Complete Site Outline

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

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"A researcher is not looking for the answer, but for the source of more questions"
(Sue Bowler, Newscientist, 27th September, 1997, p42.)


This thesis started by stating that informal communication constitutes an important (if not the most important) mode of disseminating and sharing information. It provides a forum where issues, whether pertaining to the organization or to the individuals, can be addressed and resolved. The informal mode of communication far exceeds what is possible with the formal information system. Interpersonal, or face-to-face, communication has been the traditional and primary means of this informal communication process. With organizations pouring millions of dollars into information technology, individuals have at their disposal many modern communication technologies. What did this do to the informal communication process?

Under the media richness school of thought modern communication technologies are viewed as incapable of delivering "rich" information (Daft et al, 1987), compared to face-to-face. In ranking communication media from `rich' to `lean' the basic argument is that the `rich' media is better for equivocal tasks. The literature adopting this view tends to suggest that face-to-face remains the best communication medium for informal communication. This raises questions about the values and benefits of investment on information and communication technologies.

However, this thesis submitted and has shown that, if a broader and more realistic perspective is adopted, one that takes into consideration the broad range of task characteristics and does not favour any communication media, modern communication technologies are adding value above and beyond that of traditional media. Modern communication technologies both complement and supplement the informal communication process in organizations. The following draws out some of the implications in relation to informal communication processes and organizational information processing.

6.1.1. Role of Modern Communication Technologies

One implication of this study is that modern communication technologies augment the informal communication process.[1] By adopting a fairer and more realistic task context this study has shown, although tentatively within the exploratory nature of this thesis, that modern communication technologies have broadened the scope of communication and enable managers to handle a larger variety of tasks. As one learned writer pointed out earlier:[2]

"The issue is not one of the technologies driving out the use of richer media, but rather of the technologies enabling communication that otherwise would be unlikely to occur."

In addition, while face-to-face remains highly appropriate and popular in some situations, in other contexts modern communication media can provide a preferable solution. Indeed, it appears that media like email can be a far more versatile medium for informal communication. Subject to personal inhibition towards modern technologies and social context the person is in, email can and does handle a different variety of communication tasks.

Modern communication technologies are opening up communication possibilities not otherwise possible. Among some of these possibilities are: efficiency and speed of communication, coordination with and control of multiple persons, ability to sort, send, retrieve messages at any time and place. Managers recognise these possibilities and do capitalise on it.

6.1.2. Organization Information Processing

Another implication that follows from the above is in relation to organizational information processing. As organizations became flatter, customer-focused and dynamic, effective organizational information processing requires what Galbraith (1973) called the creation of lateral relations- the ability to convey information beyond the confines of hierarchical or formal organization structure. Modern communication technologies, in strengthening the informal communication process in organizations, directly contribute towards the creation of lateral relations. This is so because lateral relations, by definition, requires the ability to cut across the formal organization structure and to exceed the space-time boundary. The possibilities opened up by modern communication technologies enable this.


As with all research the findings need to be interpreted with regard to the limitations. To reiterate the major limitations noted previously:

1. The small sample size and the specific industry group limit the generalizability of the findings. These limits are unavoidable given the time constraint of the honours programme. An additional reason for the specific industry group is that it provides a more uniform context in which to examine media choice.

2. In relation to the groupware aspect, this study has a design flaw. Not only is the task involving group work not rigorously developed (due to a time constraint), the study of modern communication media, groupware, is troubled by the lack of a well-accepted definition of groupware.

However, these limitations do not really detract from the validity of the findings. In fact, the intuitive framework and the logic of the situation suggest that the findings are not limited to the subjects studied.


The first two research opportunities stem directly from the above limitations:

1. This exploratory study tentatively suggests that communication task characteristics, in addition to equivocality, do have a noticeable influence on media choice. As mentioned previously the generalizability of this could be a concern. To address this future research could test the generalizability of this finding by:

(a) Performing a full scale questionnaire study; and

(b) Extending the target organization beyond one single industry sector. This addresses the concern that the findings in this study could be due to some peculiar aspect of the OTC sector.

Of course, in increasing the sample size and examining a broader range of industries care should be taken to measure and take into consideration the varying background conditions possessed by these parties.

2. Groupware is supposed to facilitate communication, collaboration and coordination in the performance of group oriented tasks. Yet despite the benefits and advantages groupware has over other communication media for such tasks, this study was unable to find an instance where subjects would choose to use groupware. It is not clear why this is the case. Is it because the organizations do not actually have a groupware system? Or are the subjects confused by the definition of groupware? Or that the task provided is inappropriate?

It seems that given the lack of a well-established definition for groupware, a good approach to investigate the usage of groupware is through a case study, involving perhaps some ethnographic methodology. This is would permit a more direct observation of when, how and why people use groupware. What communication tasks is it used for? Does it improve the efficiency or the performance of the mangers?

3. This thesis also claimed that modern communication technologies have augmented the informal communication process in organizations. This is largely an inference based on the finding that modern communication technologies enable people to handle a broader range of tasks that is not otherwise possible. A possible research opportunity is to add further substance to this assertion. How do modern communication technologies augment the informal process? What exactly are the benefits of using these technologies? What are the costs? This is not necessarily cost in the dollar sense; rather, more interesting would be the tacit cost involve in using modern communication technologies.

4. On the subject of cost, this thesis has tentatively demonstrated how the logic of transaction cost economics (TCE) is applicable to the media choice process. The extent that TCE is applicable and what contribution it may have is unknown. Judging from the positive result of this initial attempt to relate the fundamental of TCE to media choice, it would seem that a more comprehensive and direct investigation of the notion of asset specificity, opportunism and bounded rationality, as well as other properties of transaction like uncertainty, complexity and frequency, would provide an interesting avenue of research.

The next step then would be the development of a complete framework of how TCE fits in with the media choice process. Just as how TCE has led to insight and novel predictions in an ever growing and diverse fields of study, TCE has the potential of making a notable contribution to the media choice process. Traditionally, TCE explain the rise of the firm or the choice of a particular organization structure using a transaction cost minimization argument. One potential research that arises is to investigate what are these transaction costs? These costs could include: cost in monetary terms, time, efficiency in information processing, quality of the communication, or personal satisfaction.

5. Another concept that could be used to explore the cost and benefits of modern communication technologies is organizational learning.[3] Regardless of how one sees organizational learning, one undisputed fact is that it is considered as something beneficial: it enables the development of a flexible and innovative organization. So a further interesting avenue of research would be to investigate whether, and if so how, modern communication technologies together with their effect on informal communication process impact on organizational learning.

6. Further, this study examines only the range of communication technologies that are more commonly available in organizations today. Given the rapid pace in which information and communication technologies are advancing and being adopted by organizations, the study of newer communication technologies should be a very fertile avenue for research. The possibilities posed by the internet, intranet and the increasing capabilities of groupware are likely to have major implications on not just the informal communication process, but the ways organizations are structured, function and compete,

7. On a more general level this thesis, consistent with many prior studies (like Mintzberg, 1975; Preston, 1986; and Bruns and McKinnon, 1993) suggests that informal communication is a very important mode of organization communication. The question that arises is whether the effort and money spent in designing and implementing formal accounting information systems are appropriate? May be more concern should be given to designing systems that facilitate and enable informal communication. The next question is, of course, how to do this?

[1] This conclusion is consistent with a recent study by Zaremba (1996) which found, in a study of email usage by student, that the availability of email has "fuelled the informal network" (p160).

[2] Huber, G. (1990).

[3] Eg. Romm et al (1996) found organization learning to be a very useful concept to explore the diffusion of email in organization.



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Copyright © 1997 Raymond Yu.