Choice of communication Channels

Neal L Patterson, CEO at medical software Cerner Corp., likes e-mail. Maybe too much so. Upset with his staff’s work ethic, he recently sent a seething e-mail to his firm’s 400 managers. Here some of that e-mail’s highlights:

“Hell will freeze over before this CEO implements ANOTHER EMPLOYEE benefits in this Culture. We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our Kansas City based employees. The parking lot is sparsely used at 8 am; likewise at 5 pm. As managers – you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or YOU do not CARE… You have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you … What you are doing, as managers with this company makes me SICK”.

Patterson’s e-mail additionally suggested that managers schedule meetings at 7am, 6pm and Saturday mornings; promised a staff reduction of 5 per cent and institution of a time clock system; and Patterson’s intention to charge unapproved absences to employees’ vacation time.

Within hours of this e-mail, copies of it had made its way onto a Yahoo! Web site. And within 3 days, Cerner’s stock price had plummeted 22 percent. Although one can argue about whether such harsh criticism should be communicated at all, one thing is certainly clear: Patterson erred by selecting the wrong channel for his message. Such an emotional and sensitive message would likely have better received in a face-to-face meeting.

Why do people choose on channel of communication over another – for instance, a phone call instead of a face-to-face talk? Is there any general insight we might be able to provide regarding choice of communication channel? The answer to the latter question is a qualified “Yes”. A model of media richness has been developed to explain channel selection among managers.

Research has found that channels differ in their capacity to convey information. Some are rich in that they have the ability to (1) handle multiple cues simultaneously (2) facilitate rapid feedback, and (3) be very personal. Others are élan in that they score low on these three factors. Face to face conversations scores highest in terms of channel richness because it provides for the maximum amount of information to be transmitted during a communication episode. That is, it offers multiple information cues (words, postures, facial expressions, gestures, intonations), immediate feedback (both verbal and nonverbal), and the personal touch of being there. Impersonal written media such as formal reports and bulletins are lowest in richness.

The choice of one channel over another depends on whether the message is routine or non-routine. The former types of messages tend to be straightforward and have a minimum of ambiguity. The latter are likely to be complicated and have the potential for misunderstanding. Managers can communicate routine messages efficiently through channels that are lower in richness. However, they can communicate non-routine messages effectively by selecting rich channels. Referring back to the Cerner Corp. example, it appears that Neal Patterson’s problem was using a channel relatively low in richness (e-mail) to convey a message that because of its non-routine nature and complexity should have been conveyed using a rich communication medium.

Evidence indicates that high performing managers tend to be more media sensitive than low performing managers. That is, they’re better able to match appropriate media richness with the ambiguity involved in the communication.

The media richness model is consistent with organizational trends and practices during the past decade. It is not just coincidence that more and more senior managers have been using meetings to facilitate communications and regularly leaving the isolated sanctuary of their executive offices to manage by walking around. These executives are relying in richer channels of communication to transmit the more ambiguous messages they need to convey. The last decade has been characterized by organizations closing facilities, imposing large layoffs, restructuring, merging, consolidating and introducing new products and services at an accelerated pace – all non-routine messages high in ambiguity and requiring the use of channels that can convey a large amount of information. It is not surprising, therefore, to see the most effective managers expanding their use of rich channels.

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