Communication Channels (Encyclopedia of Business and Finance)
In the basic communication process, a sender puts a message in words and transmits it to a receiver who interprets the message. The medium the sender chooses to transmit the message is called the communication channel.
Traditionally, it was thought that the words chosen and way they were interpreted were solely responsible for a successful message. However, beginning in the 1960s with Marshall McLuhan, many came to believe that the medium was the message. Today, with the help of media richness theory (Lengel and Daft 1998), most people realize that the appropriate choice of communication channel (medium) contributes significantly, along with the words, to the success of a message. Appropriate choice helps senders communicate clearly, saving them and their businesses time and money. Therefore, examining various communication channels to understand their appropriate use is important.
Media richness theory ranks communication channels along a continuum of richness, defining highly rich channels as those handling multiple inherent cues simultaneously, such as using feedback, nonverbal cues, and several senses. A face-to-face meeting, which employs feedback as well as audio and visual senses, is considered extremely rich. However, a newsletter or brochure is lean, involving only the visual sense and slow or no feedback. Several of these channelsbrochures, letters, e-mail messages, video e-mail messages, telephone conversations, videoconferencing, and face-to-face meetingsill be reviewed, along with some guides for appropriate use.
Writers usually create brochures to provide information on a product or service. While often used for persuasive purposes, they are usually presented as routine informational documents. Writers lay out the information carefully, often designing the visual layout as carefully as they compose the text of the content. This lean channel works effectively when one-way communication in a visual medium is needed. In choosing this channel, the sender is eliminating any extraneous information a richer source might include in order to keep the content of the message clear and focused.
Letters are primarily printed, formal business documents. They are best used today when one wants to convey important, nonroutine information, such as job offers or refusals, promotions, awards and honors, and other kinds of special announcements. Also, they are an appropriate channel for certain attempts at persuasion, such as soliciting contributions to a special cause, asking someone to speak to a group, or proposing the acceptance of an idea. Today print letters are still used as advertising tools; however, the most effective ones are those that are individually customized, making them a special message.
E-mail messages are widely used in business as well as in personal life. While e-mail is a fast and efficient channel, it is considered lean because it allows for no eye contact and few nonverbal cues. Therefore, e-mail messages are primarily used in routine contexts. The notes writers send to family and friends are usually accounts of day-to-day activities, with more important, special messages communicated through richer channels. Business users, too, choose e-mail for conducting the routine
affairs of the business, leaving special or nonroutine messages for other channels.
VIDEO E-MAIL MESSAGES
A relatively new variant of e-mail is video e-mail. While much richer than text-based e-mail, video e-mail is still a one-way communication channel. The lack of interactivity makes it appropriate for messages that need richness but not real-time feedback. Even with today's improved compression technologies, video e-mail messages can be very large files. For example, a thirty-second video message might typically require around one megabytehe upper limit of many e-mail systems. Personal use of this channel might be appropriate for such situations as showing a new haircut, introducing new friends, and even showing a new baby. On the other hand, business use of video e-mail is still evolving. Obviously, when one needs to show somethingay a new package designt would be a good choice. A short sales message might be appropriate in some contexts. At this time, the best use of this channel appears to be special messages.
A somewhat richer channel is the telephone. It transmits sound rather than printed words and sound can enrich the message's words with emphasis and emotion. It also allows for immediate feedback, qualifying it as a richer channel one would use to get important, immediate responses. The choice of this channel to transmit a message is highly contextual. Some receivers view the telephone as invasive, relying on voice-mail systems to get messages. Others view the telephone as an important way of doing business. These receivers often carry cell phones or pagers so they can get important messages wherever they go. Knowing the importance of your message as well as the receiver's preferred way of doing business is critical to choosingr not choosinghis channel.
As a communication channel, videoconferencing is extremely rich. Its technology allows people in different locations to see and talk with one another interactively. Its users choose it for its convenience as well as its cost-effectiveness. It is available in most large companies as well as in business centers for use by smaller companies and individuals. For example, a company might want to have the vice president for sales in on its planning meeting for a new product launch without asking that person to travel to its site for a thirty-minute meeting. Or a company might want to screen job candidates and then bring in only the top candidates for on-site interviews. As a rule, this channel is best used when the communication needs are special, immediate, or otherwise expensive.
Face-to-face meetings are ranked at the top of the richness scale because they allow complete use of all senses and continuous feedback. Companies find such meetings to be a good choice for nonroutine business, such as planning new products, analyzing markets and business strategy, negotiating issues, and solving or resolving problems. Additionally, the face-to-face meetings of teams often provide a synergistic effect that improves the outcome of their actions. The collaboration efforts face-to-face meetings evoke are often worth the time and expense of using this channel.
While these channels are not the only ones available, they clearly show that the sender of a message has range of choices from lean to rich. To help ensure successful communication, the sender needs to select the channel appropriate for the context. Additionally, in choosing an appropriate channel, one needs to consider not only richness but also other factors such as training and accessibility. For example, while a fax is relatively easy to send, some people may not have easy access to receiving it, while others could easily have it forwarded to a pager or a wireless phone wherever they are.
Appropriate choice of communication channel leads to productivity increases and positive social effects. Understanding how the appropriate choice affects the success of a message helps senders decide which communication channel to use.
Donabedian, Baorji, McKinnon, Sharon M., and Burns, William J., Jr. (1998). "Task Characteristics, Managerial Socialization, and Media Selection." Management Communication Quarterly 11(3):372-400.
Lengel, Robert H., and Daft, Richard L. (1988). "The Selection of Communication Media as an Executive Skill." The Academy of Management EXECUTIVE 2(3):236.
McLuhan, Marshall, and Fiore, Quentin. (1967). The Medium is the Message. New York: Random House.