Let's Get Hyperpersonal

They never meet face to face or hear each others' voices. But make no mistake, these work groups turn out top-notch results.

They're collaborating by electronic mail. The process may look impersonal. But it leads to truly effective decision-making--especially for complex, long-term projects.

The big advantage to communicating by computer is that group members can work despite different schedules, explains Northwestern University's Joseph Walther, Ph.D. And that lets participants absorb information when they are relaxed, ready, and receptive.

"If I can address a task at my convenience--after I've gotten home, eaten dinner, played with the kids, and put them to bed--I cannot only give you the information you've requested but also some additional thoughts I have on the matter," says Walther, a professor of communication studies.

Another plus is that electronic communication forces group members to go on record with their differences. "You can't register your disagreement by rolling your eyes if nobody's there to see the gesture," Walther notes. "You're compelled to say in words just what you think." And making disagreements explicit, he says, leads to better joint decisions.

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Computer groups also reap interpersonal benefits that contribute to their success. In one study, Walther assigned a series of decision-making tasks to 16 groups meeting face-to- face. Another 16 groups worked together exclusively via an asynchronous computer confer-encing system--meaning that group members were never on-line at the same time, but left messages for one another.

Six weeks and three projects later, the groups that conferred by computer were more socially oriented than those meeting in person, taking time during work sessions to compare hobbies, discuss musical preferences, and speculate about their team's playoff chances.

Walther calls this hyperpersonal communication, because users achieve more interpersonally than they do face-to-face. Forging social connections the newfangled way admittedly takes longer than it does in person. But nurturing these relationships is worth the effort: The social bonds it forms can help colleagues reach a consensus, a key to high-quality group decisions.

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