Lionel Robert

Lionel Robert is an assistant professor in the School of Information who studies virtual collaboration and teamwork and how social networks influence individual and team adoption of information and communication technologies.

Recently Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, created headlines by issuing an ultimatum. She gave Yahoo employees working remotely from home until June to begin working from, well… Yahoo. The initial reaction from many was that her decision was the result of the poor performance of remote workers. As one of my UMSI colleagues remarked over lunch, the employees that worked from home were probably just “mailing it in.”

However, Mayer later clarified her decision by addressing the “elephant in the room.” Although employees are actually more productive working alone from home, they are more collaborative and innovative when they are collocated. The literature on innovation has long contended that many innovations occur as a result of accidental contact between employees through informal social, rather than formal work-related communications. These are often referred to as water cooler moments when employees bump into each other by the company’s water cooler or spark conversations over coffee in the office kitchen.

Embedded in Mayer’s statement was the assumption that employees can collaborate and innovate more effectively when they are collocated than they can at a distance. Although researchers have long known that distance matters, there have been tremendous leaps in communication technologies. For example, if you asked someone 20 years ago what they would need to collaborate effectively at a distance, they would have probably described some type of video telephone. To many of us the ability of technology to support visual and audio communications seems more than sufficient to facilitate effective collaboration at a distance.

However, software that provides video accompanied by text and graphics is easily available at no cost to the average citizen. Higher quality applications are standard software for major companies like Yahoo! so availability is not a problem. One can assume that Yahoo employees are well educated and embrace rather than avoid the use of technology. So obviously, Mayer was not referring to a technology, accessibility or use problem. Then why is it still so difficult to effectively collaborate and innovate at a distance?

Much of the research on collaboration at a distance within organizations views it as a technology and/or cognitive problem. This research is directed at understanding how technology can be designed to effectively convey information and help individuals converge on what it means. The results of these studies have normally been used to generalize about how to facilitate effective work-related formal communication within and across organizations. Accordingly, many organizations have brought and or developed systems to support formal work related communications.

However, collaboration and innovation are emergent social processes. They are often aided by informal non-task communications. By comparison organizational researchers and practitioners have not given much attention to understanding how to facilitate informal non-task related communications. In fact, ironically, many organizations have discouraged their employees from using organizational resources to engage in non-task related informal communications needed to facilitate collaboration and innovation.

How then can we begin to understand how to facilitate better collaboration and innovation at a distance? To address this issue, organizational scholars who study collaboration at a distance must begin to borrow from social computing research. Social computing research examines how technology is used to support social processes in often non-work contexts. Organizational scholars must begin to ask different questions, like how can technology be used to facilitate social processes rather than just work processes? This will inevitably require organizational scholars to better understand the impacts of social processes on work processes.

This may also require organizations to begin to change their policies toward technology use in the workplace. Organizations should consider encouraging their employees to engage in more non-work-related social communications. Social activities like fantasy leagues and online NCAA basketball office competitions should be viewed as socialization mechanisms which could facilitate collaboration.

In the end, organizational researchers and practitioners must began to view collaboration and innovation as social processes to be encouraged rather than just work processes to be managed. It is precisely the inclusion of the social that differentiates how scholars at the University of Michigan School of Information approach such problems. Once this happens both organizational researchers and practitioners will begin to understand how employees can better collaborate and ultimately innovate at a distance.