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Career Strategies for Librarians
Workplace Communication
by Lauren Pressley
 

Communication is a fundamental part of sharing information and conveying new ideas to one’s
colleagues. Sometimes it’s useful for even the most effective communicators to take a step back from
their communication practices and evaluate how effectively they’re sharing information within their
organizations. This article is designed to give a simple overview of several concepts that you can use as
tools to analyze your communication methods within your organization. The first section describes
communication flow and the second section focuses on communication channels.

Communication Flow
Communication flow is directional. Communication can be downward, upward, or horizontal along the
workplace hierarchy. When your boss shares information with you, it’s downward communication,
because your boss, as your supervisor, is communicating with you as an employee. Conversely, when
you give your supervisor feedback about a new system or patron, it’s upward communication. When you
share information with a coworker, it’s horizontal communication because it is along the same
hierarchical plane. However, communication often isn’t so clear-cut. Your boss may tell you about a new
policy, but your feedback to your boss is communication, too. In situations like this there is
simultaneously upward and downward communication.

Communication flow is formal or informal. Formal communication messages are official workplace
statements. These can include publications, official memos, and annual performance evaluations.
Informal communication is all workplace communication that is not official in nature. This includes
phone calls, quick e-mails, and water cooler discussions. Today’s information environment can
sometimes cause confusion. E-mail may span formal and informal communication, allowing for the
formality of a written record but also the informality of a quick chat. This may lead to miscommunication if
the sender believes a message to be more or less formal than the recipient.  

Communication flow takes place along networks. Just as the nature of communication can be formal or
informal, networks can also be formal or informal. Formal networks are established by the institution
and include hierarchical organization, departmental groups, and team structures. Informal networks are
formed by employees along social lines and may emerge as “the grapevine” or cliques. Both formal and
informal networks play important roles in workplace interaction. Formal networks communicate official
information, policies, and goals for the organization, while informal networks allow for sharing
information that’s not official, such as workplace norms and social mores.  

Flow describes how communication and information moves within an organization. Channels are the
paths along which communication takes place. Channels include meetings, face-to-face interaction,
print media, and electronic communication. As library workers often deal with information needs first and
then with the books, journals, and e-texts in which the information is included, we’re used to thinking of
information separately from the container. When we’re deciding how to communicate, we need to
consider how the information we’re trying to convey will be affected by the channel we’re using. For
example, does a particular coworker prefer the phone to e-mail? Does everyone understand how RSS
works so they can regularly access a departmental blog?

Communication Channels
Instead of the traditional interpersonal/written dichotomy, this article describes three points along a
spectrum of communication channels: repository, asynchronous, and synchronous communication.

Repository or Ready-Reference
Repositories fit the library model. They serve as ready-reference for you on your job. These are the
places you go when you need to know the official collection development policy or the most current
statement on student borrowing privileges.  

Repositories include traditional sources like new employee notebooks, departmental handbooks, and
the library website. Newer models are being utilized as well. Library websites, course management
systems, and wikis allow participants to add new information to the group’s repository in an online
environment.

Repositories are excellent when people need access to information semi-regularly and don’t want to
bother their supervisor or committee chair for it. Information can be extremely thorough and include a
detailed history of changes. For all the benefits of repositories, there are some drawbacks. It can be
overwhelming, as there are often a number of sources to know about. This can lead to information
overload. Repositories are one-way communication, often with no clear communicator. It can be difficult
for the user to know where to go for clarification or further information.

Asynchronous Communication
Asynchronous communication is a great way to get information out to people while allowing for two way
communication. Asynchronous communication includes methods such as departmental logs, electronic
discussion lists, e-mail, and blogs.  

Asynchronous communication allows the communicator to get information out on a regular schedule or
as new information arises. Information can be detailed and fit the specific context of the current situation
and can be saved by the recipient for his or her own repository. Asynchronous communication can go to
one person or a group of people and information can also be tailored to fit the audience. Like
repositories, asynchronous communication can lead to information overload. However, the recipient can
see the sender’s name and contact the person if they would like more information or clarification.

Synchronous or Real-Time Communication
Communication conducted in real-time gives the participants the opportunity to respond to one another
immediately. These methods are excellent for issues where the communicator really wants feedback,
but doesn’t allow for each participant to have access to the information later.  

Real-time group communication includes meetings and training sessions, but also online chat rooms
in the case of distance participation. These methods allow for immediate feedback from participants and
allow everyone to hear the same statement. However, meetings can be difficult to schedule, and some
people do not feel comfortable speaking out in group settings.

Real-time interpersonal communication includes one-on-one meetings such as evaluations, face-to-
face conversations, and instant messaging. People can get immediate feedback to their questions and
statements. However, there isn’t a record for future reference, and different people perceive things
differently.

Conclusion
This article has given a brief overview of some ideas in the field of communication. These tools can be
useful for communication evaluation. Communication flow can be understood in terms of direction,
formality, and networks. Understanding flow allows the communicator to have a clear understanding of
the intended audience. Channels are the methods one uses to communicate. With an understanding of
the spectrum of available channels, one can select the most appropriate method of communication for
the audience.

About the Author:

Lauren Pressley is the Microtext Assistant for the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University
and is working towards her master’s degree in library studies at the University of North Carolina at
Greensboro. She has a bachelor of arts degree in communication with a focus on interpersonal and
small group communication.

Article published March 2006

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.