To guide subsequent analysis of manager's media choice, a general
framework is presented. 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
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.
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). The higher the level of IT maturity, the more
likely that people will use and be comfortable with modern communication
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).
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.
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). 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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
An important task characteristic is that of equivocality. 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.
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.
(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,
TCE is now used to study a myriad of economic relationships. TCE
has become "an orthodoxy" in the study of economic organizations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Although this framework is discusses in terms of CFOs, this framework
is applicable to media choice in general.
 This notion is also called
IT sophistication. It was first used by Churchill et al (1969).
 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.
 See Chapter
2 for an explanation of this term.
 It can be traced back to the
work of Ronald Coase (1937); other notable authors include: Simon
(1957, 1961), Arrows (1969), Williamson (1975, 1985).
 Dietrich (1994)
 According to Williamson (1975)
all three tenets must be present for transaction cost to exist.
 It is because of bounded rationality
that the rational framework in this paper is referred to as "loose"