New developments in remote communication technologies have allowed organisations to increase the efficiency of their operations and reduce some of the barriers previously existing in distance communication. Still, aspects such as time, language and cultural differences can hinder effective message exchange. New communication technologies also suffer from conflicts associated with hardware and software compatibilities, as well as user experience levels in an absence of enforced standards and protocols. These factors can restrict the development of trust and understanding congruent with the results received through face-to-face interaction, while altering the appearance and interpretation of a message following its mediation.
Besides videoconferencing, remote organisational communication generally possesses a 'faceless' quality that diminishes the richness of the exchange. An absence of the supporting redundancy carried by implicit and explicit physical cues in proximal interaction increases the degree of ambiguity, as what is denoted may not match the intended connotation.
Each medium possesses its own drawbacks in facilitating particular types of exchange, decided according to the sensoral 'richness' of the medium and the level of ambiguity created by the form. While codes and conventions developed by early adopters, such as emoticons in text-based interactions, have attempted to relieve some ambiguity from the medium, no widely utilised technology has thus far been proven to replicate the vast richness of face-to-face exchange. By denying the ability for rich synchronous debate, interruption, tactile interaction and shared environmental and technological factors present in face-to-face interaction, ambiguities could arise that have potentially damaging consequences.
More friction and confusion can arise from the transience of the media. Many lack a tangible, recordable form, the absence of which can result in human errors and misinterpreted data when conveyed over the phone or videoconferencing net. Since research carried out by the University of Florida revealed that official email documents, traditionally assumed to be private and transient, must be stored for public record, issues of permanency, appropriate expression, reliability and consistency of data transfer must be addressed. (Email and Privacy)
Generally, the rapid turnaround provided by email grants the form a more conversational tone than traditional letter or memo composition. (Sherwood, 1995, http://www.webfoot.com/advice/email.top.html) Participating parties must, therefore, conform to a protocol that maintains the transmission and reception of works in context that, while more casual in tone than a letter, can be interpreted accurately by both the receiver and a third party (if warranted).
An absence of enforceable regulations and standards also uncovers human psychological barriers in group or organisational communication. The simultaneous engagement of groups in production, member-support and group well-being functions (as posed by McGrath, 91) suffers great adversity in the potentially anonymous sphere of distant asynchronous communication, where aspects of commitment and positive relationship development may be absent. Jarvenpaa et al's study into Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams (1998) found that trust issues significantly affect the tone and outcome of CMC interactions. Barriers including an absence of effective social exchange, a maintenance of task enthusiasm and focus, problems with leadership and role clarification, hinderences to individual initiative and regular predictable communication, as well as an absence of formal support structures to deal with crises, all restrict effective group interaction. The study also concluded that the development of trust and an open, enthusiastic exchange of information depended on fast and appropriate responses to initiative, in order to protect against uncertainty. (Jarvenpaa et al, 1998 & Hawisher and Moran, 1993)
Another investigation found that the capacity for information exchange through CMC channels does not differ from face-to-face contexts except in the rate of transfer, which makes rapid discussion and brainstorming a near impossibility. (Walther, 1996, 1997) In this case, the quality and predictability of feedback determines the group's effectiveness in communicating with clarity. The increase in such formality of expression, in turn, tends to inhibit social connection. In addition, where business communication may have traditionally been founded on orality, the literary base of new distant communication technologies places severe limitations on those whose grammatical gifts leave a lot to be desired. This can confuse status and lead to stereotyping based on one's competence with language. (Sherwood, 1995)
Telecommunications media obviously lack the 'touch', 'feel' and emotional capacity of face-to-face interaction, which can convey aspects of trust, support and intent increasingly effectively. Esther Gwinnell, author of Online Seductions asserts that,
"E-mail is totally devoid of social cues. It lacks any subliminal information-facial movement, body language, even dress or handwriting. You can learn more from two minutes at a party than from months of E-mail communication." (USNews Online, 22.3.99)
Thus, in the absence of social similarity and shared values, emotional connections are drawn not from the written word but from the psychological transfer of past emotions into the void. (Gwinnell, 1999 & Latane et al., 1995) For relationship development to progress in a lean medium, therefore, and to surpass the limitations posed by media richness and social presence theories, people have a natural tendency to stereotype and presuppose, creating 'virtual selves' that interact effectively in a wired world, independent from the real selves that are limited by geography and culture. (Sherry Turkle quoted in USNews Online, 22.3.99 & Lea and Spears, 1992) This pseudo-socialisation can maintain a form of 'swift trust', as identified by Meyerson et al (1996), or can surpass this in the formation of action-based trust that creates an appropriate working environment, for all intensive purposes. (Jarvenpaa et al, June 1998)
Contemporary organisations can, therefore, communicate effectively via remote media, though a number of barriers must be overcome. As one's familiarity with various media increases, and as protocols and conventions are esatablished that give context and predictability to communication, while encouraging groups to focus on the resolution of conflict, the building of support and trust, and the provision of a clearly defined organisational structure, the effectiveness and efficiency of remote communication will be enhanced.
Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998
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