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New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization
By Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler
MIT Press, 1991, 212 pages

This book is based on extensive studies of the effects of computer-based communication technology — electronic mail, distribution lists, bulletin boards, and computer conferences — through field research as well as social and psychological experiments. Sproull and Kiesler believe that computer-based communication is radically changing the ways people interact with one another, much like nineteenth century communications technologies such as the telephone, typewriter, and railroad transformed social and business organizations a century ago. With new computer-based communications, they argue, organizations are becoming more flexible and fluid, people increasingly think of themselves as part of the larger organization rather than members of a single department, and managers are working more openly and democratically with employees.

Sproull and Kiesler observe a number of characteristics that distinguish computer-mediated communications from traditional face-to-face interaction. For one thing, it tends to be more "open and blunt" and less concerned with "social niceties," since it is carried out without the facial and verbal cues common to face-to-face interaction. This is reflected in what is known as "flaming" where people send inflammatory electronic messages that they would never send in writing or voice in person. In group situations, they found that electronic communication tends to promote more democratic participation than in face-to-face situations. Since it is asynchronous, participants do not need to take turns to contribute to the discussion. This means that more people can "talk" in electronic groups. Also, because it is harder to read status cues in electronic messages, high-status participants are less likely to dominate than in face-to-face meetings.

Their research also suggests that electronic groups find it harder to reach consensus than traditional groups. Because electronic discussion tends to reduce conformity and convergence, electronic groups tend to be more polarized. Finally, in spite of the speed and efficiency of computer technology, electronic decision-making tends to take considerably more time than ordinary decision-making. "As compared with face-to-face discussion," the authors note, "people communicating electronically have more trouble imagining what others are feeling. It is hard to tell how confident others are and whether they are ready to come to a final agreement."

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.