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Webucator's Free Virtual Communications for Managers Tutorial

Lesson: Selection Criteria

Welcome to our free Virtual Communications for Managers tutorial. This tutorial is based on Webucator's Virtual Communications for Managers course.

While many media types will work for many situations, this lesson studies the process of selecting the media that is best suited for a particular communication. The best-fit solution will enhance the communication process, increase retention, engage the participants and, when desired, stimulate participation.

Lesson Goals

  • Learn how to assess the audience.
  • Learn how to assess the message.
  • Learn about technical considerations.
  • Learn how to select the most appropriate media for a given situation.

Assessing the Audience

When communicating virtually, it is often more difficult to "read" the other person than when communicating face-to-face. This is because:

  1. Body language may be missing from the conversation.
  2. Vocal cues may not be heard.
  3. Transmissions may cause delays making it more challenging to respond with the normal timing.

The lack of nonverbal feedback and the change in timing can cause messages to be misinterpreted. Additionally, the person's comfort level with the communication media may affect their attitude toward the topic of the conversation.

These issues can be minimized if we understand the other person's communication style and relationship with communication media. It can be useful to consider the following questions before communicating with others virtually:

  1. What is the natural mode of communication for the recipient?
  2. What media is easiest and most comfortable to use for the recipient?
  3. Which media is available to the recipient?
  4. How many participants are involved in the conversation?

Natural Communication Mode

We can usually determine the types of media a person will be most receptive to by observing how he or she chooses to communicate with others in both virtual and face-to-face interactions. Does he or she:

  1. Describe things well orally or in writing, or does he or she struggle with verbal descriptions?
  2. Prefer to write emails or talk on the phone?
  3. Follow instructions better when they are explained verbally or when they are written down?
  4. Draw pictures or diagrams or build models to express ideas?

Virtual communication will be most effective when you use media that emphasizes forms of communication that match the receiver's natural communication style.

Receiver Capabilities

It is reasonable to expect an employee to know how to use certain mediated communication systems, particularly if those systems are commonly used within the company. However, new employees and people outside the company may not have those skills.

Assuming technical skills exist may create a barrier to communication. Technologies that are new to a person may:

  1. Take time to learn.
  2. Take time to navigate.
  3. Cause frustration.
  4. Distract from the message.

Erroneous assumptions can be seen in the following common business examples:

  1. Office staff assuming floor personnel use email regularly enough to be proficient with it.
  2. Assuming an executive, who relies on an administrative assistant to manage communications, will be able to use personal conferencing equipment easily.
  3. Providing customer service through video conferencing without available technical support.

If the immediate desire is to accurately communicate a message and have that message well received and understood, technical competencies should be confirmed, not assumed, prior to communication.

Access and Availability

Two common errors that take place when new technologies are emerging are:

  1. Assuming those technologies are available in all environments.
  2. Assuming other people use those technologies.

One should always keep these things in mind:

  1. Geographical conditions may affect the availability of media.
  2. Political influences may affect the availability and affordability of media.
  3. Less developed regions often lag behind in systems that are well established in more progressive or more populated regions.
  4. Regulations, such as those in hospitals, may restrict the use of some communication devices.
  5. Certain structures and materials, such as buildings and walls, may interfere with transmissions.
  6. Inclement weather may affect line-of-site transmissions.
  7. The recipient may not have a particular mobile device or subscribe to a particular service.

Just as one should verify the other person's media capabilities, one should also consider the technology that is available to that person.

Number of Participants

The number of participants in a conversation is yet another consideration. Most forms of media work equally well when used for conversations:

  1. Between two people.
  2. Between larger groups of people.

However, some forms of media do not work as well with large groups, particularly if the conversation is interactive. For example:

  1. Chat rooms become very confusing when there many participants because:
    1. Messages can be missed.
    2. Slower typists can fall behind in the conversation.
    3. Multiple conversations may take place at the same time.
  2. Texting works well for broadcasts to large groups, but responses to the initial text will not include all recipients, thus prohibiting interaction.

Some technologies require modifications to be suitable for larger parties. For example, telephony, designed to be a two-party medium, requires additional layers of hardware or software to manage more than two connection points or participants. These additions include:

  1. Physical teleconferencing equipment that allows more than two connections.
  2. Software solutions (not always visible to the user) that permit multiple connections.
  3. Physically embedded speakers and microphones that allow more than one person to participate in a conversation at one site.

While these additional layers of technology may be well established, one cannot assume they are readily available to all participants, so it is important to verify that they are available to all participants prior to attempting communication.

Assessing the Audience

Duration: 7 to 10 minutes.

Respond to the following questions about people.

  1. Which of the following are considerations when selecting media?
    1. The media that is available to the other person.
    2. The natural mode of communication for the other person.
    3. The other person's demographics.
    4. The other person's geographic location.
    5. The media the other person is comfortable with.
  2. True or false:
    1. New technologies may distract from a message.
    2. There are some technologies that are available everywhere because they have been around for so long.
    3. By now, everyone should be able to use email.
    4. Some people are not skilled enough to navigate a simple Web site.
    5. Technical challenges distract from the message.
  3. Which of the following factors does not affect the accessibility of communication media?
    1. Politics.
    2. Walls.
    3. Weather.
    4. Skill level.

Solution:

  1. A, C, D, and E.
    1. True
    2. False
    3. False
    4. True
    5. True
  2. D.

Assessing the Message

Once you have a solid understanding of the audience, you should analyze the message to determine what media is best for the delivery of the message. Considerations include:

  1. Length.
  2. Complexity.
  3. Interactivity.
  4. Privacy.
  5. Urgency.

Message Length

The length of a message influences the appropriateness of a medium. Many technologies are suitable for short messages, and limit message length. Media that limit the length of messages include:

  1. Micro blogging systems with character limitations.
  2. Website contact forms with character restrictions.
  3. Voicemail systems.
  4. Comment boxes.
  5. Texting.

Most media geared toward shorter messages are asynchronous, and often only intended for one-way communication.

Media that support longer messages may be preferred for the following types of messages:

  1. Formal communications in which abbreviations may be discouraged.
  2. Messages with crucial details that could be missed easily in a small-capacity system.
  3. Interactive communications in which message length is variable.

Message Complexity

Messages that are complex or critical often require more sophisticated media. They may require media that has the following capabilities:

  1. Visuals, such as:
    1. Graphics.
    2. Images.
    3. Animation.
    4. Video.
    5. Diagrams.
  2. Audio, including:
    1. Voice.
    2. Music.
    3. Sound effects.
  3. Multimedia, such as:
    1. Presentations and voice.
    2. Video and audio.
    3. Haptics and audio.
  4. Reliable delivery. This may include:
    1. A system that provides notification that the message has been delivered.
    2. Email, which has a greater probability of being delivered than a text message.
    3. Synchronous communication systems that permit immediate feedback from the recipient.

Interactivity

Many communications involve interactive participation, such as that which takes place in:

  1. Business meetings.
  2. Brainstorming sessions.
  3. Training events.
  4. Sales presentations.

In these situations, the preferred media will provide:

  1. An easy interface to support novice users.
  2. Multimedia to support the different communication needs of the participants.
  3. Technical support for synchronous communications to insure the communication flows well and attention is not diverted by technical difficulties.

Interactivity may be synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous media may be preferred when:

  1. There are time constraints.
  2. The participants need or want a "human" connection.
  3. Messages may be easily misunderstood and need to be corrected right away.

Asynchronous media, such as discussion forums, are preferred in some situations because they:

  1. Allow participants to think through thoughts fully before sharing.
  2. Allow quiet people the opportunity to speak out.
  3. Prevent aggressive speakers from dominating the conversation.

Regardless of whether the communication is synchronous or asynchronous, any medium that excludes video and voice can:

  1. Eliminate societal biases based on race, sex, stature, etc.
  2. Eliminate nonverbal messages.

Privacy and Security Considerations

A message that is confidential should not be sent through a nonsecure media without prior consent. These messages may include:

  1. Bank and financial communications.
  2. Hiring, firing, and discipline issues.
  3. Information controlled under regulations such as:
    1. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
    2. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA)
    3. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    4. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  4. Trade secrets.
  5. Relationship issues.

If there is any concern about the possibility of communications being intercepted through media, the parties should discuss the matter and agree on a method that makes sense to each of them.

The most secure systems usually include some form of access identification. Examples include:

  1. Internal email systems.
  2. Password-protected conferencing systems.
  3. Peer-to-peer file sharing systems.
  4. Websites that require accounts secured by passwords.

On websites, a secure site can be determined by a URL that includes "HTTPS," rather than "HTTP."

Urgency

Finally, the urgency of a message must be considered. Synchronous communication should take place if a message:

  1. Needs to be delivered right away.
  2. Requires an immediate response.
  3. Must be interpreted very accurately.

Should the only media available be asynchronous:

  1. The person delivering the message should specifically request immediate feedback.
  2. Continued prompting for feedback may be required.
  3. One might consider sending the message through multiple communication channels to insure the message has been received.

Assessing the Message

Duration: 7 to 10 minutes.

Answer the following questions about assessing messages.

  1. Which of the following is most appropriate?
    1. Essays sent through micro blogging systems.
    2. Conflict resolution through texting.
    3. Requesting information through a website form.
    4. Explaining mathematical concepts through voicemail.
  2. Which of the following is most beneficial when holding a brainstorming session with a group of people in different locations?
    1. Broadcast capability.
    2. Multimedia.
    3. Haptics.
    4. Privacy.
  3. True or false?
    1. Interactivity may be synchronous.
    2. Asynchronous media should be avoided.
    3. Synchronous communication is best for quiet people.
    4. Dominant participants speak for everyone.
    5. Asynchronous discussion forums minimize biases.
  4. Which of the following are true?
    1. Synchronous communication is generally preferred for urgent messages.
    2. Feedback takes too much time for urgent messages.
    3. It is illegal to send some types of business messages through email.
    4. Personal information should be delivered through secured systems.
    5. HIPPA, FERPA, ADA, and FMLA are government guidelines for good communication.

Solution:

  1. C.
  2. B.
    1. True.
    2. False.
    3. False.
    4. False.
    5. True.
  3. A and D.

Technical Considerations

Mediated Systems

The following table lists different types of media and their strengths and weaknesses. While studying this list, think about what was discussed about the people and the message in the previous units of this lesson.

Media Type Strengths Weaknesses
Personal video conferencing (video and audio exchange), e.g., Skype. May be low or no cost. Simulates face-to-face conversations. Connectivity may be an issue due to large bandwidth usage. May have a moderate learning curve.
Personal web conferencing (presentations and audio exchange, may include video), e.g., WebEx; GoToMeeting. Simulates face-to-face conversations. May allow sharing of documents and other media through desktop sharing. Connectivity may be an issue due to large bandwidth usage. May require special technical support. May have a steep learning curve. May be expensive.
Group video conferencing (video and audio), e.g., larger Polycom systems. Simulates face-to-face conversations. May allows sharing of documents and other media. Connectivity may be an issue due to large bandwidth usage. May be expensive. May require highly specialized equipment. May require special technical support. May have a steep learning curve.
Communication-centered applications (learning management systems, content management systems, online forums), e.g., Blackboard, Drupal. Often supports multimedia sharing: voice, text, and visuals. Provides document sharing. Usually asynchronous, but may have synchronous components; typically chat and video conferencing. May be very expensive. May require technical knowledge to install and support. May have moderate to steep learning curve.
Telephone (voice only). Fast. Easy. Relatively inexpensive. Provides immediate feedback. May or may not be private. May or may not be secure.
Mobile devices (smart phones, tablets), e.g., iPhone, Android. Multiple ways to communicate (phone, text, video). Easy to carry and portable. Moderate price. Tools can be synchronous or asynchronous. May or may not be private. May or may not be secure. Graphics can be slow. Connectivity may be an issue in remote locations.
VOIP (Internet phone), e.g., MagicJack. Fast. Easy. Low or no cost. Provides immediate feedback. Connection may be more prone to interference than phone.
Chat. Fast. Easy. Provides immediate feedback. Often requires Java installation. In group communications, there can be many conversations taking place at the same time. May be hard to follow. May require fast typing skills to keep up.
Email. Fast. Easy. Proven technology. Allows media attachments. Message can be sent to the wrong person. Easily hacked.
Texting. Fast. Easy. Good for short messages. May allow image and video attachments. Not good for long messages. Not secure. Easily hacked. Message can be sent to the wrong person.
Fax. Relatively fast. Great for sending documents. Requires phone line. Images may be poor quality. Requires receiving fax machine or software.
Discussion forums. Great for deep discussion and brainstorming. Good for mid-sized groups. May allow image attachments. May have slow responses.
Heuristic systems (exploratory systems, querying systems, demonstrations and online activities.), e.g., Wikipedia, some websites, interactive java applets, etc. Great learning tools. Permits free-form exploration and learning. Time consuming to create. May require significant bandwidth.
Animation, e.g., virtual calculators, animated graphs, some e-cards, etc. Good explanatory tools. Provides real-life simulation. May support interaction. May require significant bandwidth. Limited to computerized technology (computers, laptops, tablets, smart phones).
Websites and blogs. Accessible 24x7. Large quantities of information. Can include multimedia. Can be used in conjunction with feeds for automated updates. Can be challenging to create. Most communication is one-way.
Interactive web media. (Social networking), e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn. Fast. Supports multiple communication types (microblogging, blogging, chat, email). Often free. Accessible 24x7. Can include multimedia. Good for short broadcasts or quick conversations. Lacks privacy. May have steep learning curve. Functions change randomly. Many ads. Often contains a good deal of superfluous information. Not favorable for formal communications.
Microblogging, e.g., Twitter. Best for short broadcasts. Easy to access. Fast. Interactive discussions are rather awkward compared to other technologies. Security/privacy is limited.

Underlying Transmission

For some communications, the underlying media may need to be considered because it may affect the quality or reliability of the message. The following lists includes some of the transmission methods, and their strengths and weaknesses:

Media Type Strengths Weaknesses
Hard-wired electronics (uses electronic pulses). Dependable. Fast. Requires cabling. Not mobile.
Fiber optics (uses light pulses). Very fast. Dependable. Requires cabling. Less available than electronic wiring. Not mobile.
Wireless radio waves (microwaves, satellite). Allows mobility over large areas. Can be affected by weather and the environment. Less secure unless encrypted.
Wireless radio waves (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth). Allows mobility. Can be fast. Best for short broadcasts. Easy to access. Connection is not secure unless encrypted. Connection has a relatively short range.

Two example situations in which transmission would be considered are:

  1. An important sales meeting that requires a reliable connection and uses both audio and video, thus requiring a lot of bandwidth. In this case, hard-wired networking is likely to be the best choice.
  2. A staff member who travels from location to location. Wireless communications may be the best option in this scenario.

Multimedia

As was learned in the first lesson of this class, face-to-face communication normally combines three different forms of communication:

  1. Words.
  2. Voice.
  3. Body Language.

Because words and voice are received by one sense (hearing), most face-to-face communication uses two senses. In the same way, the most common uses of multimedia combine two senses:

  1. Text with visuals
  2. Spoken words with visuals.

It has been shown that:

  1. Combining two media types enhances the reception and understanding of messages.
  2. Combining three or more media types decreases understanding.

The reason for this is sensory overload. Most people can only process two sensory inputs at a time. Concentration decreases when the senses have to process too much.

Other senses may be introduced at times to enhance the message or emphasize concepts. Like an occasional physical touch in face-to-face communications, a third media may be introduced into virtual communications, but it should be used cautiously and intentionally.

Layering Media

If we want to use multiple media types (e.g., audio and visuals) we may need to layer technologies. Layering simply means to use multiple mediated systems concurrently.

Layered technologies can be beneficial:

  1. As a backup in case all or part of the primary system fails.
  2. When used to combine the same features available in expensive systems without paying a premium price.
  3. When used to enhance communications and more closely emulate face-to-face communication.

Let us look at some examples of layered technologies in different situations:

  1. The audio fails in a web conferencing system, so the facilitator connects all users through a VOIP conferencing system, such as Skype, while continuing with the visual presentation in the web conferencing system.
  2. The presenter is showing his or her desktop with a screen sharing program, and wants to show an activity or paper document. The presenter uses his or her web camera to record the document or activity, which is is displayed on the local desktop, and thus is visible to the participants.
  3. The participants wish to share a whiteboard application that is run on a local machine. Using an application sharing program, control is passed from one person to another, giving each the ability to work on the whiteboard application.

One drawback to layering technologies is the heavy use of system resources. When multiple media systems are running concurrently, transmission quality may decrease due to the demand on processing power and bandwidth.

If at all possible, thoroughly test systems in advance prior to using them in production, particularly with clients and executives.

Technical Considerations

Duration: 5 to 7 minutes.

Respond to the following true/false questions about the mediated technology:

  1. Multimedia allows us to use many different kinds of media so we can appeal to every person's style.
  2. We layer media because it works better than expensive systems.
  3. It's wise to include layered media as part of a backup plan just in case technology fails.
  4. Multimedia has its greatest impact when two media types are used together.
  5. Social networking is the best mediated communication because it appeals to so many people, has so many features, and it can be free.
  6. Even in a hard-wired network, transmission to a branch office may be affected by a storm.
  7. Microblogging works well for fast-paced business meetings with a client.

Solution:

  1. False.
  2. False.
  3. True.
  4. True.
  5. False.
  6. True.
  7. False.

Technical Considerations - Personal Application

Duration: 7 to 10 minutes.

Answer the following questions about communication technology.

  1. Recall a time when you were in a virtual business meeting or conversation and the communication was interrupted by dropped signals or poor, choppy, or digitized transmissions.
    1. What was the cause of the problem?
    2. Was the issue within your control or not?
    3. What did you do about it?
    4. What else could have been done about it?
    5. What might have been a better medium to use?

Selecting Media

When selecting communication media, the application for which the media will be used should be a strong influencing factor. For example:

  1. Teaching works well with interactive and heuristic systems.
  2. Broadcasts may be best delivered through short, fast systems.
  3. Some questions or private information are best delivered through secure systems.
  4. Brainstorming may need a system that allows many connections.

The media selection process combines all the factors in this lesson. The following reiterate the variables one considers when selecting media:

  1. Who is the recipient?
  2. Does he or she prefer to communicate verbally, visually, or audibly?
  3. Is he or she experienced with mediated communications?
  4. Are there one or many participants?
  5. What types of messages are being sent?
  6. Is the message short or long?
  7. Is the content private?
  8. Does the communication have a time constraint?
  9. What are the needs of the communication process?
  10. Is multimedia needed to facilitate understanding?
  11. Is the reliability and quality of the transmission important?

In most situations, the availability of media will be the most limiting factor in the selection process. The confidentiality of the message may limit the media selection further.

Selecting Media

Duration: 5 to 7 minutes.

Match the following communication needs with the best mediated systems.

  1. Communication Needs
    1. Broadcasting information about a company picnic.
    2. Setting a time for a meeting with a director.
    3. Returning a white paper that was just reviewed.
    4. Publishing a weekly newsletter.
    5. Completing a job performance review.
  2. Mediated System
    1. Email.
    2. Text.
    3. Phone.
    4. Intranet.
    5. Personal web conferencing system.

Solution:

    1. B.
    2. C.
    3. A.
    4. D.
    5. E.

Selecting Media - Personal Application

Duration: 20 to 25 minutes.

Write down your answers to the following questions.

  1. List three different virtual communication scenarios that you encounter at your work. For each event:
    1. Describe the participants.
    2. Describe the message and/or communication that takes place in the event.
    3. List the optimal technical needs required to enhance the communication process.
    4. List the technologies that you know are available to you and the other participants.
  2. Now plan how you would run the event if you were able to make the decisions.
    1. What media would you use to coordinate the event (sending out invitations, agendas, etc.)?
    2. What media would you use for the event itself and why?