Research problem: Adding contextual information to a core message has been shown to be critical in improving communication quality, especially in computer mediated communication. This paper models how people contextualize messages in the face of changing communication complexity. Research question: Can changes in communication complexity that occur during the communication process explain and predict contextualization? Literature review: Theories of human communication and studies of computer supported collaboration suggest that communication complexity reflects potentially problematic conditions resulting from 1) the difference in perspective and context held by the collaborators; 2) the incompatibility between the message representation and the way it is interpreted and used by the receiver; and 3) the intensity of information exchanged between communicators. We use this definition as a basis of for developing a measure of cognitive communication complexity. The literature further suggests that higher communication complexity induces higher contextualization. Methodology: First, we conducted a pilot study to develop and validate measures of communication complexity. Second, we conducted a laboratory experiment, in which 258 participants working in pairs collaborated on a sixteen-step assembly task. They used a tailored system that structured each message as core (the essence of the message) and context (additional information that explains the core and the sender's perspective). We used unbalanced panel data analysis to examine the repeated measures of contextualization and communication complexity associated with each step of the task. Results and discussion: We found that collaborators respond to changes in communication complexity at the expense of higher collaborative effort. We offer a cost-benefit framework in which, at the step level, people contextualize to reduce the communication complexity, and at the task level, they additionally consider the impact of contextualization on task performance. The main limitation of this study was the need to structure the communication between collaborators, to control and measure contextualization. Future research can adapt and extend our measure of communication complexity to less structured communication.
- Collaboration effort
- communication complexity
- computer-mediated communication