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Beyond media richness: An empirical test of media synchronicity theory

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Abstract

One widely accepted theory on media use is media richness theory. However, media richness theory was developed without consideration of new electronic media and the many social factors that can influence media selection, communication processes, and outcomes. Recent empirical investigations have raised questions about media richness theory's applicability to these new media. Therefore, the paper presents a new theory called media synchronicity theory (MST) which proposes that all tasks are composed of two fundamental communication processes (conveyance and convergence). Thus, communication effectiveness is influenced by matching the media capabilities to the needs of the fundamental communication processes, not aggregate collections of these processes (i.e., tasks) as rested in examinations of media richness theory. A laboratory experiment was conducted to provide an initial investigation into the theoretical underpinnings of MST. The study examined the influence of different media on conveyance and convergence effectiveness. Results from the study provide preliminary support for the concepts embodied in MST
Beyond Media Richness: An Empirical Test of Media Synchronicity Theory
Alan R. Dennis
1
, Joseph S. Valacich
2
, Cheri Speier
3
, Michael G. Morris
4
1: University of Georgia, Athens, GA, Error! Bookmark not defined.
2: Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, Error! Bookmark not defined.
3: University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, Error! Bookmark not defined.
4: Air Force Institute of Technology, Dayton, OH, mmorris@afit.af.mil
Abstract
One widely accepted theory on media use is media
richness theory. However, media richness theory was
developed without consideration of new electronic media
and the many social factors that can influence media
selection, communication processes, and outcomes.
Recent empirical investigations have raised questions
about media richness theory's applicability to these new
media. Therefore, this paper presents a new theory called
media synchronicity theory (MST) which proposes that all
tasks are composed of two fundamental communication
processes (conveyance and convergence). Thus,
communication effectiveness is influenced by matching the
media capabilities to the needs of the fundamental
communication processes, not aggregate collections of
these processes (i.e., tasks) as tested in examinations of
media richness theory. A laboratory experiment was
conducted to provide an initial investigation into the
theoretical underpinnings of MST. This study examined
the influence of different media on conveyance and
convergence effectiveness. Results from this study provide
preliminary support for the concepts embodied in MST.
I. Introduction
A fundamental need of organizations is the ability to
communicate. Organizational members communicate with
each other and with members external to the organization
to accomplish their goals, whether in one- on-one settings,
small groups, or large multi-disciplinary teams. There are
many media available to support these different
communication needs: face-to-face meetings, telephone,
written documents, and in more recent years,
computer-mediated electronic communication such as
voice mail and video teleconferencing.
It has been suggested that future organizations will exist
as a complex "network of suppliers, competitors, and
customers who cooperate with each other to survive"
(Nadler et al., 1992, p. 266). Such organizations will
consist of autonomous teams at all levels of the hierarchy
who live and work remotely from the team's home base and
use ubiquitous electronic communication to reshape
themselves as the work requires. As organizations deploy
personnel remotely and use a broader array of
communication technologies (see Zmud, Lind & Young,
1990), a key question is for what situations do these media
provide a reasonable substitute for face-to-face interaction?
For if these new media prove unable to support effective
distance communication, then these new organizational
forms may prove ineffective.
There is a long tradition of research that has compared
the effects of different communication media (for reviews,
see Fowler & Wackerbarth, 1980; Johansen, Vallee &
Spangler, 1979). In general, this work has compared
face-to-face communication to one or more other
communication media. This research generally suggests
that the medium can affect the nature of communication,
but that the specific effects depend heavily on the type of
task (Reder & Conklin, 1987). For some tasks, there are
no differences due to the medium; for others, there are
dramatic differences.
Although the concept of task-media fit holds great
appeal, empirical results assessing this fit have been
equivocal (e.g., Daft et al., 1987; El-Shinnawy & Markus,
1992; Rice & Shook, 1990; Trevino et al., 1990; Kinney &
Watson, 1992).
In this paper, we present a new theory, called media
synchronicity theory (MST). Synchronous activity refers
to “moving at the same rate and exactly together”
(Random House, 1987). Therefore, media synchronicity
is the extent to which a communication environment
encourages individuals to work together on the same
activity, with the same information, at the same time;
i.e., to have a shared focus (cf. entrainment: McGrath,
1991). Whereas media richness theory has taken a task-
centered perspective on task-media fit, MST proposes an
outcome-centered approach to media selection. More
specifically, MST proposes that every group
communication process is composed of two primary
processes, conveyance and convergence that are
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necessary to reach a group outcome. The theory also
proposes that media have a defined set of capabilities
that are able to more or less effectively support each
communication process. Communication effectiveness
will be enhanced when processes are aligned with media
support capabilities.
An initial study was conducted to examine the
concepts the fit between different media and the
conveyance and convergence processes. This experiment
was intended to provide some preliminary empirical
appeal to the validity of the MST concept as opposed to
fully testing MST or comparing MST to prior theories.
In the next section, relevant media and group literature
are reviewed and synthesized. Next, MST is developed and
specific propositions are presented. A research
methodology for testing these propositions is provided in
the next session followed by the empirical results. Finally,
the results are discussed from both theoretical and practical
perspectives and an overall contribution is presented.
II. Literature Review
2.1 Media Richness Theory
One of the most widely applied theories of media use is
media richness theory. Media richness theory proposes
that task performance will be improved when task needs
are matched to a medium's ability to convey information
(Daft & Lengel, 1986). In short, Daft and Lengel argue
that media capable of sending "rich" information (e.g.,
face-to-face meetings) are better suited to equivocal tasks
(where there are multiple interpretations for available
information), while media that are less "rich" (e.g.,
computer-mediated communication) are best suited to tasks
of uncertainty (where there is a lack of information).
Most tests of media richness theory have examined
perceptions of media fit, not actual effects of media use
(cf. Rice, Hughes & Love, 1989; Rice, 1992). Typically,
managers have been asked to choose which medium to
use to send a set of hypothetical messages to determine
whether their choices fit the predictions of media
richness theory (e.g., Daft et al., 1987; El- Shinnawy &
Markus, 1992; Lengel & Daft, 1988; Rice & Shook,
1990; Trevino et al., 1990; Trevino, Lengel & Daft,
1987). The results of this stream of research have not
been completely convincing. In a number of cases,
managers have made different choices than those
predicted by media richness theory (Carnevale, 1981;
Kinney and Dennis, 1994; Kinney and Watson, 1992;
Valacich, Paranka, George and Nunamaker, 1993;
Valacich, Mennecke, Wachter, and Wheeler, 1994).
One explanation behind the lack of empirical support
for media richness is that the task-media fit is
insufficient in explaining media choice. Many
researchers have thus concluded that media choice is
also affected by factors beyond the richness of the
medium itself. For example, Markus (1987) proposed
that there is a need for a critical mass of users required
before a medium will be widely used. Individuals are
less likely to use a medium until a sufficient number of
their colleagues also use it, especially those with whom
they already communicate (Rice, Grant, Schmitz &
Torobin, 1990). The availability of the medium to the
message sender (Rice & Shook, 1990; Zmud et al., 1990)
and ability of the sender to use that medium (King,
Hartman & Hartzel, 1992) are also key to its selection.
Media also have socially defined characteristics that may
be important (Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz & Power, 1987),
although empirical evidence is mixed. Rice and Aydin
(1991) concluded that socially defined effects "in a
complex and changing arena of ongoing organizational
activities, can play no more than a small role in
influencing attitudes" (p. 241). Clearly, media choice
appears to be affected by a plethora of factors (Rice,
1992).
A second explanation addressing the problematic
findings is related to the theory guiding the matching of
media to task characteristics (e.g., equivocality,
analyzability) is flawed. That is, matching medium to
task does not improve performance. A task, as
operationalized in the various examinations of media
richness, is actually a very high level construct composed
of many sub-elements or processes (McGrath, 1991). For
example, in Daft and Lengel's (1986) terms, resolving a
task of equivocality means developing a shared
framework for analyzing the situation, populating the
framework with information of a shared meaning, and
assessing the results to arrive at a shared conclusion for
action. Each of these steps may have different media
needs, such that even tasks of uncertainty may include
steps that require “rich media” (McGrath &
Hollingshead, 1993).
2.2 Beyond Media Richness
The focus of this section is on identifying and defining
those media dimensions that have the potential to
influence task performance.
Media richness theory is built on the presumption that
increased richness is linked to increased social or
physical presence (Zmud et al, 1990). Although a
medium’s ability to support the various communications
processes that occur in a face-to-face context are
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important, there appear to be other media dimensions
that are also important to consider.
More specifically, a number of recent innovations in
computer-facilitated communication (e.g., electronic
mail, group support systems, voice mail and video
teleconferencing) (Culnan & Markus, 1987) have
become available after the development of Media
Richness Theory. This in itself is not a significant
problem, as the newer electronic, audio, and video media
have been retroactively fit into the theory's framework
(e.g., Daft et al., 1987; El-Shinnawy & Markus, 1992).
However, some of these newer media emphasize specific
media capabilities that were less evident in non-
electronic media (e.g., the variety of ways that
information can be communicated via video
teleconferencing). Furthermore, these different media
dimensions may provide more effective support for
specific communication processes than previously
theorized by Media Richness..
Dennis and Valacich (1996) identify five media
dimensions that are key to understanding the effects of
media use on the ability of individuals to communicate
and process information (see also Rice, 1987; Rice &
Steinfield, 1993) (see Table 1). Two of these
dimensions; immediacy of feedback and concurrency, are
essential to further our understanding of MST.
Immediacy of feedback. The extent to which the
medium enables users to receive rapid feedback (Daft
Lengel, 1986; Daft & Wiginton, 1979). Immediacy of
feedback is related to the ability of medium to & provide
near- simultaneous bi-directional communication
between sender and receiver(s) (i.e., full-duplex in
communications terminology). It is also related to the
ease with which the receiver can interrupt the sender to
seek clarification, redirect or terminate the conversation
(Rice, 1987).
Concurrency. The number of simultaneous
conversations that can exist effectively in the medium
(Valacich et al., 1993; cf. multiple addressability: Rice,
1987; Sproull, 1991). In traditional media such as the
telephone, only one conversation can effectively use the
medium at one time. In contrast, with a group support
system (see Jessup & Valacich, 1993 for a discussion of
Table 1 Relative Trait Salience of Selected Media
Media Richness Face-to- Written Voice
Dimension Face Telephone Memo Mail
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Feedback High Medium Low Low
Symbol Variety Low-High Low-High Low-High Low-Medium
Concurrency Medium Low High Low
Persistence Low-Medium Low-Medium High Medium
Rehearsability Low Low High Medium
Media Richness Video Electronic Electronic Group Support
Dimension Conference Mail Phone
1
Systems
2
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Feedback Medium-High Low-Medium Medium Low-Medium
Symbol Variety Low-High Low-High Low-High Low-High
Concurrency Low Medium High High
Persistence Low High Low High
Rehearsability Low High Low High
1
Electronic phone refers to software that permits simultaneous dialog among two or more participants using computer
workstations. In such systems, the screen of each station is divided into several windows (one for each participant) and
any keystroke typed immediately appears on all participants' screens. An example is Phone on Digital VAX systems
(e.g., see Siegel et al., 1986).
2
A group support system (GSS) is a computer-supported environment which enables a group to work on a common
task at any place and time, although many current commercial systems are primarily used in same-time same-place
electronic meeting rooms (e.g., see Nunamaker et al., 1991).
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several systems, theoretical issues, and research
reviews), the electronic media can be structured to enable
many simultaneous conversations on different topics to
occur.
Greater concurrency also enables more people to
participate in a simultaneous discussion. It is often
argued that face-to-face communication can effectively
support up to five participants and as the group size
increases beyond this, effectiveness drops at an
increasing rate (e.g., Shaw, 1981). Ten is often cited as
the maximum practical size for face-to-face interaction if
all participants are expected to interact (as opposed to
presentations or lectures which are primarily one-way
communication). This is because participants must take
turns speaking because the verbal media can effectively
support only one conversation directed at all
participants. In contrast, a group support system can
support a large number of participants because it enables
greater concurrency (e.g., Gallupe et al., 1992).
In many cases, the greater the concurrency, the easier
it is to generate divergent information (e.g., ideas). Yet,
these multiple conversations mean that it is more
difficult for the group to focus on one topic or issue,
which may act in some circumstances to impede
understanding.
An analysis of Table 1 suggests three important
conclusions beyond those of traditional media richness
theory. First, no one medium has the highest values on
all dimensions (i.e., none could be labeled as "richest" in
Daft & Lengel's terms). With the expanded definition as
shown in Table 1, determining the ability of various
media to support shared understanding in the shortest
time interval is much more difficult, because a much
broader (and increasing) array of communication
environments are emerging.
Second, media are not monolithic. It is possible for
one medium to possess different levels of a given
communication dimension depending upon how it is
configured and used. For example, one electronic mail
system may have a very limited symbol variety by being
limited to text only, while another electronic mail system
may provide the ability to include graphics, pictures, and
video in a mail message. In this case, the second system
would support greater symbol variety than the first.
Third, ranking media in absolute terms is not
practical. Daft and Lengel (1986) argued that media can
be ranked in order of their richness in absolute terms
without consideration of context (Lee, 1996). Past
empirical research has repeatedly suggested that richness
is not a continuum on which some media are richer and
some are leaner. Thus, concluding that face-to-face
communication is the "richest" media is inappropriate.
Face-to-face communication may convey the greatest
social presence, but other factors may be more critical to
media richness as defined by Daft and Lengel (1986),
e.g., changing understanding within a time interval.
2.3 Media Synchronicity Theory
In this section, we develop a theory of media
synchronicity, which we believe explains the effects of
media use better than theories of media richness.
Group Processing Strategies
There are five basic sensemaking strategies that a
group or its individual members can adopt to reduce
equivocality (Weick 1985; Weick & Meader, 1993).
Ideally, members will attempt all five. One strategy is
action: members ask questions of or propose actions,
information or opinions to other group members, and
await the response. Members incorporate this new
information into their understanding and adjust their
interpretations accordingly.
A second sensemaking strategy is triangulation,
seeking information in a variety of formats (e.g.,
quantitative, qualitative, graphical) from a variety of
sources (e.g., other group members, other departments,
other organizations, national databases). Any one type
or source of information may be inaccurate or present an
incomplete picture. By combining information from
many sources, members gain a more holistic -- and
presumably better -- interpretation of the situation.
A third strategy is contextualization, the connection of
the new events to past events (e.g., "this is like the
situation faced by company X last year"). The more
contexts available, the better; in other words, the more
group members who can provide information links to
more contexts, the more likely the group is to arrive at a
better understanding of the situation.
A fourth strategy is deliberation, the slow and careful
reasoning required to induce plausible patterns from the
information gained through action, triangulation, and
contextualization. When this reasoning is allowed to
incubate, meaning becomes clearer; when information
comes too quickly and immediate responses are required,
individuals fail to process the information and fall back
on habitual processes and stereotypes.
The final strategy is affiliation, seeking to understand
how other individuals interpret or understand
information, and coming to a mutually agreed upon
symbolic meaning. For example, suppose triangulation
enables us to reach the conclusion that the temperature is
about 85 degrees Farenheit. Does that mean it is "hot"
or "warm?" Affiliation seeks to arrive at a shared
interpretation of the available information by soliciting
and integrating the meaning individual group members
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place on that information. Thus for the first step of
resolving equivocality (setting goals), the first three
sensemaking strategies (action, triangulation,
contextualization) share the same fundamental
communication process: the convayance of information.
The fourth strategy, deliberation, requires no
communication, although media requiring rapid
feedback (e.g., face-to-face meetings) may interfere
(Weick & Meader, 1993). The fifth strategy, affiliation,
requires a second fundamental communication process:
the convergence on a shared meaning of this
information.
The key point here is that for resolving equivocality,
there are two fundamental communication processes:
conveying information and converging on a shared
interpretation. Media richness theories emphasize the
need to converge; conveyance of information is left to
tasks of uncertainty. We argue that both conveying
information and converging on a shared meaning are
equally critical for both tasks of equivocality and
uncertainty. Without adequate conveyance of
information, individuals will reach incorrect
conclusions. Without adequate convergence, the group
cannot move forward.
Media Capabilities and Communication Processes
In this section we examine how the media capabilities
defined in the previous section affect media
synchronicity and are applied to the two fundamental
communication processes of conveyance and
convergence. Conveyance is the exchange of
information. It can be divergent, in that not all
participants must agree on the meaning of the
information, nor must they focus on the same
information at the same time. In general, low media
synchronicity is preferred for conveyance processes.
On the other hand, convergence is the development of
a shared meaning to information. By definition, all
participants must work together to establish the same
meaning for each piece of information. In general, high
media synchronicity is preferred for convergence
processes.
A first step in gaining an understanding of how a
given communication environment supports aggregate
level tasks is to examine the ability of the media
capabilities described earlier --immediacy of feedback,
concurrency -- to support the two fundamental
communication processes. Thus, we will view each
media dimension in light of the two fundamental
communication processes, conveyance and convergence.
Conveyance. The goal of conveyance is to enable the
most rapid exchange of information among the
participants as possible, and to enable them to effectively
process this information and arrive at their individual
interpretations of its meaning. What media capabilities
facilitate this?
The first characteristic is immediacy of feedback, the
extent to which media enables rapid feedback, including
the ease with which the information receiver can
interrupt the sender. We argued that the sensemaking
processes of action, triangulation, and contextualization
(Weick, 1985; Weick & Meader, 1993) relied on the
conveyance process for exchanging information among
group members. The essence of "action" is the proposing
of actions, information or opinions to other group
members and awaiting their response. Triangulation is
the process of seeking information in a variety of formats
and from a variety of sources. Contextualization is the
process of collecting information on past events and
applying this information to the current situation. In all
cases the fundamental processes relate to sending and
receiving information between group members. With this
definition of conveyance, feedback appears to play a
minor role. Indeed, media possessing high levels of
feedback may act to curtail information search and
collection, by enabling members to critique each
question or suggestion as they occur (Van de Ven &
Delbecq, 1974). Such communication activities may act
to derail the objectives of the conveyance process, or
encourage members to act without sufficient deliberation
(Weick & Meader, 1993).
The second media dimension is concurrency, the
number of effective conversations existing
simultaneously in the medium. Groups communicating
through a medium with high concurrency will
participate in a broader range of topics and will produce
more information and ideas in a given time (Valacich et
al. 1994). Conveyance of information will be enhanced
by environments that allow multiple, simultaneous
communication exchanges. Thus conveyance will be
enhanced when concurrency is high.
Convergence. The goal of convergence is to enable
the rapid development of a shared meaning among the
participants. What media capabilities facilitate this?
The convergence process is most closely linked to
Weick's (1985; Weick & Meader, 1993) sensemaking
affiliation process. Affiliation is the process of coming to
a mutually agreed upon symbolic meaning of shared
information. Affiliation is a give-and-take process of
"quickly" comparing views and negotiating shared
understandings. These objectives would suggest that
high levels of feedback are needed during affiliation (i.e.,
convergence) processes.
Again, concurrency refers to the number of
simultaneous conversations existing in the medium. For
convergence processes, media that focus the
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communication onto a single issue will help in achieving
a shared understanding of that issue. Thus,
environments that provide low communication
concurrency will be preferred for convergence processes.
In summary, communication environments that
support high immediacy of feedback and low
concurrency encourage the synchronicity that is key to
the convergence process. Communication environments
that support low immediacy of feedback and high
concurrency provide the low synchronicity that is key to
the conveyance process.. This suggests the following
propositions:
P1: For group communication processes in which
conveyance is the goal, environments providing low
synchronicity (low feedback and high concurrency)
will be more effective.
P2: For group communication processes in which
convergence is the goal, environments providing high
synchronicity (high feedback and low concurrency)
will be more effective.
III. Research Method
A laboratory study was conducted to evaluate the
propositions using a 2 x 2 within-subjects factorial
design. Two levels of decision processing (convey and
converge) and two levels of media synchronicity (high
and low) were employed. The experimental decision
task required the use of both convey and converge
processes. Groups who used one medium for the
conveyance process used the alternative medium for the
converge process and vice versa (see Figure 1).
Therefore, we had two sets of groups: high synchronicity
when conveying and high synchronicity when
converging versus low synchronicity when conveying
and low synchronicity when converging. This provided
the strongest theoretical test of MST.
Figure 1
Research Design
Decision Process
Media
Sychronicity
Conveyance Convergence
High
Media
Set A
(written)
Set A
(face-to-face)
Low
Media
Set B
(face-to-face)
Set B
(written)
3.1 Subjects
Subjects were undergraduate business students from a
large Midwestern university. The subjects participating
in the experiment fulfilled a required research credit as
part of their coursework. Students were randomly
assigned to groups consisting of five members and
groups were randomly assigned to treatments. A total of
100 students participated in this study resulting in 20
groups; 10 in each cell.
3.2 Independent Variables
Two decision processes were isolated within a larger
decision-making context. As previously described,
decision making encompasses a series of convey and
converge sub-processes. The conveyance process was
operationalized as an idea generation and sharing
activity. Consistent with the concept of conveying
information, ideas were shared or communicated to
group members. For example, a group member might
sayI believe X is a potential solution”. Other group
members were not allowed to expound upon or critique
that idea which would move the group process out of a
conveyance stage and into a convergence stage. This
restriction on evaluating others’ ideas, therefore, helped
explicitly isolate the conveyance process.
For the convergence process, subjects took the entire
range of ideas generated in the conveyance process and
selected those that the group felt were the best candidate
solutions for further evaluation. Once the candidate
solutions were established, a single “group solution” was
selected.
High synchronicity has been defined as media that
provide high feedback and low concurrency. To
operationalize high synchronicity, we used face-to-face
communication. Face-to-face communication provides
high feedback due to bi-directional communication and
the ability to clarify, redirect, or end the communication.
It provides low concurrency because it does not allow for
parallel conversations, which provides focus on a single
issue at a time.
Low synchronicity, on the other hand, has been
defined as media that provide low feedback and high
concurrency. To operationalize low synchronicity
written communication was used. Written
communication provides low feedback in that others are
not able to interrupt, question, or expound upon the ideas
as they are being communicated. Written
communication facilitates high concurrency by enabling
multiple ideas to be generated in parallel.
3.3 Dependent Variables
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The dependent variable measuring the effectiveness of
the conveyance process was the number of unique ideas
generated by the group members. The variables
measuring the effectiveness of the converge process
included number of ideas evaluated (e.g., number of
ideas considered during the converge process), time to
consensus
1
(minutes required to reach final group
solution), and whether consensus was reached (binary
indicator of unanimous decision). Other dependent
variables were identified to measure the effectiveness of
the overall decision process including decision accuracy
(e.g., group solution score measured as a percentage of
optimal), commitment to the group decision (e.g., the
degree of solution shift between the group decision and
the final individual decision), and group influence (e.g.,
the degree of solution shift between the initial individual
decision and the final individual decision).
3.4 Procedure
In each experimental session, subjects in all treatments
generated an individual answer to a decision problem
with an optimal solution (Parkway Drug, see Mennecke
and Wheeler, 1993). Each solution could be evaluated
arithmetically resulting in an overall solution score.
Subjects were then placed into a group and participated
in a short training session focusing on effective group
decision-making processes. This training focused on
how to initially brainstorm prior to evaluating solutions
and involved a practice problem. After the training
session, the subjects were asked to return to the Parkway
Drug task and generate the best possible group solution.
As part of the conveyance process, subjects were given
a maximum of 20 minutes to generate and share ideas.
When using face-to-face communication, group members
verbally shared these ideas without compiling a written
list. On the other hand, individuals in groups using
written communication each wrote their ideas on a sheet
of paper. To transition group members from a
conveyance to a convergence stage, the researchers
facilitated the groups in selecting a listing of candidate
solutions. Regardless of treatment, group members were
asked to suggest possible “best” solutions for further
consideration. These solutions were numbered and
written onto a flipchart visible to all members. The
1
Due to time constraints, groups were limited to 15
minutes for the converge process where they were
expected to produce a unanimous solution. If the groups
were unable to reach consensus in this time, the time to
consensus was measured as 15 minutes. The concensus
reached dependent variable was used to measure whether
the group did or did not reach a unanimous decision.
merit of any of these candidate solutions was not
discussed at this time.
The converge process lasted 15 minutes. In this
process, face-to-face groups verbally evaluated and
discussed ideas with the goal of attaining unanimous
consensus on the best solution. On the other hand,
groups using written media used ballots to individually
vote on the solution they felt was best. These groups
were informed of the results of the vote and then asked to
vote again. If consensus was not reached after the
second vote, each individual could share with the group
their preferred selection and their rationale for that
selection. This process continued until either groups
reached unanimous consensus or time ran out. In the
cases where time ran out, the final solution was selected
based on the solution that had the largest number of
votes.
After the group solution was identified, each group
member was asked to individually complete a short
survey. Subjects were asked to indicate what solution
they believed was best where this solution could be their
initial individual decision, the group decision, or any
other solution.
IV. Results
To analyze the differences between sets of groups, t-
tests were used. Proposition 1, examining conveyance,
suggested that media low in synchronicity (written)
would be more effective. Results from the t-test indicate
that groups using written media generated significantly
more unique ideas than groups operating face-to-face
(t=5.25, p<.001). Means for each group were 24 and
12.5 respectively. Therefore, Proposition 1 was
supported.
Proposition 2 investigated the influence of media
synchronicity on convergence where media high in
synchronicity were expected to be more effective.
Results from the t-test indicate that groups using face-to-
face media were significantly more likely to reach
consensus than groups using written media (t=6.0,
p<.001). Similarly, groups using face-to-face media
reached consensus in significantly less time than groups
using written media (t= -2.18, p<.022). Means for each
group were 12.1 minutes and 14.8 minutes respectively.
The number of ideas evaluated was not significant
between groups. Therefore, Proposition 2 is partially
supported.
Finally, measures were assessed to provide further
insight into overall decision-making effectiveness.
Results from the t-tests indicate that there were no
significant differences in decision accuracy or
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commitment across groups. However, there was a
significant difference in group influence (t=1.71, p<.05).
Groups applying media in the most theoretically
appropriate media per MST demonstrated a greater shift
between the initial individual decision and group
decision (mean = .22) than groups using media least
appropriate for the decision processes (mean = .17).
V. Discussion
Based on the results presented here, there does appear
to be some preliminary support for Media Synchronicity
Theory. While these results are not definitive, they do
suggest that conveyance and convergence are very
different processes that may require different media for
each in order to be most effective. This contradicts the
conceptual orientation of Media Richness Theory, which
is oriented around task-level activities (i.e, aggregated
collections of fundamental communication processes).
Media Synchronicity conceptualizes tasks as made up of
both conveyance and convergence processes. Given that
there appear to be differences in the media which best
supports each process, predictions about overall task-
technology fit may be problematic. While additional
work is necessary to further evaluate MST, these results
provide motivation for disaggregating tasks into more
fundamental communication processes to better
understand how technology can be most effectively
designed and employed.
From a managerial perspective, these results are
important because they provide insight into ways in
which organizational decision-making could be
improved. For example, while there were no differences
across groups in terms of decision accuracy, the degree
of consensus in reaching those decisions was higher for
groups using face-to-face media for the convergence
process. Given an “equal quality” decision, it would
seem that managers would find consensus to be
desirable. While greater consensus may not provide an
immediate benefit (there was no change in decision
accuracy), greater consensus may lead to more long-term
organizational benefits. For example, groups with
greater consensus may feel a greater commitment to a
given course of action because of their participation in
the decision-making process. Similarly, organizational
decisions are likely to be much easier to implement in a
consensual environment due to the increased “buy in
from those affected by the decision. Finally, greater
consensus may yield greater harmony and cooperation
among individuals and workgroups due to the feeling of
increased “ownership” of the decision.
Also of interest to managers are the results indicating
that not only were groups more likely to reach
consensus, those who did reach consensus did so
significantly faster than their counterparts using written
media. Given the increasing complexity and tempo of
today’s decision-making environment, the degree to
which technology can be employed to help move groups
toward consensus (again, with no degradation in
decision accuracy) may help organizations and
workgroups become more efficient. For example,
managers with appropriate technical support may be able
to arrive at a consensus faster than managers without
this support, saving themselves and the organization
valuable time and effort.
From a technical standpoint, the results reported here
offer important suggestions for the design of technology
used to support group decision-making. Given that the
media which most effectively support conveyance and
convergence processes appear to be different, designers
should explicitly build in tools which can most
effectively support each process (vs. the task as a whole).
How might this be implemented? One suggestion may
be to structure the decision-making process around the
fundamental communication processes that underlie the
decision-making process. Obviously, this may include
the need for multimedia applications in order to optimize
user performance for each process. For example,
providing “notepad” and/or “whiteboard” features for
conveyance processes and “chat” features for
convergence processes. This would allow decision-
makers to shift media types to those that may most
effectively support the micro-level processes embedded
within a given task.
Another technical suggestion that may be feasible
(particularly in next-generation decision support
systems) would be to include an intelligent “agent”
designed to monitor the group decision-making process.
Depending on whether the group needed (or was headed
toward) a conveying activity, the agent monitoring the
group’s activity could suggest (or enforce) a shift to a
media with low feedback and high concurrency. Once
the group began convergence activities, the agent could
shift users into a “verbal” mode in order to provide users
with high feedback and low concurrency.
5.1 Limitations and Conclusions
As with all studies, the research results presented here
are subject to a number of limitations. Specifically, this
study was designed to provide an initial test of theory at
the expense of generalizability. Specific limitations to
generalizability include the use of student subjects and
the limited range of media analyzed. We recognize that
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a range of media options exist; however, we selected two
media which were as highly differentiated on the
feedback and concurrency dimensions as possible (see
Table 1).
In addition, we structured the decision making process
used in this task around definitive conveyance and
convergence activities. In order to control the
fundamental communication process being used at any
given time, we created and enforced rules designed to
prevent any “overlap” between conveyance and
convergence (e.g., not allowing group members to
comment or discuss other members’ ideas during the
conveyance process). However, we recognize that the
decision-making process may iterate between convey and
converge activities over time and that forcing groups into
one activity or the other at any given point of time may
not be representative of how groups actually make
decisions in all cases. However, we do believe that
structuring the problem in this manner was consistent
with the goals of the study and provided a reasonable test
of the theory.
In conclusion, we have found preliminary support for
differences across two fundamental communication
processes used in decision-making tasks: conveyance
and convergence. Our results have suggested that there
is no one best fit” between tasks and media. Instead,
our results suggest that technology “fit” is more properly
assessed at the sub-process level. Therefore, to
meaningfully examine and better support group
communication, future research aimed at evaluating
media effectiveness should focus on fundamental
communication processes embodied in the tasks
themselves.
Furthermore, because Media Synchronicity Theory
considers more advanced electronic communications
media, it has the potential to be more robust in its ability
to predict communications effectiveness than alternative
theories. Given the equivocal findings of current
theoretical perspectives, we believe that Media
Synchronicity Theory offers the field a new lens through
which group decision-making processes may be
examined in a more meaningful way.
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