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Choosing the right medium for the task: Information richness

August 23, 2007

The advent and widespread use of e-mail, instant messaging and video conferencing has broadened the menu of available media beyond the letter and the phone call. Communicating effectively therefore requires a choice of the medium that is appropriate to one’s communication objective.Information richness theory provides a guide in choosing the medium that “fits” the task:

Daft and Lengel (1984; Daft et al., 1987), introduced an approach considering information-richness as a major factor in information processing and media selection by managers. They defined information-richness as “the potential information-carrying capacity of data” (p. 196), and stated that the medium used in communication determines the potential richness of the information processed, and thereby the effect of a communication act.It is suggested that media differ in their potential capacity of transmitting the meaning of information in four information-richness factors, so that they can be ranked from ‘rich’ to ‘lean’. The factors are:

  • Interactivity (speed of feedback): Rich media provide the opportunity for immediate feedback so that participants may adjust their messages “in response to signals of understanding or misunderstanding, questions, or interruptions” (Kraut, et al., 1992, p. 378). Synchronous media are richer than asynchronous media in this respect.
  • Multiple cues: Rich media allow a full range of verbal, paralinguistic, intonation, proxemic, and kinetic cues (Lim & Benbasat, 1991) to convey not only the literal content of ideas, but also intensity and subtleties of meaning (Kraut et al., 1992). These ’surplus’ cues are sometimes somewhat confusingly called ’social cues’ (Daft et al., 1987; Farmer & Hyatt, 1994). Lean media put constraints on the range of cues that may be used in communication. Face-to-face meetings are rich media in this respect, while text is lean.
  • Language variety addresses the range of meaning that language symbols may convey (Farmer & Hyatt, 1994). Numbers convey greater precision of meaning than natural language (Daft et al., 1987); and visual or graphic symbols carry a greater range of interpretations (Daft & Lengel, 1984). Higher-variety languages are not only more ambiguous, but may also be used to organize a large amount of information (Farmer & Hyatt, 1994) given that a shared understanding of the language has been established. Rich media such as video conferencing allow the use of a high-variety language; lean media such as shared numeric databases restrict language use to low-variety language.
  • Social-emotional cues, which is related to ’social presence’, is the factor that has gained least interest in research. Daft and colleagues (1987) describe rich media in this respect as media which permit communicators to have “personal feelings and emotions infuse the communication. Some messages may be tailored to the frame of reference, needs, and current situation of the receiver.” (p. 358) For example, face-to-face meetings are richer than e-mail in this respect.

A medium’s potential richness can be thought of as the sum of scores on each of these information-richness factors. In other words: ‘medium richness’ is defined by the information-richness that a medium potentially transmits. ‘Potentially’ is added because the actual richness of a medium is determined by how users use it. (source)

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