By Karin Vergoth, published on July 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
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
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
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.