Media richness theory
Media richness theory, sometimes referred to as information richness theory, is a framework to describe a communications medium by its ability to reproduce the information sent over it. It was developed by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel, and is used to rank and evaluate the richness of certain communication mediums, such as phone calls, video conferencing, and email. For example, a phone call can not reproduce visual social cues such as gestures, so it is a less rich communication medium than video conferencing, which allows users to communicate gestures to some extent. Specifically, media richness theory states that the more ambiguous and uncertain a task is, the richer the format of media that suits it. Based on contingency theory and information processing theory, it explains that richer, personal communication means are generally more effective for communication of equivocal issues than leaner, less rich media.
- 1 Background
- 2 Theory
- 3 Application
- 4 Criticism
- 5 Related theories
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Media richness theory was introduced in 1984 by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel. It was originally developed primarily to describe and evaluate communication mediums within organizations. It is based on information processing theory and how managers and organizations exchange information. The goal of media richness theory is to cope with communication challenges facing organizations, such as unclear or confusing messages, or conflicting interpretations of messages. Since it was first introduced, media richness theory has been a widely studied communication theory, and the original authors have written several additional articles on the topic, including a study in which they describe media richness and the ability to select appropriate media as an executive skill.
Other communication scholars have tested the theory in order to improve it, and more recently media richness theory has been retroactively adapted to include new media communication mediums, such as improved video and online conferencing. Although media richness theory relates to media use, rather than media choice, empirical studies of the theory have often studied what medium a manager would choose to communicate over, and not the effects of media use.
Since its introduction, media richness theory has been applied to contexts outside of organizational and business communication (See "Application" section).
Media richness theory states that all communication media vary in their ability to enable users to communicate and change understanding - their "richness". Communications that can overcome different frames of reference and clarify ambiguous issues to promote understanding in a timely manner are considered more rich. Communications that take a longer time to convey understanding are less rich. One main purpose of choosing a communication medium is to reduce the equivocality of a message. Equivocality exists when there are multiple and possibly conflicting interpretations for the information or the framework with which to interpret it. If a message is equivocal, it is unclear and thus more difficult for the receiver to decode. The more equivocal a message, the more cues and data needed to understand it, and media richness theory places communication mediums on a continuous scale that represents the richness of a medium and its ability to adequately communicate a complex message. For example, a simple message intended to arrange a meeting time and place could be communicated in a short email, but a more detailed message about a person's work performance and expectations would be better communicated through face-to-face interaction.
The theory includes a framework with axes going from low to high equivocality, and low to high uncertainty, with low equivocality and low uncertainty being a clear, well-defined situation, and high equivocality and high uncertainty being ambiguous events that need clarification by managers. Daft and Lengel also stress that message clarity may be compromised when multiple departments are communicating with each other, as departments may be trained in different skill sets or have conflicting communication norms.
Determining media richness
In their 1988 article regarding media richness theory, Daft and Lengel state, "The more learning that can be pumped through a medium, the richer the medium." Media richness is a function of characteristics including the following:
- Ability to handle multiple information cues simultaneously
- Ability to facilitate rapid feedback
- Ability to establish a personal focus
- Ability to utilize natural language
The greater social presence of a medium creates a greater immediacy and warmth of the communication, because of the greater number of channels. Media richness theory predicts that managers will choose the mode of communication based on matching the equivocality of the message to the richness of the medium, however, often other factors come into play, such as the resources available to the communicator. This assumes that managers are most concentrated on task efficiency (that is, achieving the goal as efficiently as possible), and does not take into consideration other factors, such as relationship building. It has been pointed out by subsequent researchers that attitudes towards a medium may not accurately predict a persons likelihood of using that medium over others, as media usage is not always voluntary. If an organization's norms and resources support one medium, it may be difficult for a manager to choose another to communicate his or her message.
The richness of a medium also comes into play when considering how personal a message is. In general, richer mediums are more personal as they include nonverbal and verbal cues, body language, inflection, and gestures that signal a persons reaction to a message. Rich mediums can promote a closer relationship between a manager and subordinate. Whether a message is positive or negative may also have an influence on the medium chosen. Managers may want to communicate negative messages in person or via a richer media, even if the equivocality of the message is not high, to facilitate better relationships with subordinates. On the other hand, sending a negative message over a leaner medium would weaken the immediate blame on the message sender, and prevent them from seeing the reaction of the receiver.
The most immediate and profound application of media richness theory is for senders choosing a communication medium. The theory implies that a sender should select a medium of appropriate richness to communicate the desired message. In their 1989 article, Daft and Lengel said that richer media are better suited for equivocal, non-routine messages, while leaner media are better suited for unequivocal, routine messages. In reality, senders are often forced to use less-rich methods of communication. Senders that use less-rich communication media should understand the limitations of that medium in the dimensions of feedback, multiple cues, message tailoring, and emotions. Take for example the relative difficulty of determining whether a modern text message is serious or sarcastic in tone.
Organizational and business communications
Media richness theory was conceived in regards to organizational communications and in business studies. For example, organizations may find that since email is a less rich medium, they need to have face-to-face interactions with co-workers to make important decisions. The theory states that the more ambiguous a message is to the receiver, the more rich a medium needed to communicate it. Different media have varying benefits and drawbacks, some are more immediate than others, and some media communicate vocal or other cues more accurately. In general, media richness is used to determine the "best" medium for an individual or organization to communicate a message.
In the modern business world, technologies such as video conferencing, which enable participants to see each other even when in separate locations, provide the opportunity for organizations to have a richer communication media than the traditional conference call.
Media Sensitivity and job performance
Lengel and Daft also asserted that not all executives or managers in organizations demonstrate the same skill in making effective media choices for communications, matching message contents with media richness. High performing executives or managers tend to be more "sensitive" to richness requirements in media selection than low performing manager. In other words, they select rich media for non-routine messages and lean media for routine messages.
Extended application in new media
While media richness theory's application to new media has been contested (see "Criticism"), it is still used heuristically as a basis for studies examining new media.
Websites and hypertext
Websites as a new medium can vary in their richness. In a study examining representations of the former Yugoslavia on the World Wide Web, Jackson and Purcell proposed that hypertext plays a role in determining the richness of individual websites. They developed a framework of criteria in which the use of hypertext on a website can be evaluated in terms of media richness characteristics as set forth by Daft and Lengel in their original theoretical literature. Furthermore, in their 2004 article, Simon and Peppas examined product websites' richness in terms of multimedia use. They classified "rich media sites" as those that included text, pictures, sounds and video clips, while the "lean media sites" contained only text. In their study, they created four sites (two rich and two lean) to describe two products (one simple, one complex). They found that most users, regardless of the complexity of the product, preferred the websites that provided richer media.
Results from a study conducted by Anandarajan et al. on Generation Y's use of instant messaging conclude that "the more users recognize IM as a rich communication medium, the more likely they believe this medium is useful for socialization."  Additionally, in order to better understand teenagers' use of MSN (later called Microsoft Messenger service), Sheer examined the impact of both media richness and communication control. Among other findings, Sheer's study demonstrated that "rich features, such as webcam and MSN Spaces seemingly facilitated the increase of acquaintances, new friends, opposite-sex friends, and, thus, the total number of friends."
Distance education and e-books
In evaluating students' satisfaction with distance courses, Sheppherd and Martz concluded that a course's use of media rich technology impacted how students evaluated the quality of the course. Courses that utilized tools such as "discussion forums, document sharing areas, and web casting" were viewed more favorably. Lai and Chang in 2011 used media richness as a variable in their study examining user attitudes towards e-books, stating that the potential for rich media content like embedded hyperlinks and other multimedia additions, offered users a different reading experience than a printed book.
In April 1993, Valacich et al. suggested that in light of new media, concurrency be included as an additional characteristic to determine a medium's richness. They define "environmental concurrency to represent the communication capacity of the environment to support distinct communication episodes, without detracting from any other episodes that may be occurring simultaneously between the same or different individuals." Furthermore, they explain that while this idea of concurrency could be applied to the media described in Daft and Lengel's original theories, new media provide a greater opportunity for concurrency than ever before.
Media richness theory was criticized in the past by what many researchers saw as its deterministic nature. Markus argued that social pressures can influence media use much more strongly than richness, and in ways that are inconsistent with media richness theory's key tenets. It has also been noted that media richness theory should not assume that the feelings towards using a richer media in a situation are completely opposite to using a leaner media. In fact, media choice is complex and in general even if a rich media is considered to be the "best" to communicate a message, this does not mean leaner media would not be able to communicate the message at all. Although use of leaner or richer medium may make a difference for some tasks, for other tasks the use of media makes no difference to the accuracy with which the message is communicated.
Limitations among various populations
Ngwenyama and Lee showed that cultural and social background influence media choice by individuals in ways that are incompatible with predictions based on media richness theory; their paper received the Paper of the Year Award in the journal MIS Quarterly. Ngwenyama and Lee are not alone in their critiques regarding the limitations of media richness theory, particularly in regards to cultural and individual characteristics. In 2009, Gerritsen's study concluded that in business contexts, culture does play a role in determining the receiver's preference of medium, perhaps in terms of the culture in question's uncertainty avoidance. Additionally, Dennis, Kinney, and Hung found that in terms of the actual performance of equivocal tasks, the richness of a medium has the most notable effect on teams composed entirely of females, while "matching richness to task equivocality did not improve decision quality, time, consensus, or communication satisfaction for all-male or mixed-gender teams." Individually speaking, Barkhi demonstrated that communication mode and cognitive style can play a role in media preference and selection, suggesting that even in situations with identical messages and intentions, the "best" media selection can vary from person to person.
Additionally, because media richness theory was developed before widespread use of the internet, which also introduced media like email, chat rooms, instant messaging, and more, some have questioned its ability to accurately predict what new media users may choose. Several studies have been conducted that examine media choice when given options considered to be "new media", such as voice mail and email. El-Shinnaway and Markus hypothesized that, based on media richness theory, individuals would choose to communicate messages over the more rich medium of voice mail than via email, but found that even when sending more equivocal messages, the leaner medium of email was used. Also, it has been indicated that given the expanded capabilities of new media, media richness theory's unidimensional approach to categorizing different communication media in no longer sufficient to capture all the dimensions in which media types can vary.
Several new theories have been developed based on Daft and Lengel's original framework. Kock argued that some of the hypotheses of media richness theory lack a scientific basis, and proposed an alternative theory - media naturalness theory - building on human evolution findings. Media naturalness theory hypothesizes that because face-to-face communication is the most "natural" method of communication, we should want our other communication methods to resemble face-to-face communication as closely as possible. While media richness theory places mediums on a scale that range from low to high in richness and places face-to-face communication at the top of the scale, media naturalness theory thinks of face-to-face communication as the middle in a scale, and states that the further away one gets from face-to-face (either more or less rich), the more cognitive processing is required to comprehend a message.
To help explain media richness and its application to new media, Media Synchronicity Theory was proposed. Media Synchronicity Theory states that each media has a set of specific abilities that enables it to more or less effectively communicate a message, and that every communication is composed of two processes: conveyance and convergence. These abilities include: transmission velocity, parallelism, symbol sets, rehearsability, and reaccessability. Media richness is also related to adaptive structuration theory and social information processing theory, which explain the context around a communication that might have an impact on media choice.
Channel expansion theory was proposed by Carlson and Zmud (1999) to explain the inconsistencies found in several empirical studies. In these studies, the results showed that managers would employ "leaner" media for tasks of high equivocality. Channel expansion theory suggested that individual's media choice has a lot to do with individual's experience with the medium itself, with the communicator and also with the topic. Thus it is possible that an individual’s experience with using a certain lean medium, will prompt that individual to use it for equivocal tasks
- Communication theory
- Media naturalness theory
- Social presence theory
- Social information processing theory
- Hyperpersonal Model
- Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE)
- Theories of technology
- Channel expansion theory
- Emotions in virtual communication
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