Disrecognized Space

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Communicating in networks: a reflective analysis of collaborative work online

Networked collaboration using the internet, once a niche activity, has become increasingly important and common as the internet has grown. Online collaboration brings with it specific opportunities, as well as challenges, afforded by the nature of such computer mediated communication (CMC). This essay examines these challenges and opportunities using the context of the creation of a Web Media Production (WMP), placing this in the wider context of current online collaboration practices.

This essay first considers the theory of collaboration both face to face (FtF) and via CMC, before discussing these in the context of the WMP. An example of online problem resolution is discussed, and this case study is also related back to recent considerations of online collaboration.

 

As Carpenter and Carpenter (1994, p.1) succinctly observe, communication is an unpredictable process, with many opportunities for error or confusion. Randall, Resick and DeChurch (2011, p. 527), discussing different models of team functioning, note that sharing information between team members is particularly important for effectiveness of the team. Their study also found that more effective teams consisted of members who shared mental models of strategies and who shared information (Randall, Resick & DeChurch, 2011, p. 536). Chu and Kennedy (2011, p. 583) also note that knowledge sharing and better interactions increase effectiveness, also relating this to the quality of the tools used for interaction.

 

Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi and Malone (2010, p. 686), analyzing the contentious concept of ‘intelligence’, find that a group’s ‘collective intelligence’ correlates with the social sensitivity of the group members, where there was an equal distribution of conversation, and with the number of females in the group, leading to better performance. Interestingly, they found no correlation to individual intelligence of group members, nor to group cohesion, motivation or satisfaction. While group performance may be improved by the presence of females, Haynes and Heilman (2013, p.5) found that females with male group members devalued their individual contributions.

 

Rhoads (2010, p. 112) notes that online collaboration can have the effect of creating a level playing field, since it allows a more democratic space where all participants have an equal chance to speak. This is, however, an ideal use of networks, and Rhoads (2010, p. 113) also warns that group members can benefit from the group’s work without actually contributing, and CMC is often unmediated by non-verbal modifiers, leading to a possible flattening of messages (Rhoads, 2010, p. 114). Nonetheless, theory suggests that, while it can at times be slower in developing trust and understanding, online collaboration can be just as effective as FTF collaboration and becomes increasingly so with increased familiarity with the technology (Rhoads, 2010, p. 116). While their findings are tentative, González-Navarro, Orengo, Zornoza, Ripoll, and Peiró (2010, p. 1478) also suggest that the technologies used for online collaboration can affect the nature of that collaboration. Niederer and van Dijck (2010, p. 1384) also warn that the coded protocols (the technology and mechanisms forming the internet and its tools) should not be disregarded in considering internet interactions and how they are mediated.

 

Collaboration, both online and offline, is often discussed in terms of corporate organizations, but, of course, it also applies in other fields. Pertinent to the current discussion, online collaboration is transforming education. Liang and Chen (2012, p. 1332) discuss various challenges and opportunities this provides, noting that convergence is rapidly transforming interactions (while also warning that it is often easy to focus on the technology and forget the social underpinnings of these interactions). They also note (Liang & Chen, 2012, p. 1334) the importance in seeing learners as social beings rather than just individuals. Online learning, through its more numerous connections, leads to increased opportunities for learning. Nonetheless, online learning is relatively new, and Xu and Jaggars (2013, p. 23) find that it can exacerbate already existing barriers, particularly for minority groups.

 

Malone, Laubacher, and Dellarocas (2010, p. 17) describe a number of conditions (what they term ‘genes’) that can combine to form effective online collaborative teams, suggesting that consensus is the most suitable decision making method in small, homogenous groups. Larger, more diverse, groups are better served by voting, they suggest, and this also leads to more commitment to decisions.

 

The chosen platform our group used to collaborate was Wiggio (http://wiggio.com/). While subject to occasional glitches, Wiggio provides a wide range of collaborative tools at no cost. Of these, our group used file storage for working documents, the message posting area, and the chat function. I found Wiggio an effective ‘meeting point’ due to its range of tools.

 

The message area was useful for ongoing updates, and especially recording important points agreed upon during meetings. Of most importance, I feel, was the online chat function. This was used for weekly scheduled meetings and this helped to create a sense of a unified team. In my last online group project there was little interaction, with team members often not posting until the last minute or not at all. That group did not have regular meetings, and I feel that these are important to bond the team, keep the team up to date on progress, and to monitor that the team is working well and has suitable tasks. Online collaboration can be socially isolating, something I noticed when we were busy working on assigned tasks and message post frequency decreased. There is no ‘water cooler gossip’ online, leading me to believe that regular meetings, updates and contact are important to a well-functioning team online.

 

In one online test (NC State University, 2013), I scored as mid-range for most learning styles criteria, but scored the maximum for being Reflective (as opposed to Active), indicating a strong preference for thinking about issues alone rather than actually undertaking tasks with others (James Cook University, n.d.). Obviously, in a group context, this preference needs to be tempered with the requirement to action and complete tasks within a set timeframe, and I had to remain aware throughout of this need to actually do tasks. Having weekly meetings, with allocated tasks to be completed prior to the next meeting, effectively balanced my preference.

 

Barry, Britten, Barber, Bradley and Stevenson (1999, p. 40) note that a fundamental point in a reflexive approach to teamwork is acknowledging prior beliefs, and how these affect interpretations. It was towards the end of the group’s first chat session that I realized I was perceiving the other members stereotypically (that is, I assumed unconsciously that they were also white, middle class, non-disabled and so on – see Rhoads above regarding lacking non-verbal modifiers). This made me aware in further interactions that how and what I was saying might not be the same as those actions were perceived. Such anonymity, however, may not be an absolutely bad thing: Lea, Spears and de Groot (2001, p. 535) found that online visual anonymity might lead to an increased perception of group homogeneity, increasing group salience.

 

The initial meetings (once issues such as different time zones were clarified) discussed primary topics such as a team name, and the project to be undertaken. These tasks generated various ideas and discussion. This was beneficial since it allowed each of us to get a feel for our identities online and how we interacted together, without working on anything too contentious at first. Online chat, I believe, has certain advantages to FtF meetings: it allows some time for thought before replying (I sometimes wrote replies and then deleted or reworded them, since I wasn’t sure if they were too dismissive or might be interpreted incorrectly), though the slightly asynchronous nature of the delay in reply sometimes led to questions and answers overlapping.

 

For this group we decided not to have a leader but to work as an “autonomous workers’ group”. Generally, where two of us had different ideas we would let the third group member make a choice. I like to be in control of situations, with a clear timetable, tasks and so on, so this was not necessarily easy, but I believe it made the process smoother and the issues ‘lost’ were not fundamental issues that I felt were of vital importance (but see below regarding fonts), and just as many were ‘won’. Whether such a non-leader organization would work in larger groups is not so clear. It would certainly take longer to decide issues, and there may well be a tipping point above which it would not be viable, but it was an interesting experiment for this group that worked well, and much better than my previous group, where I was the leader. Partly, this could be because this group was smaller, and also more motivated – though much of the internet also works by this user-consensus approach (such as Wikipedia or Reddit, for example).

 

As meetings progressed they became shorter and more focused, partly through clearer goals and more specific tasks, but also due to the team understanding each other better. Later research shows that this process is common: the development (or innovation) funnel (Institute for Manufacturing, n.d.) models the generation of ideas that are then narrowed down at various points to (in small groups such ours) a single project which is finally refined to production.

 

Adams and Galanes (2009, p. 260) codify a number of ways of dealing with conflict, none of which, they note, is necessarily the ‘best’ at all times. Certainly, in creating the WMP I (and I presume the other team members at different times) engaged in avoidance and accommodation. When first suggesting a topic for the WMP I made a number of suggestions, none of which were finally accepted. While I felt disappointed, engaging in an intractable conflict at this early stage would have been, I felt, counter-productive, especially since our task at that stage was to select a topic, but not necessarily my topic. Furthermore, I was not actually unhappy with the topic the team did choose.

 

While I consciously fostered a give and take approach to discussions (if some of my suggestions were accepted I was happy, if they were not I accepted this as part of the equal contribution to the project) I was less prepared to acquiesce on the issue of using a larger font size. I felt this was more fundamental to the nature of the WMP: being for Seniors I believed it was essential that we followed best practice.

 

I argued for using a large, high contrast font, citing references from such authorities as the W3C (2008, section 2.3.1) and Neilsen (2002). The other two members preferred using a browser-based keystroke combination. I argued that this relied on user intervention and understanding, while design was something we could implement automatically. After some discussion the group accepted a larger font size but with less contrast (based on aesthetic principles). I decided to accept this as a partial result. To continue arguing would, I believe, have antagonized the group since I was trying to persuade the majority to my minority view. While I felt the result might have been better for our audience, I had to weigh this against maintaining group functioning, and whether further, repeated, arguments would have achieved anything more. On the whole, I feel the outcome represented a reasonable compromise on a contentious issue, and falls somewhere between Adams and Galanes‘ concepts of Collaboration and Compromise (2008, pp. 262-263).

 

 

Implementing the change, however, revealed that WordPress, while it quickly enables interactive, convergent websites to be created, also demands adherence to its underlying code. While a workaround was found to changing the font in posts (Panos, 2009), it was not possible to change the overall font for the whole site.

 

Online collaboration is clearly not a passing fashion. Lee, Olson and Trimi (2012, pp. 817-818) argue that computers have moved the focus of culture from producing goods to exchanging information. Convergence has further driven this process (Lee, Olson & Trimi, 2012, p. 819) such that connections between people become simultaneous across a wide field of interests and needs. Online collaboration is not just for businesses or social groups, but increasingly important across a range of endeavours (such as online study). Tapscott (2009, p. 148) lists collaboration as one of the distinctive characteristics of the generation that has grown up with the internet. He argues that this generation is highly connected through social media, and wants their opinions to be heard.

 

Online collaboration is still a developing process, its tools and methods and how they are used subject to negotiation and change. Remaining aware of this situation, and critically assessing what helps or hinders collaboration, is therefore important. Overall, I was much happier with the group production process for the WMP than with previous online group work. What seems to have largely contributed to this is better, and more frequent, communication mediated through a number of tools. There are certainly new working methods and understandings that need to be assimilated, but clear communication is fundamental to groups both online and offline. In the less clear standards of online collaboration, communication (and a self awareness of how communication is used and received by us as actors in that process) therefore becomes even more fundamental in navigating new ways of working.

 

 

References

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