Friday, 12 February 2016

The continuum of channel richness

Richard Daft in his 2009 book, The Leadership Experience, explores a continuum of channel richness for leadership communication. The 'richness' is influenced by three key characteristics: first, the ability for the sender and the receiver to handle simultaneous multiple cues; second, facilitating rapid two-way feedback; and lastly, building personalised communication.

In considering the diagram above, face to face communication is the richest form because of our ability to convey a great deal information instantaneously. 7% of our communication is from our words, with 93% collectively being delivered from our tone, inflexion, emphasis accent, phrasing, body language, eye-contact, hand movements, facial expressions, "hearing a smile", "sensing a lie", emotional connection, mirroring, and touch. This provides the 'best' in channel richness.

While once it was also hard to record a conversation, to accurately remember and to share what was said, these days you can capture the salient points via smartphone video or voice to text. The remaining potential disadvantage, that of spontaneity, remains. We can say things in the heat of the moment that are incorrect, inaccurate or unwarranted.

The next-most rich communication channel, due to technology advances, is video conferencing software such as Skype or Google Hangouts. The advantage of video conferencing is that we have immediate two-way feedback, we can record the communication, and we can converse with a number of people at once.

Next comes phone. We lose our sight senses, but can still hear tone, inflexion, emphasis accent, phrasing, "hearing a smile", and "sensing a lie" from hesitations and choice of words. While this is still rich, it is nowhere near as rich as face to face. Additionally, while a phone call can be recorded, it is still not normal to do so.

Following this is email, texting, online chat or instant messaging (IM) and, at the far end of this section, posting comments to social media or websites (where there is slightly more time delay). These text only forms of communication lack the visual and verbal cues but it's now used for the kind of communications. Will once handled by phone simply because the speed and reduction and long distance telephone cost the companies most successful in this area are those who supplement electronic media with the human touch. We have a record of what was said, we can share it, we have feedback often very quickly.

Then we have video, which provides all the visual cues of face to face communication, but lacks two-way immediacy. However, we could delay dissemination and post via digital media with online chat and feedback.

Then we have memos and letters, which while able to be personalized, often isn't done well. These days letters and memos are felt to be an imposition, old-fashioned, command-and-control, or 'telling'. There is a very slow feedback cycle on this type of leadership communication. While not the lowest in richness, it is almost the lowest, as it is often not focused on the needs of the receiver, but on the needs of the sender. While, like email or chat, there is a record of what has been said, and written work is usually relatively well thought through - and reasonably easy to share with an intended audience - it feels impersonal, arms-length and lacking in  immediacy and any opportunity for negotiation.  This is a closed process.

Not a good communication channel, but it can be a good summary and formal finaliser of what was earlier discussed and decided upon.

Lastly is the formal report which is the least channel richness-oriented piece of communication. It is very impersonal, only goes one way and there is usually no opportunity for feedback. The advantages are that we have a clear record, and it is usually well thought through and it's often easy to share with a very wide range of people.

So when we consider all these forms of communication, we can see almost immediately that face to face, video conferencing, phone, or email/chat/IM should form our most common communication channels.

If we cannot be present at the time, video conferencing provides us with a rich channel option, just without the feedback (though we can create a feeling of immediacy by posting on a digital media platform with a feedback function).

The more formal ones should be avoided, except as follow-up on richer channels. They no longer provide sound leadership communication.

  • Reference: Daft, Richard R. (2009). The Leadership Experience (Fourth Edition). USA: Cengage (diagram p. 280).

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