Complete Site Outline

Introduction: Motivations and Backgrounds
Literature Reviews
Research Method
Discussion, Implications
Conclusion & Limitations

Write to me: animated letter


"The new science gives us the vision of an entangled universe where everything is subtly connected to everything else... the way holism replaces reductionism and wholes are seen as greater than the sum of their parts. In the new science, organized simplicity gives way to self-organized complexity."
(Ian Marshall and Danah Zohar in Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat, 1997)


To guide subsequent analysis of manager's media choice, a general framework is presented.[1] This framework is constructed from the variables and relationships identified in the media choice literature, information technology literature and transaction cost literature. The framework outlining the interaction of these variables is illustrated in Figure 3.1.


Media choice decision is made against a set of background conditions. These conditions are shown in the outmost shaded border of Figure 3.1. These conditions shape manager's perception of media characteristics and task characteristics.

3.2.1. Information Technology Maturity

At a time where IT is still evolving and organizations are only beginning to adopt some of these newer technologies, it is important to consider the extent that IT has permeated the organization (IT Maturity)[2]. The higher the level of IT maturity, the more likely that people will use and be comfortable with modern communication technologies.

3.2.2. Critical Mass

Consistent with the logic of IT maturity is the requirement for a special "critical mass" to permit each communication medium to work (Markus, 1987). There needs to be a certain degree of general acceptance before a medium can truly be considered a viable option. For example, take a now common technology like the Fax, if only a few organizations have a Fax it is unlikely to be used. People have a tendency to choose a channel they think that others will use, not just what they prefer (Markus, et al, 1992).

3.2.3. Organizational Structure

The organization structure forms part of the background condition. Structural characteristics like the size and organization of sub-units, degree of bureaucratization (centralisation and divisionalization) could influence the choice of communication media (Zeffane and Cheek, 1994; Whitfield et al, 1996). Similarly, diversification, especially geographically diversification is an influential condition.

3.2.4. Organization Culture: Social Norms

Media choice can be regarded as a function of the manager's perception. By its very nature perception is a behavioural variable that is susceptible to ever present psychological, social and cultural influences. Managers do not function in a social vacuum. On a broad level, the culture of society is known to influence the selection of electronic communication media (Straub, 1994).[3] Within the organization, social norms or socially acceptable behaviours are established over time. These norms form part of the organization culture.

The organization culture influences, if not dictates, how things are done. They predetermine how people perceive modern communication and information technology. Hence they influence peoples' eventual media choice. The strength of social influence is evident in Markus (1994) where the departure of a CEO, who previously actively endorsed email usage, has resulted in a dramatic decline in email usage in the organization.

Similarly, the manager may wish to use the social or symbolic meaning attached to a media to achieve something, for instance, a show of authority (Trevino, Daft and Lengel, 1990).

3.2.5. Demographic

This includes the person's age, gender, job experience, educational background. For example, it has long been observed that the selection of communication channel is dependent on age (Nelson, 1989).


Choice involves judgment. In media choice, as shown within the border of Figure 3.1, the judgment is fundamentally a function of manager's perception of communication task requirement and the their perception of communication media characteristic.4 That is, the process of media choice is to choose the media that the manager's perceives to best suit the performance of the particular communication task at hand. The question that arises is what forms the basis of these perceptions.

3.3.1. Perception of Communication Media

Prima facie, manager's perception of communication media is based on the inherent characteristics of each communication media. These characteristics partially determine the manager's perception or attitude towards each media. As noted earlier, because perception is a behavioural variable, the static media characteristic would not lead to the same perception of media for different managers. Each manager is likely to have his or her own view regarding a particular media as influenced by the background conditions in the border of Figure 3.1. In addition, manager's personal experience and knowledge with each media would affect his or her perception. Media Characteristics

Each media possesses certain inherent characteristics. The eight characteristics enumerated in Figure 3.1 capture both the qualities of traditional media (the first four) and modern communication technologies (the latter four). For example, a media like face-to-face would have characteristics like immediate feedback, multiple cues (eg. tone of voice, body language) and from a personal source.

3.3.2. Perception of Communication Task Requirement

Similar to the perception of media, the perception of communication task requirement is based primarily on the different task characteristics present. It is also subjected to influences such as the manger's experience in relation to the communication task and, of course, the background conditions. Communication Task Characteristics

An important task characteristic is that of equivocality.[5] Consider a task that the manger may perceive as equivocal, say where the manager needs to prepare a budget for a new project and he or she requires some inputs from the line managers. A media that the manager may choose for this task could be face-to-face meeting, because the media is capable of conveying immediate feedback and multiple cues.

Keep in mind that such a task may not be equivocal. If the manager, or the line managers, has much experience and knowledge about this particular project the task will appear less equivocal. In which case a simple telephone conversation or a fax transmission may suffice. Similarly, the manager may be influenced by his personal experience with different communication media. A manager that is barely computer literate will tend to think that a computer based channel is inferior, even though the information he required may be readily available through this channel.

In addition, equivocality of the communication task is not the only consideration. The framework in Figure 3.1 lists four other characteristics that impact on the task requirement: urgency, geographic locality, group (ie. number of person involved) and time zones. When these other characteristics are considered, the choice chosen in the above budget preparation example is only one possibility. For example, if an urgent answer is required from the line mangers, the manager may have no choice but to call the person directly, or walk to the manager's office and talk to him or her face-to-face. But where the manager is in Sydney and the other person is in Perth, for instance, the latter option is clearly impossible. The phone would become the only option. And what if it is not during the office hours of the other manger(s). Then, email or voice mail would be the only choice.

In sum, the media choice involves the consideration of the eight media characteristics and matching it with the task characteristics. Many combinations are possible depending on how the manager and the other parties to the communication perceive the media and the task. It is a rational process, but one that occurs on a tacit level.

3.3.4. Standard Operating Procedures

The above assumes implicitly that people do have a choice, but in practice standard operating procedures may determine the communication media to use. In this event, media choice is a simple function of these procedures. These procedures would form part of the organization formal communication's process. The presence of such procedures is probably related to the organization structure, because where there is a high degree of formalisation rules or internal policies tend to be more prevalent (Zeffane and Cheek, 1994).


The story so far is that a manager's perception, as influenced by social forces and personal experience and knowledge, of media characteristic and task requirements somehow combine to determine media choice. Under the media richness theory outlined in Chapter 2, this matching of media and tasks aims to achieve an optimal combination. However, the presence of social forces and experience in the equation raises doubts as to whether the choice is explicable purely as an optimisation process.

Although the process is rational, the tacit nature of the media choice process defies easy understanding. To further understanding this process, the elements of transaction cost seem to be useful. They provide:

(i) a structure to unify and explain the media choice process;

(ii) a novel perspective to view media choice; and

(iii) a means to attach "cost" to this tacit process.

Ever since the emergence of transaction cost economics (TCE), it has been growing in popularity. It started off as an explanation for the scale and scope of the firm,[6] TCE is now used to study a myriad of economic relationships. TCE has become "an orthodoxy" in the study of economic organizations.[7] While it is beyond the scope of this paper to develop and apply TCE formally to the choice of communication media within an organization, the insights stemming from this literature provide a useful guide in the analysis.

Transaction cost is the tacit cost of running an economic system (Arrow, 1969; Williamson, 1975). In the present context it can be regarded as the cost of communication, or, the cost involves in choosing a communication media for a given task. The use of TCE to explain media choice is outlined in relation to the three central tenets of TCE below.[8]

3.4.1. Bounded Rationality

This concept captures the limited cognitive abilities of people. It incorporates two ideas: (i) that people have limited computational capacity such that they are unable to make sense of all available data; and (ii) that it is impossible to identify all relevant information.[9]

This could provide an explanation of the anomalies in the traditional media richness theory. It is submitted that because of people's bounded rationality they are unable to evaluate the characteristics of each media. The theory presumed a perfectly rational person, but in reality the person's rationality is constrained. Consequently, they do not necessarily make the most optimal media choice.

3.4.2. Opportunism

Opportunism is "self-interest seeking with guile" (Williamson, 1985). Here, opportunism could be the underlying motive for the media choice. For example, where the choice of media is to save themselves time, money, or that it is simply a more convenient option, the motive is one of self-interest . This notion also ties in well with existing theories. Take symbolic interactionism for instance. It posits that people may want to use a particular media to convey a particular meaning. The question that the symbolic theory did not ask is why. Simply, the answer is again self-interest: the person wants to achieve something that suits them.

3.4.3. Asset Specificity

Whereas the above are the human related factors, this one is an environmental factor. Asset specificity refers to the extent that the physical assets are locked into a particular activity such that it has no (or very limited) value in alternative activities. Arguably, this phenomenon may not be as striking as in large scale economic system, but asset specificity is still relevant in the context of communication media.

The communication media can be regarded as the asset. They each possess characteristics that determine their suitability in relation to different tasks. Thus, it is submitted that there is a limit on the range of communication task that each media can be used for. For example, the phone would not be an option to a manager who wants to present a chart of budget vs actual performance to his or her superior.


This chapter outlined a framework to analyse manger's choice of communication media. This is a comprehensive framework drawing together many separate streams in the literature.

In essence, the media choice is a function of mangers' perceptions of communication media and their perceptions of communication task requirements. These are shaped by the media and the task characteristics respectively; and they are also shaped by the manager's experience amid a background of technological, structural, social and demographic factors. Transaction cost is introduced as a complementary means to explain this choice process.


next chapter


[1] Although this framework is discusses in terms of CFOs, this framework is applicable to media choice in general.

[2] This notion is also called IT sophistication. It was first used by Churchill et al (1969).

[3] In a cross cultural study of the effect of email and fax in Japan and US, it was found that US companies exploit email more so than their Japanese counterparts. Yet, the Japanese do use fax extensively. A significant cultural dimension that explain this difference is attributed to the unique written language of Japanese.

4 A communication task is defined as a task that involves the transfer of information between two or more persons.

[5] See Chapter 2 for an explanation of this term.

[6] It can be traced back to the work of Ronald Coase (1937); other notable authors include: Simon (1957, 1961), Arrows (1969), Williamson (1975, 1985).

[7] Dietrich (1994)

[8] According to Williamson (1975) all three tenets must be present for transaction cost to exist.

[9] It is because of bounded rationality that the rational framework in this paper is referred to as "loose" above.


next chapter



[my logo]

Copyright © 1997 Raymond Yu.