Preferences for electronic mail in organizational communication tasks.
Rutter (1987) defines cuelessness in communication channels as an informational concept. The fewer the number of verbal and nonverbal cues in a message, the lower its information level. As the number of usable cues diminishes, he proposes, the "psychological closeness" between sender and receiver decreases. Thus, communication channels can be distinguished in terms of their relative cuelessness. Rutter tacitly assumes that people prefer more usable cues and minimal psychological distance for most communication situations, and they tend to select those media that provide the most cues, and avoid "poor" media that display greater psychological distance.
Another way to describe the amount of information carried by a communication channel is in terms of media richness, in which media are distinguished as either "rich" or "lean" (Daft & Lengel, 1986; Daft, Lengel, & Trevino, 1987; Rice, 1991; Schmitz & Fulk, 1990; Trevino, Daft, & Lengel, 1990; Trevino, Lengel, & Daft, 1987). The richness of a channel refers to its ability to transmit multiple communication cues, provide instant feedback, and offer a personal focus to the communication. Trevino, Lengel, and Daft (1987) and Rice (1991) propose that media choices are related to both work-related and social communication needs. Daft and Lengel argue that managers in organizations are more likely to choose a rich medium such as face-to-face communication when dealing with "high equivocality" or ambiguous communication situations. The ambiguous situation requires managers to exchange more information with their colleagues in order to define and interpret the situation. When dealing with routine or unambiguous situations, managers feel comfortable using a lean medium.
Fann and Smeltzer (1989) state that "more effective communication should occur when the richness of the media is matched with the level of message ambiguity". Reinsch and Beswick (1990) argue that rich media are vital when relationships between people are significant; leaner media are more appropriate for less significant relationships. Thus, channel preferences can be predicted by characteristics of a task or situation which predispose the manager to select one medium over another.
Using a concept similar to richness, Rice distinguishes communication channels in terms of their "bandwidth," or the range of communication modes that a medium can convey (Rice 1987; Rice & Steinfield, 1990). He describes a communication mode in terms of the diversity of cues it provides, rather than sheer number of cues. Media with limited capacity to transmit cues (for example, a letter) have a narrower band-width than those which can carry more diverse sets of cues (for example, interactive video). He also proposes that communication channels are selected on the basis of their bandwidth, depending on the context of the communication activity.
Each of these perspectives defines communication media using technology-related characteristics, such as the volume of information, or the number and diversity of non-verbal cues that can pass through the channel. A fourth perspective begins with these assumptions, but then adds in the perceptions of the people who use the media, and their evaluations of the "social presence" of each channel. The concept of social presence is based on the assumption that the most important aspects of media preference are an individual's perception and evaluation of the communication channel rather than its technological capacity alone. Social presence refers to characteristics of the channel that offer "psychological closeness" (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976), are "people oriented," or allow rich interpersonal involvement (Rutter, 1987).
The social presence of a medium can also be related to a person's communication style. Because social presence is based on one's perception of a particular communication medium, each channel can vary in its perceived degree of the quality. Short et al. (1976) maintain that communicators are aware of the degree of social presence in any medium, and tend to prefer and avoid communication channels depending on the particular interaction. In terms of channel preference this implies that people will select a channel based on how they interpret the context of communication, and the level of interpersonal involvement desired or required in the communication interaction. The preference for communication channels can vary from person to person, depending on the degree of social presence that each person ascribes to the medium (Johansen, Vallee & Spangler, 1979).
Rice (1993) proposes a scale of "perceived satisfactoriness" or "appropriateness" which combines the concepts of social presence and information richness and can be used to predict the use of different media for specific communication activities. He states that "those who are more aware of a medium's social presence may well choose more appropriate media and experience somewhat better communication or work performance" (Rice, 1993, p. 453). With this pertinent observation he links the specific communication attributes of a medium with the users ability to exploit those characteristics, and to prefer certain channel attributes over others for specific communication contexts. Komsky (1991) notes that user satisfaction with a particular medium is a reliable indicator of how well it lives up to the user's expectations.
As the person's perception of a communication channel changes depending on the interpersonal context or the situation's ambiguity, so channel selection within an organization is based on the type of communication activities or tasks required of a person. Short et al. (1976) argue that a medium with low social presence can easily be preferred when the result of the communication will not personally reflect on the person. Fulk and Steinfield (1990) and Fulk, Steinfield, Schmitz, and Power (1987) propose that individuals will use communication channels that have characteristics "congruent" with task demands. They propose that when a task requires high interpersonal involvement a medium with high social presence will be preferred. However, for tasks which require simple or routine information exchange, a medium with lower social presence may be selected (see also, Rice & Case, 1983; Steinfield, 1986; Williams, Rice, & Rogers, 1988). The amount of social presence ascribed to each communication channel can thus change depending on attributes of different communication tasks.
Several studies propose ranking communication channels according to the degree of social presence or channel richness ascribed to them. Short et al. (1976) propose a hierarchy of communication channels based on ratings given each medium in terms of the psychological closeness perceived by the respondent. Their ranking runs: face-to-face, videos, telephone, audio conferencing, and business letters. This list is similar to a ranking of channels proposed by Trevino, Lengel, and Daft (1990). They order the media in terms of media richness in the following order: face-to-face, telephone, electronic mail, letters, notes, and memos. Rice (1993) also presents a ranking of communication channels, based on media appropriateness, which is similar to the rankings of both Short and Trevino, et al. He ranks the channels as follows: face-to-face, telephone, meetings, videos, hard copy text, and electronic mail.
In all three of the media rankings the richest media are those that provide visual and auditory stimuli (face-to-face and telephone) and the leanest media are those that provide only written stimuli (letters and e-mail). While Trevino et al. (1990) rank e-mail midway between the rich, spoken media and the lean, written media, Rice (1993) concludes that e-mail is the least appropriate medium out of all the communication channels considered. From all three lists presented, there is a clear ranking of face-to-face communication as the richest and most interpersonal channel, followed by the audio-visual channels of the telephone and video, and only then print media such as e-mail and memos.
Each channel ranking assumes that the richness or social presence of a communication channel will tend to hold true for all communication or information activities. This expectation, however, does not adequately account for differences in communication style brought out by the demands of different situations or activities; nor does it deal with the interactivity and efficiency of electronic mail. E-mail displays unique characteristics which allow it to cross over traditional boundaries between paper and electronic media. For example, it demonstrates a degree of interactivity that makes it more similar to the telephone than to its closest analog, the written memo. Attributes of e-mail such as its interactivity, asynchronicity, and reliability make it more appropriate for some communication tasks than for others. In these cases, e-mail could be preferred over other channels, despite its lean level of channel richness or appropriateness, because the communication efficiencies offered by e-mail outweigh expectations or preference based on face-to-face communication.
Communication Activities and Preferences for E-Mail
The concepts of social presence, media richness, and media appropriateness assume that the range of media is fairly well defined, with "rich" or "lean" characteristics. When computer-based media such as electronic mail are introduced, though, the communicative attributes of the channel can become less clear. Blackman and Clevenger (1990), for example, report that e-mail users deliberately insert descriptive terms and pictographs in their messages to simulate non-verbal behaviors, replacing the loss of such cues as predicted by Rutter (1987). The flexibility inherent in computer-mediated communication can provide an outlet for a person to introduce new variations in the types of communication cues available, thus changing the social presence of the channel as well as his or her expectations or dependence on it.
E-mail combines many of the low-involvement attributes of writing with high-involvement attributes such as the speed of interactivity. Because of this fusion of attributes, computer-mediated communication might become a preferred channel of communication in some high social presence situations. For example, the preference for using e-mail in routine communication tasks can increase when its ease of use and efficiency become paramount (Sullivan & Rayburn, 1990). Other task factors can also contribute to the preference for e-mail, for example the type of task presented to a person (Smolensky, Carmody, & Halcomb, 1990) or the user's satisfaction in using the e-mall system to accomplish his or her organizational tasks (Hiltz and Johnson, 1990; Komsky, 1991).
The different communication activities in which people engage can influence a person's preference for e-mail insofar as each task requires the interpersonal attributes which make rich media preferable to lean media. Short et al. (1976) proposed a set of communication activities that could be influenced by the characteristics of different media, including: exchanging information, problem solving, making decisions, bargaining, exchanging opinions, generating ideas, persuasion, resolving disagreements, staying in touch, and getting to know someone. Rice (1987) proposes a similar set of communication activities which he ranks based on the degree of social presence demanded by each activity. In a follow-up paper, Rice (1993) ranks the same communication activities based on a factor analysis of data rating the appropriateness and social presence of media for each activity and arrives at a similar set of rankings. Rice's high social presence activities include exchanging confidential information, negotiating, making decisions, resolving disagreements and generating ideas and getting to know someone; low social presence activities include asking questions, staying in touch and exchanging information.
The tasks used in this study were developed from published research (Rice, 1987) and over 40 pilot interviews at the research site. They can be ranked according to their degree of social presence, using Rice's (1987, 1993) social presence rankings. Decision making, at one end, demands a great deal of interpersonal interaction, while electronic document delivery requires little. According to social presence theory preferences for different communication channels will tend toward richer media in high social presence activities and toward leaner media in low social presence activities. If e-mail is preferred, however, for some high social presence tasks, then one could conclude that unique attributes, such as its interactivity, make it "richer" than other channels.
Because of the unique characteristics of e-mail as a communication linkage within organizations, the reasons why people select this new channel can be very important. In this context, the question can be raised: Are preferences for communication channels based solely on the richness of the communication channel, or do preferences change depending on the appropriateness of each channel for different communication activities? This study argues that channel preferences will change depending on the communication activity, and proposes the following research hypothesis:
H1: In comparison to preferences for other communication channels, user preferences for e-mail will be affected by communication activity.
This study focused on preferences for e-mail in an information intensive public organization. The study surveyed e-mail users among the staff of the Florida House of Representatives about six months after the e-mail system was installed as part of a technology upgrade instituted by the Speaker of the House. The e-mail employed user friendly software, PC-based cc:Mail, which operated over a local area network. Users were connected to the network via serial boards in their PCs, which allowed them to send and receive messages at any time by using a "hot key" to pop up a TSR window on the screen. At the time of the survey, network connections had been made to 250 users. A paper and pencil survey was sent to each staff member on the e-mail address list; 135 surveys were returned for a response rate of 54 percent. The respondents included both men (33.3 percent) and women (65.2 percent), and people from all major levels of the organization including "Directors" (20.0 percent), "Analysts" (36.4 percent), and "Secretaries" (45.4 percent). In respect to both gender and organizational level the sample appeared to match the parent population.
Respondents were asked if they used e-mail for each of a dozen communication tasks as follows: decision making, personal messages, expressing opinions, drafting documents, answering questions, requesting information, maintaining an office, assigning tasks, receiving tasks, exchanging information, coordinating office activities, sending memos and electronic document delivery. E-mail use is defined as the amount of time a person spends on the e-mail system during an average day. Respondents estimated the percentage of time they spent each day using their computer, and the percentage of that computer time which was spent on e-mail. Percentages were converted to minutes for analysis using the formula "(percent of time on the PC) (480 minutes)" for estimating PC usage time, and "(PC usage time) (percent of time on e-mail)" as an estimate of time spent on e-mail.
The list of communication activities was then used as a set of twelve communication conditions, and each respondent was asked to evaluate e-mail compared to other communication channels for each condition. The comparative communication channels were face-to-face, telephone, memoranda and letters. Respondents were asked to rate the e-mail system as "better than," "equal to," or "not as good as" another channel for a particular task. Responses were coded as '3' if the comparison channel was preferred to e-mail, '2' if preferences were equal, and as '1' if e-mail was preferred to the comparison channel. Each condition was named in the survey with little elaboration, leaving the respondent to interpret the nature of the activity. It is assumed that each communication activity was understood at face value, with little difference among respondents. Due to the lengthy process required to fill out the preference questions, some respondents declined from filling out this section of the survey, thus the data contain a number of missing values.
The comparison of preferences for e-mail is carried out using contingency tables and Chi-square statistics. The data for the tables were created by tabulating the frequencies of preferences for e-mail versus preferences for each communication channel and preference ties between e-mail and the comparison channel. Contingency tables were generated by comparing the frequencies of channel preference across all communication activities for each communication channel, resulting in four tables. Chi-square was used to test for the presence of a relationship between preferences and activities; in addition a contingency coefficient was calculated to assess the amount of variance explained by the relationship.
Results and Discussion
The amount of time spent on the e-mail network is an indicator for assessing the use of e-mail by the organizational members, and their reliance on it for communication. Table 1 shows the average amount of time the staff use their PCs and the e-mail system on a typical day. It is clear from the data that secretaries and analysts use their computers much more than staff directors do, and that secretaries spend more than twice as much time on e-mail as do the directors. While all staff members use e-mail, the frequency with which they rely on the system increases as the staff member's position in the hierarchy gets lower. The patterns of e-mail use shown here indicate that there is a diminishing level of reliance on computer mediated communication as one rises in the organizational hierarchy, and suggests that preferences for e-mail over other communication channels will change depending on one's job position.
Table 1 Average Time per Day Spent on Personal Computers and E-mail Job Title PC E-mail n (time in minutes) Secretary 59 274.0 41.2 Analyst 45 205.8 21.7 Director 26 112.2 15.3 Total n and average time 130 217.2 28.7
Time spent on the e-mail system is not the only distinguishing characteristic for the differences in the way staff use this communication channel, although it does provide some insight into respondent's reliance on the network. Use of the e-mail system is also related to the types of communication activities required in each level of the hierarchy. Examining the data on the frequency of using the e-mail system for different communication tasks, several distinct differences can be seen among the staff activities.
Table 2 shows the percentage of staff members using e-mail for each of the particular communication tasks considered in this study. The different tasks are ranked in the order in which the average staff member uses e-mail to accomplish them.
Table 2 Comparison of Communication Activities by E-mail Use Percent Using E-mail for Specific Task Communication Activities Secretary Analyst Director Total Document Delivery 89.8 84.4 84.6 86.3 Request Information 78.0 62.2 80.8 73.7 Answer Questions 69.5 77.8 69.2 72.2 Receive Tasks 69.5 53.3 61.5 61.5 Coordinate Office 57.6 55.6 57.7 57.0 Circulate Memos 55.9 60.0 53.8 56.6 Express Opinions 49.2 40.0 65.4 51.5 Maintain Office 47.5 42.2 53.8 47.8 Personal Messages 39.0 40.0 26.9 35.3 Draft Documents 32.2 44.4 26.9 34.5 Assign Tasks 25.4 15.6 50.0 30.3 Make Decisions 13.6 4.4 23.1 13.7
At first inspection of Table 2, it is evident that the e-mail system is used for some tasks more than others. Almost all of the staff use it for electronic document delivery, and a majority use it for requesting information and asking questions. Distinctions in using the network for communication activities are evident in the way respondents acknowledge spending time on the e-mail. A larger percentage of analysts use e-mail for drafting documents in part because they write and re-write more than others. More staff directors assign people tasks over the e-mall system and more secretaries receive tasks; staff directors also use e-mail more to express their opinions or make decisions. The use of the e-mail system for each of these tasks represents its appropriateness to the communication activity, relative to a number of other possible channels open to staff members.
It is clear that e-mail is used to a greater or lesser extent by all staff members, for those types of communication activities relevant to their job responsibilities. It is also clear that the use of e-mail varies across the communication activities. Channel richness theory predicts that preferences for e-mail will come after those for face-to-face and telephone communication (Short et al., 1976; Trevino, Lengel, & Daft, 1990; Rice, 1993).
In Table 3 the five communication channels are ranked according to their average preference score. Upon inspection it is evident that staff members prefer face-to-face to every other communication channel on the average, as expected, but then prefer e-mail second, which is not expected. Preferences for telephone are below both face-to-face, as expected, and e-mail, which is not expected. This finding suggests that e-mail should be considered either as having a greater channel richness than the telephone, or that it combines communication attributes that make it preferable to the telephone for many tasks. The written channels of memos and letters are ranked the lowest, as expected. While it was anticipated that for some communication activities, e-mail would be preferred over a rich channel such as the telephone, its second ranking for the average of all communication activities is unexpected, and of important research interest.
Table 3 Average Channel Preferences Across All Communication Activities Communication Channel Mean Face-to-Face 2.20 E-mail 2.00 Telephone 1.81 Memos 1.60 Letters 1.57
The next step in the analysis is to test the first research hypothesis that predicts that preferences for communication channels will change depending on the type of activity. The following four tables compare preferences for e-mail versus face-to-face communication, telephone, memoranda and letters, and test their association with communication activities. For each table the communication activities are ranked in ascending order according to the frequency of preferences for e-mail.
In Table 4 the preferences for e-mail are compared with face-to-face communication. This comparison is between the primary form of interpersonal communication and an innovative computer-based channel; face-to-face should be the preferred communication channel for all activities. The communication activities follow a descending order according to respondents' preference for face-to-face communication in each task; face-to-face is most preferred for decision making and e-mail is most preferred for circulating memoranda. The contingency table shows a Chi-square of 173.19 with 22 degrees of freedom, which is significant at a probability of less than .001. The contingency coefficient for the table is .346, indicating that a little more than one third of the variance is explained in the relationship. There is clearly a significant association between preferences for the two channels and communication activities.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
From inspection of the table it evident that in all but two of the communication activities face-to-face communication is preferred over e-mail, as might be expected. The examination of row percentages shows that the two activities listed last, electronic document delivery and circulating memoranda, are much more likely to elicit a preference for e-mail than are the other activities. The last activity, circulating memoranda, is the largest contributor to the calculated Chi-square, closely followed by electronic document delivery. When compared with face-to-face communication, e-mail is still preferred for text-based activities which exhibit task congruence with e-mail and low social presence. In this table, then, there is some support for the research hypothesis that preferences for channels of communication will vary according to the type of communication activity in which a person engages.
In Table 5 preferences for using the telephone are compared with preferences for e-mail. In this instance the comparison is between two telecommunication channels, one traditional, one relatively new. The telephone is expected to be preferred over e-mail for all activities. The communication activities are ranked in approximate descending order according to the preference for the telephone, with decision making once again heading the list and document delivery as least preferred for the telephone. The ranking of communication activities shifts somewhat from the first table, with some activities becoming more appropriate for the telephone (receiving assignments), and others for e-mail (maintaining the office). The contingency table shows a Chi-square of 248.71 with 22 degrees of freedom, which is significant at a probability of less than .001. The contingency coefficient for the table is .402, indicating that forty percent of the variance is explained in the relationship. Clearly there is again a significant association between preferences for e-mail and the telephone.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
When the contingency table is examined the preferences for one channel over the other are less one-sided than in the first table, with e-mail preferred over the telephone in half of the communication activities. When examining the row percentages it is clear that e-mail is more equivalent to the telephone than expected. While e-mail is preferred by more than fifty percent of respondents in four communication activities, the preference for the telephone never gets that high for any activity. There are a large number of preference ties across most of the communication activities, indicating that respondents found little difference between telephoning and e-mailing for a number of activities. It is the number of ties that diminishes the clear preference for the telephone even in high social presence activities such as making decisions and sending personal messages. In this table it appears that preferences for e-mail have moved from just text-based activities such as circulating memoranda, to more interpersonal activities such as office management and answering questions. When offered a choice between telecommunication channels, respondents had dear preferences for e-mail, which suggests that it is more appropriate than the telephone for many activities. There is good support from this table for the research hypothesis that preferences for channels of communication will vary across different activities.
In Table 6 preferences for e-mail are compared with preferences for sending memoranda. Clearly the respondents prefer e-mail over memoranda for all communication activities. The table has a Chi-square of 39.77 with 22 degrees of freedom, which is significant at a probability of less than .05. The contingency coefficient for the table is .174, which indicates that only about seventeen percent of the variance is explained in the relationship. There is a statistically significant association between the preferences for e-mail versus sending memoranda and the communication activities, but it is a slight one.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
In Table 7 the preferences for sending letters compared with preferences for e-mail are similar to the findings for memoranda, with a similar ranking of communication activities. E-mail is again preferred for all activities. The contingency table has a Chi-square of 37.96 with 22 degrees of freedom, which is significant at a probability of less than .05. The contingency coefficient for the table is .171, which again indicates that only about seventeen percent of the variance is explained in the relationship. While there is a statistically significant association, it too is a slight one.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
In both of these tables the preference for e-mail over paper-based communication is quite evident. Again, staff prefer traditional communication channels when making decisions, but still not so much as using e-mail. For all of the rest of the communication activities, only a small minority of respondents prefer the paper-based channels. In both cases there is very little variation of preference across communication activities; e-mail is the preferred channel of communication when compared to sending memoranda or letters. In both of these tables there is little support for the research hypothesis that preferences for channels of communication will vary across different activities, but the findings do suggest that richer channels are generally preferred over leaner channels. In this case e-mail is clearly a richer channel than memoranda or letters, and is universally preferred over the paper channels, much as face-to-face is generally preferred over e-mail.
It is clear from the analysis of data that both use and preferences for e-mail vary according to the type of communication activity in which one engages. The use of e-mail differs depending on the type of job one has and the staff member's position in the organizational hierarchy. For example, secretaries use e-mail twice as much as analysts, and almost three times as much as directors, and each group uses e-mail for different sorts of tasks. Directors use it for decisions and for assigning tasks, analysts use it more to ask questions and draft documents, and secretaries receive assignments by e-mail more than anyone else. In addition e-mail is generally used more for low social presence activities such as document delivery and sending or receiving information than for high social presence activities such as decision making. Thus, we can differentiate the use of e-mail by the type of task undertaken.
According to channel richness theory, when channels are compared, the "richer" channels such as face-to-face and the telephone will be preferred to the "leaner" channels of e-mail and paper text. In this study these preference expectations are not wholly supported. When preference scores are averaged and ranked across channels, e-mail is clearly preferred over the telephone by the same difference that face-to-face is preferred over e-mail. This finding indicates that e-mail is either a richer channel than previous studies have reported or preferences for e-mail are related to other characteristics such as its efficiency or compatibility to job tasks.
The contingency tables tend to support the ranking of e-mail between face-to-face and the telephone, as well as supporting the variability of preferences across communication activities. In the first comparison of e-mail with face-to-face, clearly e-mail is the less preferred channel of communication; however, for delivering documents and circulating memoranda, e-mail is preferred. In this instance the richer channel almost washes away any variance in preferences across communication channels.
When e-mail and the telephone are compared, the direction of preference is not so clear. In more than half of the activities, e-mail is clearly preferred over the telephone, a finding which supports the ranking of channel preferences. In addition, the frequency with which respondents prefer e-mail for all activities increases from the first table, indicating that channel preferences will change depending on the channel and the communication activity. While face-to-face is more appropriate than e-mail for an activity such as answering questions, e-mail is more appropriate when compared to the telephone. Thus preferences for e-mail change for communication activities depending on the comparison channel; in the case of the telephone, e-mail is evidently preferred for most activities. From this table there is clear evidence that preferences for e-mail can change depending on the type of communication activity and the nature of the comparison channel.
In the cases of circulating memoranda and sending letters, e-mail is universally preferred, and mirrors the rich-lean relationship that it in turn has with face-to-face. The hypothesized variability of preferences across communication channels is nullified by this relationship. There appears to be a principle at work here that when a rich channel is compared to a lean channel, preferences will be for the rich channel. In the case of e-mail and the telephone, the distinction of rich versus lean is much less clear, resulting in a variation among preferences. Channel preferences may thus be explained not only by the type of communication activity undertaken, but by comparative differences in richness between channels. In all cases, however, preferences for e-mail vary across communication activities, thus supporting the research hypothesis.
The introduction of a communication technology such as electronic mail can have an important impact on organizational communications. Communication tasks that previously had been accomplished by face-to-face or the telephone (for example, answering questions or co-drafting documents) are replaced by e-mail. As members of an organization learn to use the e-mail system for different communication tasks, they might find that it provides a fairly rich and a more efficient communication channel for certain types of activities, thus making it preferable to older means of communication such as the telephone or face-to-face. It is evident that the preferences for communication channels are important factors to be considered in organizational communication, and that more study should be focused on the role of new communication technologies in changing those preferences.
Christopher Sullivan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Florida State University. His research interests include interactive telecommunications, how electronic mail affects communication efficiency and decision making, international telecommunications policy, and the development of telephone systems. He has conducted a number of studies on the use of information technology in state government. His address is Department of Communication, Florida State University, Tallahassee FL 32306.
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|Author:||Sullivan, Christopher B.|
|Publication:||The Journal of Business Communication|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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