Table 5.2: Equivocality of the Communication Tasks
| Communication Tasks
(in order of equivocality from highest to lowest)
|Mean Equivocality Score
||Mean Equivocality Score for corresponding question in D'Ambra (1995)|
|Task 1 (Question 14)
|Task 2 (Question 10)
|Task 3 (Question 11)
|Task 4 (Question 12)
|Task 5 (Question 13)
It is interesting that in D'Ambra (1995) Task 3 and Task 4 are very similar in terms of equivocality. The bigger difference here may be attributable to the more specific task context. Here, the tasks specifically referred to benchmarking and performance measure, whereas in D'Ambra they were more general. This suggests that the specific task context do have a large bearing on the perceived complexity of the task requirement.
Prior studies typically found that where the task is equivocal people would tend to use face-to-face. The findings of this study are generally consistent with this. This is most evident when comparing the simple or unequivocal task of setting up a meeting in two weeks time (Task 5) with a more equivocal task like discussing a performance issue (Task 2). In Figure 5.5 it can be seen that only one person chose to use face-to-face for this unequivocal task, whereas for the equivocal task in Figure 5.2 all five subjects chose face-to-face. However, notice that this explanation only applies where the other person is on the same floor, or, in the same city.
Similar patter of media choice is observed within Task 1. It can be seen that face-to-face is the more frequently chosen for the more equivocal sub-task (a), in situations where the other person is on the same floor or in the same city. Where the other person is in a different country, voice-conference is the preferable media. This is also consistent with the media richness notion that equivocal tasks are performed through `rich' media. Voice-conference is considered relatively high in richness in the literature.
A surprise is that although the telephone is supposed to be higher in terms of richness, it is very infrequently chosen for this task (Task 1). Equivocality alone cannot explain the choice. If, as advocated in the framework, other task characteristics are considered, then this choice could be attributable to the group nature of the task. That is, voice-conference would better suit the task in that it enables multiple parties to communicate simultaneously.
According to media richness theory, the usage of email should decrease as equivocality increases. This effect is only noticeable in relation to situations where the other person is on the same floor or in the same city. Meanwhile, notice how all subjects chose email as one of their communication media for all five tasks examined, and how email is much more popular for situations where the other person(s) is not in the office, or it is not during working hours. This defies media richness predictions.
Thus, consistent with prior studies, equivocality only provides a partial explanation. It explains some of the choice but often it is impossible to divorce the explanation from mentioning other task characteristics.
The finding suggests that as equivocality increases subjects tend to choose more combinations of communication media to accomplish the task. For the most unequivocal task, Task 5 (Figure 5.5), the subjects chose much fewer media compared to the most equivocal task, Task 1 (Figure 5.1), where subjects chose 7 or more different media. As one subject said in relation to Task 1:
"The task force would use email, telephone calls, all sort of things to put together the recommendation on what we should do... produce something, and then disseminate it, and look at it. But then we get together to have another meeting..."
Again, an important point to note is that this observation only holds where the other parties are on the same floor or in the same city. As other task characteristics are introduced, the trend breaks down and equivocality ceases to explain the observed media choice.
By now it is evident that there are a multitude of communication task characteristics that impact on managers' media choice. With the exception of the group element, all the task characteristics outlined in the Chapter 3 framework have a noticeable impact on managers' media choice.
To be fair, equivocality can be a good explanation within a certain domain. Examining the data as a whole, the domain where equivocality can provide a good explanation has been mapped out in Figure 5.6. Equivocality is a good explanation where it is easy or feasible to contact the other person(s). For example, where the other person is in the same floor or in the same city. In such situation, as noted above, equivocality explain the observed choice in this study perfectly. Meanwhile, as the ease of contact decreases, the ability of equivocality to explain the media choice similarly decreases. So where the other person is not in their office or it is not during their working hours equivocality is unable to explain the choice made.
The findings in relation to the different country variation of the tasks studied provide a good illustration of when equivocality can be a good explanation. The questionnaire data and the subjects' comments indicate that both email and telephone could be chosen for this task. In particular, telephone would be chosen if the managers can be easily reachable through the telephone, such as where they are in their office or during office hours; while email would be chosen if the mangers are not reachable, such as where the other person is not in their office or it is not during office hours. In other words, if the other person is easily contactable then equivocality can explain the mangers' choice of using the telephone because telephone is the next richest communication media after face-to-face. But when it comes to the choice of email, equivocality fails to offer any explanation. Other task characteristics need to be invoked to explain the choice.
The above discussions have demonstrated that as the ease or feasibility of contact decreases the explanatory power of equivocality decreases also. In fact once outside a certain domain equivocality would have difficulty explaining the media choice. To provide a fuller explanation of the media choice, it is necessary in such situations to consider the other task characteristics. As one subject said "when you look at this thing it is the task that actually dictates the type of medium that you actually use." Table 5.3 summarises the different task characteristics and media that subjects in this study have chosen.
Previous studies that focus on equivocality are, therefore, deficient to the extent that their focus is too narrow. They failed to present a comprehensive story of the media choice process.
This thesis further argues that this rather narrow focus may have contributed to many of the mixed and unexpected results in prior studies. The fact that face-to-face was found to be richer and used more frequently for equivocal task in prior studies is only because the tasks used were primed towards face-to-face. In other words, by focusing on equivocality and task that lies within the domain that favours equivocality, previous results were biased against email.
If a fairer and broader comparison is adopted, then a case can be made that email is a much more versatile media. The present study suggests that although face-to-face is a preferable mean to achieve tasks where the other person is on the same floor and, to a much lesser extent, in the same city; for tasks involving other geographic locations, or where the other person is not otherwise easily contactable, email dominates the choice. And while email is relatively popular across all task characteristics, the same cannot be said of face-to-face. This suggests that email is in fact a much more versatile communication media: it is capable of handling a broader range of task characteristics.
This section examines the media characteristics aspect of the framework. It is canvassed through the transaction cost perspective.
To begin with people do not typically associate any cost, in dollars terms, with different communication media. Cost in this regard does not seem to impose any constraint or influence in managers' choice of media. The only exception is in relation to video conference, where one subject noted:
"Video conference is sort of expensive. We can spend couple of hours on the phone doing this thing sometimes and we probably wouldn't do that as much with video conference. (emphasis added)"
Another subject said:
"...then we would be using a video conference type facility or even a voice conference. Definitely voice conference because that is cheaper and easier to set up. (emphasis added)"
One tentative conclusion is that dollar costs do not seem to matter in relation to communication choice, except where it is exceptionally expensive like a video conference. This said, as technology advances, such costs are bound to decrease to a stage where it no longer matters.
Anyhow, tacit cost can be an important consideration. One particular tacit cost that can be identified in this study is the time element. The discussion above on urgency has shown how the introduction of additional time constraint did have a noticeable impact on the subject's choice of communication. The importance of time is highlighted in the above quote where the subject mentioned that a voice conference would be preferable because it is "easier to set up".
The data collected in this study shows that the inherent communication media characteristics imposed much restriction on the range of communication tasks that each media can handle. Take face-to-face communication for instance. It is traditionally regarded as a rich medium that enables it to handle a diverse range of communication tasks, regardless of its equivocality. But as noted above, it is much less versatile than media like email. The richness theory ignores this dimension.
The notion of asset specificity is better able to explain their different range. Under transaction cost economics (TCE), asset specificity refers to the extent that physical assets are locked into a particular activity. In the context of media choice, each communication media possesses certain characteristics that predispose it towards or against particular communication tasks. This explanation proceeds from the same basis as media richness theory that posited that different media have different characteristics. Instead of concentrating on `richness', it focuses on the broader context of media characteristics. This broader orientation can be called the versatility of the communication media. Versatility refers to what the asset or communication media is capable of achieving. Under this notion, face-to-face is not chosen where the other person is not in their office because the situation represents a physical limitation of the medium. By contrast email exhibits no such limitation: it can be and is in fact used in a much broader range of communication tasks.
This said, however, it should be noted that both face-to-face and email possesses special qualities that make each more advantageous in different circumstances. These qualities are outlined in Table 5.4.
Face-to-face is great for tasks where the communication is made more meaningful and specific where you can actually see and hear the other person. One subject expressly recognised that face-to-face possesses many of the richness qualities noted in media richness theory. He summed it up by saying that it permits him to pick up the "intangible"- the ability to see the person's body language allows him to understand the real meaning behind the word. Face-to-face and verbal communication, like the telephone, is also regarded as more persuasive:
"...you'd actually leave them a voice mail or you'd actually email them... but the fact is what you'd be more or less doing is rather than leaving a message you are going to say `you ring me', because you want to be able to communicate with these people and sell them and talk to them [and work] the new performance through, whereas if you just email them you're not going to get them to buy it"
Email, however, possesses many characteristics that are not found with other communication media. For a start, email is noticeably popular in situations where the other person is not in their office or it is not during their working hours or, to a less extent, where the other person is in a different country. Email provides a very useful mean to disseminate information to multiple persons (ie. multiple-addressability):
"Email is a great mean of circulating. You send one person an email and it can go right out so you don't have to make a phone call twenty times."
Because of the textual nature of email, it is also recognised as a means that ensures the message intended by the manager does get across to the other person. This is especially the case where the manager requires something specific, such as figures for the preparation of monthly performance report. The presence of an actual message also makes the request more likely to be acted upon:
"... you can have a chat and get agreement, but they'll give you what they interpret rather than precisely what you what"
In addition, two subjects recognised the unique recordability characteristics of email:
"The beauty of it is that there's a record."
"Electronic mail... I want to make sure that if they do get the message then, first of all, I've got a copy of what I sent them and I know what I've sent them, and secondly I know when they've opened it and I've got evidence of the fact that they've opened it."
The latter goes beyond mere recordability; a very useful characteristic of email is that it provides a complete audit trail of the communication. Included as part of all email messages is the sender's and recipient's name, the time the message was sent and received and whether the message has been read. This would be really useful if for some reason the person needed to prove that the communication did occur, or, to find out what exactly had been communicated over a period of time. This aspect is unique to email.
Judging from the reasons given in the interviews, it can be seen that media choice has a rational basis. To the extent that people do consider the capabilities of each media, the data collected is consistent with traditional media richness theory; but it is also clear from the data that this rationality is not fully rational. Indeed, as suggested in the framework, it is more accurate to describe it as a bounded rationality. While people do recognise the main qualities of different media, they are not explicitly considered in everyday media choice. The process is a tacit, natural, and perhaps even habitual one:
"you don't stop to think about it... you just do it. Often it's what you've been used to..."
In a way opportunism, or people's self interest, provides a motive behind managers' choice of communication media. This is not to suggest so cynically that the media choice process is driven solely by self interest; only that it provides an underlying current that influences media choice. For example, the use of email as a means of providing documentary evidence or an audit trail is driven substantially by a motive to safeguard themselves. People want to have something that can be used as proof that they have done something or said something.
In the framework, the number of managers involved in the communication is another element of task characteristics. Task 1 includes a group dimension. It is expected that where groupware is available the subjects would choose groupware to perform the task because groupware is supposed to facilitate discussion and provide automatic storage in a readily accessible database that can be consulted by other members of the task force. However, none of the subjects chose groupware.
There are three explanations for this. First, it is attributable to the design of this task. As mentioned in Chapter 4, the group oriented task (Task 5) is not rigorously developed. Indeed, observation during the interview revealed that part (c) was confusing to the subjects.
Second, and related explanation is that, it may be that the organization did not actually have a groupware system, or, even if there is one it may not be regarded by the subjects as such. Only one subject mentioned that they have a groupware package called Lotus Notes.
The failure to choose groupware is somewhat curious particularly when the media that are chosen indicates, in aggregate, that the subjects do seem to require qualities possessed by groupware. The subjects consistently chose face-to-face, telephone, voice conference that imply a need to `talk' or to engage in a two way interchange of opinions. At the same time, the subjects chose email and fax implying that some sort of written medium is required for the task. In particular, one subject even had this to say about the use of a special report for this task:
"... a special purpose report that everybody would consider. You go through that. You put in where you are not happy and where you are... and make adjustment to the report from your point of view."
This appears to be describing a situation where groupware can be used. It would in fact be a much more efficient way of doing it too. Instead of preparing and circulating a special purpose report, the groupware enables the people involved to express their opinion, see each other's opinion, and make comments in relation to each other's opinion. By doing this all online, the process can be performed much quicker and the discussion is constantly updated. Simultaneously there is an accurate record of the whole process.
One subject, while he did not choose groupware in the questionnaire, he did say "if I'd a groupware thing to do it I'd probably use it... but the groupware thing is not that easy to tailor quickly." So groupware can be an appropriate media for this task. It is only not chosen because of difficulty or lack of experience in using existing groupware.
The third explanation is that it is possible that face-to-face or other verbal medium is the preferable mode of communication for such a task, in which case groupware is not chosen because it is inappropriate. A case can be put that verbal medium is preferable here with reference to Figure 5.1. It can be seen that face-to-face is most popular where the other persons are in the same office or in the same city; and voice-conference is the most popular where the other person is in another country. Both are verbal media. Thus, it would seem that the subjects like to `talk' in handling this task. Indeed, one subject even said they would be willing to fly the other person to Australia so that they can communicate in person where the situation demands it:
"If it is important enough you'll bring person out from offshore for a face-to-face meeting, we do that a lot...If it is a big issue, we bring person over for a week."
This is consistent with the media richness theory that high equivocality task is best dealt with on a face-to-face basis. This groupware task (Task 1) is after all the most equivocal task in the present study. Also consistent with discussion in the previous section, the findings in relation to this task indicate that email usage peaks in situations where the other person is not in office or not during working hours.
The fact that email remains a relative popular choice for all five task situations says something about the perceived usefulness of email for this task. This is an aspect that stood somewhat at odds with media richness theory that would have suggested a much lower frequency of email usage in relation to a task of such high equivocality. While this does support the general assertion in this thesis that equivocality alone is inadequate to fully explain media choice, another explanation may be that email is chosen more as a supporting communication medium. For example, it may be used to set up the face-to-face meeting or the voice-conference. In this regard, one subject commented:
"If the person is in a different country... would use email to get the people together at a certain time and then we'd be using a video conference type facility or even a voice conference..."
The central difficulty in studying groupware is that there is no clear and accepted definitions of groupware. The term is not well understood by most: it meant different things to different managers. Thus, even though all subjects in this study say they have groupware in their organization and that they are competent with it, the impression (from observation during the interview and the questionnaire results) is that the term may have been misunderstood. Two additional aspects of groupware complicated the study of groupware and may explain the non-result here:
1. Groupware as a term encompasses so much of other technologies that it is difficult to conceptually disentangle it from other technologies. It is then not unreasonable to say that people would find it difficult to distinguish them. For example, groupware incorporates email functionality. So people using groupware for the communication tasks may "mistakenly" think they are using email. The implication is that in future research it is vital to rethink how best to study groupware? How to define it?
2. Due to the loose meaning of the term, there are many software or technologies out there that are regarded as groupware. Subjects said they have access to groupware and that they are competent in it, but what "groupware" do they have in mind? This is an aspect that this study did not attempt to pin down, representing a flaw in the design.
The main concern of this study is to examine the determinants of the media choice process outlined within the border of Figure 3.1 in Chapter 3. To examine these determinants within a uniform context, this study used financial managers from the OTC industry sector in Australia as the subjects. The data collected indicated that the subjects and the organizations are relatively similar in terms of the background variables outlined in Figure 3.1. This, plus the high level of IT acceptance by these individuals, provides confidence that the findings are unlikely to be biased against either modern communication media or traditional media.
Unlike previous media choice studies, the framework adopted a broader perspective that incorporates multiple task characteristics than could influence media choice. In previous studies, the concern is with equivocality. In this study, communication task characteristics like urgency, geographic locality, time zone, group nature of the task are explicitly examined in addition to equivocality. The findings have established that these task characteristics do have an impact over managers' choice of communication media. Indeed, this study even identifies a few communication task characteristics not mentioned in the framework, such as whether the task involves important, sensitive or controversial matters. This reinforces the assertion of this thesis that a complete picture of the media choice process requires us to consider the broader range of communication task characteristics.
In other words, it is argued that the focus on equivocality tends to confine the studies within a narrow domain. This results in two consequences. First, studies conducted with this narrow perspective tend to favour the traditional communication media. Thus, it is not surprising that prior studies consistently found results that said face-to-face remain a predominant means of communication despite the adoption of modern communication technologies in organization.
Second, a full picture of the media process cannot emerge from this narrow focus. Sure, within its domain, namely where it is easy or feasible to contact the other person(s), equivocality provides a very good explanation of media choice. This study supports this position. However, once the situations are outside this domain, managers' choice of communication media can only be explained with reference to other communication task characteristics. And in reality communication does involve these characteristics not just equivocality. So, the adoption of a broader perspective, one that incorporates the multitude of task characteristics, would provide a more neutral context that is better suited to improve our understanding of the media choice process.
The framework in Figure 3.1 also pointed out that the media inherent characteristics can influence mangers' media choice decision. The discussion in this chapter has shown that the media inherent characteristics can impose significant restrictions on the range of communication tasks that a communication media can handle. In other words, using transaction cost economics terminology, the communication media can be described as asset specific. A notable example is observed in relation to the traditional communication media of face-to-face and the modern communication media of email. As summarised in Table 5.4 both possess unique characteristics to make them more suitable for certain communication tasks.
The framework posited that transaction cost economics can be used to help explain media choice. This chapter has demonstrated somewhat tentatively that transaction cost economics is applicable in relation to media choice decision. Not only can the communication media be regarded as asset specific, opportunism is evident in the subjects' motive, and the media choice process also suggests the presence of bounded rationality. Although the decision has a rational basis in retrospect, the decision is not fully rational in the sense that managers do not explicitly consider all the media characteristics or task characteristics when deciding which media to use. The managers' decision is shaped more by their individual perceptions of the media characteristics and task requirements, rather than through a systematic or objective evaluation of the situation. Indeed, it is often an automatic or habitual response that may be conditioned over time by their personal experience in relation to each communication media and the social context that they worked within.
The recognition that managers have a bounded rationality provides a contrast to traditional media richness theory that implicitly assumes a rational manager. It is partly because of this assumption that causes traditional media richness studies to disregard the softer social and other contextual variables. This also contributes toward the emphasis on a match between equivocality and richness of a communication media, at the expense of other equally important task characteristics and fuller description of the media choice process.
 An exception is that one of the organizations only has email facility intra-office.
 Two subjects also voluntarily mentioned the option to use video conference within their organization
 The special report was chosen in relation to the group task (Task 1). This choice can be attributable to the problems associated with the group task question. See Section 5.6. And notes and memos are chosen most often by the subject in the organization with no external email connection.
 This is consistent with Adams et al (1992) and Culnan and Bair (1983). Both studies found that email significantly improves coordination and control in organizations.
 Depending on the managers' experience, view-point and social context, email can be regarded as full of inherent security risks or safer than other modes of communication.
 The social and organizational context is arguably more influential of the two because: (i) individual perception is a function of the social and organization context, and (ii) the individual difference component of individual perception (eg. communicator style) has only a slight influence over media choice (Rice et al, 1992).
 Although the small sample size could have an impact as well.
 Although this study did not explicitly measure the equivocality of the three sub-tasks within the group task (Task 1), it is reasonable to say that sub-task (c) is much more equivocal than sub-tasks (a) and (b). This follows largely from the fact that (c) involved the performance of tasks common to both (a) and (c).
 An exception is where the task is urgent, then telephone would most likely be relied upon. In which case, the subjects may contact the other person on their home phone number or mobile phone.
 This position is consistent with Trevino et al (1990) where it was found that individual difference can help explain media choice where equivocality is low. Ie. Where equivocality is low other considerations need to be taken into account.
 Whether each communication media is more popular or appropriate hinges upon other task characteristics. Email and Face-to-face are both regarded as such because the findings indicate that on average they are most frequently chosen.
 A notable exception is in relation to a very unequivocal task of setting up a meeting, where email is chosen predominantly.
 While fax can provide similar
record capability it is less convenient to use because one still
need to physically file the fax transmission.