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Multi-disciplinary Collaboration

Image of Multi-disciplinary Collaboration logoIn science, academia, industry, and government, modern electronic communications and computer networks facilitate collaborative projects at distances of thousands of miles. But how do those geographically distributed projects compare with work undertaken by teams whose members are at the same location? To what extent can e-mail and other communications substitute for face-to-face meetings? And what qualities of team leaders make them particularly successful at overseeing distant collaborations?

These and other key questions have been the focus of a multi-disciplinary research project undertaken by faculty members at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and Stanford University. The findings of this project, carried out under a grant from the National Science Foundation, may have implications for the functioning of multi-disciplinary panels utilized by the National Academies and government agencies to study science policy issues.

The project's studies were organized into three strands: (1) field studies of multi-disciplinary collaborations, coordinated by Professor Suzanne P. Weisband at the University of Arizona; (2) experiments in geographic and functional distance, coordinated by Professor Pamela Hinds at Stanford; and (3) development and research on interfaces and applications, coordinated by Professor Sara B. Kiesler at Carnegie Mellon. Work on the project was facilitated through development and utilization of a shared Web site.

Image of Professor Weisband.Professor Weisband, with the Department of Management Information Systems at Arizona's Eller College of Business and Public Administration, says her study on leaders in multi-disciplinary geographically distributed teams—involving more than 50 students split among 15 teams at business schools—included a "thorough content analysis of the kind of things that leaders did to improve performance and move the project forward."

She found that "the leader actually takes an important role in doing that kind of activity through their messages, through the things that they say to try to keep other members who are distant aware of how the project is going." Such "self-monitoring" of their own situation by team leaders encouraged similar activity by other team members. "The teams who are more interactive, that communicate pretty much every day if not more, but certainly daily, do better," Weisband says. By contrast, "you find that with teams that don't perform very well, there's a lot of silent time. In those lag periods a lot of misunderstanding happens."

Image of Professor Hinds.Professor Hinds, with the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford, described the following key results of her studies on geographically distributed work involving teams drawn from six companies: (1) shared team identity appeared to be more crucial for geographically distributed teams than for co-located teams, in terms of mitigating conflict and helping with performance; (2) when teams were spread across two countries, there was a tendency for subteams to develop by country; (3) geographically distributed teams seemed to have more problems coordinating their work than co-located teams; and (4) with geographically distributed teams, "having more of a hierarchical structure for interdependence between team members" appeared to help teams perform better and coordinate their work better, while having a hierarchical structure of work appeared to be detrimental to the performance of co-located teams.

Hinds says her portion of the project involved about 25 faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduates working together, along with the test subjects at companies. For the overall project, she says, the three principal investigators held face-to-face meetings at least once a year, and sometimes more often, to supplement communications by e-mail, phone, and fax.

Image of Multi Collaboration Web siteWork on the project was also facilitated by the development and use of a Web site ( to keep people informed and improve coordination among researchers. According to Professor Weisband, "we wanted to let people know about the study itself, and we were also collecting bibliography." For some time the Web site utilized a "webliography," to which other people could make contributions online. Subsequently the bibliography was converted to a PDF file.

Weisband and Hinds say the multi-disciplinary collaboration project has led to new lines of research work. Professor Hinds has received a new NSF grant to study subgroup dynamics and how subteams form at different work sites, and Professsor Weisband has applied for another grant to pursue further studies in this field.

In terms of science policy, Weisband says she believes the findings of her study on team leaders may have implications for the functioning of multi-disciplinary panels, such as committees of the National Academy of Sciences, that are called on by the government to study and draw up recommendations on science and technology issues.

Such activity, the University of Arizona researcher observes, "doesn't take place in a vacuum of people just working on science policy. They really work on multiple things—as do many people—interacting and overlapping with lots of different kinds of people." A substantial amount depends on who is in charge, "not just who's on the committee but how people who are in a position to take on visionary leadership roles will influence that process, to the extent that they're good at it."


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