Theory In Practice
Media richness theory helps communicators match the most appropriate media to a communication task in business communication. This is particularly important for complex and equivocal tasks. When the appropriate media is chosen, managers can communicate the information clearly and the audience can process the information efficiently. In this publication, media richness theory is explained and readers are given the opportunity to practice applying it in contexts ranging from events management to software development.
What Is Media Richness Theory?
Media richness theory (MRT) proposes to help managers match the most appropriate media to a communication task based on the media’s level of richnessxpotential of a medium to facilitate one’s ability to process information when performing complex and equivocal tasks. The information richness of a medium is defined as the potential of a medium to facilitate one’s ability to process information when performing complex and equivocal tasksxmultiple and conflicting interpretations about a task. Using the proper media, a manager can better communicate information, and an audience can better process that information. The theory has been applied in many organizational or business communication settings such as in employee recruitment, team communication, marketing, and job performance.
Two theories support MRT: information processing theory and social presence theory. According to information processing theory, the richness of a media is dependent on four factors: feedback capabilityxability to provide timely feedback, multiplicity of cuesxnumber of ways information can be communicated via tone, inflection, body language etc., personalizationxability to tailor communication to the receiver’s needs, and language variety xtextual and symbols like numerical values(Daft & Lengel, 1984). For example, in team communication, face-to-face communication which possesses immediate feedback capability and provides for recognition of verbal and nonverbal cues is considered a richer communication medium compared to a report.
Furthermore, social presence theory (Short et al., 1976) states that people can differentiate media through social cues another transmits. When media with a higher social presencexthe ability to sense the presence of the other person to facilitate interaction capability is used, communicators can transmit warmth (intimacy) and immediacy easily, helping communicators to build rapport with each other. Thus, the theory proposes that media with higher social presence is matched to tasks that require higher interpersonal involvement. For example, coaching underperforming employees is more likely to succeed when the parties communicate using media with a high level of social presence.
Managers handle simple to complex information processing tasks (Daft & Lengel, 1984). Simple/routine tasks have a high level of certainty and clarity and thus are objectivexhaving fixed characteristics in nature. However, complex tasks have a high level of subjectivity as they are impacted by the unpredictable social dimensions in organizations. MRT is thus useful in managing task complexity. If a manager uses rich media to convey information for simple tasks that communication may be overcomplicated, with too many cues forming noise that will increase ambiguity about the task. However, if a manager uses lean media for complex tasks, lack of cues and feedback might oversimplify this impersonal communication. Thus, MRT recommends that managers use richer media for equivocal, complex tasks and leaner media for clearly defined or simple tasks.
At the organizational level, MRT states that organizations are open social systems as opposed to individual human, biological, and machine systems (Daft & Lengel, 1986). In social systems, the amount of information to be processed and the equivocality that needs to be reduced are high. For vertical information processing needsxto arrive at a common interpretation from ambiguous information, managers must provide clear information to upper management for them to make informed decisions on issues. Similarly, managers need to provide clear instructions to subordinates. Thus, managers need to come to a common interpretation of fuzzy problems to reduce equivocality to an acceptable level, so that the information conveyed can serve as a frame of reference for further action by subordinates. For horizontal information processing needsxcoordination and gathering of information to reduce the absence/lack of information among peers, managers need to coordinate the gathering and analysis of information across departments, when information is lacking (uncertain) and task variability is high.
The following examples illustrate the interaction between information richness, task complexity, and an organization’s informing processing needs. Let’s say a company’s strategic initiative is to cut carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The managers then need to come to a common consensus with upper management on what this means in terms of business goals and operations to the organization. Using a rich media such as a face-to-face meeting or video conferencing is the best choice in this instance because the task is complex and equivocal. With a rich media, managers can discuss issues synchronously and use multiple cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and tone to reduce uncertainty. The managers also need to work together interdepartmentally to come up with specific plans to achieve this strategic initiative. As this is a complex and uncertain taskxabsence/lack of information about a task, a rich media is preferred for similar reasons as above. Once plans are clearly laid out, the managers could then announce these plans to staff via a lean media, like an email blast, so that detailed information with attachments could be sent for implementation by subordinates. As this is a task without ambiguity, using a lean media like email would be appropriate. This is because emails are text-based and asynchronous which allows readers to go through the documents in detail, noting down key points for action or clarification at their own pace.
In another instance, if a manager needs to clarify a key point for interpreting data before a presentation (an equivocal task), calling the employee on a phone (a richer medium) would be more effective than writing an email (a leaner medium). This is because, the employee could clarify the key point instantly on the call, with verbal and nonverbal vocal cues for emphasis, such as tone of voice and loudness.
In short, MRT proposes that when information processing tasks are subjectivexsubject to a variety of factors and ill-defined, managers should use richer media such as face-to-face meetings to reduce equivocality. At the operational level where information processing tasks are well-defined and objective, leaner media such as memos should be used.
Video. Media Richness Theory
Media richness theory (MRT) was developed by Daft and Lengel (1984). It is sometimes referred to as information richness theory. They viewed organizations as information processing systems. Organizations need to manage ill-defined situations externally and internally and yet provide a clear direction for their staff. Thus, the theory aimed to provide a prescriptive guide to individual managers on how to evaluate and use media based on the appropriate richness of the medium such as texting, emailing, or videoconferencing an employee. Selecting the appropriate “richness” to communicate information can reduce uncertainty and ambiguity and hence enhance decision-making processes in the organization.
Studies on MRT evolved from researchers examining how people use media to how people choose media—at the time, MRT could not yet explain how subjects communicated when meaning is constructed by a social situation (Ishii et al., 2019). Complementary theories to MRT developed and moved to a descriptive and explanatory model with studies focusing on media choice and individuals’ perception and satisfaction of media (Carlson & Zmud, 1999; Otondo et al., 2008); quality time, quality decision, and consensus (Dennis & Kinney, 1998; Kahai & Cooper, 2003; Suh, 1999); media accessibility, competency in use, time, and cost-saving (Mandal & McQueen, 2012); role of message senders and receivers, accuracy of message relayed, documentation storage, search, and retrieval capabilities of media (El-shinnawy & Markus, 1997); and goals of the communication (Sheer & Chen, 2004).
The channel expansion theory by Carlson and Zmud (1999) extends the factors defining media richness to factors such as individuals’ perception and satisfaction in using certain media for certain tasks, task knowledge, and familiarity with the receivers of the communication. They argued that media richness is dynamic depending on users’ familiarity and experience with the media concerned.
This theory is supported by the following studies, among others. Otondo et al. (2008) found that receivers perceived video as having higher media richness compared to audio, and higher for audio compared to text, in terms of symbolism, personalization, social presence, and information overload. However, media type was more strongly influenced by satisfaction and effectiveness than the former four factors. Thus, they reiterated that it is necessary to consider the interaction between media, message, and receiver-based communication outcomes.
Dennis and Kinney (1998) further compared the effects of media richness in two-person teams using computer-mediated communication and video communication. They found that although subjects perceived the differences in richness for both media in terms of the multiplicity of cues and immediacy of feedback, this did not improve the decision quality, decision time, consensus change, or communication satisfaction when performing the task.
Similarly, Suh (1999) did not find any task-medium interaction effects on decision quality and decision time. He found that even though the audio was the most efficient medium in solving a tax calculation problem (objective/factual) and a negotiation task (subjective/personal focus), it had the lowest process satisfaction score. Instead, the video conferencing groups had the highest process satisfaction score followed by the computer-mediated text and audio groups. Thus, speed was not as critical as social psychological factors in the media choice process.
The study by Kahai and Cooper’s (2003) found that users’ task knowledge impacts decision-making processes. Their findings show that richer media (face-to-face and electronic meetings) facilitated social perceptions and helped to create a socioemotional climate and the perceived ability to evaluate others’ deception and expertise compared to leaner media (electronic mail and electronic conferencing). Thus, richer media significantly impact decision quality positively when participants’ task-relevant knowledge is high. When participants have less task-relevant knowledge, leaner media helps to facilitate communication clarity.
Access and cost issues also influence the extent a person effectively uses a medium (Mandal & McQueen, 2012). Access/quality theory considers information acquisition attributes like cost affecting accessibility and benefits gained from using the media as quality. In their study, microbusiness owners used Facebook rather than email to reach out to customers as it was a richer media that provided for wider information dissemination and social interaction with many at a minimal cost. However, individual differences in technology familiarity among the owners influenced their level of access to use this media effectively.
El-shinnawy and Markus (1997) added that communicators may value factors other than media richness per se to reduce communication equivocality. Their study showed that communicators were concerned about the accuracy of the message relayed and documentation storage, search, and retrieval capabilities of a media. The role of message senders and recipients also influenced media choice. Their study found that message senders preferred speed and thus chose rich media. Message recipients, however, preferred media which is accurate, retrievable, and editable characteristics which are found in lean media.
Many researchers have questioned the assumptions made by MRT. Information richness theory assumes that managers are aware of differences in the objective properties of each media type. In reality, however, sometimes the culture and personality of the manager might filter the media richness decisions, and this might limit their ability to make appropriate media richness decisions. Fulk et al. (1990) argued that “behavior occurs in a very social world which is far from neutral in its effects” (p. 117). For example, they found that email (a lean media) could facilitate highly interpersonal interactions like conflict resolution (a complex, uncertain, equivocal task) successfully as it is able to convey accurate information.
Ishii et al. (2019) further mentioned that based on their review of MRT studies in the past decade, MRT’s suggestion that communicators match the appropriate media based on richness to the equivocality of communication has not been supported consistently. They found that communicators are subjective about the medium they choose. Communicators might have a preference for one medium over another based on their knowledge of the medium, personal experience in using the medium, or knowledge of the preferences of their supervisors and co-workers.
MRT also assumes that all four factors determining media richness are of equal importance in the richness construct. However, the study by El-shinnawy and Markus (1997) on the use of email versus voice mail to exchange information found that email was preferred as it offered immediate feedback which reduced equivocality. Their findings also show that vocal cues in the voicemail contributed to noise in the message while email conveyed accurate information. Thus, they proposed that the immediacy of feedback could be the most important factor in media richness.
Another concern raised by Sheer and Chen (2004) was that MRT viewed the concepts of equivocality and complexity interchangeably when they should be differentiated. For example, a manager who is conveying a positive message like congratulating a subordinate on clinching a business deal (a task with low equivocality and complexity) will find it easy to build rapport with the subordinate because the manager is perceived in a positive light in the situation. However, if the manager must convey a negative message to retrench a subordinate, the unequivocal task becomes highly complex because the manager’s relationship with the subordinate will suffer and their image will be tarnished if the task is not handled well.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses adopted the use of collaborative communications technology tools for remote work. Studies on how asynchronous and synchronous collaborative media is used to convey and converge information to form organizational knowledge could help learning organizations identify patterns for more effective in-person, hybrid, and remote communication and knowledge management.
In an organization, information can be stored in numerical (e.g., excel sheets), graphical (e.g., graphs and charts), and textual (e.g., minutes and reports) modes. Collaborative software platforms provide for the use of information in different modes during online discussions for decision-making on one computer screen. However, this feature could form distractions and increase users’ cognitive load in processing information, especially if users are not familiar with the platform. Thus, studies on how media in different modes could be optimized for uncertain and equivocal tasks in team and managerial environments could provide insights useful for vertical and horizontal information processing needs.
Which of the following is not a factor determining information richness of a media?
Feedback: The factors determining information richness of a media are immediate feedback, multiplicity of cues, personalization, and language variety.
Feedback: The factors determining information richness of a media are immediate feedback, multiplicity of cues, personalization, and language variety.
Feedback: Equivocality refers to the ambiguity of a task. It is not a determiner of information richness.
According to media richness theory, how should a rational user choose media?
Feedback: Lean media should be used as this is a more efficient way of communication.
Feedback: Routine messages could be conveyed effectively via lean media like email.
Feedback: When tasks are equivocal (having multiple interpretations), rich media like face-to-face meetings should be used.
What assumption in Media Richness Theory is being questioned by researchers?
Feedback: Studies have shown that immediacy of feedback often plays a more important role in determining media richness than the other three factors.
Feedback: Researchers acknowledge that communicators are rational actors. However, decisions made on media choice are often influenced by social and organizational factors.
Feedback: Equivocality and complexity carry different meanings for relational and self-presentational goals.
- media richness
- potential of a medium to facilitate one’s ability to process information when performing complex and equivocal tasks
- uncertain task
- absence/lack of information about a task
- equivocal task
- multiple and conflicting interpretations about a task
- feedback capability
- ability to provide timely feedback
- multiplicity of cues
- number of ways information can be communicated via tone, inflection, body language etc.
- ability to tailor communication to the receiver’s needs
- language variety
- textual and symbols like numerical values
- social presence
- the ability to sense the presence of the other person to facilitate interaction
- having fixed characteristics
- subject to a variety of factors
- vertical information processing needs
- to arrive at a common interpretation from ambiguous information
- horizontal information processing needs
- coordination and gathering of information to reduce the absence/lack of information
Theory in Practice
When to Apply Media Richness Theory Versus an Alternative
Media richness theory (MRT) has wide applications as media are used in most communication nowadays. Thus, communicators need to select the appropriate medium based on richness to convey their messages effectively.
Communicators using traditional media have largely found it useful to base their media choice on the four factors of media richness with rich media possessing a high capability for feedback, the multiplicity of cues, personalization, and language variety. In terms of task complexity, communicators could use lean media such as email to convey simple tasks (e.g., notice on road works in the car park) and rich media such as face-to-face meetings for complex tasks (e.g., company restructuring exercise).
However, the choice of the medium needs to be considered further for equivocal and unclear tasks as these are often tied to the role (operational, managerial, institutional) of the communicator in the company. Someone in a managerial role is likely to have to make decisions based on information gathered, discussed, and clarified with upper management, peers, and subordinates. In other words, the manager needs to use the appropriate media to help them move from task ambiguity to task clarity. The manager will then need to convey the decisions made to the respective stakeholders. The choice of media could depend on the manager’s personality, and media preferences based on their knowledge, familiarity, and satisfaction with a certain medium. The choice of media could also be influenced by the common media preference of colleagues in the company, thus forming an obligation for the manager to comply with the company’s choice of media.
Media choice is also dependent on the intention of the communication (routine, positive, or negative message). A manager could be considered as heartless if they were to convey a negative message using a single line of text via WhatsApp—“You’re fired!”. Furthermore, rich media and lean media could sometimes be used to carry through a single communication intention. For example, an email is often used to summarize and formalize points of discussion made during a face-to-face meeting to discuss a certain matter.
MRT was developed during Web 2.0xcurrent state of the internet; distinct from Web 1.0 thanks to the proliferation of user-generated content; Web 3.0 is expected to make use of blockchain technologies and increase decentralization, transferring power from large tech companies to individuals and not with recent technologies. Thus, MRT may be less useful in helping communicators select the appropriate media when using new collaborative media platforms such as Zoom, Slack, or Teams. This is because rich and lean media are integrated into one platform. Communicators can share files of various modes (numerical, graphical, and/or textual), send messages via chat, and observe the vocal and nonverbal cues of participants all in one online or hybrid synchronous meeting. The differentiation of media based on richness is no longer distinct in this environment. Communicators thus need to be mindful of the purpose of a meeting, particularly the agenda items, so that everyone can stay focused when conveying and converging information during the meeting. Communicators also need to have sufficient knowledge and skill in using collaborative media platforms so that they can facilitate the meeting effectively.
How to Apply MRT
Follow the steps below for an example of how to apply MRT to manage conflicts between two departments:
- Determine whether the conflict is caused by a lack of information (uncertain) or ambiguous information (equivocal).
- If it is due to a lack of information, gather information from both departments on the causes of the conflict (horizontal information processing needs).
- If it is caused by ambiguous information, set a meeting between representatives of both departments to come to a consensus on how to resolve the conflict (vertical information processing needs).
- Often, horizontal information processing needs have to be fulfilled before vertical information processing needs can be met.
- In engaging representatives from both departments, the context of the communication and social factors in the organization that influences media choice (perception, satisfaction, authority, technology adoption, etc.) need to be considered.
Field Report: Theory in Action
In the following video, you will see how stakeholders use an integrated approach to choose media when they communicate. The company’s tagline is to make businesses more valued by their stakeholders. How is this achieved using a mix of strategic planning, content-driven creative and technological advantage and then conveyed to stakeholders?
Of interest are how task complexity interacts with clients’ information needs and the use of technology to enhance the value of the communication exchange and collaboration with clients.
Video. Interview With Uantchern Loh
Imagine that you just joined a group to work on a software development project. The team leader prefers to use a collaborative platform as the default mode of communication with team members. You are not familiar with the collaborative platform and its features and prefer email to be used as the default mode instead. How should you raise this issue with the team leader?
- a.Talk to him privately about
this via email
Feedback: As you are new to the team, it might be a good idea to talk to the team leader privately face-to-face or via a video call. This will help you to build rapport with the team leader more easily and to raise any other issues (if any). However, subsequent conversations should be surfaced to the team.
- b.Raise the issue in the platform
so that all the team members can read it
Feedback: It might be a good idea to make it known to the team members about your lack of familiarity with the platform. They might have a brief orientation session for you on how to use the platform. They could also be more understanding if you failed to respond in the initial stages and perhaps try other channels to get you.
- c.Confide in a team member via
another collaborative platform
Feedback: Open and transparent communication within the team is critical to high performing teams. Voicing your reservations about using the collaborative platform helps to build group norms and processes. Having side conversations might divide the team rather than rally the team towards achieving the team goal.
A miscommunication happened between one of your teams and a team from another department, which led to a customer complaint not being addressed for a month. Both teams are blaming each other for this lapse. As a manager, you prioritized resolving the complaint and now would like to find out what went wrong so that this type of miscommunication will not recur. You called for a face-to-face meeting between both teams, including the manager of the other team to trace the chain of events that led to the miscommunication. Your team is expecting you to defend them during the meeting. How should you approach this issue with your team in a neutral and positive manner prior to the meeting?
- a.Refer the team to the workflow
process that stipulates how the two departments
coordinate when serving customers. Discuss with the team
face-to-face whether the workflow process was complied
Feedback: A workflow process is a factual representation of the sequence of work to be performed. Possible gaps in compliance with the workflow process (a lean media) could then be identified in an objective manner during discussions (a rich media).
- b.Inform the team via WhatsApp
that they need to provide a summary of the chain of
events leading to the miscommunication to you as soon as
Feedback: The team is likely to reply to your request by attaching the summary via WhatsApp. This is not ideal as the summary should be supported by evidence (supporting files). Furthermore, it is difficult to continue and make sense of the conversation via WhatsApp should clarifications be necessary as conversations in WhatsApp are not categorized by issue or thread.
- c.Call each member in the team
separately to hear what they have to say about the
Feedback: Calling each member separately could provide you with insights on what went wrong. However, this might breed distrust among the team members in the future. Having all the team members listen to each other provides for more honest and transparent communication which serves to move this lapse into a learning moment for the team.
You must send multiple large files to your supervisor for approval. Instead of sending the files to your supervisor via multiple emails, you decide to upload the files to a cloud server and provide the hyperlink to the files in an email to your supervisor. Why is this a good practice?
- a.Emails should be kept
Feedback: Besides being brief, an effective email should provide sufficient information for the reader to understand it by itself. In this instance, the email should provide a context for the email, refer the supervisor to the files uploaded, and the action required in the email.
- b.It is good etiquette not to
spam a recipient’s email inbox
Feedback: Email inboxes have limited storage space. It is thus good etiquette to have this in mind when sending large files to recipients. Care must also be taken not to overload recipients with information. Thus, email threads should keep to one main subject matter, reflected in the subject line, and content. This will also facilitate follow-up action.
- c.Sending related documents in
one set reduces confusion to the reader and facilitates
Feedback: Sending the files to your supervisor via multiple emails may result in your supervisor responding to you via multiple corresponding emails. It will be difficult to track which items need further action as the email thread grows longer. Thus, the documents should be sent in one set to facilitate follow-up action.
- Your company is advertising for part-time warehouse assistants using flyers. Interested applicants are asked to contact either one of the two mobile numbers provided in the flyer. The HR supervisor chooses to filter applicants by asking applicants basic and rapid questions using a multiplatform messaging app. The supervisor will then call successful applicants to provide more details about the job and answer queries about the position. How effective is the media choice in this hiring process?
- A company’s branding must be consistent with its stakeholders. Company X is a popular bakery chain in the country. Fifty cases of food poisoning occurred after customers ate the cakes bought from one of its bakeries on a Saturday. The bakery has since been ordered to close until investigations are completed. Consider the various factors affecting media choice and suggest how the company could manage the fallout from this incident and maintain its branding.
- As the CEO of a new start-up selling customized experiences for corporate and private events, you have limited funding. The initial stage of discussions between you and clients involves clients selecting the types of experiences they want curated on your company’s online platform. You have automated the customization process via filters and drop-down menu choices to reduce the manpower needed to manage this process and to increase the accuracy of the information keyed in on clients’ choices. You are aware, however, that the human touch is critical in event management. A big client has expressed interest in having your company curate the experience for their annual kick-off meeting. They have made their choices in the online platform but would like further customizations to the choices made. Based on MRT, how would you follow up with the client to discuss the customizations required?
- Web 2.0
- current state of the internet; distinct from Web 1.0 thanks to the proliferation of user-generated content; Web 3.0 is expected to make use of blockchain technologies and increase decentralization, transferring power from large tech companies to individuals