How intentional are we in our communication media choices? I would venture to guess that the average person (communication students aside) does not spend too long pondering over whether to use a laptop or a phone, or a text message versus a Skype video chat in order to contact another. This average person probably does not spend too long thinking about equivocality, message noise, or receiver clarity, either.
However, media choices take on a different meaning when made at an organizational level and thus, need to be considered carefully. If we accept Joshua Meyrowitz’ premise* that organizations are constituted not by their buildings or budgets but rather by their various patterns of communication flow, then choices of communication media all of a sudden become very important. Organizational Media Goods (OMGs) such as meeting spaces, internal wikis, and various communication software can all be used to implement strategic communication flows and, by extension, certain types of organizations. Nonetheless, it is essential not to forget that OMGs alone are not enough; it is ultimately people that communicate via various OMGs and so, it becomes crucial that OMGs are contextualized through interpersonal relationships and knowledge.
Let’s take a look at a few examples: Pixar and Apple are famous for physically structuring their buildings in ways that allow for frequent face-to-face interactions (and ‘spontaneous’ idea exchanges) between employees; Deloitte, amongst others, uses an internal Facebook-like system and encourages employees to create ‘D-profiles’ and make ‘friends’ with others from diverse departments. While there are no bits and bytes involved in the case of Pixar and Apple, they are still examples of strategically engineered internal communication.
But there’s a bit more to it than that. Media Richness Theory and Social Presence Theory both suggest that people have agency to pick OMGs based on their capacity to reduce equivocality (or uncertainty). In practice this means that if we have something important or complicated to say to a colleague we will likely try to do it via a rich medium, such as face-to-face or video chat, as opposed to a less-rich medium such as a text message. This is often done to reduce uncertainty. As such, it is key for organizations to pre-select OMGs (or structure physical environments) in ways that will allow their employees to make choices and engage in the necessary forms of communication.
Nonetheless, it is important to pay attention to the social dimension of technologies, too: With practice and familiarity of a technology comes Carlson & Zmud’s related concept of ‘channel expansion’. Channel expansion means that as people become better acquainted with a communication technology, their perception of that technology’s capabilities are likely to ‘expand’ and they will see it as a richer medium with more possibilities. Yet, according to Carlson and Zmud, there are 4 types of knowledge which are necessary for the perception of ‘channel expansion’ to really occur. These types of knowledge include: experience with the technology, topic, context, and importantly, communication partner.
Since technologies carry symbols and are symbols themselves, we need to be familiar with both, their technical capabilities and their social meanings. This latter point becomes particularly salient for the increasingly popular virtual or tele-work in the States; estimates in 2009 suggested that some 40 million of working Americans engage in virtual work and thus, in frequent OMG use. This means that organizations need to be strategic about their selection of communication media and, amongst other things, about their employee training, social interaction and knowledge building opportunities.
* for more information see: Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No Sense of Place. Oxford University Press.
**image courtesy of nksz from stock.xchng