The Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 requires that a corporation clearly distinguish between its formal and informal communication. To avoid problems and remain compliant, corporations need separate workflow processes that govern formal and informal communications. For example, if informal communication channels are used for formal communications about financial information, corporate policies, and other critical interactions, factual and conjectural information could easily be commingled in critical financial reports. The information in this section explains how to differentiate between informal and formal communication.
The flurry of activity around collaboration software is being driven, in part, by the need to meet the formal and informal communication needs of geographically dispersed corporations, without bogging the workforce down in bureaucratic policies and procedures. In the world of collaboration software, the following can be a useful way to define these terms:
Informal Communication, also known as collaboration
Formal Communication, sometimes described as publication workflow
Informal communication, which is also known as collaboration, occurs when information is shared spontaneously between individuals who work for or are associated with a corporation. Informal communication occurs in hallways, meeting rooms, and over lunch as individuals share ideas, resolve disputes, alert coworkers to pending issues, and discuss strategies in the course of a normal work day. Because most large corporations are geographically dispersed, informal communications can also take the form of e-mail, voice mail, telephone conferences, Webcasts, and other electronic communication channels. The availability of electronic forms of informal communication means everyone can be continually connected to everyone else in the workplace. This means the average decision-maker is often buried under a huge volume of e-mail messages and information. Problems occur when these decision-makers cannot quickly separate meaningful informal communication from formal communication or communication that is just plain noise.
As workers pursue a formal goal, they need to be able to share information, ask questions, gather thoughts, debate, encourage, argue, joke, and speculate. It is important that workers feel they are "being heard." They also need to know their informal communications will not be mistaken for formal communication or factual information. If workers are not given appropriate ways to communicate and work through socialization processes, they will find inappropriate means to do so.
Formal communication, which is usually referred to as publication workflow, is often the result of collaboration that creates information that is more crystallized and somewhat final. As crystallization begins to take shape, work groups narrow down options and then collectively start creating a document or product that fulfills their stated goal. The tools provided to work groups need to help them achieve the goal being pursued whether it is a financial report, white paper, project specification, or marketing brochure. When the group achieves the stated goal, the document is submitted into a publication workflow that has been established by the corporation. At this point, the team has crossed the line from informal to formal communications. The publication workflow, using the workflow tools available to the users, usually involves review by senior leadership, feedback, rewrites, and other methods to make sure the final document meets the criteria for publication as a formal document.
When the document is formally approved by the policies and procedures enforced by the workflow management tool, it is placed under change control methods and is distributed according to policy. After the document is released, the team that created it no longer owns it. Instead, the document stands on its own merits unless the appropriate workflows are invoked to change the document and republish it under a new version number.
An efficient document workflow and publication system will have only one master copy of the published document in a central location, which reduces confusion and storage costs. Instead of sending copies by e-mail to the audience when changes occur, the workflow system sends alerts that direct interested parties to the centrally located document. Individuals interested in the document can post questions, complaints, corrections, and other action items in a centrally located issues log or task list. When the issues log contains a number of issues or issues of sufficient importance, the change control process can be invoked to pull the collaboration team together again to revise the document. The revised document is then resubmitted for publication, and the workflow processes govern its revision and release.