Media richness theory separates media in lean and rich based on the different authenticity while sending technical or non-technical information. Richness is measured on the terms of immediate feedback, number of channels (words, tone, gestures, etc.) and how personal the communication is (Schwabe, 2001). The capacity of the different media for “resolving ambiguity, negotiating varying interpretations, and facilitating understanding” are what makes them rich or lean.
In terms of channels, face-to-face communication is the richest, since it offers visual, gestures, words, tone and more. Also immediate feedback is possible (in contrast to text messages or email). A close second would be video conferencing like Skype. Letters, email, text messages are therefore lean, since they offer words only. Media being rich or lean can be compared to an iceberg, some show only the tip, others go deeper.
Depending on the context and its complexity the founders of media richness theory Daft and Lengel (1984, 1986) came up with this figure, which shows the complexity of the communication in relation to the richness of the medium:
So the use of rich media is not necessarily linked to complex communication context. Theory suggests that overcomplication or even oversimplification might occur. I also think that Fryer’s framework for thinking instructionally about web 2.0 tools is useful inthis topic, since different tools are categorized:
So summarizing these two approaches, we try to overcome the problems that we are facing in human communication, when it is not face-to-face. Distributing information and making sure that it is received with the right intentions behind it is the hard part. This is a specific problem for organizations who build on collaboration of participants who might not even live on the same continent. While pure document distribution might imply more questions than understanding, a video conference can clear out problems in minutes – if the conference was possible among a 12 hour time difference. So the question is not if rich media works favorable for an organization, but which one is most suited to the actual problem at hand.
Flew mentions that new media has enabled us to use “computer-mediated communication” and converged “communication from one-to-one” to one-to-many and that the nature of communication has moved into a virtual environment (p.36). Not only are we engaging in virtual worlds, with virtual identities in games and online, but we also are addressed by virtual persons in the real world, e.g. when calling a hotline or receiving promotional calls. The experience of having a computer-generated voice trying to sell you a bonus program changes the whole approach and experience of personal communication between a salesperson and the customer.
Implications for commerce and other fields:
So how can we apply “media richness theory that predicts that managers, driven by the instrumental goal of task efficiency, choose media based on the match up of message equivocality and media richness” (Sheer & Chen, 2010; 1) to sales? Can sales function properly on less rich mediums such as phone calls, not to mention the direct mailings or the online chat with software on company websites? Should companies not invest in richer mediums to communicate with their customers rather than going after the most cost saving solution which in turn will decrease their sales? “When business transactions take place between strangers, individuals rely on the cues during communication to determine whether they can trust others’ intentions” (Rockmann & Northcraft, 2005; 106). While consumers embrace the possibilities of rich media for self-information about products (Brunelle, 2009; 222) the companies offer the leanest tools for communication in promotion and sometimes even direct purchase?!
Critique of media richness theory is that media choice has nothing to do with the message, but social and cultural background or social pressure (Markus, 1994). Also I argue that it does not include any interactions that the company has with non-employees, e.g. customers. Organizational structure and synergy in research, development and production as well as administration are all second to the one sustaining principle of all businesses which is the need for revenue. If companies safe on employees they have to invest more in rich replacements for them, and not take the cheapest solution. The perception of new media especially with the older generations is critical, but also gender differences have been found and support of media richness theory for females only has been shown (Dennis, Kinney & Hung, 1999).
If we apply this problem to further areas that require or always have required a specific amount of personal attribution to create and sustain trust, like Politics or Corporate Communication, or even the uprising concept of E-Learning we can see a variety of problems emerging:
- Politics: Apart from meeting the local potential voters at the annual gatherings, communications on a website, in emails or good old letters are not rich! How can the process of relationship building and personal identification take place without rich media?
- Corporate Communications: In times of Web 2.0 are only slowly adapting the new available technologies and – same as sales departments – have to get rid of the idea of cost saving, but should rather engage in higher spending to create a long-lasting value for the company. Job seekers as well as customers or the general public WANT to engage in dialogues and not with a software chat, but real persons, that give real answers.
- E-Learning: While the death of traditional education has already been proclaimed, how will the new model be applied in reality? Can the old model of teacher-student-relation be transformed to a digital relationship? And will students that have to make the transition during their studies (High-school in the old model, University in the new) embrace the new possibilities? Will they attend their lectures or stream them when it is more convenient for them? Will they interact with their lecturers more than with search engines? Will lectures be recorded and streamed or live-meetings (e.g. Breeze) be held?
The following quotes are interesting on the E-Learning topic, which I will not discuss further here due to limited word count:
- “Analyses of media richness constructs indicate that CAI [computer assisted instruction] increases performance when delivered with an audio channel and is designed for a specific set of students,“ (Timmermann & Kruepke, 2006; 73).
- “The proportion of the lectures watched online revealed that students chose between face-to-face and online lectures on the basis of their perception of the information richness of the medium,” (Bassili, 2008; 453).
To conclude I think that media richness theory offers a lot of useful applications and fields of research that have to be addressed especially if the possibilities of new media change the way the world turns so rapidly and sometimes without the authorities thinking about the implications of that change.
- Bassili, J.N. (2008). Media richness and social norms in the choice to attend lectures or to watch them online. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 17(4). 453-475.
- Brunelle, E. (2009). Introducing media richness into an integrated model of consumer’s intentions to use online stores in their purchase process. Journal of Internet Commerce, 8, 222-245.
- Daft, R.L. & Lengel, R.H. (1984). Information richness: a new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. In: Cummings, L.L. & Staw, B.M. (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior 6, (191-233). Homewood, IL: JAI Press.
- Dennis, A.R., Kinney , S.T., & Hung, Y.T.C. (1999). Gender differences in the effect of media richness. Small Group Research, 30(4), 405-437.
- Goecke, R. (1997). Kommunikation von Führungskräften: Fallstudien zur Medienanwendung im oberen Management. Wiesbaden: DUV.
- Markus, M.L. (1994). Electronic Mail as the Medium of Managerial Choice. Organization Science, 5(4). 502-527.
- Rockmann, K.W., & Northcraft, G.B. (2005). To be or not to be trusted: the influence of media richness on defection and deception. Science Direct, 107, 106-122.
- Schwabe, G (2001). Mediensynchronizität – theorie und anwendung bei gruppenarbeit und lernen. In: Hesse, F.W. & Friedrich, H.F. Partizipation und Interaktion im virtuellen Seminar (111-134). Münster: Waxmann.
- Timmermann, C.E & Kruepke, K.A. (2006). Computer-assisted instruction, media richness, and college student performance. Communication Education, 55(1). 73-104.