Worldwide Media Relations

Communication Technology in the Workplace

Steven R. Van Hook

Jones International University

June 12, 1999

Sproull and Kiesler conclude the first chapter of their book Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization (1991) with a remarkable quote regarding the use of new communications: "Itís not who you know but how you know that makes you a success." New communications technologies are providing diverse avenues for communicating with vast numbers of business connections, especially conducive to researching and transferring precise information at megahertz speeds.


Emerging communications technologies provide cosmic levels of information flow, with the resultant business-boosting possibilities of efficiency and productivity gains through cost displacement and/or value added (i.e., replacing workers or enhancing worker productivity). But information flow is not necessarily an end in itself; in fact excess flow can cause offsetting deviation-amplified consequences, much like increased flow of traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge might cause congestion of freeways on the other side (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991).

Effective use of new communications requires 1) the communication media be appropriate to the business purpose, and 2) the business users accept the media for their most effective use.

High-tech solutions are not a cure-all for business communication needs. Organizations process and exchange information to reduce uncertainty (absence of information) and equivocality (ambiguous and conflicting interpretations) (Daft and Engel, 1986). Media Richness Theory proposes media-rich communications (e.g., face-to-face) are better suited for solving equivocality problems, while questions of uncertainty able to be resolved with data may best be served with less rich, impersonal media (e.g., e-mail).


Beyond the first-level technological efficiencies, businesses can be served by the second-level social benefits in a networked organization where employee skills and interests can be maximized to their greatest benefits (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991). People can participate in diverse forums and group structures with dynamic configurations, across geographic, hierarchical and time dependent boundaries. An organizational network can become a powerful tool in leveraging employee expertise and abilities.

Introducing communication technologies can present problems, beyond the costs for installation and training involved. Management and worker reactions alike may initially run opposed to proposed technological changes. Deviations from the norm or the "tried and true way of doing things" require justifications that are sensible and acceptable within the business social setting. This may lead to commitment to courses of action beyond the point when those actions are sensible from other points of view (Becker, 1960). Conflicting worker response to technologies might range from justifications such as "donít fix what ainít broken" to "you donít get anywhere by standing still," both appearing to be sensible behaviors. Such social influence provides a pivotal role in media evaluations, task evaluations and media use (Fulk, Schmitz and Steinfield, 1990).

Management itself might be an inhibitor to technological business developments. Managers often like to keep information to themselves, enhancing their "value" to the organization. New communications systems can unleash and democratize the flow of information. Furthermore, managers who may have previously discouraged technological enhancements may need "a socially accepted rationale that defines both past resistance and current acceptance as appropriate" (Fulk, Schmitz and Steinfield, 1990).

Itís a situation I witnessed somewhat in my own organization two years back, when the project director proposed developing an intra-office computer network for internal communications. The office was already connected to the Internet for regional and international communications. Iíve attached excerpts from an e-mail exchange between the in-country project director, with the US-based company president.

Subj: Technology Wish List

From: (Project Director)

To:          (Company President)

The following items were identified by members of the Information Technology Committee, which met yesterday to define from the "user-end" a computer communication system meeting the following needs:

1. The ability to input a "daily agenda" throughout the day, and to input for future days.

2. The ability to schedule a meeting with another staff member.

3. The ability to access and input into the schedules of other staff members.

4. The ability to send files to one another.

Please respond with your thoughts.

======

Subj: Re: Technology Wish List

From: (Company President)

To:          (Project Director)

Sorry to piss on parades, but I am starting to get a really bad feeling about this whole process. I am open to persuading. However, I am quite concerned we may be heading to alienation of people, etc., as we replace face-to-face and phone conversations with the computer. Please think this through and let me know your thoughts.

=======

Subj: Re: Technology Wish List

From: (Project Director)

To:          (Company President)

I think this is blown way out of proportion.

What we are instituting in the office is a simple communication system. Our office is now larger and there are more people in more departments. We try to keep meetings to an absolute minimum and to take care of basic details like calendars, shared information, etc. That way when people do get together they can work on important issues and not have to waste time on the basics which should be understood.

It also will cut down on the huge amounts of paper that are now being used and the overtaxed copy machines.

But, let me assure you that it is not a big deal, only one step in the daily list of things to get the office functioning a little better. The end goal is not an Orwellian monster.

 

A few months later our intra-office system was completed.

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