Media Richness Theory: Effects on Communication

Instructor: Anthony Aparicio

Tony taught Business and Aeronautics courses for eight years; he holds a Master's degree in Management and is completing a PhD in Organizational Psychology

Our decision to use one form of communication over another will likely determine how well the message is understood. Media Richness Theory can help us use the right means to get our messages across to others.

What is Media Richness Theory?

Media Richness Theory, or MRT, is the idea that all types of communication are compared to each other in their ability to convey understanding to another person. When we speak about how 'rich' a source of communication is, we are referring to how much information is being transferred from the sender to the receiver.

In order to demonstrate what MRT is, we are going to follow a new manager named Bill. Bill is learning about communication and we will be able to help him interact with his employees along the way.

Employee Feedback

Bill has noticed that Robert has been late for work a few times and that his performance is less than normal. Bill decides to send an email to Robert to let him know that he is not performing well and needs to do better.

Is this the right form of communication for Bill to use?

The choice to use email means that it is a one-way communication and there is no way for Robert to see Bill's expressions or hear his voice. Robert cannot tell if Bill is angry, disappointed, concerned, or even sarcastic. Email is not a very rich form of communication because it does not convey gestures, tone, feedback, or other things that you can see and hear during a richer form of communication such as face-to-face. If Bill had called Robert into his office to discuss the matter, Robert would be able to see Bill's gestures and expressions as well as the tone of his voice. Additionally, Bill would be able to see Robert's expression and get immediate feedback. Robert would also have the chance to explain his reasons for being late.

Richness in Communication

Let us list some of the ways that we can communicate messages and rank them from the least amount of richness to the most:

  • text message
  • unaddressed documents
  • written letters and emails
  • emails with images
  • voicemail
  • telephone
  • video conferencing
  • face-to-face conversation

As you can see, the amount of information received by a sender in a text message is less than what it would be in an email or phone conversation. Each level adds more details and therefore increases the amount of understanding that the receiver has at the end. The chances that the information will be misunderstood are much less also. Another factor to consider is how personal the information is. You would not tell someone he is fired by text message; it would be more appropriate to tell him in person.

Text messaging has the least amount of richness and is most likely to be misunderstood. Texting includes an abbreviated form of language with lots of acronyms and phonetic ways of shortening words/phrases for convenience and speed. Can you understand this text message?

FWIW 2moro will B GR8 4 me... TTYL

Translation: For what it's worth, tomorrow will be great for to you later

Richer mediums transfer more information
Media Richness

Make the Most of Each Medium

Now that we have given Bill his feedback regarding his communication with Robert, Bill now thinks that he should use the richest channel he possibly can at all times. One of the things that Bill did was update the employee handbook with all of the organizational policies. He calls a meeting of all his subordinates in the conference room and reads the manual to them, which takes about four hours.

What feedback would you give to Bill based on this scenario?

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