The Message dictates the Media

Posted on April 5, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , |

marshallmcluhanIn his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan published the statement that defined his legacy, “The medium is the message.” In today’s connected, Internet world this statement is more true than ever. However, based upon my experience, I think of McLuhan’s statement differently, “The message dictates the medium.”

For seven years I led a project at Hewlett-Packard called VidNet, an internal webcasting and streaming video service – kind of like YouTube before it was available. VidNet ran entirely on HP’s internal network and was designed to maximize knowledge transfer inside of HP’s far-glung corporate environment without burdening the network with a glut of video traffic.

Through VidNet I learned about applying technology to communication. In August 2008 I presented my insights at the International Quality and Productivity Center’s Conference on Distance Learning in Sao Paulo, Brasil. The presentation was titled Matching Media to Message: When and When Not to Use Distance Learning. This article follows the outline of that presentation.

2.5 = 1?

During the final two decades of the 20th century, HP was growing quickly, especially in the inkjet printing world… and, Corvallis was at the center of this world. Thermal Inkjet (also known as TIJ) printing was invented in Corvallis by a quirky group of renegades back in the day before renegades were considered bad. The business grew from nothing in the early 1980s to a multi-billion dollar, global industry and HP was in the lead. At one time the HP-Corvallis site had more than 7000 employees and most of them were working on TIJ related business. There were almost 20,000 TIJ-related employees around the world in far off places like Ireland, Singapore, Puerto Rico, Spain, Israel and San Diego.

The demands of growing a technical workforce to support this business were many and the first step in any TIJ engineer’s job at HP was through the TIJ Knowledge Modules. These were a set of 8 classes teaching the fundamentals related TIJ development and manufacturing. Each module had a set of experts and all were “volunteers” who taught the class in their spare time. In 1997 I became responsible for the TIJ Knowledge Modules and a group of about 30 instructors in Corvallis as well as the global program in the various remote sites. Although we tried educating instructors from remote sites in Corvallis and sending them back to teach locally, most engineers still wanted to come to Corvallis to hear first-hand from the experts who had created the technology. Because we were teaching the 8 modules twice per month (total of 16 classes per month or as many as 450 students), the cost of delivery was a very noticeable expense. In addition, the volunteer instructors had full-time jobs and they were already at full capacity. We had to come up with a more cost effective means of delivery that would leverage the limited amount of time of the experts.

Our answer was to create VidNet with an assignment to convert the TIJ Knowledge Modules into streaming video. Fortunately, we had an existing video studio in Corvallis and were able to bring all of the best instructors together to accomplish the capture easily and quickly. Before starting, we collected all of the commonly asked questions in class – our goal was to cover all of the material presented in the classroom, only have it available on demand from the intranet.

The effort went well. But curiously, when we all was said-and-done, the run time for each module went from the standard classroom time of 2.5 hours to 1 hour in the studio. Although we had used the most seasoned instructors,  the exact same slides and made sure s/he responded to all of the most likely asked questions, we had reduced the run time by 60%… The only difference in the presentation was the studio recordings lacked a live audience and the interaction that typically comes from having people in the room was missing. But still, where’d the 1.5 hours go? After all, we were answering the same questions. Was this an improvement in efficiency or a loss of content?

Technology Abounds

When McLuhan published his book, it appeared at a time when mass marketing options were burgeoning. Network television was taking hold and the American (and global) community was beginning to fall into large patterns driven by broadcast schedules. But McLuhan could have no idea what would happen when the internet, mobile technology, cloud computing and content mash-ups would be available to anyone with a PC and an internet connection.

technologyladder2The diagram at right illustrates a few of the common technologies available today for communication. Obviously, I use the term technology very loosely as most people wouldn’t think of meeting in person with someone else as a technology. But for purposes of considering the options available today for communication, I chosen to do so.

I’ve listed technologies I consider to be high bandwidth on top and then ranked them in descending order based upon a variety of factors, mostly by their speed and the ability and ease for interaction. So, think of voice mail or email as being asynchronous – or happening when the sender and receiver are not together at the same time – and non-interactive. On the other hand, although the HP Halo Conference Room is a remote technology but due to the high quality of the synchronous connection (lots of bandwidth) and the opportunity for interaction that bandwidth affords, it is ranked higher on the ladder. Still, nothing beats the same technology our ancestors used… sitting around the campfire telling stories or interacting face-to-face, one-with-one. By the way, Cisco and others have competing technologies in this new field called immerse experiences or Telepresence and recent stories suggest this technology could save industry billions of dollars per year in reduced travel expense and improved collaboration in the foreseeable future.

Understanding Your Message

To understand what happened with that missing 1.5 hours in the VidNet example, it’s useful to have a more concrete way of thinking about communication. Fortunately, a friend and mentor of mine, John Eggert of The Idea Leadership Company has done a lot of thinking on this topic. I attribute much of what I write in this section to his work. During my presentation I chose to look at three dimensions and four elements of a message.

Three dimensions of a Message

The diagram at left shows a cube with three separate poles or dimensions — Narrow vs. Broad, Simple vs. Complex and Precise vs. Ambiguous. These dimensions help us to categorize a message so we can understand exactly what we are trying to accomplish.

When a message is narrow it is directed to a well defined group of people with specific, identifiable needs or interests. For example, when the fire alarm in your building goes off, all people in that area are alerted immediately to proceed calmly and quickly to the nearest exit. On the other hand, broad messages are directed to a group of people with many different or indistinguishable needs or interests. For example, when I teach project management, the concepts of project definition, scope, schedule, resources and work breakdown structure are widely applicable to a very large number of projects and people in different roles. If I want to teach a group of project managers, I won’t get much more than an empty room when I trip the fire alarm!

Simple concepts, on the other hand, derive from a logical set of steps. For example, when communicating the appropriate torque settings for a manufactured fastener to a trained mechanic, the settings are straight forward and the message is simple. If however, I am instructing executives how to establish a strategic plan for their business unit, there are clear steps but there are many inter-relationships and it is a complex process.

Finally, when dealing with precise information I am working with concepts that are concrete, well established and well known such as calculating the total interest on a mortgage loan. By contrast, when the concepts are much less clear and are subject to multiple interpretations, they are ambiguous. Precise ideas are easy to reject while ambiguous ideas allow lots of flexibility.

It is important to note in all three dimensions, these descriptions are intended to be descriptive, not evaluative. In other words, simple is not better than complex, it is just different. Simple messages may be easier to communicate but circumstances often dictate a more complex approach. Also, it is easy to confuse the two terms of complex and ambiguous, but they are different ideas. Think of it this way, complex describes the number of inter-relationships among the elements of the message while ambiguous defines the presence or absence of clear connections between the elements.

Four Elements

Because different situations call for different approaches, message requirements shift given a variety of factors. By evaluating the elements of a message, you are considering the audience, resistance to your message, the action you desire your listeners to take and the amount of money or time you have for accomplishing your objective. Here are four elements I find useful to consider, you may have more (or less) depending upon your specific circumstances.

  1. Audience – Will this be a large or small group? Will they be in the same place or even the same time zone? Are they technical or non-technical? Are they experienced or beginners? Generalists or specialists? Is this group homogeneous or multi-cultural? What about their organizational affiliations… executive vs. managerial vs. professional, etc; operating vs. staff; employees vs. contractors vs. business partners?
  2. Resistance – What are the consequences of non-compliance? Will it be simply an inconvenience, will the organization lose revenue or might there be regulatory implications? What kind of change management issues will arise? Are you contradicting legacy practices, will there be winners and losers when you are done, will priorities have to change?
  3. Action – What will you expect the recipients to do with the information? Are you trying to create focus, raise awareness or generate action? Do you want that action immediately, on a recurring basis, over a long period of time? Does this information have archive value – in other words, is this news that will grow stale in a day or two or is it research that will be fundamental to the understanding of your business? What specific outcomes do you hope to achieve? How will you know you were successful?
  4. Budget – What will your budget afford? In the fundamentals of project management we know the saying, “scope, schedule or resources – pick any two.” Can your schedule or scope be adjusted to accommodate your available resources? Does the budget come from a fixed source or is it variable – in other words, can you charge per use or are the terms pre-defined?

Human Bandwidth


In today’s Internet-enabled world, many people are familiar with the term bandwidth, especially when they don’t have enough of it. Remember the days when 56kbps was fast? (This is the top limit for most dial-up connections and was considered fast in the 1990s.) Then came DSL and cable and we started talking in megabits per second (mbps) rather than kilobits per second (kbps). If you’ve ever tried to return to a dial-up connection after using a 15mbps cable connection, it is painful.

Using the wrong media for your message is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole… it just doesn’t fit. If your message is complex, ambiguous and narrow, but you’ve chosen a low bandwidth medium like an email or even a phone call, often the result is disastrous. Have you heard about the man who was fired with a fax from his boss? Most of us have heard this or a similar horror story. The primary intention behind this article is to avoid this type of disastrous mismatch of message to media.

Putting It All Together

The following are some simple rules that I use when selecting an appropriate medium for my message. Bear in mind, these are guidelines only and often it takes a lot of time to know when you are ready to proceed. Do yourself a favor and take the time to understand. As my friend taught me, sometimes slow is fast. That means, taking a few minutes or even a few days up front may save you months or even years down the road.
  1. Always match the message to the media. In fact, use your understanding of the message to drive your choice of media.
  2. Words are not the only content of face-to-face communication. More communication happens face-to-face than the mere words that are exchanged. If the non-verbal (such as trust or importance) portion of your exchange is important to your message, use a face-to-face option.
  3. Distance Learning technology will save you money or time only IF it fits with your message. If it doesn’t fit, your choices could cost you dearly in both.
  4. When evaluating your message focus on a single person/audience at a time. If your audience is diverse, it may help you to think about them as separate groups. If those groups are still very large, identify or make-up a single person to represent that group and tailor your message to him or her. This will add some complexity to your process but it may be the difference in a well suited medium.
  5. There is no exact formula.

While I have been exploring these concepts for some time, I do not consider this topic a closed issue. Research would be useful in understanding the various components in non-verbal communication to have a more clearly defined set of operating rules. I believe the use of technology – because of its inherent narrow bandwidth – could be instrumental in isolating these components. Such understanding would be valuable in helping organizations choose wisely amongst the explosion of remote and asynchronous options available in distance learning and human interaction.

If you have thoughts on this topic, I encourage you to leave a comment here or send me a message.

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