Media Richness Theory - A Quick Primer

Media Richness Theory: Tin Can String Phone

Media richness theory, also referred to as information richness, is an important concept to learn as part of our quest to improve our information processing knowledge, media competencies, and Email processing skills.

Media richness theory was developed by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel in the 1980’s and describe a communication model whereby we characterize the communication media by its ability to carry and reproduce information sent over the available communication channels.

Media richness theory defines different communication media as possessing specific characteristics that determine its ability to carry information, ranging from low (or lean) richness to high (or full) richness.

Rich media (information) is noted for its ability to contain and convey multiple and often simultaneous cues, provides visual and facial responses, allows for rapid feedback, enables direct and targeted focus, and supports a high clarity of language.  Examples of rich media include face-to-face communications and videoconferencing.

Lean media (information), by contrast, is often asynchronous in nature, contains only a very minimal amount of visual responses (if at all), has a slower interaction rate, and is often subject to multiple or ambiguous interpretations by the recipients.  Examples of lean media include letters, reports, and (potentially) Emails.

Different channels are arrayed along a media (information) richness continuum, with written media as relatively lean and face-to-face interactions as highly rich.

Information Richness Continuum

Why is media richness theory important to Email communications?

Research has found that disputes are more likely to escalate between two parties when they communicate electronically as compared to when they discuss issues either face-to-face or even telephone conversations.

There are many reasons why this occurs, but as per the concepts in media richness theory, since email is a relatively lean media, it does not provide the facial, vocal, and body-language queues and feedback that are present in more rich forms of communication such as face-to-face or voice conversations. It is the important communication traits in rich media that help participants to moderate difficult or complex discussions.

What is your experience with different ways of communication?

Do you match the "need" to the "media"?


Daft, R. L., & Lengel, R. H. (1984). Information richness: A new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. Research in Organizational Behavior, 6, 191-233.
Daft, R. L., Lengel, R. H., & Trevino, L. (1987). Message equivocality, media selection, and manager performance: Implications for information systems. MIS Quarterly, 11(3), 354-366.