Organizations are using social media as a communication channel for authorized information that has been prepared for communication via auditable and official sources. The informal communication channel of social media is therefore being harnessed by formal mechanisms to communicate information. In addition, organizations and individuals within the organization will communicate information through a range of social media accounts. There is perhaps a double-standard here in that the publication of information via social media from a corporate source, irrespective of whether the publication was authorized, implies a degree of formality; yet at a personal level, information conveyed through social media is accepted as being informal. The distinction between formal and informal information remains relevant in terms of the expectations relating to the accuracy and accountability of what is perceived as formal information. Information technology blurs the traditional boundaries of formal and informal information challenging the context in which information is interpreted.


Further Reading: formal and informal sources of information are discussed in Chapter 1.


Please use the following to reference this blog post in your own work:

Cox, S. A., (2014), ‘Formal and Informal Information’, 13 June 2014,, [Date accessed: dd:mm:yy]


© 2014 Sharon A Cox