Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Why Faculty Members Use E-Mail: The Role of Individual Differences in Channel Choice

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Why Faculty Members Use E-Mail: The Role of Individual Differences in Channel Choice

Article excerpt

Electronic mail is ubiquitous in contemporary organizations. E-mail liberates the communicator from the time and space constraints of other media, allowing communication between two or more people widely separated geographically, each of whose messages may be received and responded to when convenient.

The breadth of current research on electronic communication argues the embeddedness of electronic communication, particularly e-mail, in the continuing evolution of organizational life. For example, researchers have explored attitudinal responses to voice mail at Syncrude Canada Ltd. (Beswick & Reinsch, 1987); challenges posed for e-mail research by ethical and intellectual property issues (Howard, 1993); the organization-shaping force of the genre repertoire developed by a community of computer language designers in their e-mail communications (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994); the efficacy of technology-use mediation in helping to adapt new communication technology to its organizational context (Orlikowski, Yates, Okamura, & Fujimoto, 1995); the privacy, accuracy, and intellectual property issues raised by technological advances in business communication (Herschel & Andrews, 1997); and the virtues of computer-mediated versus face-to-face communication (Bordia, 1997). In 1995, Organization Science devoted an entire issue to electronic communication.

Researchers have documented the significant organizational opportunities e-mail presents. Rapid transmission of large files increases communication velocity, supports collaborative work, and sustains both strong and weak ties among communicators (Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Gulia, & Haythornthwaite, 1996). E-mail makes it easier for organizations to access and process information. E-mail encourages increased participation, more egalitarian participation, and less centralized leadership (Hollingshead, McGrath, & O'Connor, 1993). More equal participation improves the quality of ideas (Finholt, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1990; Wellman et al., 1996). E-mail facilitates cross-organizational communication and improves customer service. In an era of down-sizing, email may help managers handle broader spans of control. Although e-mail does not have the same effect in every organization, researchers agree that e-mail is significantly changing life in organizations.

Much research has focused on the determinants of communication media use in organizations. What factors influence a person's choice to use and how widely to use particular media? Why does one person choose to use e-mail at least once a week, while another uses it seldom, if ever? Two major explanatory theories seem applicable: rational choice theory and social influence theory. Rational choice theory posits that individuals choose communication media by matching the medium's inherent objective characteristics and the objective requirements of the communication task (Fulk, Schmitz, & Steinfield, 1990). Social influence theory, in contrast, argues that channel choice is a function not only of objective characteristics of the medium or the task, but also, and perhaps even more so, of individual perceptions conditioned by the social context of media and task (Webster & Trevino, 1995). Both theories have contributed greatly to our understanding of media selection and use in general and of e-mail selection and use in particular. However, both theories focus on factors external to the individual communicator: rational choice on the characteristics of the communication task and the communication medium, social influence on the social context in which the communication occurs. Neither theory purports to explain why in a particular set of circumstances one person may use a particular communication medium more frequently than another person uses it. This question is our research question: Why in the same circumstances might one person use e-mail frequently while another person uses it infrequently, or not at all? …

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