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Computer-Mediated Communication in Virtual Organizations
Michelle Karl

Abstract

With the increase of technology, computer-mediated communication is becoming increasingly more popular. While thousands of people use computer-mediated communication for personal use, businesses are turning toward computer-mediated communication at increasing rates. However, studies have shown that the benefits provided by computer-mediated communication are limited by a weakening of ties within the business. In order to strengthen these ties, one needs to understand the hierarchical degrees that exist within a virtual organization, the benefits and limitations of computer-mediated communication when compared to face-to-face communication and how to create shared meanings among employees.

Recent research has been conducted in all three of these areas. An understanding of computer-mediated communication can allow all three areas to be combined, benefiting the organization and creating organizational identity.

Introduction

"You’ve Got Mail." No I am not referring to the popular movie with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but I am referring to the words thousands of people hear every time they sign onto America On-Line. Millions of people in the United States alone own e-mail accounts which they access daily to communicate with people around the world. Computer-mediated communication (CMC), which "typically involves communication between two or more parties using personal computers linked via modem or electronic network to other personal computers in order to convey textual messages," has been growing over the last fifteen years (Tidwell & Walther, 1996,2000, p. 322).

Not only has CMC been a growing method of communication for pleasure in the home, but it has also become a popular method of communication for businesses.

"Computer-mediated communication technology is becoming the backbone of many organizations, supplanting the formal hierarchical structure to achieve coordination and manage relationships within and between organizations. Electronic communications fuel the growth and effectiveness of an organization and its parts. Information, rather than being limited, controlled, and a source of power appears to be instrumental for greater effectiveness when widely disseminated and freely available in so-called virtual electronic organizations" (Daft and Lewin, 1993, iv).

CMC allows for decentralization of businesses and operation from locations all over the world. People can work from home, work at their client’s office, or work when they travel and still be connected to their work (Garud, Raghuran, Wiesenfeld, 1998). However, the benefits of having this freedom to work from almost anywhere trade off with the benefits of face-to-face communication. It is harder for employees in a virtual organization to develop an organizational identity, which is a critical factor in holding the organization together (Garud et al., 1998). In a more traditional organization there tends to be more readily available cues, such as dress codes, shared language, and shared organizational routines (Garud et al., 1998) which tie employees together. Due to the lack of these readily available cues in a virtual organization, it is more difficult to obtain the organizational identity.

Not only is there less identification with the organization between employees, but management in virtual organizations do not have the same supervision abilities as when the organizations were more traditional. Due to this change in communication patterns from mostly formal to mostly informal, superiors have to learn new ways to find shared meaning with their employees, create organizational identities, and then sustain the identity.

The virtual organization is a growing concept but in order for it to prosper its employees need to find ways to share meaning and obtain an organizational identity. In order to understand ways in which computer-mediated communication can accomplish this, one needs to first examine the communication patterns between managerial positions and lower status employees, the benefits of computer-mediated communication versus face-to-face communication, and how to create shared meanings through communication.

Previous Research

Since computer-mediated communication formed, studies have been conducted to fully understand how this form of communication can be applied to businesses. Most research in the field of computer-mediated communication has been qualitative, studying the quality of the ideas and hypotheses surrounding CMC . Studies have been done on how computer-mediated communication relates to face-to-face communication (Bordia,1997; Olaniran, 1994) and whether or not virtual organizations tend to be hierarchical (Adkins & Brashers, 1995; Ahuja & Carley, 1998; Robey, Saunders, & Vaverek, 1994).

Most research on computer-mediated communication within organizations has been conducted on one sole issue. Very few researchers have combined their ideas on hierarchy, comparisons of face-to-face and computer-mediated communication, and shared meanings. However, all three of these ideas are critical to the communication choices a manager makes when trying to maintain organizational identity and secure the future of the organization. According to Garud, Raghuram, and Wiesenfeld (1998),

"Identification may be essential to sustaining virtual organizations because it facilitates critical organizational functions that pose a particular challenge in virtual contexts, such as: a) coordination and control of dispersed organizational actors; b) work group functioning; c) encouragement of extra-role helping behaviors; and d) retention of valuable employees" (p.3)

Employees who have a strong sense of organizational identity tend to be more satisfied and tend to view the organizations goals as their own. Organizational identity can therefore help a virtual organization accomplish it’s goals and secure its future.

One perspective of looking at communication patterns is the message centered perspective. This perspective focuses upon what is actually said/written, the organization of the words, and why the particular words are chosen. It then looks at how these word choices affect and change relational states. Since relationships are formed through word choice over CMC, the message center perspective can be used in examining CMC patterns. Using the message center perspective and combining all three areas of study will establish the beginnings of a better understanding of the strategies managers should employ when considering CMC.

Study of Hierarchies

Researchers studying the degree of hierarchy present in virtual organizations have been finding new information over the past five years. Th new information contradicts the first studies that were conducted on statuses within virtual organizations. "Previous research suggests that virtual organizations tend to be non-hierarchical and decentralized" (Ahuja & Carley, 1998, p. 4). However recent research has found that a degree of hierarchy does exist in virtual organizations (Adkins & Brashers, 1995; Ahuja & Carley.; Robey et al., 1994).

Although studies have shown that hierarchies do exist in virtual organizations, the hierarchies are not formed through authoritative status, i.e. higher or lower ranking employees. Rather, hierarchies found in CMC are based on one’s ability to respond to e-mails (Ahuja & Carley, 1998). Those who respond more often are perceived as higher ranking than those who’s responses are infrequent or who doesn’t respond at all. The degree to which a virtual organization is hierarchical is based on the amount of reciprocity, whether or not the employees are able to respond to each other.

At the same time, Robey et al. (1994) found that those who have a higher social status in a traditional organization tend to carry that status over to the virtual organization. They found that people who originally had a higher status tend to respond with more messages and more sentences per message than those of a lower original status. The results found in Robey et al.’s (1994) study lead to the perception that those who communicate more freely with CMC are of a higher status. Managers can help decrease the perceptions of a hierarchy by encouraging all employees to frequently use computer-mediated communication.

Not only can the frequency of use of CMC affect status perception but the language use can affect it as well. Studies conducted by Adkins and Brashers (1995) show that using powerful or powerless speaking styles can affect one’s status. A powerless speaking style consists of language that conveys uncertainty, hesitancy, and/or tentativeness, while a powerful language style is a style absent of powerless cues (Adkins & Brashers, 1995). Adkins and Brashers found that if there are some people in a group using a powerful speaking style while others are using a powerless speaking style, the powerful group member is perceived as more attractive, persuasive, and credible, thus he/she is seen as holding a high rank or status.

Hierarchies in virtual organizations are language and communication based. There are both benefits and limitations to the hierarchal form of communication. For example, studies have shown that "people in the decentralized [not hierarchical] organizations are more satisfied with the work processes than people in centralized organizations" (Ahuja & Carley, 1998, p. 9). Employees who feel that they are active participants in an organization may also feel stronger physical ties to the organizational identity (Garud et al., 1998). At the same time "in an area where there are high knowledge barriers to entry because of the high level of technical expertise required, centralization can play an important role in overcoming these barriers. Specialists who can be relied on so that all participants do not have to share in all the knowledge can reduce startup costs for the average participant." (Ahuja & Carley, p. 20).

Managers are then left with the decision of whether a decentralized or a centralized organization would be the most beneficial for their business. If a manager decides that a decentralized, non-hierarchical organization would be most efficient, he/she should encourage equal participation in discussions. He/she should also teach powerful speaking style to all employees, helping people eliminate powerless cues from their speaking style. However, according to Mantovani (1994),

"CMC is regarded as capable of softening the barriers of status and power that affect communication in organizations. [But b]arriers in communication and status differences in organizations are clearly more a social than a technological issue, and the search for a technical remedy to social inequality seems somehow naive" (p. 48).

Managers need to remember that it will be almost impossible to decrease all forms of hierarchy in virtual organizations.

If a centralized organization would be most beneficial, the manager should train the high ranking employees to use more powerful language, thus increasing the perception of high ranking status.

Computer-Mediated Versus Face-to-Face Communication

In order to understand the benefits and limitations of using computer-mediated communication (CMC) in a business, one must compare it to the traditional use of face-to-face (FTF) communication. Most studies concerning the comparison of CMC and FTF discuss problem solving situations. There are two parts to the decision making process: (1) the idea generating phase and (2) the evaluation or decision making phase (Olaniran, 1994).

Studies conducted by both Bordia (1997) and Olaniran (1994) found that CMC allows for more idea generating. The reason for this is that CMC allows for more equality among speakers and there is less social pressure (Bordia). According to Olaniran, the reason CMC allows more idea generating is that it eliminates production blocking (lack of opportunity to express opinion due to too many people speaking at once), and decreases evaluation apprehension ("group members unwillingness to express their opinions based on the expectation that their contributions might be ridiculed by others" (p. 3)) and free-riding ("members’ perception that their contributions to the group are not going to make a significant difference in the group outcome" (p.3)). All of these reasons combined increase the number of ideas that are produced when brainstorming through computer-mediated communication.

However, one limitation of CMC is that it allows for Flaming--uninhibited rude behavior. The lack of anonymity which decreases evaluation apprehension and free-riding also decreases the repercussions of being verbally abusive (Carr, 1998). When one is able to send an anonymous message, there will not be the fear of consequences because no one will know who sent the message. In order to increase the amount of ideas generated, businesses will often allow for anonymous discussions through CMC. This anonymity sometimes allows for people to be more rude than in a FTF situation.

Although CMC proved to be better for idea generating stages, FTF situations proved to be more productive than CMC for problem solving and conflict resolving (Bordia, 1997; Olaniran, 1994). Groups tend to come to a decision quicker when discussing ideas in a face-to-face situation. However, if given enough time, CMC groups will also come to a decision.

The study of productivity in CMC situations versus FTF situations is helpful; however, it is more helpful to examine combinations of FTF and CMC. There are very few pure virtual organizations in the world today; rather, many organizations contain different virtual aspects (DeSanctis & Monge, 1998). Because of this, most organizations use both face-to-face communication and computer-mediated communication.

Olaniran (1994) conducted research studies on purely CMC, purely FTF, CMC/FTF, and FTF/CMC. He found that CMC/FTF groups were the most productive. The use of CMC during the brainstorming stage allowed for a large amount of ideas to be generated. These ideas were then discussed in person where it was easier for people to come to a decision on which idea was best. Groups which anticipated meeting face-to-face proved to use less flaming and tried to create more positive self-presentations. FTF/CMC groups also performed better than purely CMC or purely FTF. The FTF/CMC groups showed greater critical thinking skills. Because ideas were generated in a face-to-face situation, less ideas were formed due to less speaking time per person and other production blocking. Then, the ideas were discussed through CMC, which allowed more thorough discussion and critical thinking by each member of the group while the decision making process was occurring.

Managers need to take into consideration all four combinations of communication settings. The situations which included both face-to-face communication and computer-mediated communication limited the amount of flaming or uninhibited behavior that would occur in a solely computer-mediated situation. This decrease of rude behavior helps establish a common organizational identity and create norms for the company. Those who anticipate meeting each other will tend to promote a positive self-perception which will in turn create a positive and productive image for the company.

Because there are very few true virtual organizations, most managers will be looking at one of the two combinations of FTF and CMC. The managers will need to decide whether critical thinking will be more effective for their businesses or not. Based on these decisions they can choose which order of communication situations would be best for business – FTF/CMC or CMC/FTF.

As more companies become true virtual organizations, managers will have to decide if this is actually the best form of communication and if a combination of communication patterns would not be more productive for the organization as Olaniran’s (1994) studies show.

Comparisons between the productivity in CMC and FTF situations is critical for managers to know but managers also need to understand the emotional aspects of each medium of communication. When deciding whether or not a company should use both CMC and FTF, managers also need to realize that lack of face-to-face communication can cause people to become "more isolated, distrustful, and unhappy" (Minerd, 1999, p.18). An isolated, distrustful, and unhappy employee will most likely be less inclined to feel an identity with the organization.

 

Creating Shared Meanings

"In a computer-mediated environment, language is especially important because the information exchange is conversational, yet a sender can only encode a textual message. Hence the language used in a computer-mediated environment does not have the formal structure of a letter or the unrecorded free flow of oral communication" (Adkins & Carley, 1995, p.289-290). The uniqueness of computer-mediated communication calls for the study of how shared meanings can be created informally and without verbal cues.

The most important factor in creating shared meanings is time (Floyd & Parks, 1996). It takes longer to convey personal messages and for the receiver to develop perceptions about the sender and shared beliefs with him/her. Studies have also found that those who respond to more email over time consider themselves to have more personal relationships, (Floyd & Parks) thus are able to feel a greater sense of identity with the virtual organization.

The lack of nonverbal cues has always been considered the greatest barrier to creating shared meanings. However, Floyd and Parks (1996) point out that none of the exchange-based theories, such as the social penetration theory or the uncertainty-reduction theory, require physical proximity as necessary for the relationship to develop. These exchange-based theories help explain how employees can create shared meanings. The uncertainty reduction theory states that people will try to reduce the uncertainty levels with whom they are communicating. Therefore, employees will try to convey their messages in a way that produces the least amount of confusion and increases understanding between the participants.

Even though physical proximity is not necessary for employees to create shared meanings, face-to-face communication will still be desired (Garud et al, 1998; Forest & Park, 1996). Goldberg (1997) states "the more electronic communication expands and diversifies our circle of contacts, the more we’re going to want to add the dimension of face-to-face" (as cited in Garud et al., 1998).

Even though exchange-based communication theories state that employees will naturally try to create shared meanings among themselves, a manager can still play a role in increasing the levels of shared meanings. The first thing managers need to do is "to provide rich contextual information to communicating parties; this could heighten message understanding and shorten the time that might otherwise be required to establish mutuality of the conversational model" (DeSanctis & Monge, 1998, p.9). Now that the managers have explained the type of communication models that will be used, he/she can encourage positive forms of communication.

According to Hansen (1999) "Many people often neglect to check how their communication will come across to their readers" (p.9) The following are guidelines a manager can encourage employees to follow: (1) Think about who may read the message; with email it is very easy for the message to end up in the wrong hands; (2) Picture the recipients reaction to the message; will he/she take offense to what is written; (3) use ‘I’ statements; they will sound less authoritarian; (4) Make sure the message is not too cryptic; don’t force the reader to guess at the message’s meaning; and (5) be courteous when writing a message (Hansen, 1999). Encouraging people to use these guidelines when using computer-mediated communication can help strengthen the sender’s and receiver’s ability to create shared meanings.

Not only do managers need to encourage positive communication among employees, but they need to implement the guidelines in their communication. Many managers often will send email without thinking about how it will be perceived (Armour, 1998). In order for employees to create shared meaning and uphold an organizational identity, managers must become the role-model.

Combining the Three Areas of Research

According to researchers, DeSanctis and Monge (1998) "The virtual organization provides a metaphor for considering an organization design that is held together, literally, by communication." Therefore one must combine the three areas of research in order to truly hold together the virtual organization.

The first decision that must be made is the degree of hierarchy one desires for the virtual organization. The lesser the hierarchical degree the more employees feel that they participate in the organization, leading to a greater tie with the organizational identity. Managers can decrease the status degrees by encouraging all employees to use powerful language.

Once status degrees are decreased, there will be more equality when generating or discussing ideas through computer-mediated communication. A manager then needs to decide which combination of face-to-face communication and computer-mediated communication would best benefit the organization. They need to keep in mind that face-to-face communication is still needed in order to decrease depression and increase organizational identity. Computer-mediated communication can help make the company productive, but without a degree of face-to-face communication creating shared meanings and a common identity becomes much harder. (Garud et al., 1998).

"Communication can strengthen member identification because it provides organization members with an opportunity to create and share their subjective perceptions of the organization’s defining features–it’s norms, values, and culture" (Garud et al., 1998, p. 5). Through computer-mediated communication employees, will slowly establish shared meanings and develop a sense of organizational identity. A manager can influence the creation shared meanings by encouraging employees to follow positive communication guidelines.

As employees, people need to try to use powerful language when communicating and to convey their messages in the clearest fashion in order to avoid misunderstanding and increase shared meaning.

By understanding that the hierarchical degree of a virtual organization can be influenced by communication style, that a combination of CMC and FTF is best for an organization, and that exchange based communication theories prove that people will try to create shared meanings, a manager will be able to make clear decisions on how to best create and maintain an organizational identity. An organizational identity is critical to holding a virtual organization together because the computer-mediated communication may actually "fray the ties that bind the organization members to each other and to their employer" (Garud et al., 1998, p.1). This crucial organizational identity can be created by ensuring that employees feel they are participants in the organization, use the most productive combinations of computer-mediated communication and face-to-face communication, and share meanings and beliefs.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Studies

The research that has been conducted so far concerning computer-mediated communication have brought great insight. They have allowed people to understand that hierarchies can still exist through communication patterns even if not authoritatively decided. The studies have also brought light on the fact that organizations should try to combine computer-mediated and face-to-face interactions.

Although the studies that have been conducted in the area of computer-mediated communication have provided a plethora of information, they are also limiting. Most of the studies were conducted in laboratory settings with time limits. Since time is the biggest factor to performance in CMC settings, it is highly probable that a different outcome would occur if those in CMC settings did not feel restricted by time.

The other difficulty with researching computer-mediated communication in laboratory settings is that there is no previous history among participants, whereas in the actual workforce, employees have histories together or they are lower and higher authority statuses previously assigned. The absence of history can change the outcome because the participants are starting from scratch. In some situations, it may take longer for them to communicate because they don’t have any shared meanings yet, while in other situations the absence of previous rankings may increase communication.

The studies that were conducted as field research only researched one organization and were therefore possibly not a clear representation of virtual organizations.

Future Research

Future research with computer-mediated communication needs to expand beyond the laboratory and be examined in the actual work force. Future researchers need to study hierarchies, creating shared meanings and comparisons of FTF to CMC. Some research has been done in this area, but not enough to give a full understanding of exactly how computer-mediated communication can impact an organization.

Previous research has set up the foundation for understanding computer-mediated communication. With an increasing amount of business turning toward computer-mediated communication, research in this area is crucial. Technology is constantly changing and businesses are constantly evolving, calling for new studies to be conducted in the field of CMC.

Looking at computer-mediated communication in the virtual organization through the message centered perspective has enabled managers to better understand ways in which they can increase organizational identity. Understanding that hierarchies still exist through language usage, a combination of face-to-face and computer-mediated communication is best, and there are ways to create shared meaning will aid managers in securing the future of their organization.

 

References

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