Communication Currents

Investing in Collaborative Technology to Improve Communication? Proceed with Caution.

December 1, 2015
Organizational Communication

Organizations are investing heavily in collaborative technology, but the reality is that new forms of collaborative technology are not necessary for every organization, or for every team. In part, the impact of collaborative technology depends on how much an organization relies on virtual work arrangements.

Breaking down the impact of virtual work arrangements, we found that working in roles where employees must collaborate across time zones, and working with a diverse array of job functions, will lead employees to rely on collaborative technology. Being geographically dispersed, or working in an environment where employees face a high degree of turnover, will drive employees to engage more with peers and to rely less on technology. For example, consider an organization with offices in Europe and the United States. Employees based in the United States, but working with team members in Europe, will rely more on collaborative technology to share knowledge than in an organization where everyone is based in the same location. Collaborative technology systems allow employees to share information while avoiding some of the challenges caused by not working together in the same time zone.

Clearly, collaborative technology can play an important role in day-to-day work. In turn, communication scholars have focused significant attention on collaborative technology. A 2014 report by the Linux Foundation found that collaborative development is a key issue for major organizations in the United States, with nearly half of respondents indicating investment in collaborative technology will grow in the coming years.

Indeed, a number of major technology companies have developed platforms that allow companies to create their own internal collaborative networks. For instance, Cisco’s WebEx Social provides social networking features, virtual meeting rooms, and content sharing in a Web-based platform. IBM developed a number of different platforms; notably, IBM’s Connections platform allows employees to share documents, follow colleagues to keep up with their work, and join communities discussing topics of interest. Jive is a company that specializes in creating collaborative software solutions for a variety of companies.

A common feature of collaborative technology is that it enables information sharing and knowledge exchange among employees, regardless of location. Perhaps more important, collaborative technology allows for virtual work arrangements. The modern workplace no longer requires employees to be colocated in the same location, or even to be working at the same time.

In aggregate, the assessment of virtual work arrangements, referred to as virtuality, is a  loaded concept. Virtuality refers to the degree to which employees are dispersed. But virtuality can take many forms. It could refer to working with others in different geographic regions, time zones, organizations, or job roles. Despite the wealth of communication research examining virtuality, and despite research pointing to the complexity of virtuality, most research on virtuality has measured the concept using a single dimension(e.g., working across time zones). Through our research, we sought to examine the different aspects of virtuality and understand how the different aspects of virtuality affected technology use. We focused specifically on virtuality as working across time zones, working with employees in different job roles, working with employees in dispersed geographic locations, and working in an environment where there is a high degree of turnover.

To assess the role of collaborative technology, we collected data at a large multinational technology organization though an online survey distributed to the sales divisions in Bogota, Colombia, and in Sydney, Australia. We used structural equation modeling—which allows for the assessment of complex constructs such as virtuality—to examine the impact of the four components of virtuality on technology use. Collaborative technology was measured based on the degree to which employees used one of four tools: an instant messaging application, a knowledge repository, an enterprise social media system, and an online directory. As an alternative to collaborative technology use, we also measured the degree to which employees engage directly with their peers.

The results of our analysis reveal varying impacts of virtuality on collaborative technology use, which should be considered when designing and implementing collaborative technology. For example, we found employees who collaborate across time zones or with employees who work different shifts are more likely to utilize collaborative technology to accomplish their work. In thinking about organizational design, managers could improve technology effectiveness by focusing efforts on teams with employees who have fewer overlapping work hours compared with other teams.

In other cases, such as when employees are physically dispersed or working in an environment where there is a high degree of turnover, employees will tend to turn away from collaborative technology. In those cases, employees are likely to prefer engaging directly with colleagues.  

As organizations invest in collaborative technology, this research provides insight into the balancing act that must occur when they design and implement collaborative technology to improve work outcomes. For example,managers should bear in mind that certain aspects of virtual work arrangements will drive technology use, while others lead employees to engage more with one another. Ultimately, with a deeper understanding of how teams engage with and respond to collaborative technology, organizations can do more to ensure investments in technology drive toward improvement in work outcomes, including efficient knowledge sharing and collaboration. 

About the author (s)

Matthew S. Weber

Rutgers University

Assistant Professor

Heewon Kim

Rutgers University

Doctoral Candidate