One of the most wonderful things about being a teacher is seeing the fruits of your labour coming together in one student at the end of the term in the form of an essay or research paper. I’d like to take a little credit for the intelligent words that follow, but my student Ben Boudreau really excels on his own. I may have given him the tools, but he’s the one who built the house.
This past term I taught a course on internal communication, or employee relations as we call it at MSVU. As some readers will know, I did this in collaboration with the fantastic librarian, Denyse Rodrigues. We spent six sessions in Second Life, and a large part of the other classes were spent discussing Web 2.0 and collaborative communication.
Ben has given me the permission to post his final paper. It’s a long one, but a good one. You’ll do well out there, Ben!
Tools of the Future
Submitted in partial fulfillment of
the requirements of PBRL 4101
Collaborative Technology: Tools of the Future
It is hard to go without noticing that organizational communications are in the process of being revolutionized. The complex divide-and-conquer mentality of information management, riddled with approvals and levels of authorities, is being pushed aside for the simple notion of collaboration. Rather than the traditional one author company documents with eight managerial sign-offs, a new trend where company publications and entire communications environments are crafted simultaneously by many authors from all around the world is on the rise. From educational institutions, to nonprofit organizations, to multinational corporations, it seems collaborative communications techniques are finding their place in just about all sectors.
The role of collaboration in organizational communications remains in a state of rapid development and its full potential is still unclear, causing researchers to look for causes, challenges, impacts and growth. Fortunately, each budding platform for collaboration offers these investigators plenty of time to explore this new information-management process. It is a mixture of research and employee experimentation that illustrates the viability of these collaborative tools for each individual organization. Yet, as the knowledge base grows, it would appear that collaboration is more than a solution for efficiency in a global culture. Collaboration, it seems, may be indicative of a changing workforce.
Wikis: Collaboration in Practice
In order to learn how to incorporate collaboration into an organizational environment, one can look to wikis for the simplest collaborative model; when it comes to collaboration, wikis might just be the best example. Wikis, as defined by perhaps the most famous one: Wikipedia, are websites that allow visitors to add, remove, edit and change content (2007, par. 1). The ownership of a website becomes shared with its community of visitors who are just as able to alter its content as the creator. They are as easy to operate as a basic email program, making wikis easily implemented, however upon their arrival in the online toolbox tends to cause quite a stir. Offering free reign to website visitors goes against the traditional methods of information and knowledge control in organizations. Business communicator Alexandro Fernando explains, “once you set up a wiki, everyone has a seat at the table. Each person gets to set the menu, organize the seating arrangements and polish the cutlery” (2005, par. 3).
It may sound like an information free-for-all but in visiting some of the most popular wikis, Wikipedia being a perfect example, the wisdom of the mob comes together with excellent results (Fernando 2005, par. 5). The collaborative encyclopedia, created in 2001, is edited by thousands of web users from all around the world and has become one of the largest reference sites on the Internet. Wikipedia’s constant state of flux offers some of the most up to date or obscure information that cannot be found in published articles. It may sound like a researchers dream however, a disclaimer explains that the content may be subject to vandalism; wiki hijackers, so to speak, and should be cross-referenced with scholarly journals (2007).
Wikipedia’s community of editors and contributors take excellent care of its content: a necessity in developing a successful wiki. Additionally, Wikipedia, along with many other collaborative websites, have established corrective measures to manage misinformation, the meddling of vandals, or simply uniformity and appearance. Whether these safeguards exist in the form of formal editors, “wiki gardeners”, or simply codes of conduct, they are important in harnessing the information managing abilities of a wiki. Darlene Fitcher explains, “conventions certainly help with some of the basic wiki housekeeping, but in order to work well, wikis need constant care and pruning” (2005, p. 49). Like any other website, visitors will not return if constantly greeted by dead links, poor organization, or consistently inaccurate or out of date information. Understandably, the liberty that wikis provide website visitors can easily translate into anxiety for the information managers relinquishing their control. Organizations looking to implement wikis must already boast a high level of trust and confidence between management and employees in order for a collaborative website to thrive (Fitcher 2005, p. 50).
While the change in philosophy from edits and approvals to a free flowing, collaborative environment is not one that can be forced or rushed, the mentality appears to be reflective of a changing workforce. On the one hand, increased and eased collaboration is catering to the fast-paced, globalized workplace: organizations once satisfied with simple intranets now seek out technologies that foster cooperation among employees and enable teams to work together, regardless of how far the members are separated by time and distance. Additionally, on the micro level, Fernando points out a change in employee wants and needs: “it’s as if the people on the fringes sick and tired of corporate communication, went ahead and designed a product-slash-plat form that was democratic, dynamic and not managed from the top” (2005, par. 14). Perhaps wikis are only a taste of what is to come as the baby boomers fade from the workforce to be replaced with the techno savvy generation Y.
Virtual Information Management: The Next Step
From the basics, to the most complex, all technologies come with challenges and problems. This is no different when it comes to collaboration and information management. Standard concerns with the use of online tools for communication and information sharing include the loss of “verbal nuances (e.g. voice tone, volume), nonverbal cues (e.g. gaze, body language), physical context (e.g. meeting sites, seating arrangements) and observable information about social characteristics (e.g. age, gender, race)” (Welman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Guila, Haythornthwiate 1996, p. 218). While these concerns are legitimate, research since 1996 has found that the loss of these qualities actually has a positive effect on business communication by increasing participation and presenting a more equal and open environment for communication (Wellman et al, 1996, p. 218). Programs like Elluminate, a mash up of teleconference, chat rooms, and powerpoint slides used by many distance education courses, has taken advantage of these findings. The virtual classroom, as it is used by many universities, has extended education past the physical borders of the typical campus often to surprising results regarding student participation. Naturally, like most technological tools, Elluminate is accompanied by significant drawbacks.
A European study conducted training sessions using a similar learning environment to identify the differences between traditional information sharing and the new technologies gaining in popularity. The researchers found that while three to four hour face to face training sessions are standard in the workplace, these are not effective using online networks. The lack of social and visual stimulation causes audience members to become distracted, often a necessity to recharge one’s attention during a presentation. To overcome this feeling of participant burnout, lessons were shortened to 60 to 90 minutes and four key tactics for engaging participants when using computer tools:
1) maintain a lively pace;
2) visualize your content;
3) incorporate frequent participant responses;
4) use small group breakout rooms (Clark, 2005, p. 42).
The findings of these two studies present a great challenge for communicators using online tools, but these professionals may be surprised to learn that a program already exists that facilitates international meetings and training while overcoming the obstacles of burnout: Second Life.
Self-described on its website as “a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents,” the innovative social platform brings collaboration to a new level as the world’s five million inhabitants create and build thousands of different items ranging from shirts and furniture to houses and skyscrapers (Linden, 2007, par. 1). Business and education institutions from all around the world are rushing to purchase server space in the form of land in order to develop their virtual offices and campuses. The platform has even become integrated into the Harvard Law program that offers courses for credit entirely through the virtual world (Foster 2006, p. 38). Second Life finds a middle ground between the findings of the aforementioned studies.
First, Second Life retains the egalitarian quality of communication achieved by leveling the social playing field of its participants. In creating an “avatar”, essentially the virtual and visual representation of a user in the world, the options for its appearance are endless. A user can be male, female, muscular, overweight, winged, part animal, etc. Next, to maintain the important nonverbal cues, the avatars are able act out a surprising amount of physical actions. As for voice intonation, a voice projection feature is in development and expected to enter in-world trials in the coming months. Harvard Professor Charles Nesson is so confident that the Second Life can foster the personal connections of face-to-face conversation that his course taught exclusively through in the virtual world will focus partly on “empathic” argument, connecting emotionally others (Foster, 2006, p. 38).
Secondly, the virtual world blends the structure of online communication’s easily recorded text exchange (instant messenger, email) with an engaging, exciting virtual world to retain the attention of its users. Like any other working or learning environment, Second Life provides an outlet for distraction so participants are not overloaded with information. Regardless of the distractions, however, all discussions are conveniently saved in instant message and chat features on the screen for review.
While Second Life is attracting as much praise as it is creating controversy, it seems clear that the world has set out to break boundaries. Its sustainability is anyone’s guess, but its impact on collaborative technology is unquestionable.
Implementing Collaborative Technology
In the increasing rush for organizational collaboration, managers cannot expect that simply implementing new tools like Second Life or Wikis will transform the way their organizations operate. In 2003, the Center for Technology in Teaching at Rice University found that although teachers were interested in using knowledge-sharing and collaborative tools, the movement simply wasn’t manifesting. Allowing this new technology to slip through the cracks in the education system would result in future professionals being unable or unwilling to experiment with the tools that are beginning to shape our business environment. To solve this problem, the Center created an online community to foster cooperation among forward thinking teachers, illustrating that the adoption or rejection of new technology often relies on the proper education and support, and a common goal for its use. In order to improve the sharing of knowledge in organizations, “technology alone, despite its power and flexibility, rarely suffices” (Brazelton & Gorry, 2003, p. 23).
The rush for collaborative communication in organizations may seem impromptu and unfounded, yet research clearly indicates that there are clear reasons and rationales both predicting and propelling its existence and use. Most importantly, collaboration cannot revolutionize business operations without the support of its users, much like today’s work environments as a whole. Implementing collaborative technology in your organization may or may not improve efficiency, however, its success or failure might be warning signs of your organization’s ability to function in a rapidly changing business environment. Communication evolved to meet the needs of globalization and it will evolve once again to meet the needs of the new workforce.
About Wikipedia. (2007). Wikipedia. Retrieved online on March 28, 2007 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About
Brazelton, J. & Gorry, A. G. (2003). Creating a knowledge-sharing community: If you build it, will they come? Communications of the ACM, 46(2), 23-25
Clark, R. C. (2005 November). Harnessing the virtual classroom. TD, 41-43
Fernando, A. (2005, May-June). Wiki: The new way to collaborate. Communication World. Retrieved online on March 28, 2007 from: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4422/is_3_22/ai_n14887938
Fitcher, D. (2005). Intranets, wikis, blikis, and collaborative working. Online, 29(5), 47-50
Foster, A.L. (2006). Harvard to offer law course in ‘virtual world’. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(3), 38
What is Second Life? (2007). Linden Research Inc. Retrieved online on March 28, 2007 from: http://secondlife.com/whatis/
Wiki. (2007). Wikipedia. Retrieved online on March 28, 2007 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki
Wellman, B., Salaff J., Dimitrova, D., Garton, L., Guila, M., & Haythornthwaite, C. (1996). Computer networks as social networks: Collaborative work, telework, and virtual community. Annual Reivew of Sociology, 22, 213-238