Finding the Right Media for the Context

One of the key indicators of fluency with a language or a medium is the knowledge of what tool to use when. Should we meet face-to-face more often for project meetings, or should we use video conferencing? Should we use email to collaborate, or a wiki? Should we market our product in broadcast media, or via YouTube? In thinking about these sorts of questions recently, it occurred to me that there are two questions that might help people think through these situations.

The first is whether the situation calls for a higher or lower level of control over messages and on how people act on them.

Forms of communication like one-on-one conversations, email, and telephone calls, for example, provide more control. Other forms of communication like wikis, Twitter and large-group conversations, on the other hand, generally allow for less control. It is important to say here that more control is not always better. While control can increase predictability, it can also kill creativity and innovation.

The second question people need to ask themselves is whether the situation will benefit more from a virtual or a physical approach.

Personal thoughts, cultural memes, or blogs, for example, exist on the virtual end of the spectrum, while a group meeting, a printed letter, or a physical product are heavily physical in nature. As with the level of control, this decision has trade-offs either way. Physical approaches are generally slower and more costly, while virtual approaches may lack richness, perceived authenticity, etc.

As an example, let’s consider the challenge that many organizations are facing right now: email inbox overload. In our recent research we found this to be a pervasive problem. In fact, a friend recently told of “..a recent project [that] took 600+emails 100+ attachments to produce just 6 documents.”

So what is the problem in these situations? Choice of an appropriate medium is probably a significant part of it. Though email provides for a lot of control over messaging, the trade-off is that everyone’s email inbox is littered with unnecessary messages. So while the choice of a virtual medium (email) over a physical one (flying people around the country) was clearly a good one, it still may not have been the best primary medium to use for the task. A private wiki or a Google doc might have allowed the team to work collaboratively on the same document, without a constant barrage of emails, saving them many hours and the stress associated with inbox overload. For a simple explanation of why this is the case, please take a look at this graphical comparison of email vs. wiki collaboration. If you are not familiar with wikis or Google docs, please take a quick look at this video, and this one.

The trade-off for moving from email to another medium for this group would be some loss of control. Working collaboratively on a wiki or Google doc forces the project lead to relinquish some measure of control. It also exposes the collaborators to a much greater degree of real-time openness with each other, which requires a greater degree of innovation fluency if the collaboration is to be successful. To spur even more innovation, these folks could relinquish even more control by creating a public wiki or doc that would allow people outside of their workgroup to participate in editing the document.

As people in an organization become more digitally fluent, they tend to more easily find the combinations of media that are most effective for their context.

Note: For anyone interested in a more detailed exploration of how people tend to choose between different forms of media, try searching for “media richness theory” on Google Scholar.

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4 Responses to Finding the Right Media for the Context

  1. Simon Fowler says:

    I like where you’re heading with this, Christian. The two axes make sense as responses to the question ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’, and therefore ‘how much control do you need and how directly do people need to connect?’ How would you factor in ‘complexity’ here, dealing with unknowns or with new dynamics (e.g. a new team forming, needing to convey a story that has several different and difficult human elements, or a truly complex set of data)? I suspect a number of useful questions could be asked in those situations to be able to narrow down to the two axes.

    The ‘when’ question you ask at the beginning also somehow needs to be considered here. If you start with the purpose, the outcomes you’re looking for, then different media may be needed at different times. But then I supposed you need to more narrowly define your purpose(s) at each stage, and then still use the grid.

    I really like that this grid immediately shows that ‘social media’ isn’t ‘the answer’.

  2. christian says:

    Thanks Simon. You bring up two really important points here, i think:

    1) different media will probably be necessary at different times as the context changes
    2) in most contexts, the use of only one medium will not be the best way to achieve the goal

    As for your question about complexity, i think it’s probably true that any medium increases complexity in some ways, while reducing it in others. The use of email in the example above may have reduced cognitive and emotional complexity (emergence) in the short term for the individuals by allowing them to avoid co-creating a document in real-time, while increasing it in the long term by contributing to the different varieties of email overload (firehose, sinbox, needle-in-the-haystack) that they experienced when their inbox was overloaded with project communications.

    What do you think?

    Thanks for the very insightful questions/comments!

  3. Simon Fowler says:

    Interesting. You’re looking the effect of the medium on the complexity, which is an important corollary to what I was thinking: how the complexity drives the medium selection. So I guess we have the complexity of the task/goal itself, and the complexity of the media usage. These are distinct animals. And I would say the former should trump the latter. If what you’re trying to do is ‘complex’ (however defined) then that should be the main determiner of the medium selected. It also becomes the reason to people that for the sake of the purpose they need to suck it up and do the more-complex thing from the get-go. (Although is it only “more complex” in the sense that people are still not used to using, say, wikis?)

  4. christian says:

    To simplify a bit here if i may (complexity and control is a pretty deep rabbit hole that i’d like to avoid), let’s consider complexity to be the difficulty of perceiving and controlling a situation. I would say, from the perspective of a participant in the situation, any part of that situation (including the medium she chooses to, or has to use) can contribute to that complexity.

    I can think of situations where the need to achieve a complex/hard-to-control purpose trumps the desire for a less-complex medium. If i were to move to Germany, i would decide to learn and use the very complex “medium” of German, even though the intractable articles would introduce a great deal of painful complexity into my world for a time. On the other hand, i can think of situations where the complexity that the use of a particular medium might introduce into the participant’s world would change the importance of the purpose. To use the same example, i might decide that the complexity of mastering German lessens the value of moving to Germany for me at the moment.

    The same goes for the email collaboration example above. If collaboration on a complex task is the purpose, then in the example above, it seems as though the initial level of complexity that the use of a wiki might introduce for the participants might be worth it, because it will eventually reduce the overall level of complexity (difficulty of controlling the situation) in the long run. I can imagine a scenario, though, where the use of the medium of a wiki would introduce enough complexity into the situation that its use might change the group’s purpose.

    A helpful though possibly rabbit hole-inducing concept to consider is Ashby’s “Law of Requisite Variety,” which, apropos of our discussion here, might be paraphrased to say “in order for people to be able to reduce/regulate their situation, they need to use a medium which allows them to be flexible enough to adapt to the variety of changes which that situation presents.” Email, while simple to use for many people, may not provide the flexibility necessary to reduce the complexity of many types of collaboration.

    I think each of the factors you mentioned last night mutually affect the other: purpose, information, people, timing. I would add the media itself to that mix.

    Ashby’s law:

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