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UI study: technology not always best tool for communication

With the rise of multinational corporations with operations across the globe, many organizations rely on high-tech communication to conduct business operations efficiently by reducing unnecessary travel.

However, the effectiveness of the technological communications is being called into question by a study that appears in the journal, “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,” conducted by Gregory Northcraft, a professor in business administration at the University of Illinois, and Kevin Rockmann, an Illinois alumnus and associate professor in management at George Mason University.

The study primarily focused on the effect of high-tech communication on the building of new relationships between people joining a team for the first time, Rockmann said. To conduct the study, a group of 200 undergraduate students were placed into teams and faced two hypothetical scenarios, and were asked to conduct various tasks in person and using e-mail and video-conferencing.

“It was found that they were less successful, completing a task using video conference and e-mail,” Northcraft said. “They were simply worse at completing it over e-mail.“

Tres Roeder, a University alumnus and founder and president of Roeder Consulting, whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, said the study put scientific validity to his firm’s recommendations that newly formed teams should meet in person before they start using other forms of communication.

“When you meet someone in person you realize they have certain mannerisms,” he said. “If someone sounds unfriendly on the phone, but you met them in person and know this is only how they sound on the phone, you won’t read anything into it,” he said.

The study also found that participants were willing to behave more opportunistically and embellish facts over e-mail.

“We found that in both video-conferencing and in face-to-face interactions, people were not willing to lie,” Rockmann said.

Daniel Mittleman, an associate professor of information systems at Depaul University who does research on virtual collaboration, said trust is the key variable.

“Trust is more problematic with virtual collaboration,” Mittleman said.

The study also found that e-mail communication often resulted in misleading opinions being formed about individuals.

As an example, Rockmann brought up the scenario of someone that does not respond to an e-mail in a timely fashion.

“I have no idea what is going on in that person’s mind, and I’m going to start making judgments,” Rockmann said. “You might be out of town and dealing with an emergency, but I might think you don’t care about the project or didn’t like what I had to say.”

Mittleman said technology is still helpful to communicate when in-person meetings are not possible, but added that questions still remain as to how best to use it.

Roeder said it is important to decide whether e-mail communication is an appropriate medium of communication before it is used.

“If you have to work through something fairly complex, it’s better to meet in person,” Roeder said.

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