Jill C. Bradley, Alecia M. Santuzzi, Mauricio G. Gonzalez and Michael J. Burke published an article titled The impact of Group Process Variables on the Effectiveness of Distance Collaboration Groups in a 2003 edition of the journal Computers in Human Behavior. They studied 200 Mexican students in an online virtual writing course. They assigned the students group writing tasks and monitored how they used digital collaboration tools. These are some of the unique problems they observed:
- Digital communications do not follow a logical time sequence. There can be a time lag between communications, a problem not encountered in face-to-face interactions. Messages can also be retrieved on-demand, so participation at the actual time of communication is not necessary. Messages can be read out of order.
- Computer-enabled communications tend to be more task-oriented and less social. This robs participants of informal interactions as well as context clues, like body language and attitude, which makes the group less cohesive and makes them much more likely to be polarized. Tasks then take up to four times longer to complete because members don’t have personal connections with other group members, and they are less invested in the task. Infighting slows the process down, as well as time lags between communications.
- Depending on the task, the final product can end up being better quality than if it was done in a face-to-face group. Some tasks are benefited by the lack of obvious social power dynamics and the ability for each member to work on their part on their own in their own time. However, there is no evidence as to for which tasks this is true.
In the article Using Agents to Detect Opportunities for Collaboration, the authors refer to studies that indicate the importance of informal communication in business settings. They say that “informal interactions play a central role in helping workers learn, understand, adapt and apply formal procedures and processes in their work environment” and that the evolving use of distance collaboration minimizes the occurrence of informal interactions. In order to alleviate problems caused by the lack of informal interactions across distance collaboration, systems were created that use video interfaces to support personal awareness and informal interactions. By using these systems — CRUISER and VideoWindow, for example — users can browse virtual hallways and teleconference between two coffee lounges in different, physically separated, offices. Systems like Portholes and Polyscope “provide awareness by sending office images to others in order to let them know who is busy and what others are doing.”