The purpose of the present essay is to explore the distinctive aspects of interactive communication in business organizations. Certainly even a casual observer of today's organizational life would note how remarkably it has changed in recent decades, due to the introduction of various types of computer-related communication technologies. These new communication technologies are distinctive in their degree of interactivity, allowing participants to exchange information in a manner that is not like either interpersonal or mass communication channels (Reardon & Rogers, 1988). In fact, the newness and distinctiveness of the new technologies leads to difficulties in what best to call this new category of communication. For instance, one widely-used communication textbook refers to the new communication technologies as "machine-assisted interpersonal communication," a rather clumsy term, although an accurate description. Others refer to this new type of communication as "computer-mediated communication." Here we use the term "interactive communication," as we feel the interactivity of these means of communication is their most distinctive quality.
The new communication technologies are networking tools in that their main function is to connect individuals' computers by telephone lines or cables. These interactive technologies can link distant individuals who might otherwise be unable or unlikely to communicate. Interactive communication technologies facilitate both the one-to-one and the one-to-several exchange that is characteristic of interpersonal communication, and the one-to-many flow of information that is characteristic of mass media communication.
Growth of Interactive Communication
The growing importance of the impacts of the new interactive communication technologies has not gone unnoticed in the pages of the Journal of Business Communication (see, for example, Pappa & Pappa, 1992; Rice & Danowski, 1993). Nor have practitioners of business communication failed to notice the "information revolution" that has been occurring in their organizations. New opportunities for consulting, training, and analysis are provided by the problems associated with the introduction and impacts of the new interactive technologies.
One of the most widely-discussed new interactive communication technologies is the Internet, a computer network linking a large number of previously-existing computer networks ("Internet" stands for interlocking networks). The number of Internet users was estimated at somewhere between 4 and 20 million as of January 1994, and is doubling every year. The number of Internet "hosts" (computers that serve as a gateway to one of the sub-networks linked to the Internet) increased from 213 in August, 1981; to 727,000 in January, 1992; to 2,217,000 in February, 1994, with perhaps as many as 20 million users in 146 nations.
It is difficult to estimate the number of users of Internet because it is a highly decentralized network that originally grew out of the U.S. Department of Defense's ARPANET, which was designed in 1969 for military defense purposes. Accordingly, ARPANET does not have a central node that could be destroyed by nuclear attack. Thus Internet routes a user's message from computer to computer via telephone lines through a myriad of possible pathways, linking thousands of local and other sub-networks, to an eventual destination.
In recent years, Internet has become the network of networks, as its number of users reached critical mass: the point at which a certain minimum number of users have adopted so that the rate of adoption of the new communication technology suddenly takes off (Rogers, 1995). Once an interactive communication technology reaches this critical mass, as in the case of a mass of radioactive material that goes critical (the phenomenon in nuclear physics from which critical mass derives it name), each additional user increases the number of potential network connections exponentially (Rice & Danowski, 1993). Thus, one can understand why getting to critical mass is the crucial strategy for the introduction of an interactive technology.
Once thousands of sub-networks began to join Internet, this interactive communication technology became more valuable to both its existing and potential users and thus created a kind of synergy through which the total was more than the sum of its parts. This is the phenomenon that we call critical mass.
Originally, Internet's predecessor ARPANET was government-supported and so commercial traffic was limited. The government, military, and cryptographic origins of computers is still indicated today in such terms as "break," "escape," "command," and "code." Presently, however, the Internet restrictions on commercial traffic have been largely removed, although the direct advertising of products for sale on the Internet is still discouraged.
Although it's the largest and most widely known interactive computer network, Internet is one of the least user-friendly (although this situation is improving). Other interactive, and more user-friendly, networks like the commercial online services of Prodigy, CompuServe, Genie, America Online, and Delphi enrolled more than 4 million users by late 1994. Most individuals access these network services through a personal computer (and modem) at home or at work, and utilize these networking services to obtain information, exchange messages, and manage their business affairs. In fact, an increasing number of U.S. business organizations have established "virtual offices" on these online services in order to serve potential customers.
The number of users of these commercial online services in the United States is increasing rapidly, and they appear to have reached critical mass as well. These commercial online services have also recently begun to provide access to the Internet, thus facilitating user access to the mega-network.
The present essay is mainly concerned with the interactive communication technologies of electronic mail (e-mail) over the Internet, and somewhat less so with voice mail, group decision support systems, and computer conferencing. These are the types of interactive communication most widely used by business organizations today and they are presently impacting the nature of business communication in powerful ways.
The Concept of Interactivity
Interactivity is the degree to which participants in a communication process have control over, and can exchange roles in, their mutual discourse (Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988, p. 10). There are several important concepts in this definition of interactivity: mutual discourse, exchange of roles, and control are key. "Mutual discourse" means the degree to which a particular communication act is based on a prior series of communication acts. For example, consider a face-to-face conversation between individuals A and B. In answer to B's request, A tells B the telephone number of someone that B wishes to call. A knows from previous exchanges with B that B understands that the number to be called is within their work organization, so only the last four digits of the telephone number (the extension) need to be conveyed. In this example there is a cumulative nature to the interactive communication exchange. In this sense, interactive communication via e-mail is much like face-to-face communication, at least in regard to the mutual discourse aspect. By "exchange of roles" in our definition of interactivity we mean the ability of individual A to take the place of B, and thus to act as B, at least in a psychological sense. Individual B, of course, can also take the role of Individual A. Empathy is an important aspect of this role exchange.
The degree to which one can empathize with another individual, at least at some minimum level, is also necessary for any type of communication to be effective. Empathy may be particularly important in the case of interactive communication, where the usual nonverbal dimensions of human communication are largely missing. For example, an e-mail message is mainly just text (in other words, just verbal communication). Missing are the facial expressions, appearance, personal distance, and other nonverbal clues usually present in a face-to-face conversation. Interactive communication technologies, therefore, generally have a relatively low degree of social presence.
"Control" in the present definition of interactivity is the degree to which an individual can choose the timing, content, and sequence of a communication act, search for alternatives, enter message content into storage, etc. The two or more participants in the interactive communication usually share control over their exchange of information. For this reason, we prefer to call the individuals involved in interactive communication "participants," rather than sources and receivers. They have roughly coequal roles in exchanging messages and creating a common meaning for the symbolic information that they exchange.
Physical Distance and Social Presence
In face-to-face communication, the two or more participants are, by definition, in each others' immediate physical presence. One difference in the case of interactive communication is that the participants need not be in each others' presence. Essentially, physical distance is removed as a variable influencing human communication by the new communication technologies. For example, the PEN (Public Electronic Network) system in Santa Monica, California, allows its several thousand participants to exchange messages irrespective of the physical distances between them (Rogers, Collins-Jarvis, & Schmitz, 1994; Schmitz, Rogers, Phillips, & Paschal, in press). Similarly, Internet allows an individual to exchange message content with anyone else on this worldwide computer network. The cost of communication is no longer proportionate to distance.
Overcoming Social Distance on Interactive Systems
Interactive communication systems also help overcome social distance barriers between certain individuals. For example, the PEN system allows very unlike individuals to exchange information. One of the most important social problems of Santa Monica is homelessness. The 90,000 "homed" residents of this California city live intermixed with an officially-estimated 2,000 homeless individuals. Contact between the two categories of Santa Monicans is often a source of conflict: e.g., local businessmen discourage the homeless from loitering near their stores, as they fear that their business volume will suffer. When PEN was launched in 1989, one of the first e-mail "conferences" to be established dealt with homelessness. All of the first message entries were made by the homed from their home or business computers. The PEN system provided two dozen public terminals, located in city libraries, city hall, and in other public sites. Soon, homeless individuals began to participate in the PEN Homeless Conference, using the public terminals (which are free to users), expressing viewpoints quite different from those of the homed participants.
The homed and homeless could never have engaged in dialog about homelessness, other than through an e-mail system like PEN, where the absence of the participants' social presence removed the usual barriers to interaction of appearance and social status. Eventually, the Homeless Conference participants decided on a course of action by establishing the SHWASHLOCK Project (for showers, washers, and lockers), which allowed the homeless to improve their appearance so that they could compete more effectively in job interviews. As a result, a number of the homeless in Santa Monica are now employed (Schmitz, Rogers, Phillips, & Pashal, in press).
Note in this illustration the crucial role played by PEN's public terminals, which allowed the homeless to participate. Without such special efforts to make the interactive communication system available to everyone, unequal access can widen the information gaps between the "haves" and the "have-nots." In Santa Monica, PEN's public terminals helped remove social distance, as well as physical distance, as a barrier to communication.
A common finding in evaluations of the effects of e-mail systems is that they lengthen the physical and social distance of person-to-person network links, thus connecting individuals to others who are relatively more heterophilous than would otherwise be the case. Heterophily is the degree to which two or more individuals who communicate are different or unalike (Rogers, in press). With greater heterophily in an individual's network links usually comes a greater degree of information diversity and richness as suggested by Grannovetter's (1973) theory of the strength-of-weak-ties.
Easier Access and Information Overload
The greater ease of communication across physical and social distance provided by interactive communication systems may lead to problems of information overload. For example, Bill Gates, the chairman and co-founder of Microsoft, the gigantic software company, makes his e-mail address known to all Microsoft employees (although he keeps his telephone number fairly private). Employees send a total of 200 million e-mail messages to each other every month. Gates reserves several hours each day to communicate on e-mail. Individuals who are not employees of Microsoft have little difficulty in gaining access to Gates's e-mail address. He was interviewed for a profile article in The New Yorker by John Seabrook (1994) via e-mail (without obtaining prior permission from Microsoft officials to do so).
Seabrook asked Gates in his initial message what kind of understanding of another person one could obtain by electronic mail. Gates responded 18 minutes later, and the journalist and Gates then "talked" by e-mail in a month-long conversation. Seabrook felt that he really understood Gates through their e-mail exchange. Eventually, their e-mail exchanges led to a one-hour personal interview by Seabrook with Gates at Microsoft headquarters near Seattle.
The ultimate invitation to information overload would seem to be offered by President Bill Clinton, whose electronic mail address is "president he has received a tremendous volume of e-mail, most of which is handled by White House staff members (which is how the nation's President copes with information overload). Interestingly, the sysop (system operator) who manages this White House "virtual community" is a deaf and blind woman. Vice-President Gore also publicly announced his e-mail address ("vice.president on occasion, participated in a public "press conference" in which anyone can e-mail questions for the Vice-President to answer (also through e-mail). One of the authors sent an e-mail message to President Clinton to inform him that we were writing an article on interactive communication technologies. An automated response was received from the White House within three minutes. This response listed a variety of useful leads to further sources of information.
The interactive technologies essentially create a kind of "virtual group," a pseudo-gathering of distanced individuals who dialogue via computer keyboards (Rafaeli, Sudweek, & McLaughlin, in press). Such virtual groups have a relatively low degree of social presence. Conventional wisdom suggests that exchange via the interactive technologies is more appropriate for task-oriented communication and to maintain already established personal relationships, but would be less appropriate for delicate negotiations, or for more socio-emotional communication. However, an investigation by Rice and Love (1987) of an electronic mail conference linking medical specialists found that a substantial amount of the messages consisted of "electronic emotion," that is, socioemotional content that had nothing to do with medical affairs. Similarly, content analyses of business and military computer networks typically find a considerable amount of frivolous, whimsical, and joking messages. One policy issue for organization managers who oversee interactive systems is whether or not to censor, or at least to discourage, such irrelevant message content. The usual position is to "let anything go."
Getting to Critical Mass
Critical mass was defined earlier as a point at which a certain minimum number of users have adopted so that the rate of adoption of a new communication technology suddenly takes off (Rogers, in press). Once the diffusion of a new interactive idea reaches critical mass, its further rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining. As more and more individuals in a system (like a work organization) adopt it, an interactive innovation is perceived as increasingly beneficial to both previous and potential adopters. For example, the perceived value of an e-mail system in an organization depends on whether or not the other individuals that one wishes to contact by e-mail are accessible via the electronic-mail system.
How does an individual determine how fully an interactive technology has been adopted, and thus its potential value if the individual adopts? Individuals decide whether or not to adopt on the basis of their perceptions and expectations regarding others' future adoption. It is a case of "watching while being watched." Mostly, an individual watches the others who are members of the individual's immediate social network. And they, in turn, watch the individual who watched them.
What are some strategies for getting a new interactive technology in an organization to critical mass?
1. Target top officials in the organization for initial adoption.
2. Provide incentive for early adoption of the interactive innovation (that is, prior to reaching critical mass).
3. Introduce the innovation to intact groups (such as the R&D unit in an organization).
Flexibility and Control of Interactive Communication Technologies
Electronic mail is a type of interactive technology that is "networked," meaning that the technology serves to interconnect participants by computer and telephone lines or local area networks. The Electronic Messaging Association (EMA), which represents 400 vendors of e-mail technology, estimated in 1994 that 30 to 50 million people use e-mail. EMA estimates that in the business sector alone, the number of North American users has increased from one million in 1984 to 16 million in 1993. North American e-mail users sent five or six billion e-mail messages in 1993 (Leslie, 1994).
The users of an e-mail communication system are connected so that each user is networked with all others. It is thus a network of linked participants. The fact that the communication technology is of a networking nature gives the user a greater level of control over communication than in the usual case of top-down organizational communication. One much cited example which demonstrates the flexibility and decentralized control of e-mail communication systems is the factoring of the ninth Fermat number. Solving this immense mathematical problem required such a level of manpower and computer resources that it had never been attempted. Researchers at Bell Communications Research developed a computer software program that divided the project of factoring the ninth Fermat number into individual tasks, and then used the Internet to recruit researchers to this task. E-mail was used to attract several hundred researchers throughout the world, to distribute individual tasks to the researchers, and to return the completed work to Bell Communications Research, where the final answer was computed by merging the individual contributions. The problem could not have been solved without e-mail (Leslie, 1994).
Flexibility and Control
Interactive communication technologies also differ from other communication systems in that these new technologies have a high level of flexibility. Flexibility is defined as the degree to which a system is readily changed or changing, yielding to influence, and capable of responding to, or conforming to, new and changing situations. The flexibility of e-mail is apparent in that the user can choose whether or not to send or receive a message, when to send or receive a message, and the destination of the message. In addition, the user can often make these choices without regard to cost, time, geographic location, or hierarchial level of the destination in the organization. If a janitor in an organization has an e-mail account, he/she could express work-related concerns through e-mail directly to the CEO of the corporation. E-mail is a communication tool, one that can be utilized in a wide variety of ways. Because an e-mail system connects everyone in an organization from high to low, it can be used to cross organizational hierarchies. No longer can an individual employee be prohibited from communicating with his/her boss's boss, as formally was the case in most organizations. E-mail provides wider and freer access across hierarchy.
Furthermore, the flexible nature of interactive technologies allows the user to have a greater degree of control over both the technology and the communication process that takes place through the use of the interactive technology. Control is defined as the degree to which an individual unit exercises constraint or direction over the decisions made in a system. The networking nature of interactive technologies means that they create a kind of decentralized control, in which there is a wide sharing of power and decision-making in a system.
Our present definition of interactivity suggests certain types of control that the flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user: "By having control, we mean the extent to which an individual [user] can choose the timing, content, and sequence of a communication act, search out alternative choices, enter content into the storage for other users, and perhaps create new system capabilities" (Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988).
"Concertive control" is control which grows out of a substantial consensus about values, high-level coordination, and a degree of self-management by members or workers in an organization (Barker, 1993). In addition to control being defined as a behavior or an action of an individual over something, control can become manifest in organizational activity. "For any organization to move towards its goals and purposes, its 'particular outcomes,' its members must interactively negotiate and implement some type of strategy that effectively controls members' activities in a manner functional for the organization" (Barker, 1993).
The flexibility provided by interactive technologies exists at two levels: individual control and collective control. An individual user possesses individual control, and sets of individual users possess collective control or "concertive control." By nature, concertive control is enacted within groups. The flexibility of e-mail allows for sets of users to be easily formed. For example, users of an e-mail system exercise concertive control when they use the communication system to reach a consensus of what constitutes acceptable use of the e-mail system.
Who Is the User?
The concept of the "user" of an interactive communication technology system can be represented by several different entities. The user can be an individual within an organization, a set of individuals, or a group of individuals acting under the authority of the organization. Greater understanding concerning the differences between interactive communication technologies and other types of communication systems in organizations can be reached by examining how the factors of flexibility and control relate to the user of these technologies.
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user to have a certain degree of control over (1) the usual limits of time and space, (2) the origination and destination of communication, (3) the degree of interactivity of a communication system, (4) the norms and social standards that develop within a communication system, (5) the way in which the technology suppresses, allows, or manipulates the communication process which takes place, and (6) how the communication system is used.
Overcoming Time and Space
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user to communicate messages without necessarily being inhibited by the usual time and space concerns such as geographic location, time schedules, and access to others. The communication technological determinist Harold Innis (1951), in his The Bias of Communication, argued that the emergence of new communication technologies (from stone tablets to papyrus to radio) have allowed organizations to expand in the dimensions of both time and space. For example, stone tablets served to maintain written communication through time, but the weight of the stone tablets limited their transportability. So ancient empires depending on stone tablets to convey imperial orders could not grow very large in geographical size. With new communication technologies, greater flexibility in time and space are provided. The new interactive technologies are unique in being characterized by expanding the time and space dimension.
The organization that contains a network of interactive communication technologies is different from the conventional organization in reference to time and space. For example, computer-mediated communication is exponentially faster than telephone or postal services. A user can send a message across the hall or across the world within a few minutes (Kiesler & Sproull, 1991). For example, when one of the present authors e-mailed an inquiry to "president the messages traveled about five thousand miles.
The flexible nature of interactive communication technologies also allows for the information to be sent, stored, and retrieved at the user's convenience. Interactive communication technologies are asynchronous, "meaning they allow for the sending and receiving of messages at a time convenient for the user, rather than requiring that all participants use the system at the same time" (Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988).
This asynchronous property of the technology allows the user to virtually make time "stand still." For example, say that an electronic message is sent to you on a computer network; you may receive it on your home or office computer screen whenever you log on. Unlike a telephone call, electronic messaging systems avoid the problem of "telephone tag," which occurs when you call someone who is unavailable, then when they return your call you are unavailable, etc. Voice mail is equally asynchronous. An answering machine is also asynchronous to a certain degree, but not as asynchronous as e-mail or voice mail. When using interactive communication systems, the participants do not need to be in communication at the same time. The asynchronous nature of interactive communication technologies means that individuals can work at home via a computer network and thus make their workday more flexible. Here both time and space variables become more flexible due to the interactive technologies. These interactive technologies have the ability to overcome time as a variable affecting the communication process (Rogers, 1986). The flexibility and asynchronous nature of interactive communication technologies allow communication content itself to be stored indefinitely for later retrieval, printed out to hard copy, or even converted to data and indexed, or catalogued. Thus time becomes a variable, because of the computer element that is a component of each of the new interactive communication technologies.
Networks of interactive communication technologies can produce a connection between very different users. As discussed previously, this connection of users can transcend time and exist independently of a user's geographic location or hierarchial position in an organization (Kiesler & Sproull,1991).
A relative of one of the authors resides in Montreal, and communicates through e-mail with his "significant other" who resides in Japan. An undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque communicates through e-mail each day with her "significant other" who resides in Saudi Arabia. In these two cases, the romantic relationships began on a face-to-face basis, and then were continued on e-mail. Can love begin at a distance via e-mail? The authors know of such cases, but they are relatively rare because intimate relationships usually depend on a high level of social presence. So interactive communication technologies allow one to overcome the constraints of time and space, but mainly for task-oriented content and for maintaining socio-emotional communication.
Origination and Destination of Communication
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user a level of control over the origination and destination of communication messages. This flexibility may provide the user with the ability to transcend existing organizational structure and hierarchy, and to increase lateral or horizontal communication. Interactive technologies may allow a user to circumnavigate formal gatekeepers. This ability to circumnavigate gatekeepers offers a user wider access to others, but often at the possible risk of creating information overload. If a citizen can communicate directly with the nation's President by e-mail, numerous gatekeepers who previously filtered such messages are circumvented.
The Public Electronic Network (PEN) mentioned previously is a free computer-based messaging system supported by the city government and available to Santa Monica residents. As explained, public terminals were installed in public places such as libraries and other locations in order to provide access to the PEN system for potential users that did not have a computer and modern or access to a computer terminal. Twenty-three percent of the users of the PEN system logged on from the two dozen public terminals (Schmitz, Rogers, Phillips, & Pashal, in press). In this way the PEN system provided for flexibility in regard to the destination and origination of e-mail messages. One result was that PEN provided a means for homeless participants on the PEN system to establish initial information-exchange relationships with higher-status "homed" individuals via PEN's public terminals. Both homeless and homed residents were unlikely to engage in a meaningful information-exchange via face-to-face communication (such as a city council meeting), but they were able to discuss the homeless issue through PEN (Rogers, Collins-Jarvis, & Schmitz, 1994).
An e-mail user can send a message to one person or to three hundred people, a quality that Williams, Rice, & Rogers (1988) describe as "de-massification." Such flexibility means that a certain degree of control of the communication systems moves from the message producer to the media consumer. The message content can be re-sent to other users. It can be made available for retrieval by one user, or by an infinite number of users. A message sent via interactive technology can be individualized. The user can also make use of the technology to individualize a message that is communicated to a mass audience. An example is a user of an interactive system who personalizes information through the use of templates or mail merge computer programs.
The user's ability to control, at least to a certain degree, the origination and destination of communication messages in an interactive communication system allows the user to influence the formation and content of communication with new networks of individuals, regardless of the formal organization structure. Groups formed through interactive communication technologies have been termed "cyburgs" or "virtual communities." Such user control in networks in an organization reflect the level of decentralization made possible by the interactive technologies.
Another phenomena created by the user's high degree of control of the origination and destination of communication messages concerns the level of familiarity between sender and receiver. In networked communication systems, participants often request and share information with one another regardless of the fact that no prior relationship existed between the participants. For example, solving the problem of the ninth Fermat number (discussed earlier) provides an illustration of this phenomenon. The initial publication which reported the final results included the following admission: "We'd like to thank everyone who contributed computing cycles to this project, but we can't: We only have records of the person at each site who installed and managed the code. If you helped us, we'd be delighted to hear from you; please send us your name as you would like it to appear in the final version of the paper" (Leslie, 1994). The massing of computer resources sufficient to solve the mathematical problem of the ninth Fermat number depended on the use of Internet.
Researchers have noted that e-mail often functions most effectively when it is used to complement existing interpersonal relationships or to exchange task-related information. In situations where e-mail is used as a substitute for interpersonal conversation, problem-solving, or to resolve conflicts, it may be less effective (Rice, 1989; Sproull & Kiesler, 1992; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). The presence of a previously-established relationship between participants often makes e-mail relatively more effective as a means of conversation, problem-solving, or conflict resolution.
The Virtual Office
The flexibility of networked interactive communication technologies makes a "virtual office," possible, allowing the user to have a certain degree of control over the geographic location of where they work. For example, "Alley" is an employee at an advertising agency who does not have a permanent desk or workspace, nor her own telephone. When she enters the agency's office building, she checks out a portable computer and a cordless phone, and makes her office wherever space is available. Her company's receptionists forward mail and telephone pages to her, and a computer routes telephone calls, faxes, and e-mail messages to her assigned telephone extension. She can also connect with the agency's main computer to retrieve the files she is working on. "I am not tethered to a specific work area; I'm not forced to function in any pre-defined way," says "Alley," who spends mornings, and even entire days, connected from home via voice mail and e-mail systems. Technology allows someone to reach "Alley" with the same ease, irrelevant to her location (Greengard, 1994).
Valencia Telecommuting Center in Valencia, CA is a shared telecommuting center, which allows various organizations to rent secretarial assistance, interactive communication technologies, and office space on an "as needed" basis. Clients only pay for the actual use of these office resources. Organizations currently using shared telecommuting centers include Panasonic, IBM, Signa, and CareAmerica Health Plan. Gemini Consulting has 1,600 employees spread throughout the United States and beyond. An e-mail system allows its employees to access a computer bulletin board and data-bases via a toll-free number (Greengard, 1994).
The Chiat Day ad agency used virtual office technology to link its workteams and keep its operations running at full speed following the Los Angeles earthquake in January, 1994. Later, Chiat Day employees continued to adhere to their own timetables and work preferences. One worker remarked, "There's a fundamental change in philosophy. There is a focus on quality and not physically being someplace" (Greengard, 1994). Here again we see how the new communication technologies free individuals from spatial considerations.
Degree of Interactivity
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user, to an extent, control over the degree of interactivity of communication. The degree of interactivity, or the degree to which participants have control over, and can exchange roles in, their mutual discourse, is partly determined by the type of interactive communication technology used. For example, a voice mail system would allow for a higher degree of interactivity to occur than communication by FAX. The technology also allows the user to choose to limit the degree of interactivity occurring between participants. A participant could choose not to respond to an e-mail message, or respond in a manner which does not encourage further communication.
Norms and Social Standards
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user to have a level of control over the norms and social standards that develop within a communication system. Norms are the established behavior patterns for the members of a social system (Rogers, 1983. p. 27).
In the case of interactive technologies, the degree of control possessed by the user is more evenly distributed than in other types of communication. An example is provided by the comments of a homeless participant in the PEN system, mentioned earlier: "...Santa Monica's PEN system is so special to me. No one on PEN knew that I was homeless until I told them. PEN is also special because after I told them, I was still treated like a human being. To me the most remarkable thing about the PEN community is that a City Council member and a pauper can coexist, albeit not always in perfect harmony, but on an equal basis. I have met, become friends with, or perhaps adversaries with, people I would otherwise not know - even if I were homed" (quoted by Schmitz, Rogers, Phillips, & Paschal, in press). Participants within the PEN system altered the norms, and created a "virtual society" in which it was the norm for homeless and homed to communicate with a degree of freedom that was nonexistent prior to the establishment of the PEN system.
Kiesler and Sproull (1992) recognize that communication technology should be examined from a two-level perspective: The efficiency level, and the social level (a second level). The efficiency level addresses how well the technology allows for organizational efficiency and deals with the expected effects of the technology. The social level or second level deals with how participants use the technology in unexpected ways, and how these uses affect the sub-systems in the organization. Second-level system effects may often be more important for organizations to consider when dealing with the use of interactive communication technologies.
Suppression, Allowance, and Manipulation of the Communication Process
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user to have a degree of control over the way in which the technology suppresses, allows, and manipulates the communication process which takes place. In some organizations, managers have chosen to limit access to, or ration the use of, an interactive system. An illustration is an organization that does not allow its lower level employees to send e-mail messages to lateral-level employees. Managers can send e-mail messages to other individuals at any level. An organization may also restrict lower-level employees from sending messages to their boss's boss or to anyone in upper management of their organization. Thus the new technologies like e-mail can be structured so as to restrict communication flows in an organization.
On the other hand, interactive communication technologies can allow a user to send messages to all levels of the organization, possibly causing an information overload to occur for certain participants (as discussed previously). Communication flows are often suppressed or manipulated by interactive communication systems in order to avoid such information overload. Another means of coping with information overload at the receiver end of the communication process is to design the technology so that incoming messages are filtered or regulated so as to sort the information-exchanges according to their level of importance, as specified by the receiver. The individual user can also selectively choose messages to respond to. Thus the individual user has a certain degree of control over the message flows via the new communication technologies. Such customization of the interactive technologies is provided by the flexibility of the information tools.
How Interactive Communication Systems Are Used
The flexibility of interactive communication technologies also allows the user to have a degree of control over how the communication system is used. Users often utilize such technologies in unpredictable ways, so that the outcomes are counter to theoretical predictions or to the expectations of the organization.
In response to external pressures, business organizations often adopt interactive communication technologies in the hope that they will allow their organization to become more flexible and less hierarchical, perhaps in response to downsizing. However, the flexibility of interactive communication technologies allows the user to re-invent alternative uses or to create new system capabilities. Re-invention is the degree to which an innovation is changed or modified by a user in the process of its adoption and implementation. Re-invention can be indexed by the degree to which an individual's use of a new idea departs from the mainline version of the innovation that was promoted by a change agency (Rogers, 1995).
The concept of re-invention becomes particularly complex when the innovation is an interactive technology. The possibility of re-invention is much greater with an interactive technology because the innovation itself is a new way to communicate, a tool with many possible applications. One example is an employee's use of e-mail in order to avoid interpersonal contact with a particular co-worker. Another example is users in one department in an organization who did not find a new interactive communication system to be beneficial. So the users utilized the interactive communication system to launch a subversive campaign to negatively influence their co-workers' perceptions of the interactive communication system. Here they sought to prevent their organization from reaching critical mass or to reverse critical mass.
Computer-mediated communication systems provide employees with a means for diffusing messages about how to use the new technology and how to apply it to their jobs. Learning at an organizational level occurs as users interact with one another while attempting to adopt a new interactive technology (Rice, 1989).
The flexible nature of the new technologies allows each user to change the technology, or the way in which the technology is used, thereby changing the communication process that takes place.
The present essay focuses on the implications of the new interactive communication technologies for business communication. We emphasize, on the basis of our study of these new communication technologies, their distinctive qualities when compared to previously-existing types of organizational communication. These are relatively "radical" innovations that can have strong impacts on the organization in which they are implemented. They provide both problems and opportunities for organizational communication scholars and practitioners.
The problems include (1) how to effectively introduce and implement the new communication systems, which are expensive and potentially disruptive of established communication procedures, and (2) how to manage the impacts of these interactive systems, so that potential benefits in employee satisfaction and productivity, and in organizational effectiveness are maximized. New opportunities come with these potential problems. For example, the new communication technologies usually provide a computer record, at least for a certain period of time, of all information-exchanges that take place. Such a record can itself represent an information overload for the investigator. For instance, one year's messages on the PEN Homeless Conference, when printed out in hard copy, constituted a stack of computer paper more than a foot high! Nevertheless, this material represented a word-for-word record of all the messages about homelessness that the PEN participants had exchanged. Imagine the richness of this detail for such scholarly purposes as (1) message content analysis, and (2) who-to-whom tracing of communication network links. The computer record provides the exact time at which each message is sent, accurate to the nanosecond. For certain types of research problems, such data are uniquely valuable. One example is the scholarly study of critical mass, which has been advanced in recent years by investigations of the adoption of e-mail and other new interactive technologies, using data on who-to-whom networks and the time at which a communication technology is adopted (Rogers, 1995).
The eventual impacts of the new communication technologies may be quite profound. For example, the very nature of hierarchial organizational behavior, as identified by the eminent German sociologist Max Weber, may be radically changed. For instance, will organizational hierarchy fade in its influence on human behavior in the face of the decentralizing interactive technologies? What happens to such fundamental organizational principles as chain-of-command and span-of-control in an organization when everyone can talk to everyone? Does the flexibility in business communication characteristic of the new technologies mean that the previous patterned flows of such communication will be replaced by a wide diversity of organizational communication (1) in each organization, and (2) even by each individual participant?
Finding answers to such questions as these will be a priority task for scholars of business communication. Coping with these issues and their impacts on business will be a priority for practitioners of business communication.
Everett M. Rogers is Professor and Chair, and Marcel M. Allbritton is a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of New Mexico. Correspondence can be sent to the first author at the Department of Communication and Journalism, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131-1171.
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