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E-Mail doesn’t Equal Trust

Despite such attractions, behavioral scientists and others recognize that electronic collaboratories have some downsides. For instance, even the best collaborative technologies seem to be poor substitutes for a handshake and eye contact. Eleana Rocco, a visiting researcher at the University of Michigan from the University of Venice, is comparing the formation of trust in groups that communicate only electronically with ones that have met in person. Rocco has had groups of subjects play an electronic game that involves both cooperation and competition. Some groups met face-to-face for 5 to 10 minutes before playing the game; others met only virtually. The groups that had face-to-face contact showed much more cooperation than the others.

“In this kind of task, cooperation arises from confidence and trust in your colleagues,” says Gary Olson. “It’s clear from this research that [trust] requires face-to-face contact. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but groups who only have electronic contact never form trust in the same way that groups who have some face-to-face time do.”

Ford Motor Company learned that lesson the hard way. As part of its plan to reorganize the company by functional rather than geographic groups, Ford tried to use collaborative technology to build international teams. Olson’s group studied one team that communicated almost exclusively through videoconferencing, e-mail, and other electronic means. “After a year, that group had never really become a group,” he says. “It was clear that as time went on, the characteristics of communication among those in the same physical location were quite different from [the group] with people at remote sites.”

Now the company has taken another approach, Olson says. While still using collaborative technologies, it has teams work together initially. That seems to be helping. “There certainly are teams that have face-to-face experience and still have trouble-it’s not a guarantee of success,” points out Olson, “but it does seem to help with the process of team formation.”

A shared sense of trust and identity could explain why space physicists have embraced the collaboratory concept while researchers in less cohesive fields have been slower to come on board. With a long tradition of sharing instruments and data and a clear consensus on such matters as ownership of research results, the small group of space physicists who used the original version of UARC was strong on international collaboration from the start. They had worked together to develop “rules of the road” and had put those into writing. They simply had to modify these rules slightly to fit the electronic forum. But when Olson met with a group of neurophysiologists, geneticists, epidemiologists, and clinicians who wanted to form a collaboratory to study mood disorders, he found a different world.

“These fields all have very different traditions about who owns data, who gets rights to data, and so on,” he explains. Even within each discipline, the traditions were established informally, not by explicit consensus. Before they can begin to collaborate, these groups will have to agree on ground rules-a process that will no doubt require face-to-face meetings and could take considerable time and effort.

Another potential problem with electronic collaboratories is that high-powered researchers and engineers may become so swamped with requests that they flee from this mode of communication and so turn collaboratories into a sort of scientific ghetto. In a January 1997 paper in the journal Psychological Science, Finholt and Olson cite research showing that elite scientists using forms of electronic communication such as e-mail are more likely than their nonelite counterparts to receive messages-but also more likely to ignore them, especially when they come from nonelite researchers.

Of course, the busier the researcher, the more apt he or she is to receive messages of any kind. And scientific snobbery existed long before collaboratories came on the scene. The question is whether the technology makes the problem better or worse. While the answer isn’t in yet, Olson suggests that elitism isn’t the only factor to consider. Some driven researchers may keep their distance from collaboratories because they will not want to take time out to learn how to use the new technology. In competitive fields such as high-energy physics and molecular biology, “there are Nobel Prizes at stake,” he says. “Anything that would slow you down or interrupt your work is a real big risk.” That, in turn, could make more junior scientists wonder, “Should I waste my time learning all this stuff while they’re off earning their Nobel Prizes, or should I get cracking in the laboratory?”

Olson believes that they can do both. Because most younger researchers are more comfortable using computers, they don’t have to invest as much time learning to use collaborative technology as the most notable and generally older people in a field do. The younger workers should quickly find that the technology can speed rather than impede their progress.

But this raises another question: Could students and junior researchers end up relying too heavily on electronic collaboratories? Basking in the glow of a computer screen is not the same thing as experiencing an aurora borealis firsthand. Robert Clauer laments that his former student Aaron Ridley completed his graduate degree without ever making the trek to Greenland in the back of a cold, dark cargo plane or stepping outside the trailer to see the aurora. Clauer notes that collaboratories may make for good science, “but it’s better for the soul to be there.” And on a practical level, the arduous experience has long been an important part of a young researcher’s education in understanding where data come from and what’s involved in keeping instruments running.

Ridley admits he missed out a little. His research experience, he says, was “like driving a car in a video game, versus driving a real car.”

Neither newly minted scientists and engineers nor graybeards are likely to see electronic collaboratories as a real alternative to traditional ways of working unless they can be confident that the underlying technology is reliable. Even collaboratory enthusiasts admit that, with collaboratories still in experimental stages, that isn’t always so. Screen displays change; tools such as sticky notes and other annotation doodads are added and then taken away if they prove unwieldy or unpopular. Such moves unsettle people accustomed to using instruments that look and perform the same way day after day.

Much of the problem is not with the collaborative software but with the Internet. For instance, Olson admits that Internet congestion has seriously interfered with UARC’s performance. But the situation could improve dramatically with the coming of Internet2, a high-speed computer network dedicated to research and education applications that more than 100 universities are building.

How will electronic collaborations fit into the future of the laboratory, classroom, and workplace? The answer will depend on the creativity of those who design and use them. No one is suggesting that the new approach should completely replace traditional ways of working together. Meetings, workshops-even a limb-numbing plane ride to Greenland and the awesome sight of an aurora-will continue to have their place. Just as scientists often must juggle variables to figure out models that best describe what’s happening, collaborating groups must keep tweaking the equation to find the right balance of face-to-face discussions, hands-on work, and electronic communication. The results should be new ways of working that raise productivity, foster creativity, break down barriers while building trust-and still manage to satisfy the soul.

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