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< 9:30 := AA Voices from the Field a n The Meanings and Uses of Organizational Communication Technologies Fluidity, Promiscuity, and Mash-ups Michele H. Jackson, University of Colorado at Boulder 390 of 537 369 Box 12.2 Visit your favorite major online site. Go ahead. I'll wait. It's very likely you're either online right now reading this, or you're near a device that is online. Pull up the site. Take a close look at how it is put together. Though I might not know what you chose specifically, I'm willing to bet that it is con- nected to a database. Does it have ads on it? If so, they are probably tailored to the content of the site, or perhaps even to you. Does it have content that changes regularly and maybe constantly? Does it have a search feature? All of these functions-commonplace in 2010-rely on databases. Databases have changed the way communication happens on the Internet and, I propose, may even change some fundamental assumptions about communication itself. Databases change our communication and our interaction into bits of information that are captured, stored, and used later in ways that we don't have to foresee ahead of time. The removal of information from its particular context is an essential property of Web 2.0. Information does not so much travel from one place to another as much as it exists in a fluid state. Fluidity means content that was once limited in its use now flows freely because it is not bound by location in time or space. Today's technologies "emancipate" information from any particular actor, function, or context. Do you notice the different databases at work when a photo from Flickr is combined with a video from YouTube and a headline from the BBC? Probably not. We take it for granted. For example, a typical profile page on Facebook can easily pull from all of these sources. My guess is that most of us have grown used to information flowing easily from one context to another, and from one device to another. We have grown used to the promiscuity of information, content from different sources associating together in indiscriminate and unforeseen ways. Take a look again at that site. Can you now take apart the whole and guess the different data- bases that are at work? Can you evaluate how well it is put together to form a whole? This reassembly is the mash-up, a new communication archetype for our age. Mash-ups bring together disconnected and mutable information from multiple and disparate sources into a meaningful whole. The work of appropriating information from disparate sources and fixing it for a time into a coherent whole is the new work of online communication. Yet there is no single, authoritative "whole" to construct. Communication is literally constitutive, and the work we do as social actors collaboratively constructs and maintains what we experience as our shared, stable social reality. Using Communication Technologies Technologies are rarely used exactly as envisioned by designers, decision makers, or futurologists or as feared by techno-phobic social critics. The pages of magazines are filled with examples of both "techno-optimism" (as mentioned in chapter 9, an unbounded faith in the capacity of new technologies to solve our problems) and dire warnings about technology being a kind of Frankenstein out of our control. Put another way, the prognosticators are often divided between envisioning utopian and dystopian futures resulting from technological developments.21 While both positions have some merit, especially by encouraging us to think of the reasons why we want new technologies, the arguments tend to be too polarized. Most new technologies are really a "mixed bag" in terms of advantages and disadvantages. Rarely do the imple- mentation and use of technologies in organizations live up to the gloomy prophecies< 9:30 370 := AA a n 391 of 537 Chapter Twelve of critics who predict, for example, an end to interpersonal interactions in the work- place or an end to employment itself.22 There is no simple causality between the technical options and features available and the actual use of these technologies in practice. Interestingly, however, we often come across the same technological determinism among those who praise the advent of new technologies and those who dread it. Technological determinism is the idea that technology itself is a driving force (perhaps the driving force) in human history. 23 According to technological determinists, technological innovations lead predictably and necessarily to certain transformations of society (or organizations). Both the opti- mists and the pessimists seem to assume that communication technologies have a built-in logic that forces itself more or less inevitably and in predictable ways on orga- nizations and societies and pushes human interaction in clear-cut and unambiguous directions. The logic of technological determinism reflects some of our experience with communication technologies: they often seem to develop rather independently of user needs, wants, and choices. For example, think of the constant updates of com- puter software that sometimes seem more a nuisance than a help, requiring us to learn new features and to relearn how to do some tasks that had become routine. At the same time, however, technological determinism blinds us to the fact that communica- tion technologies (along with other technologies) achieve their meanings in the con- text of everyday use-a context in which people actually make choices. Perspectives on Communication Media Usage The Web site www.internetworldstats.com, which compiles statistics about worldwide Internet use, tells us that as of late 2009, over 1.7 billion of the world's 6.8 billion people use the Internet, and that the Internet grew worldwide by 380% between 2000 and 2009. Of the total number of Internet users, 43% are in Asia, where the growth rate for the Internet during this period was 546%! China has the largest number of Internet users (338 million); the United States is second (220 million). Small wonder, then, that researchers have spent so much time trying to understand not only how many people use the Net but also why and how they use it and how these choices are made in organizational contexts. When researchers have attempted to understand how people use communication technology, they've considered issues including access to various media, availability of communication partners, users' experience with the medium, users' personal style in using media, time and cost advantages, and communication task requirements. Most of the research on the use of communication technology in organizations has made two assumptions that have been challenged in recent years. One is that they have focused exclusively on the rational motives of individuals when choosing a spe- cific medium, assuming that users coolly consider the objective dimensions of the medium and task and make a rational decision. The second is that people only use one medium at a time. Critical mass theory stresses the significance of a "critical mass" of users for the general diffusion and success of the medium being adopted, accentuating the fact that the usefulness of an interactive medium like the telephone, the fax, or electronic mail increases with universal access. Being the first person in the universe to own a tele- phone, for example, may have been appealing to some-but certainly not for func- tional reasons! Critical mass theorists explain the adoption of a medium primarily as a function of the size of the community of users, trying to determine a "tipping point" at< 9:30 := AA a n 393 of 537 372 ◄ Chapter Twelve Although the model is generally but only weakly supported by research, ²7 its logic and simplicity have an immediate appeal that conforms to our ideals about rational management practice. What is rationality, however, in this context? An orga- nizational actor facing the task of conveying ambiguous, but unpleasant, information to a superior or subordinate may "rationally" choose a leaner medium-like, for example, a letter or an electronic message that doesn't require face-to-face contact. Conversely, organizational actors may sometimes-for social or other non-task- related reasons choose a rich medium to convey a comparatively simple message. For example, sometimes the primary tasks to be addressed at a staff meeting may be quite straightforward and easily handled via e-mail. Still, a manager may choose to have the staff meeting because of the perceived value of staff regularly interacting face-to-face. And of course, there are abundant examples of insensitive administrators or managers who consistently make what may seem like irrational media choices to most people, but have their own rationale for doing so. In George's consulting with a small city organization, for example, he learned that the chief administrative officer (CAO) often chose e-mail for reprimanding employees and would copy everyone on the organization's distribution list. While we may not agree with his choice, there is still a certain "rationality" to it: to increase the weight of his reprimands. As these examples illustrate, the use of communication media may not be ratio- nal in the narrow and task-related sense of the term but may be very rational if we consider human needs to combine task requirements with social concerns. In spite of these complexities, the media richness model still has its merits. If you were to advise a friend or a colleague on how to deal with a conflict, for example, you'd probably advise against a lean medium and suggest instead a rich one, like a face-to- face conversation. Our discussion so far reflects the assumption that individuals use one medium at a time. However, it's not unusual for someone today to engage in instant messaging, e-mail, and/or text messaging—perhaps to another person seated in the same room with whom she is also engaging in face-to-face conversation (especially if they want some messages not to be overheard). This is the notion of multicommunicating. As Michele Jackson notes, "For a number of years, research in computer-mediated com- munication was driven by the 'difference question': How is mediated communication different from face-to-face communication?" While that research has been useful, we have since learned that using multiple media simultaneously has decreased the importance of determining differences between single mediums. Shiv discovered a vivid example of how students multicommunicate. During one of his lectures, he noticed that one of his brightest students (sitting halfway up the lecture hall) had his laptop on-simultaneously playing video games, texting messages, taking lecture notes, AND participating actively in class! Certainly, we are not all multicommunica- tors, and it's worth speculating what generational differences there may be in multi- communication, and what we may be gaining and losing as a result.28 Other Influences on Media Use While critical mass theory and the media richness model highlight some impor- tant dimensions related to the adoption and choice of specific technologies, we should ask whether their explanations which focus on diffusion patterns and media selec- tion provide a comprehensive view of media usage in organizations. The first con- sideration is that the adoption and choice of specific media is not a question settled by< 9:30 := AA a n 394 of 537 The Meanings and Uses of Organizational Communication Technologies organizations or individuals acting in isolation. As Noshir Contractor and Eric Eisen- berg state, "Everything about the adoption and usage of media is social. "2⁹ So, there are social influences on our choices. For example, organizations may prefer certain media-like videoconferences-simply because other organizations have adopted them. Secondly, choice behavior with respect to the use of communication technology may not always be motivated by efficiency. While we typically justify our media deci- sions in efficiency terms, our actual use of a medium may be quite unrelated to that goal. Finally, we need to understand that media adoption and usage are often driven by the people who design, develop, or market the media. Software choices, for exam- ple, are typically stimulated by supply rather than demand. Hoping to stay ahead in the competition, designers and providers of communication technology rarely ask end users what they want and need. Companies develop software or new hardware and then try to convince us of the need or benefits. Advertising and marketing of the prod- ucts target IT experts at organizations who make adoption decisions, but the needs and interests of the experts may be quite different from those of most other users. Thus, we have new technologies "pushed" at us in organizations, which we may or may not want. At our universities, for example, there is fear each time a new version of Microsoft Office is adopted and installed on all university computers. As a conse- quence of such influences, most of us know how to use only a small fraction of the fea- tures available on our computers (or DVD players, or cameras, etc.). 373 To the extent that communication technology options are "given" in advance by designers and producers of such technology, our notion of media "choice" needs to be reconsidered. Moreover, to the extent that the usage of specific media reflect a desire on the part of decision makers to be among cutting-edge and wired organiza- tions, media adoption and usage may reflect social expectations, conventions, and motives other than rational, task-related choice. Under such circumstances-where choice and necessity become difficult to distinguish-it is obvious that theories that look at adoption and usage in isolation only skim the surface of the phenomena they are trying to explain. The social influence model tries to overcome this problem by phrasing the question of choice somewhat differently.30 In a critique of the implied rationality of traditional media choice models, social influence theorists emphasize that media choices are determined not only by objective task and media characteristics but also by past expe- riences and the influence of others. Specifically, they suggest that existing communica- tion patterns in the organization along with interactions with peers and coworkers influence people's evaluation and use of new media. Thus, for example, prejudices among close coworkers against a specific medium may prevent or delay the use of that medium even though the medium is most appropriate following rational choice perspectives like the media richness model. Conversely, in work cultures fascinated with technology and new media, such media may be chosen even in situations where other and perhaps less complex media provide a better match with the task at hand. It seems only logical that the perceived characteristics of a medium and the prevail- ing norms concerning technology are important predictors for its use, in addition to task requirements and specific features of the media. Perceptions and norms about media use are exchanged and shared on a daily basis among coworkers, but these per- ceptions and norms are shaped also by social-historical trends and the general attitude toward technology and media in society. If organizational members are able to choose which communication media to adopt at the workplace, these choices will be shaped< 9:30 := AA Q Q 396 of 537 The Meanings and Uses of Organizational Communication Technologies Interpreting the Effects of Organizational Communication Technologies 375 Early research about the Internet followed the "uses and gratifications" tradition. Initial studies focused on who used the Internet and the types of uses being made of, say, e-mail by home and office users. This research was based on key questions about the "Why?" and "How?" of Internet use and continues in various forms today. In line with rationalist explanations of media use, most perspectives on the impact of communication technologies in the organizational setting focus on the tech- nical features of technology, which we have already discussed. Thus, we would expect to be able to predict the social consequences of the automobile or the television or the personal computer (arguably the three most powerful new technologies of the last century) as an extension of the characteristics of the technologies themselves. In discussing effects, some writers focus on the inhibiting dimensions of mediated communication while others highlight and praise its potential to change and enrich the organization. For example, skeptics argued that electronic media filter out nonver- bal cues and therefore inhibit the communication of social and emotional content like, for example, interest, anger, joy, or doubt. The so-called "cues-filtered-out" model pro- moted an image of electronic media as impersonal, impoverishing interpersonal rela- tions and reducing the quality of organizational life. Proponents of electronic media, on the other hand, emphasize how such media allow organizations to establish new interactive links across organizational boundaries, facilitating open and responsive interactions with internal and external audiences. So far, however, no research has consistently documented that the use of commu- nication technologies causes the effects envisioned or feared by proponents or critics. A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh revealed mixed effects of Internet use on personal well-being. The project, which tracked a large group of Internet users over time, found that these users felt more, not less, connected with family, friends, and colleagues than did nonusers.34 This finding contrasts with the results of previous research on the social effects of Internet that revealed greater feel- ings of alienation and loneliness for regular Net users.35 However, the Carnegie Mel- lon study also found that regular Internet users reported more stress and hassles in their lives than nonusers. This finding is supported by a number of recent commentar- ies in the popular media, characterizing the wired among us as "relentlessly con- nected" and reachable for work even when we're not at work.36 Other researchers, for instance at UCLA, have challenged these findings, especially with regard to stress.37 Of course, we should inquire whether those who are heavily engaged in e- mail use and surfing the Web are predisposed to be stressed out! The point is that the effects of new technologies are complex, sometimes contradictory, and not always eas- ily understood. There are many reasons why we don't have final answers on the effects of com- munication technologies. First, individual technologies shift and change. Marshall McLuhan, considered by Wired magazine to be the patron saint of the Internet, described television in the 1960s as a medium lacking in rich visual cues. The tiny, grainy, black and white images from that era bear no resemblance to the color, HDTV images on today's large-screen plasma/LCD televisions. Another reason we don't have consistent results on the effects of new communica- tion technologies is that they rarely replace existing media. 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