In 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
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.
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 teamsinvolving more than 50
students split among 15 teams at business schoolsincluded 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."
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
Work on the project was also facilitated by the
development and use of a Web site (http://www.multi-collab.org) 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 thingsas do many
peopleinteracting 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
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