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Finding the right path in the communication maze.

The number of communication channels available to the average manager has mushroomed over the last 20 years. Video tapes, audio tapes, electronic bulletin boards, fax machines and teleconferences are just a few of the new possibilities. One of the greatest challenges for managers today is how to effectively manage the myriad of communication channels that they have available. While many managers choose a channel for its convenience, wise managers realize that the choice of channel for their messages can make the difference between effective and ineffective communication.

Every communication channel has unique nuances that can hinder or improve the effectiveness of the manager. To provide greater insight into these concerns, several of the frequently used media are briefly discussed below.

Face-to-face communication

Communicating face-to-face is the most rich, yet most restrictive, communication channel. Face-to-face communication is indispensable in situations where nuance plays a critical role, such as in complex negotiations, detailed problem analyses and even initial introductory encounters.

Yet this channel is one of the most restrictive. The sender and receiver by definition must communicate with one another at the same place and time. These time-space constraints are the critical barriers all other media seek to overcome.

Nevertheless, with all its richness, the face-to-face channel is the one that almost all other media seek to emulate. It is the yardstick by which the effectiveness of other media is measured.

Voice mail

The next step beyond the answering machine is voice mail. These systems use a push-button phone as the input device. A computer then digitizes the caller's voice and deposits the message in an individual's voice mail box. Although anyone can call and leave a message, the employee is the only one who can get access to the messages via a special code number. Therefore, there is greater privacy and confidentiality than is possible with a fax. There is a broadcast feature which allows a caller to send a voice message to a distribution list with a touch of a button. While this is certainly a time saver, it can also create some unusual problems, such as the employee who inadvertently sent a voice love note to his entire department. While systems are somewhat costly, the benefits are equally great. For example, Travelers Insurance Company, headquartered in Hartford, Conn., has used a voice mail system for years and has seen a 30 percent increase in staff productivity. Why?

* 60 percent of the phone calls placed before voice mail required no response.

* 70 percent of those calls never reached the person intended.

* 90 percent of the phone messages taken by secretaries contained errors.

Indeed, with an estimated cost of U.S. $13 to successfully complete a call, it is no wonder that the investment is recouped with voice mail.

Most voice mail systems are used as a replacement for short memos and phone calls that require no response. Some employees have even started sending voice messages to themselves to remind themselves of a great idea when they get back to the office. Voice messaging is particularly useful for salespeople and other employees who are on the road. One large trucking firm, Schneider National Carriers, Inc., headquartered in Green Bay, Wis., uses voice mail to keep in contact with truckers all across the U.S. As a result, there is 24-hour access to employees, secretaries are not burdened with taking messages, and even family members can keep in touch.

Voice messaging is most effective when communicating fairly short and unambiguous messages. Voice mail, like electronic mail, needs a critical mass of users to be effective, which means that users must regularly check their voice mail boxes. Communicating to a machine in a clear and brief way is difficult for some employees, but clearly it is a skill that will need to be mastered in the modern organization.


The teleconference is the telephone equivalent of the group meeting. Small or large groups can simultaneously communicate in a single conversation via the phone line. The channel, in some cases, provides an economical alternative to travel for managers who need to participate in a discussion with people who are geographically separated. Schneider Communications, also headquartered in Green Bay, Wis., holds a teleconference every Friday morning with up to 100 employees in five different locations to keep everyone informed of upcoming events. This channel is best suited to meet informational needs of the participants, but is not very effective for negotiation,

Despite the widespread availability of teleconferencing, it has not replaced travel, because of some obvious limitations, such as the lack of a visual component. A more subtle limitation is that secondary conversations are discouraged in this medium. During face-to-face group meetings involving more than four or five people, there are usually other conversations occurring simultaneously in smaller groups of two or three. Because a single phone line transmits the communication in a teleconference, secondary conversations are often avoided which may mean some valuable information may not be shared. Or if they do occur, time is taken away from the primary discussion. Participants may get background on some topic that is of little concern to them. Either way, the net effect can be detrimental. On the other hand, the elimination of some secondary conversations may actually speed up the process and make participants focus more on the task than is possible in a traditional meeting. In short, a teleconference offers an efficient alternative to a face-to-face group conference but it does not totally simulate one.

Electronic mail

Electronic mail (e-mail) is a method of electronically transmitting text from one computer terminal to another. It is an asynchronous method in that the sender and receiver do not need to communicate with one another at the same place and time. An employee can instantaneously send a message to another employee's "mail box" and it will be read at the receiver's leisure. Some systems are even designed so that the message sender can determine whether the electronic message has been read. This is an ability that is not available with most written documents.

E-mail is used by at least four million workers as a method of interoffice communication. The major advantages are speed, lower costs and increased access to other employees. For example, administrators of one Fortune 500 company reported that 60 percent of the messages they received via e-mail would not have been sent over other channels. In another study, at British Columbia Telephone Company, Burnady, B.C., employees felt that the e-mail system decreased telephone tag by 83 percent. In yet another study, managers felt that e-mail "could replace four percent of business trips, nine percent of face-to-face contacts, nearly 20 percent of telephone contacts and up to 60 percent of mail contacts."

E-mail systems are probably best at communicating brief, non-complex but time-sensitive information. It is hard to imagine much persuasion or negotiation going on through an e-mail system. To make it work, there needs to be a critical mass of users who are geographically separated but have easy access to their own computers. Even sharing a terminal with one other user has been shown to decrease commitment to e-mail. In the final analysis, the effectiveness of this channel comes down to the skills of the people using it.

Employee publications

The traditional employee newsletter or company magazine is an integral part of most organizations. Indeed, such publications make their way into 75 million U.S. homes at a cost of more than U.S. $100 million a year to industry. In our research, we found that the typical publication was published on a monthly basis, had an average circulation of 3,000 copies, cost 40 cents per copy and was mailed to employees' homes. The most commonly published articles are about employee recognition.

The challenge in using this channel is to report newsworthy events while avoiding the tendency to take on the characteristics of a high school yearbook. Yet, unfortunately, most employee publications are used as a vehicle to recognize employees. One expert on the subject said, "one of the worst uses of the employee publication is for employee recognition" because a face-to-face congratulation is far more meaningful. Indeed, many of these publications are replete with the "three Bs": birthdays, bowling team photos and birth announcements. Yet, when used properly, employee publications can help foster better understanding of corporate philosophy, policy and even company products or services. Feature stories on new lines of products/services and question/answer columns from the president or department heads are just two examples of effective uses of this medium.

Computer conferencing

Related to e-mail is the synchronous or asynchronous use of the computer to conference with small groups of fellow employees. Andrew Finn, head researcher, AT&T Communication, Murray Hills, N.J., says, "While most forms of group discussion become unwieldy if more than eight to 10 people are included, computer conferencing can handle 10 to 30 people with little difficulty, and there is no reason why more participants could not be accommodated." A computer conference proves to be an excellent place to share new ideas or brainstorm. Participants can scroll back through the conversation and even get a hard copy of everyone's comments, which may allow even greater creativity. Many systems allow anonymous monitoring and commenting.

In general, computer conferencing has a democratizing effect on organizations. Messages do not contain the usual cues that denote status. For example, one study indicated that 40 percent of the users did not know the sex of the senders and 32 percent had no idea of the senders' positions in the hierarchy. Indeed, some employees who feel unattractive report being more confident and participative in a computer conference than they do face-to-face. On the positive side, more attention is paid to the ideas and less on who is communicating.

But being message-centered instead of person-centered in an organization can become problematic. In one organization, the computer conferencing system led to such internal revolts and lack of concern with power/status issues that top management felt threatened and dismantled the entire system. Walter Wriston, former chairman, Citicorp, New York, N.Y., has eloquently commented on the situation: "The most basic fact about the world we live and work in is this: Information is a virus that carries freedom." Because these systems, by nature, lack important contextual cues, there is a need to carefully consider the social impact on the organization. For instance, the corporate culture cannot be effectively communicated via this technology-- it takes a more dynamic channel.

Selecting the appropriate channels

With this bewildering array of options it is tempting to just spin the wheel and select a channel. In fact, that is what most managers do. The major criteria used by most employees in selecting a channel is personal convenience. As a channel's ease of use increases, so does the likelihood of use. Little consideration is given to how the message is filtered by the channel or even the secondary messages of the channel. Yet, there is evidence that effective executives are sensitive to the impact of the medium and selet appropriate channels for their messages. How do they do it?

One approach is based on a simple model of communication and considers four elements:

* the needs of the sender,

* the attributes of the message,

* the attributes of the channel,

* the needs of the receiver.

By considering the following five questions, the choice of communication channel will be a product of skill and insight rather than chance.

1) Are the needs of the sender compatible with the attributes of the intended message?

Messages can vary along numerous dimensions including level of complexity, length, personal warmth, formality and degree of ambiguity. Senders of messages also have a wide variety of intentions in communicating messages including motivating, informing, persuading and soliciting ideas or opinions.

Ideally, the needs of the sender should harmonize with the type of message sent. A manager seeking to motivate others is hindered in doing so by using an overly complex message. Consequently, the communication effort is less successful than possible.

2) Are the messages that are sent compatible with the channels that are used?

William F. Buckley, Jr., when running for mayor of New York City, was once asked to explain his economic plan for the city on a TV talk show. He refused. He believed his plan was too complex to be explained in a cursory fashion within the time constraints of that TV show. His position makes perfect sense when viewed from the perspective of the channel limitations. The message he had to convey could not be effectively communicated in this channel.

Likewise, managers must realize that every channel has limitation which filter out parts of the message. Channels that are nondynamic, like memos or bulletin boards, are not effective in communicating extremely complex messages. On the other hand, bulletin boards can be useful and efficient when communicating fairly simple messages, like the company softball schedule. Therefore, to effectively communicate, managers must be alert to the dynamic interplay of the message and the channel.

3) Are the sender's needs compatible with the type of channels used?

Because communication channels have certain attributes, senders must be sure that their intentions are congruent with the dynamics of the channel. Therefore, if the sender seeks to create a sense of formality, then more formal channels, such as written memos, should be used. If the sender seeks to relay a confidential message, then voice mail is better than fax. If an executive wants to stimulate creativity but is afraid that status differences inhibit a free exchange of ideas, then maybe computer conferencing would be best. If the CEO wants to instill an emotional commitment to corporate values, then the visual channel, like a video conference or video tape, would be the channel of choice. In sum, formal intentions require formal media, dynamic intentions require dynamic media, and so on.

4) Are the messages compatible with the receivers' needs?

The classic question asked by market researchers, advertising executives and TV programmers is "Do people like what I have to sell or say?" If the answer is "no," then the product or service should be changed.

There is a need to be sensitive to how messages will affect listeners. Messages can be adjusted without destroying the integrity of ideas. Sometimes managers must communicate difficult news and one of their prime responsibilities should be sharing the information in a sensitive manner. The goal is to reach the middle ground, where the sender's intentions and the receiver's sentiments meet, so that both sugar-coating and brutal honesty can be avoided.

5) Are the channels that are used compatible with the receivers' needs?

Perhaps the receiver prefers more dynamic verbal channels while the sender, like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, prefers written channels. Voice mail would be particularly useful for employees who need to communicate across time zones. An employee who needs to see a diagram as soon as possible would be best served by a fax machine. In sum, effective communicators adapt both their messages and channels to their audiences.


The two situations presented in the beginning of the article can now be addressed. In the first situation, a memo would be a poor choice because it does not offer the feedback potential necessary to explain what may be seen as technical information. Additionally, there may be literacy problems with employees. A small group meeting would allow for an oral explanation and allow for participants to ask questions about any of the complex material.

In persuasive situations, such as the second situation, it is critical that senders are able to quickly adapt messages to receivers to counter objections. This is not a feature of either e-mail or voice mail. Face-to-face communication offers senders the greatest flexibility.

As this article has pointed out, there is not single best communication medium. Managers need to be aware of the possibilities, complexities and nuances of the various channels of communication. By seeking to align the needs of the sender and receiver, and the attributes of the message and channel, managers can be more confident in their selection of channels to communicate more effectively.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:management communication channels
Author:Clampitt, Phillip G.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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