Situational Influences on the Use of Communication Technologies; a Meta-Analysis and Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

As communication technologies such as e-mail have become indispensable for business communication, the study of the use and effects of such technologies is increasingly relevant. In this article, the authors present a model of the different factors influencing e-mail use in organizations. Building on three theoretical appreaches concerning the adoption and use of communication technologies, they present a meta-analysis of recent studies about e-mail use in organizations. The results of the analysis form the basis for a model explaining e-mail use. A first validation of the model using survey methodology is presented.

Keywords: conmmunication technologies: media choice theory: e-mail; meta-analysis; organizational communication

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In today's organizations, computer technologies play an increasingly important part as media for business communication. At present, technologies such as e-mail are no longer considered as advanced innovations in the way we communicate--they have become relatively common, in the sense that their use in organizational communication is no longer a question. Such technologies are being used, on a large and still increasing scale and, as such, have reached a stage of maturity almost comparable to that of the telephone. E-mail has now become "ubiquitous in contemporary organizations" (Minsky & Marin, 1999, p. 194) and it has become virtually impossible to consider organizational communication without attention to computer-based communication technologies (Rice & Gattiker, 2001). One can argue that such maturity makes the study of the use of such technologies obsolete-it's there, it's being used, period. On the other hand, it can be argued that the fact that these technologies are now so pervasive makes such studies more relevant. Given that communication technologies are an integral part of our organizational communication landscape, explaining the extent to which they are used and with what effect is important.

Since the late 1970s, a considerable research tradition concerning the adoption and use of such technologies has emerged in which emphases and conceptualizations have shifted over time. In this article, we present a comparison of different theoretical approaches that have emerged as part of this research tradition. Our aim is to construct a model that is based on these approaches and integrates useful insights from each approach to determine its relative value in explaining today's use of communication technologies. In surveying these theoretical approaches, we focus on the use of e-mail because it has become the most widely used communication technology over the past decade (Katz & Rice, 2002; Minsky & Marin, 1999). The model we present is based on a meta-analysis of recent empirical studies concerning e-mail use. We also discuss the results of an exploratory survey study in which the results of this meta-analysis are partially tested. The central research questions addressed in this article are (a) Which theoretical approaches about the use of communication technologies in organizations can be identified? (b) How can these approaches be integrated in a model explaining the use of e-mail in organizations? and (c) What can be concluded concerning the relative value of each of these approaches?

To answer the first research question, we identify three theoretical approaches that can be distinguished in the study of organizational communication technologies. The first of these includes "contingency theories" in which the fit between medium and task is considered the primary explanation for people's media choices. The second approach embodies "subjectivistic" theories that stress the importance of the social context for media choice processes. Finally, the third approach is "situational" theories that emphasize the importance of a number of specific characteristics of communication technology and of users' experience and expertise in perceiving these characteristics. …