Effects of experience on communication media choice

Media appropriateness: Effects of experience on communication media choice

King, Ruth C


Organizations are faced with a myriad of emerging advanced information technologies. Management may be anxious about the numerous choices while simultaneously yearning for instant realization of benefits promised by the adopted technologies. Management should also be aware that the eventual institutional use of these technologies is dependent upon the learning and training opportunities presented to individuals. Individual approval or established perceptions toward technology appropriateness are mostly idiosyncratic and contingent upon numerous factors such as task goals or prior technology experience.

This paper examines the effect of learning experiences with nine communication media, based on perception changes of media appropriateness. Two hundred and ninetyfive MBA students participated in a longitudinal quasi-experimental study. Results indicate that traditionally rich media such as face-to-face, group meetings, and telephone were consistently perceived to be more appropriate than emerging new media over time. However, an individual’s specific experience with communication media affects perceptions of media appropriateness, and this is particularly evident in computer-based communications. In addition, changes in perception of media appropriateness were directly related to the participants’ learning experience and were particularly salient with new media. Furthermore, increased use of some media was found to be associated with decreased use of other media. This study demonstrates that deliberate technologyuse mediation can be an effective management mechanism to facilitate an individual’s ability to gain experience in the use of new technologies. This paper also suggests that an individual’s media experiences and temporal factors are two important but underemphasized factors in understanding and studying technology choice and use.


A wide range of emerging information technologies such as groupware, electronic mail (email), and electronic meeting systems (EMS) has expanded organizational and managerial decision making and communication choices (Orlikowski, Yates, Okamura, & Fujimoto,1995). Although the claimed benefits of these new technologies can be tremendous, many managers are more perplexed than overjoyed with the myriad of technology choices they are facing. Frequently, organizations have no choice but to simultaneously adopt similar emerging technologies such as email, voice mail (Vmail), and fax merely to stay competitive. The decision about when and what emerging technologies to adopt can be crucial. However, far more essential are the management practices that change employees’ prior perceptions or misperceptions of certain information technology to a more informed understanding of the intricacies and functionalities of the adopted technologies. Organizations can benefit the most when employees recognize and become familiar with the purpose of each technology and further establish the appropriateness of each technology within the context of task environment.

The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that an individual’s perception toward the appropriateness of different communication media can be deliberately managed when learning opportunities are presented. More specifically, this study investigates the effects of the individual’s experiences on one’s evaluations of a spectrum of media that are concurrently available and used by most organizations, including both traditional media (such as face-to-face meeting, telephone, and written letters) and those emerging computer-based communication media (such as email and EMS). Although it may seem fundamental, understanding the relationship between technology experience and technology appropriateness examined in this study can be significant to effective management of emerging information technologies. With such an understanding, management can improve the effectiveness of new technology adoption by linking the technology’s purpose with task requirements, and by providing an environment for employees to learn.

Previous research on media appropriateness/choice and communication effectiveness has been primarily stimulated by and centered on two predominant theories: social presence theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) and media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1984, 1986; Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987; Trevino, Lengel, & Daft, 1987). Both theories focus on the determinants of media choice or media appropriateness and posit that the match between the medium and the task results in effective communication. The underlying tenet of these theories is that media choice is dependent upon the characteristics of media and each communication medium is unique in its ability to convey certain information contents. For instance, some media, such as face-to-face communication, can convey a broader range of information and others, such as facsimile (fax) and handwritten notes, can convey only limited information. Therefore, these theories stipulate that media choice/appropriateness and communication effectiveness depend on properly matching the inherent characteristics of media to task requirements. Although social presence theory and media richness theory have provided an appealing conceptual framework and have stimulated a stream of research, the subsequent empirical tests have failed to produce consistent results (Lee,1994; Markus,1994; Rice, 1990; Rice & Shook, 1990).

In this paper, we argue that experience with communication media will have a determining effect on the perceived appropriateness of media. We further argue that an individual’s perception of media appropriateness does not remain static and should be examined from a dynamic or longitudinal perspective. Individuals construct their own unique understanding of each technology as they learn to use the medium, and this understanding can change and be redefined as their experience with the medium increases (Carlson & Zmud, 1994; Rogers, 1986). Investigating users’ experiences with communication media may provide additional explanations and empirical evidence for the inconsistent research findings, and expand the existing media choice theories. Using a longitudinal quasi-experimental design, this paper examines the effects of individual experiences with nine commonly used organizational communication media on the perceived media appropriateness over time. Organizational members normally have an array of media readily available to choose from; examining multiple coexisting communication media provides many more convincing explanations for the communicator’s behavior than examining certain media alone.

The paper is organized as follows. First, we review the literature about the media-task view of media choice including the social presence theory, media richness theory, and related empirical findings. Second, we develop a set of hypotheses regarding the effect of experience on evaluations of media appropriateness over an ample period of time for sufficient learning and use of the studied media. Third, we present research methods and results of data analysis. The paper concludes with a discussion of the research and practical implications of the study.


Considerable research attention has been focused on the choice, use, and consequences of communication media (Hiltz & Turoff,1981; Rice,1984, 1987; Rogers, 1986; Short et al.,1976). Although various factors have been proposed to be influential in predicting an individual’s media choice (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Markus, 1994; Rice, 1992, 1993), the research has been dominated by a rational choice perspective that focuses on media-task interaction. According to this perspective, media choice is objectively determined by the congruence between the inherent characteristics of the media and the requirements of the tasks. Individuals make a rational choice of the media that best fulfill task requirements. This rational choice perspective is represented by two of the most widely cited media choice theories: social presence theory and media richness theory.

Social Presence Theory

Social presence refers to the degree to which a medium permits communicators to experience others as being psychologically present (Short et al., 1976; Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz, & Power, 1987), or the degree to which a medium is perceived to convey the actual presence of the communicating participants (Short et al.). Short et al. stated that “communication media differ in their capacity to transmit information about facial expression, direction of looking, posture, dress and nonverbal, vocal cues” (p. 65). Accordingly, communication media such as face-to-face and group meetings that have the capability to convey nonverbal cues and social-context cues are perceived as rating high in social presence. In contrast, media such as computer-based communication technologies and written documents are considered to rate low in social presence due to their paucity of nonverbal elements and feedback cues.

According to the social presence theory, communication tasks differ in their requirements for social presence. The appropriateness of a medium for performing certain communication tasks is determined by the degree to which the medium’s characteristics of social presence fit the requirements of the tasks (Short et al., 1976). Tasks that involve interpersonal skills, such as resolving disagreements or negotiation, demand high social presence, whereas tasks such as exchanging routine information are low in their social presence requirements. Therefore, media like face-to-face and group meetings are more appropriate for performing tasks that require high social presence, whereas media such as email and written letters are more appropriate for tasks with low social presence requirements.

Media Richness Theory

Media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1984, 1986; Trevino et al., 1987), an alternative to social presence theory (Rice, 1992), takes a similar rational stand in that media choice depends on the matching of media richness to the characteristics of task analyzability. Media richness refers to a medium’s material capability to convey certain types of information. Media differ in the extent to which they are able to bridge different frames of reference, to make issues less ambiguous, or to provide opportunities for learning in a given time interval (Daft & Lengel, 1986). Media richness is also determined by the medium’s capacity for immediate feedback, multiple cues, language variety, and personal focus of sources (Daft & Lengel, 1984). Along these dimensions, media are ranked from richest to leanest: face-to-face being the richest medium, followed by telephone, email, written addressed documents and, finally, unaddressed documents (Steinfield, 1986; Daft et al., 1987; Rice, 1992).

Media richness theory postulates that communication tasks vary with respect to their analyzability (Perrow, 1967). Task analyzability refers to the degree to which tasks involve the application of objective, well-understood procedures that do not require novel solutions. Thus, unanalyzable tasks involve the process of equivocal information that often requires interpersonal negotiations to share various referent frames and to interpret cognitively conflicting situations. As a result, unanalyzable tasks require rich media that can convey multiple cues, construct collaborative meaning, and establish immediate feedback. Media choice is then determined by the fit between media richness and task analyzability. In other words, richer media such as face-to-face and group meetings are more appropriate for unanalyzable tasks, whereas leaner media such as email and written documents are more appropriate for analyzable tasks.

Related Empirical Findings

The empirical research testing media richness and social presence theories has so far failed to provide consistent and convincing support (Fulk et al., 1987; Fulk, Schmitz, & Steinfield, 1990; Johansen, 1977; Markus, 1988, 1994; Reid, 1977; Rice, 1984, 1992; Steinfield, 1986; Walther, 1995). In some cases, studies have shown some support for the social presence theory (e.g., Ochsman & Chapanis, 1974; Holland, Stead, & Leibroch, 1976; Trevino et al., 1987) and the media richness theory (Hiltz & Turoff, 1981; Rice, 1984; Rice & Case, 1983; Trevino et al., 1987; Zack, 1993). In other cases, communicators have chosen different media than the social presence and media richness theories would have predicted (e.g., El-Shinnawy & Markus,1992; Markus, 1992; Markus,1988,1992; Markus, Bikson, ET-Shinnawy, & Soe, 1992; Rice & Shook, 1990; Steinfield & Fulk, 1986). These inconsistent findings became more significant when the media under consideration involved new computer-based communication technologies such as email and electronic conferencing systems. For example, Lee (1994) found that email was often chosen for rich communications. Rice and Shook (1990), Markus (1994), and Rice, Hughes, and Love (1989) found that top management used certain lean media more often than did lower level managers, which contradicts the theories, because top management tends to spend more time dealing with equivocal tasks. Steinfield (1986) found that a considerable number of electronic messages in a large organization dealt with socioemotional topics, which also require richer media based on these two theories.

The inconsistent empirical findings suggest that media choice cannot be adequately explained or predicted by considering only the inherent richness or social presence of the medium and the characteristics of the task (Markus, 1988; Rice & Shook, 1990; Zmud, Lind, & Young, 1990; Yates & Orlikowski, 1992; Trevino & Webster, 1992). Furthermore, the theories’ underlying assumptions about the media, task, and users may have impeded the predictive validity of the theories (Markus, 1994). Fulk and her colleagues (1987, 1990) pointed out that these theories are constrained by their assumptions about the objectivity of media and the rationality of user choice. Individuals are assumed to be aware of the intrinsic properties of media, to be able to objectively evaluate the characteristics of tasks and media, and to rationally choose media that best fit the requirements of tasks. Such an assumption has been challenged by the social influence model of technology use which suggests that individual’s perceptions regarding media richness are affected by social context and user experience with the channel (Schmitz & Fulk, 1991; Fulk et al., 1990, 1987). Walther and Burgoon (1992) argued that only after examining users’ postadoption activities can we understand the patterns of communication technology use and consequent changes.

As suggested by several researchers (e.g., Fulk et al., 1987, 1990; Markus, 1988, 1994), a complementary important research issue that has received minimal attention is the role that user’s media experience plays in media choice. In particular, examining the effects of users’ experience with media on their perception of media appropriateness may provide a better explanation of communication media behavior and may help resolve some of the inconsistencies in the literature (Carlson & Zmud, 1994).


In this study, we argue that media properties such as richness are posited to be subjective and are influenced to some degree by individual experiences with different media over time. In other words, an individual’s perceptions and appreciations about certain media may not be stable over time, particularly when the media involved are new. An individual’s media experience not only influences one’s rational evaluation and expectations about the fit between media and tasks, but also affects perception of media appropriateness. Since the media we investigated in this study include the individual’s evaluation of a range of communication media (traditional and new media), three theories become pertinent in supporting our arguments: social cognitive theory, the theory of planned behavior, and the technology acceptance model.

Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura (1977, 1982) postulated two sets of expectations as major cognitive forces that guide behavior choices: outcome expectations and efficacy expectations. Outcome expectancy is defined as a person’s estimate that a given behavior will lead to certain outcomes. An efficacy expectation is belief about one’s ability to perform the behavior required to produce the outcomes. Outcome expectations capture the rational or motivational aspect of behavioral choices, which is similar to the underpinning assumption of media richness and social presence theories. Individuals are more likely to undertake behaviors they believe will result in valued outcomes rather than those that are not expected to generate favorable consequences. Efficacy expectations capture the facilitating or control aspect of behavioral choices. Perceived self-efficacy influences choices of behavioral settings. Individuals fear and avoid threatening situations when they perceive they lack necessary coping skills; whereas they will engage in activities that they feel capable of handling-situations that would otherwise be intimidating.

While both outcome and efficacy expectations are important factors in determining behavioral choices, efficacy perceptions also influence an individual’s outcome expectations (Bandura, 1978). Self-efficacy judgments are purported to influence outcome expectations since “the outcomes one expects derive largely from judgments as to how well one can execute the requisite behavior” (Bandura, 1978, p. 241). In the context of computer-based technologies, computer selfefficacy was found to exert a significant influence on individual’s expectations of the outcomes of using computers, their emotional reactions to computers (affect and anxiety), as well as their actual computer use (Compeau & Higgins, 1995a, 1995b). Individuals with high computer self-efficacy will demonstrate higher outcome expectations regarding computer use than individuals with low self-efficacy. Additionally, past experience is the most important source of information about self-efficacy (Bandura,1986). Experienced mastery alters the level and strength of self-efficacy, which, in turn, influences choices of activities. Thus, individuals who have been successful and felt rewarded by their previous media experience are more likely to have positive expectations of media usage outcomes in the future and are more likely to choose those media.

Theory of Planned Behavior

The theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985, 1991) posits that behavioral achievement depends jointly on behavioral intention and perceived behavioral control. As in the original theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), behavioral intentions are assumed to capture the motivational factors that influence a behavior. Perceived behavioral control, which captures such nonmotivational factors as availability of requisite opportunities and resources (e.g., skills and cooperation of others), can influence choice of activities, preparation for an activity, effort exerted during performance, as well as thought patterns and emotional reactions. Perceived behavioral control is assumed to reflect past experience as well as anticipated impediments and obstacles (Ajzen, 1991). Repeated performance of a behavior results in the establishment of a habit; behavioral choice at a later time then occurs, at least in part, habitually. To put this theory in the context of media choice, intentions (media choice) would be expected to influence performance (media use) to the extent that the person has behavioral control (past experience), and performance (media use) should increase behavioral control (experience).

Technology Acceptance Model

The technology acceptance model (Davis, 1989; Davis, Bagozzi, & Warshaw, 1989), specifically tailored for modeling user acceptance of information technologies, is an adaptation of the theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), which is the earlier version of the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985, 1991). The model posits that two particular beliefs, perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use, are primary determinants of computer acceptance. Perceived usefulness is defined as the prospective user’s subjective assessment that using a specific computer application will increase his or her job performance within an organizational context. Perceived ease of use, which is similar to Bandura’s (1977) selfefficacy and Ajzen’s perceived behavioral control, refers to the degree to which the prospective user expects the target system to be free of effort.

A number of empirical studies have found that perceived ease of use not only directly affects acceptance of computer technologies but also indirectly affects acceptance through influencing perceived usefulness of the technologies (Davis et al., 1989; Adam, Nelson, & Todd, 1992; Mathieson, 1991; Taylor & Todd, 1995). Howard and Mendelow (1991) found that computer self-efficacy was related to an individual’s attitude toward computers. Howard and Smith (1986) found that computer-anxious managers are more negative about the usefulness of computers in management tasks. Igbaria, Guimaraes, & Davis (1995) found that perceived usefulness and ease of use directly impact usage of information technologies.

Prior computer experience, representing individual use, skills, and comfort with the technologies, plays a very important role in influencing user beliefs (perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use) toward computer technologies (Davis & Bostrum, 1993). Increased experience is likely to enhance user confidence in their ability to master and use computers in performing their tasks (DeLone, 1988; Kraemer, Danziger, Dunkle, & King, 1993). In addition, opportunities to gain experience using computers are found to influence users’ beliefs about the technologies (Rivard & Huff, 1988). The acceptance of computer technology depends on the technology itself and the level of use, comfort, skill, or expertise of the individual using the technology (Nelson, 1990).


Social cognitive, planned behavior, and technology acceptance theories provide a foundation for proposing our hypotheses regarding the effects of experience on media appropriateness. The rational choice, based on a match between media and task characteristics, is reflected by the concepts of outcome expectations (Badura, 1977, 1982), behavioral intentions (Ajzen, 1985, 1991), and perceived usefulness (Davis et al., 1989). Our argument for the role of an individual’s media experience (prior use, skills, and comfort) is reflected in the concept of efficacy expectations (Badura, 1977, 1982), perceived behavioral control (Ajzen, 1985, 1991), and perceived ease of use (Davis et al., 1989). A central premise derived from the above discussion is that prior experience influences outcome expectations or perceived usefulness of media in performing certain tasks, and thus, plays an equal or even more important role in determining media appropriateness than the rational choice-based theories.

Human behavior is more self-interest, efficiency oriented than rationality motivated (Williams, Phillips, & Lum, 1985). Use of a rich medium, such as a meeting, to deliver a straightforward message to a large group is inefficient; most time-cautious individuals avoid doing this. But human behavior is also experience based. If individuals are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with using an email system to distribute a message, and view learning to send an email as more time consuming and inefficient than having a group meeting, they would choose a richer rather than a rationally efficient medium. This behavior outcome, though irrational, is certainly a reflection upon the previously established experience. In this instance, most individuals have tremendous experience with face-to-face, group meeting, or telephone communications in dealing with various types of tasks. Using these traditional media has become more instinctive or habitual than using new media such as email or EMS.

Carlson and Zmud (1994) suggested that media choice is determined by the fit of the perceived media richness and perceived information richness. These perceptions are built upon previous experience with the media in addition to the objective view of media characteristics. Experience with media will increase the user’s skill, comfort, and use of the media, which in turn, enables users to facilitate appropriate media choice. Following this logic of experienced-based media choice, face-to-face and telephone communications should be viewed as the richest media because individuals have extensive experience with them long before they are even exposed to handwriting and typing. Experience enables the development of familiarity, expertise, and comfort with the media. Because individuals have high levels of expertise and familiarity with face-to-face and telephone communication, they would naturally and instinctively prefer these media over other unfamiliar ones. This argument is consistent with the prior research, which has found face-to-face communication to be the richest and most appropriate medium for communicating both ambiguous and simple tasks.

Due to learning and habitual effects, individuals will perceive traditional media such as face-to-face, group meetings, and telephone as rich media, and this perception will remain more stable than the perception toward new media. For example, Rice (1993) and Rice and Case (1983) have found that people’s perceptions about the appropriateness of face-to-face and group meetings for most tasks were ranked high and did not change over time, whereas perceptions about text and new media did. Rice and Case also found that managers’ perceptions of email for different tasks changed over time. Therefore, we have the following hypotheses regarding the effects of experience on media appropriateness.

H1: An individual’s perceived appropriate choices between traditional and new media will be associated with one’s media experience. Specifically,

H1a: Traditionally rich media such as face-to-face, group meetings, and telephone will be perceived as more appropriate for most organizational tasks than new communication media.

H1b: Even after gaining experience with all media, individuals will perceive traditionally rich media as more appropriate than new media.

H1c: With experience, perceptions of new media appropriateness will change more than perceptions of traditionally rich media appropriateness.

An individual’s experience with a medium also affects the degree to which he or she is aware of the capability of the medium. Individuals who have frequently used a medium or are comfortable and skillful with a certain medium should have a better understanding of the capability and appropriateness of the medium than those who have barely known or rarely used the medium. Schmitz and Fulk (1991) posited that expertise in using new communication technologies facilitates choice and use. Lack of media-related skills inhibits use; objectively defined rich or lean media may be perceived as irrelevant if the user does not have the skill to learn and use them. Individuals with little experience will have difficulty making judgments of the media’s richness (Kerr & Hiltz, 1982; Johansen, 1977). Rice and Case (1983) found that manager judgments of an email system’s overall appropriateness are significantly associated with the duration of usage. Schmitz and Fulk (1991) found that perceived email richness varied across individuals and covaried with social influences and media experience factors. Trevino and Webster (1992) reported that an individual’s computer skill affected email and Vmail evaluation. Therefore, based on the above discussions, we suggest:

H2: An individual’s perceptions of media appropriateness will be associated with one’s media experiences. Specifically,

H2a: Increase in the perceived appropriateness of a medium will be associated with increase in frequency of use of that medium;

H2b: Increase in the perceived appropriateness of a medium will be associated with increase in comfort with the medium;

H2c: Increase in the perceived appropriateness of a medium will be associated with increase in the skill of using the medium.



Subjects included 295 MBA students who were recruited from an introductory computer information systems course. The course required students to be involved in several team projects during a seven-week period. Students were also taught to use new media to communicate with team members in addition to the use of familiar media. The average age of the subjects was 27 years old with an average of four years work experience. Thirty-one percent of the subjects were women and 30% were international students. One hundred and ninety-three students owned personal computers and 113 students had modems that allowed them to communicate electronically with their peers from remote sites. Students’ computer experiences ranged from novice users (10%), occasional users (36%), frequent users (33%), to professional users (21%).

An issue of using student subjects is the difference in their social backgrounds and contexts from those of business managers. However, there are two rationales on which the MBA students were considered as being appropriate subjects for this study. First, it has been demonstrated that, in studying managers’ reaction and evaluation of new information technologies, MBA students may be used as samples that are representative to business managers. For example, Briggs, Balthazard, and Dennis (1996) reported a study that compares the reactions and evaluations of MBA students and working executives to an electronic meeting system. Their study revealed no significant differences in technology evaluation between the graduate business students and senior executives. The presumed social differences between MBA students and executives did not cause them to evaluate the technologies differently. Briggs et al. suggested that one can obtain a conservative estimate of the evaluations of executives to new technology by testing it with graduate business students. The focus of our study is on individual choice or appropriation of communication media, which include computer-based new media. Thus, we believe that the MBA student sample was an appropriate approximation of real-world managers.

Second, most of the MBA students in the sample had worked or were working as managers in business organizations (an average of four years of work experience). Although they were MBA students, subjects had sufficient business experiences or were themselves business managers at the time of our study. In addition, upon starting their program, these MBA students were organized into long-term working groups to simulate real business teams and contexts. Given this student profile and the nature of the task (evaluating communication media), we believe that this sample was appropriate for the research.

Longitudinal Quasi-Experimental Design and Procedures

The research involved a longitudinal quasi-experimental design to study the effect of experience on the perception of multiple coexisting communication technologies, specifically the perception of the appropriateness of each medium for various tasks. Longitudinal research provides important opportunities to investigate the media perception changes over time, which is largely lacking but greatly needed in communication research (Rogers, 1986). Additionally, a quasi-experimental design relaxes the rigorous control of all possible variables and provides a more natural communication setting for the purpose of this study (Emory, 1980). The essential nature of the design involved the following four steps:

1. Pretest questionnaire. At the beginning of the study, a pretest questionnaire was distributed among the subjects to collect measures such as background information, computer experience, and the subject’s current experience with various communication technologies and his or her judgment of the appropriateness of nine communication media for 11 tasks. Two hundred and ninety-five subjects returned the measurements.

2. Group formation and assignments. Sixty groups were formed with five members in each group. Groups were formed based on the individual’s area of expertise in order to approximate the cross-functional teams used in workplaces. Teams were given two projects with which to collaborate. The two projects entailed the analysis of two extensive business cases. Groups were required to write up their analysis and recommendations for each case based on the questions given. To assure that group members were involved in collaborative team efforts, and thereby engaged in the use of various media to communicate, groups were instructed to (1) independently read the cases and draft their answers for each question prior to any meeting; (2) arrange group meeting(s) to discuss answers; (3) reach agreement for each question during the group meeting(s); (4) assign one to two members to write up the group results for each question on their own time and space; (5) electronically transmit the write-ups to one individual who will then edit, integrate, and format the final report; (6) electronically transmit the final report to all members for final approval; and (7) gather together for final preparation for the class and decide the order of authorship that will appear on the cover of the case report (the first two authors will get extra points for being the major contributors).

3. Instructions in the use of new communication media. Of the nine communication media examined in this study, only email and EMS showed uneven familiarity and prior experience. Most students were comfortable and familiar with the use of face-to-face meetings (one-to-one or group), telephone, Vmail/answering machine, fax, formal letter, and handwritten note. Thus, to equalize their skills with email and EMS, all subjects were taught to use both media. Several email functions such as send, reply, copy, attch a file, and construct a distribution list were taught. Subjects were also required to turn in copies of at least 10 email messages at the end of the seventh week. In terms of the EMS, VisionQuest, designed by Intellect Corporation to support group meetings, was adopted and taught for this study. All groups were taught to resolve a business dilemma case using VisionQuest in a computer lab that lasted one and a half hours. Groups used most of the features supported by the system. Groups were also encouraged to use VisionQuest on their own to conduct electronic brainstorming or idea generation in the computer lab. In fact, several students brought in their former colleagues to use the VisionQuest system.

4. Post-experiment questionnaire. A post-experiment questionnaire was collected from the subjects at the end of the seventh week. The measures collected were the same as the pretest measurements to evaluate the differences before and after the study. In addition, one open-ended question asking the subjects to elaborate on the major changes of their perception was included in the final questionnaire. Two hundred and seventy-one subjects returned their questionnaires.

Communication Environment of the Study

This study was conducted in an environment where there were many common communication media available to the students. For example, every student had a mailbox located next to the school’s cafeteria. They also had access to pay phones and fax machines in close proximity. There were two computer labs located on the second floor and several small meeting rooms scattered around the three-story building. Classrooms and library were both located on the first floor. Students, thus, had many communication choices conveniently located in the same building. Most MBA students in this environment were taking five to six classes concurrently in order to obtain their MBA degree in the 11-month period, thus spending most of their time in the same three-story building. There were many opportunities for subjects to engage in communications due to the common core courses they had to take at the time of this study. The availability of individual mailboxes to collect notes and letters, meeting rooms for face-to-face meetings, computer labs for email and the EMS, fax machines for quick transmission of documents, and pay phones for voice communication and messaging allowed students access to multiple media in a natural, business-like communication environment. Poststudy analysis of self-report found that groups, on average, were engaged in seven group meetings, conducted electronic meeting systems 2.7 times, composed 14 emails, initiated 11.4 phone calls and nine voice messages, wrote 3.2 notes/letters, transmitted two fax messages, and were involved in 10.5 face-to-face individual meetings during the seven-week period.

The MBA students and the testing environment were appropriate for this study to evaluate media appropriateness with different tasks since the nature of the projects entailed many activities that were examined in this study. Students had to exchange routine, urgent, sensitive, and important information, generate ideas, and clarify viewpoints to complete the projects based on the specific work procedures given by the instructor. In addition, the division of labor, ordering of authorship, and the coordination of work naturally involves negotiation and conflict resolution, which were tasks examined in the study. The instructor provided specific comments and marks on each answer so that team members could easily identify contributions from their peers.


Judgments of media appropriateness and self-report of media experience were collected from 295 MBA students during the seven-week period. The same measures on these two variables were collected twice: once before and once after the study.

Media Appropriateness

Social Presence Activities

Eleven tasks were used to evaluate how appropriate various communication technologies are for each of the activities. These tasks are adapted from a set of commonly recurring office activities developed by Short et al. (1976). Based on extensive validation using different methods, Short et al. concluded that these activities are likely to be affected differently by various communication media. These activities have been used in several recent studies (e.g., Rice, 1992, 1993). The 10 tasks originally developed by Short et al. include: exchanging information, negotiating or bargaining, getting to know someone, asking questions, staying in touch, exchanging time-sensitive information, generating ideas, resolving disagreements, making decisions, and exchanging confidential information. Among the existing 10 tasks/activities, this study modified the original “exchanging information” into two specific tasks: exchanging routine information and exchanging important information. The purpose of this modification was to complement the existing two other information exchanges that were added in recent research (urgent/timely and confidential/sensitive information) (Rice & Case, 1983; Steinfield, 1986; Rice, 1993). Although the characteristics of each individual medium in terms of its richness or social presence can be evaluated from a set of semantic differential ratings such as (im)personable, (in)sensitive, and cold/warm, the use of specific tasks allows better comparison and evaluation between a task and a medium (Rice, 1993).

Communication Media

Nine communication media were evaluated in this study. With the exception of EMS, the remaining eight communication media used in this study are commonly used in most organizations: face-to-face (one-to-one), group meetings, telephone, Vmail (answering machine), handwritten note, formal letter, email, and fax. The answering machine, though not equivalent to the Vmail system, is grouped with Vmail due to the characteristics of the subjects used in this study. Not all students own expensive Vmail systems like those installed in many corporations, but most have answering machines attached to their telephones. However, it is not uncommon for corporate workers to use their Vmail systems as merely an answering machine to leave and track messages. In addition, faculty members who taught these MBA students all have Vmail systems in their offices, and students had many opportunities to use Vmail when communicating with their instructors.

Media Experience

Media experience was captured by asking participants to evaluate their frequency, competency/skill, and comfort of using nine communication media in three questions: (1) How frequently do you use these media? (2) How good are you in using these media? and (3) How comfortable are you when using these media? Likertlike 7-point scales were used ( 1 [least] to 7 [most]) to evaluate media experience across 11 media at the beginning and at the seventh week of the study. Measurements were taken twice.


Test-Retest Reliability of the Instrument

To assess the reliability of the instruments, a follow-up independent sample was collected that consisted of 68 MBA students whose demographic characteristics were similar to those in our original sample. The test-retest data were collected respectively with a three-hour interval, which is similar to the time interval used in Galletta and Lederer’s test-retest study (1989). The scales and wording of items in the test-retest instruments were exactly the same as used in our initial data gathering.

Test-retest statistics for the measures of respondents’ frequency of use, skill, and comfort with different media show that all test-retest correlations were significant at p

The above results indicate that our instrument is internally consistent and stable over the test-retest time period, which further suggests that the instrument is not likely to elicit a substantial reactivity effect. The test-retest results certainly help establish reliability and enhance confidence in the results of the study.

Individual Characteristics

To examine the effect of individual characteristics such as gender, computer ownership, and general computer experience, regression analysis was used to test whether these individual differences have any significant impact on subjects’ perception of appropriateness with each medium. Except for one case in which gender had a significant effect on appropriateness of face-to-face meetings, an individual’s general computer experience, gender, and computer ownership did not have significant effects on media choices. Additional tests were done to examine if the inclusion of these three variables to the existing research model would alter the pattern, and the addition of these variables did not significantly change the research model. This indifference supports the research tenet that states that immediately related experience with media will affect an individual’s perception of media appropriateness.

Dimensionality of Communication Media

To evaluate the dimensionality of the communication media, the overall mean for each medium across 11 communication activities was entered into a principal component analysis with varimax rotation. Table I presents the results of the factor loading of the nine communication media. Letters, written notes, Vmail/ answering machine, and fax loaded on the first factor (39% variance explained). Electronic meeting system and email, which are usually referred to as new media in recent communication research, loaded on the second dimension and explain 17% of the variance. Group meeting, face-to-face, and telephone communications, which are generally viewed as having high social presence and being the traditionally rich media, loaded on the third factor (12% variance explained). All eigenvalues from the three factors were greater than 1.0. The results suggest that communication media can be a multidimensional construct. The Cronbach alphas for the three factors were .77, .78, and .74, respectively. The overall Cronbach alpha for the nine communication media was .80.

Social Presence Activities as Multidimensional

Table 2 shows the results of the factor loadings of the 11 social presence activities using a principal component analysis. Six communication activities such as “resolve disagreements,” “make important decision,” and “get to know someone,” which are generally categorized as requiring high social presence (Rice, 1993), loaded on the first dimension and explained 45% of the variance. The remaining five social presence activities, such as “exchange routine information,” and “stay in touch,” loaded on the second dimension and explained 13% of the variance. Since the variances of the two dimensions are not extremely divergent (45% versus 13%), which is distinctively different from Rice’s 74% versus 10% (1993, p. 467), it can be argued that these 11 social presence activities are a two-dimensional construct. The Cronbach alphas for the two factors were .86 and .80, respectively. The overall Cronbach alpha for the 11 tasks was .88.

Hare (1960) proposed social presence as involving two dimensions: task and social behavior; Steinfield (1986) also labeled media use as involving social and task purposes. In addition, Tsuneki (1988) found emotionality and transmission of meaning as two major components of media. Although the five activities loaded into the second factor in this study were viewed as low social presence activities (Rice, 1993), these five activities (e.g., clarifying confusing viewpoints, exchanging important informations or staying in touch) can also be argued to be high social presence activities based on the media richness definition (Daft & Lengel, 1986).

Upon further evaluation of the underlying assumptions of the 11 activities and the analysis of subjects’ open-ended comments on the questionnaires, two categories seem to emerge to better describe these communication activities: reciprocal communications (first factor) and nonreciprocal communications (second factor). Reciprocal communication activities require high personal presence or attention from both the communication sender and the recipient during the communication act. Activities such as “exchange confidential or sensitive information” or “get to know someone” require that both communication parties be involved to be effective; thus, the media choices are different than for those activities not requiring reciprocated interactions. Nonreciprocal communication activities such as clarifying confusing viewpoints, though, may be categorized as rating high in social presence from the social presence and media richness literature, requiring less personal presence from both communication parties during the communication. This nonreciprocal communication activity can be effectively accomplished by having one party engaged in the process at a time or via the use of other media or support staff without distorting the original meaning or purpose of the communication tasks.

To further illustrate the concept of reciprocal and nonreciprocal communications, a former production manager commented on this study’s project requirement to electronically transmit an individual case analysis write-up to the case integrator: “Why should ‘I’ use email to transmit my report to my partner? When I was a manager, I just gave it to my secretary. That’s what secretary and staff are for-delegate! I should spend my time and attention dealing with things that absolutely need ‘me’ there.” Exchanging information, though the message can be important or urgent, does not require both parties to be involved and can also be delegated so that neither party needs to be present to complete the task of exchanging information. Some tasks such as “stay in touch with old friends” that were traditionally considered as requiring rich media or high social presence, can also be communicated via the “lean” email medium. One subject was impressed with the versatility of email and exclaimed, “I used to spend hours calling my friends in Jersey just to stay in touch. Now, I compose one email and send it to 10 friends that I usually called and I get 10 wonderful emails back without spending 10 times my valuable time…. That is cool!” It is evident that social presence activities were evaluated not by the social/emotional and task dimensions but by whether the tasks demand personal involvement/attention/time during the process of communication. This catogorization of tasks is certainly a “time-based” orientation toward communication and media, which is usually ignored in the traditional communication research. One possible explanation of this lack of focus on time as a variable may be due in large part to the one-shot data gathering approach used previously (Rogers, 1986). The longitudinal nature of this study enabled subjects to function in a realistic environment for a good period of time, thus enabling them to provide a more realistic and reliable evaluation than can be provided in a one-shot experimental study.

Hypothesis 1: Appropriateness of Traditional vs. New Communication Media

Table 3 shows the mean score results of media-task appropriateness at two different times. Table 4a and 4b present the individual and overall rankings of media under each task at Time 1 and Time 2. The overall means of each medium at two different times are illustrated below. According to the means across all communication tasks, the traditionally rich media such as face-to-face (6.26 vs. 6.41), group meetings (5.62 vs. 5.70), and telephone (5.38 vs. 5.35) were ranked higher and as more appropriate media than email (4.28 vs. 4.41), EMS (4.15 vs. 4.26), fax (3.84 vs. 3.85), letter (3.84 vs. 3.81), note (3.77 vs. 3.62), and voice mail/answering machine (3.26 vs. 3.25) at both times. This pattern of media perception supports H1a and H1b. H1a states that traditionally rich media will be perceived as more appropriate when compared with new media. Face-to-face, group meetings, and telephone were ranked as the most appropriate media even after seven weeks of experience in the study. This finding supports H1b, which suggests that the traditionally rich media will be perceived as more appropriate even when an individual has gained experience with the new media. However, some of the traditional media such as letter and handwritten note were ranked lower than new communication media at both time intervals. These rankings are similar to many studies in which email ranks higher than many traditional communications media such as letters or handwritten notes (Rice & Love, 1987; Trevino, Lengel, Gerloff, & Muir, 1990). Interestingly, EMS, which was ranked just below email, was considered more appropriate than were many other traditional media. Voice mail, which was ranked higher in many other comparisons (El-Shinnawy & Markus, 1992; Rice, 1993), ranked lowest among all nine communication media at both times in this study. This ranking might be the result of the wide use of email and group meetings among the participants.

T-test results (Table 3) comparing an individual’s evaluation from Time 1 to Time 2 revealed the effect of experience on perceptual changes in the appropriateness of each medium for each task. Significant changes in perceived appropriateness between Time 1 and Time 2 included: Face-to-face communication was perceived as more appropriate in dealing with clarifying confusing viewpoints (6.49 vs. 6.64; p

The appropriateness of using handwritten notes and formal letters to deal with certain tasks demonstrated some significant but reverse changes. Using handwritten notes to stay in touch (5.35 vs. 5.06; p

Among the new communication media, email was judged as more appropriate for several tasks such as getting to know someone (3.17 vs. 3.80; p

Hypothesis 2: Effects of Experience on Media Appropriateness

Table 5 shows t-test comparisons of user experience changes in terms of frequency, skill, and comfort with nine communication media. The results from this table help demonstrate the subjects’ experience changes during the seven-week period. These findings were then used to calculate the correlation between experience changes with a specific communication medium and perception on media appropriateness, which serves as the basis to support H2. The results show that frequency of use with group meetings (4.97 vs. 5.81; p

Results also indicate that communication media skill increased significantly with six communication media: face-to-face (6.15 vs. 6.34; p

Stepwise regressions were used to examine the associations between media experience and perceptions of media appropriateness. To enrich and broaden the understanding of effects of experience with media appropriateness and various tasks, two factors (reciprocal vs. nonreciprocal communications) that emerged from the earlier factor analysis of social presence communications (Table 2) were also included in the data analysis. All three scales of social presence activities (i.e., full scale-all activities; reciprocal-six activities; nonreciprocal-five activities) were regressed on the three experience measures. Table 6 presents standardized coefficients that are significant.

The results indicate that increased frequency of use with group meetings (p

Table 6 shows that for EMS (p


Unlike the predictions of the media richness or social presence theories, this study found that individuals do not exclusively or rationally evaluate communication media appropriateness from the sole viewpoint of task nature or social presence. This study found that an individual’s choice of media for a certain task is significantly correlated with one’s experience with the media rather than the rationally evaluated fit between media and tasks. An individual’s perceptions of media appropriateness vary widely according to one’s skill, comfort, and use of the media. This phenomenon is particularly notable in dealing with new media. Our findings suggest that as individuals gain more experience with media over time, they may reform their perceptions of media appropriateness for performing certain tasks. Over time, an individual’s media experience helps develop better understanding of the purposes and uses of new media and thus will allow the individual to make his or her media choice accordingly. An individual’s perception of media appropriateness will not remain constant over time if opportunities exist for learning. Therefore, instead of taking a mere mechanistic view of media-task fit, we need to consider dynamically the individual differences in media experience as well as media richness and task analyzability.

Based on the factor analysis results, the 11 generic communication tasks used in this study clustered into two factors. The factor loading patterns in this study appear difficult to interpret using a task analyzability or social presence perspective because some tasks with low analyzability/social presence and some tasks with high analyzability/social presence loaded into the same factor. This result suggests that the categorization of communication tasks into reciprocal and nonreciprocal communication tasks may provide an alternative way for investigating media choice behavior. This time-based view on communication tasks is more appropriate for organizational members who are constantly dealing with multiple tasks at hand and face a myriad of communiation media. Individuals, when faced with the need to communicate, tend to evaluate whether the communication tasks require personal attendance/attention/time or can be communicated via the use of delegation or media other than personal presence. Individuals appear to be more interested in completing the task at hand rather than consciously or intentionally choosing a “right” medium. In order to get the task done effectively, individuals may not always choose the most rational medium. This finding, though different from the current normative media-task thinking, provides an interesting and more relevant angle to examine an individual’s communication behavior.

Another interesting finding from this study is that increased frequency of use of certain communication media appears to be related to the decreased frequency of use of other media. In this study, subjects reported significantly increased use of group meetings, email, and EMS, and reported significantly decreased use of phone, letter, and fax during the same seven-week period. If viewing the total usage of communication media to complete a task as a linear equation, these results suggest that the increased experience with and use of group meetings, email, and EMS expanded the users’ media choices and allowed them to substitute other media with more suitable or appropriate media in a given time frame. This compensatory effect, tentatively labeled, seems contrary to some postulations in the literature. Huber (1990) stated that one of the mistaken impressions of advanced information technologies such as email and EMS was that they were often viewed “solely as substitutes for traditional technologies” (p. 51). However, he agreed that “people do substitute computer-assisted media for traditional media when it seems efficacious to do so” (p. 51). In this study, subjects were able to use multiple media and choose more appropriate media to compensate for the less appropriate media as their experience with media changed.

This study found that traditionally rich media were perceived as more appropriate for most of the communication tasks even after new media were introduced. This finding is not surprising given that the experience with these traditional media has been extensive and habitual. However, the encouraging findings from this study demonstrate that given proper experience with new media, individuals can develop new insight and perception toward new media, which can facilitate their habitual choice and use of the media, thus, successful implementation of new technologies.

While media-specific experiences as measured by frequency of use, skill, and comfort were found to affect perceived media appropriateness and choices, general individual characteristics such as computer experience, computer ownership, and gender did not have direct effect on perceptions of media appropriateness. This result is somewhat surprising given that one would expect computer experience to affect individual perception formation regarding the new computerbased media such as email and EMS. A plausible interpretation is that individual perceptions regarding appropriateness of email and EMS are more directly related to their specific experiences with email and EMS than to their generic computer experiences. Further research is needed to investigate the relationship between media-specific experience and generic computer experience, and how this relationship affects individual media appropriateness and choice.

Management can change employees’ perceptions and choice of communication media by mediating their experiences with different communication media. Use of new communication media may be limited if employees are not given opportunities to develop skill and comfort with new media. This study found that gaining experience means more than increasing the frequency of use. Although increased use of media certainly affects user perception of media appropriateness, increased skill and comfort level can also have significant effect on an individual’s perception. Companies need to formulate policies and provide means through which employees are encouraged to access and gain proper experience with the new communication media.

Limitations of the Study and Future Research

As with most studies of this type, the findings of the study should be interpreted with caution due to certain limitations discussed below. Media appropriateness was measured by abstract schemes of tasks rather than the specific communication incidents or scenarios used to investigate the media richness theory (Daft et al., 1987). However, as indicated by Rice (1993), little empirical validation has been done to test the media richness construct. The media-task appropriateness construct used in this study provides a more useful, meaningful, stable, and discriminating way to capture media (Rice, p. 481). This study further supports Rice’s postulation.

In addition, self-report measures were used to capture individual experiences with the media. However, concerns about whether participants actually used the media should be alleviated by knowing that the two team projects in which the teams were involved during the period of this study naturally led to the need for frequent communications among participants. Even so, it may be interesting in future research to use computer-generated logs of emails or all communications occurring among team members.

This study did not link individual experience with task performance. However, since the main concern of this study is to investigate whether individual’s perception of media-task appropriateness remains stable over time as experience changes, the main focus and dependent variable of this study is not performance. Future research may take a step further to collect communication effectiveness as well as task performance to see if increased experience with media affects performance.

Finally, this study’s use of MBA students as subjects circumscribes the extent to which our findings generalize. MBA students are not completely representative of the entire population of managers and professionals whose media evaluation and choices we would like to examine. These students are younger and, as a group, probably more computer literate than their counterparts in industry. Hence, computer experiences and skills may have been less an issue for this sample than it would have been for managers and professionals in general. However, the tests of individual gender, general computer experience, and computer ownership did not reveal any significant effect on media appropriateness; thus, these demographic differences between the MBA students and managers may not present an issue. These subjects were also probably more highly motivated to perform well than the general population, which may have caused perceived appropriateness of certain media to take on greater importance than it generally would. Management can assist employees to communicate effectively by mediating their media experience. Future research using real teams in an organizational setting will enhance our understanding and generalizability.


The proliferation of advanced computer-based technology has rapidly changed how organizations communicate. To increase the effectiveness of organizational communications and to develop appropriate investment strategies and training programs, it is critical for management to understand the nature and implications of the new communication media. This study simultaneously examined nine commonly used organizational communication technologies over a seven-week period with 295 MBA students who were actively engaged in two team projects. The contributions of this study can be demonstrated from three major areas.

First, the design of the study remedies some of the methodological problems of past research. It involved real teams who were engaged in performance-based projects in an environment where the availability of communication media is similar to modern corporations, and subjects were able to experience multiple communication media simultaneously over a seven-week period. This provides a more appropriate environment and research design for assessing media appropriateness and choice. It focuses on the over-time process nature of communication that was “almost entirely ignored” (Rogers, 1986) in the past communication research.

Second, this study used a large sample size to empirically demonstrate the effect of deliberately managed learning experience on media perception. The results can be applied by management to develop a “technology-use-mediation” organizational mechanism (Orlikowski et al., 1995) to help management provide ongoing attention and resources needed to effectively adopt computer-based communication technologies.

Third, researchers can build upon the results of this study to advance research in the areas of communication and management of advanced information technologies. Currently, theoretical developments on media choice or use mostly “presume” that organizational members learn to choose communication technologies wisely (Huber, 1986, p. 51). This study empirically demonstrates that a user’s communication media experience will affect their perception of the fit between media and task.

Another contribution of this study is the understanding of how different media (new and old) can augment, complement, and substitute for one another even when the tasks at hand are qualitatively and quantitatively different. In fact, results indicate that increased use of some media (e.g., group meeting, email, and EMS) was associated with significantly decreased use of other media (e.g., phone, formal letter, and fax). This compensatory effect across new and old media suggests that organizations can strategically implement selected communication technologies if the implementation includes provisions for training experience.

The findings of this study have some important research and practical implications. One implication is that individual perceptions of media appropriateness are linked with prior media experience, regardless of the media and tasks. As an individual’s use, comfort, and skill with media change, so will one’s perceptions of media appropriateness change. This result suggests that, in addition to considering medium-task fit, researchers need to investigate the effect of individual media experience on media perception and choice. In other words, there is a need to expand the current theories of media richness and social presence to systematically investigate the joint effects of communication technologies, task characteristics, and individual experience.

From an organizational perspective, management can develop effective programs to encourage the use of new technologies, which in turn may affect employees’ perceptions of the new technologies. Management should be aware that although an individual’s perceptions of media can be manipulated, the traditional face-to-face communication may still be habitually viewed as the most appropriate medium. It should not be presumed that traditional communication media such as face-to-face interactions can be substituted with new media in all cases. Rather, traditional and new communication media complement each other. An individual’s perceptions and choice of media depend on factors such as one’s experience with the media as well as the characteristics of the media and the communication task. Therefore, management needs to take a balanced view when adopting and managing new communications technologies.

Subject Areas: Emerging Information Technologies, Media Choice, Telecommunications, and User Learning Experience.


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Ruth C. King

College of Commerce and Business Administration, University at UrbanaChampaign, Champaign, IL 61820, email: rc-king@ux6.cso.uiuc.edu

Weidong Xia

Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, email: wxia@vms.cis.pitt.edu

Ruth C. King is an assistant professor of information systems at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. in information systems from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests involve the strategic use of information systems in organizational context, computer-supported group collaboration, organizational communications with emerging technologies and information systems professional development. She has published in Journal of Management Information Systems, European Journal of Information Systems, Journal of Information Technology Management, Journal of High Technology Research, Data Base and International Journal of Business. She has previously held a faculty appointment in the Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh.

Weidong Xia is a doctoral candidate at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a faculty member and the deputy director of the Information Systems and Management Science Division at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. His current research interests are management of information systems infrastructure, telecommunications, and end-user computing. He has published in MIS Quarterly, Journal of End- User Computing, and a number of international conference proceedings. He is also the coauthor of two textbooks on computer applications, and information systems analysis and design.

Copyright American Institute for Decision Sciences Fall 1997

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