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Bytes Equal More Ideas

Evidence for the communication power of electronic collaboratories comes not just from users but also from behavioral scientists such as Finholt and Olson who are peeking over collaborators’ shoulders, eavesdropping on their electronic and face-to-face conversations, and analyzing everything from publication patterns to the development of mentoring relationships. They share their observations with programmers who can then integrate changes into the technology underlying collaboratories.

One of the first questions Finholt and Olson asked the programmers was whether collaboratory users talk about the same things in online conversations as they do face to face. They do. “On the whole, when something interesting in the science happens, that’s what dominates the conversation, just as it does in face-to-face conversations,” says Olson. “And similarly, when things are quiet, you find some socializing, talking about schedules, the same kinds of things [scientists] talk about face to face when nothing is happening.” Conversations about families, books, news events, and the like are as common over the electronic channels as across the lab bench.

Electronic collaborators are more likely to share ideas, however. “When groups use computer-mediated communication in brainstorming tasks, they outperform face-to-face groups in terms of the number of ideas generated and, according to some studies, the quality of ideas,” Finholt says. He’s not sure why that occurs. Perhaps, he speculates, “it has something to do with seeing the ideas on a screen-that they’re more visceral or more real.”

Or the reason could lie in the fact that collaboratory participants take care to compose their thoughts and think their ideas through before broadcasting them, suggests Olson. Face to face, people are more likely to blurt out short statements, sometimes without carefully considering what they’re about to say. Although people sometimes send hasty, rash messages by e-mail-as any user of the medium can attest-research shows that such comments are actually less common than in face-to-face encounters. In an electronic exchange, the average contribution is longer, more complex, and more carefully developed.

Another possibility is that the usual cues that communicate status are absent and everyone feels free to contribute. Such status cues do seem to interfere with face-to-face interactions among medical specialists, one of Finholt’s students, Stephane Cote, has found. According to Cote, face-to-face communication between radiologists and clinicians is often hampered by differences in “identity functions”-the mores and ideals that lead to a sense of professional identity.

“The clinician is primarily oriented toward curing the patient,” explains Finholt. “The radiologist has that as a high-level abstract goal, but is mainly interested in rendering the most precise and accurate interpretation of
a particular image. Conflict arises when the radiologist is reluctant to speculate beyond the bounds of what he or she sees, to help the clinician determine what the course of treatment ought to be. To the clinician, it looks like the radiologist is stonewalling or somehow not coming clean.” To add to the problem, these discussions usually take place on the radiologist’s turf, where the clinician is an outsider. Rather than focusing on what they’re discussing, the two specialists often try to reinforce their importance by making cutting remarks about each other’s areas of ignorance, Cote has observed.

Cote and Finholt believe a medical collaboratory recently begun at their school may lessen such tension. Looking at x-ray and ultrasound images on a computer screen, a radiologist can use an on-screen pointer and record oral notes to indicate areas of interest. The clinician can later call up the images on a computer in a clinic and replay the radiologist’s remarks, following the pointer to see the exact area being described. The two physicians can exchange comments, questions, and clarifications as often as necessary without venturing into each other’s physical territory.

Although the system is too new for Finholt and Cote to draw conclusions about its use, they suspect it will help the different parties focus on solving patients’ problems. “It would be an interesting paradox,” says Finholt, if “the elimination of face-to-face communication helped them talk better.”

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