Mapping collaborative information processes to stages of group development



Work in organizations is predominately carried out by small groups of individuals in technologically enhanced environments whose key fuel for their activities is information. Information is an input, it is shared (or not), and is integrated and massaged into a key output for use at group, individual and organizational levels (Hertzum, 2007; Hinsz, Tindale, & Vollrath, 1997; Nunamaker, Romano, & Briggs, 2001). While much of our understanding of information emanates from individuals or individuals within a community, we still have little understanding of how information is sought, retrieved, shared, integrated and melded over the course of time as a group works toward its goals (Fidel et al, 2004; Hinsz, Tindale & Vollrath, 1997; Hyldegård, 2006; Foster, 2006; Talja & Hansen, 2006).

While the term group is used generically to reference two or more people or objects, this research examines work groups which are “…assumed to be complex, intact social systems that engage in multiple, interdependent functions, on multiple concurrent projects, while partially nested within, and loosely coupled to, surrounding systems” (McGrath, 1991). Work groups emerge or are created to work on complex tasks or projects that take place over a period of time. They are comprised of 2 to 12 individuals, the most productive size (Kraut, 2003; Devine, Clayton, Philips, Dunford and Melner, 1999), and generally embedded in larger organizational contexts.

This research is the initial stage of a research project focuses on how groups use information with a view to building a model of group information behavior, and identifying the types of tools needed to support information use within groups. The research challenge is in understanding how information flows throughout the groupwork process; how information is shared and integrated at various stages of groupwork, and how information changes over the course of work (Fidel et al, 2004; Hinsz, Tindale & Vollrath; 1997, Hyldegård, 2006; Fidel et al, 2004; Poltrock et al, 2003). In the work reported here we follow one group over multiple sessions as they respond to a large problem to understand how information is processed by the group. To ensure a “naturalistic” study the task was “real” not imposed and the researchers did not interfere or provide instructions regarding the task.


This group involved 4 students, who met 6 times over the months of September and October, 2007, each meeting lasting between 2 and 3 hours. The participants were graduate management students, and had not worked together, or known each other previously. Their class project involved five key tasks; a literature review (Task A), identifying key readings for the class (Task B), preparing an hour presentation for the class (Task C), identifying and scheduling relevant guest speakers (Task D), and designing and leading a class exercise in the field (Task E). All group meetings were held in a groupwork lab that recorded all group actions using 4 cameras, and multiple microphones. The group used laptops with Morae installed, and additionally their meetings were observed through a one way class, in an adjacent control room. Between group meetings electronic diaries were used to probe for information activities. The researcher was included in all group email correspondence. Finally a semi-structured interview allowed for group reflection.

To illustrate information flow, the analysis of a “typical meeting” revealed 6 key stages. During stage 1, “Diaries and Greetings”, each group member completed an electronic diary that allowed them to reflect on their work on the project between meetings, which was the only “research” imposed part of the meeting. They discussed informally their activities, and the amount of work they had done individually. The task was not discussed; the group instead chatted more generally such as a discussion of the universities new password policy. This phase ended with the observation they were “off topic”.

The group moved into Stage 2 “Updates and Discussion” when the conversation turned to “updates”. At this stage members took turns reporting on individual progress on Tasks D & E, followed by group discussion and analysis. No decisions were made. Information needs surfaced, with specific reference to potential sources such as Google and subject experts. The stage ended with the awareness of passing time, and the need for task progress: one member spoke of their efforts being “scattered” and the need to “nail things down”.

During the decision making phase (Stage 3), there was clear conflict, debate and frustration, particularly regarding their field trip choice (Task E). To chose between several options the group actively sought additional information: they phoned one expert, and used the internet to find background and location information. This phase “ended” with some members leaving to discuss their concerns and choices with the professor (Task E), while one stayed to work on an outline for their presentation (Task C).

Stage 4, “SubMeeting and Work”, involved splitting of the group. One member remained behind to work on publisher, using the chart the group had made in previous meetings. The other 3 group members met with the professor to confirm plans, receive feedback and relieve their increasing anxiety and frustration. When the group members returned, the discussion quickly moved forward. Conflict of Stages 3 and 4 were resolved with a decision regarding Task E.

Stage 5, “Outline Redesign” involved integrating individual work done between meetings on Task C. This involved discussion, negotiation, aggregation, and integration. Flip charts were used, as well as various websites. Members also referred to the following information artifacts: a “key” textbook, their individual notes, government websites, and legislation. There was also some discussion and decisions regarding Task B, the readings they will assign to the class. This stage involved the transfer of information from the individual to the group level.

As the meeting ended (Stage 6 Adjourning) the group made goals/plans for the next meeting(s), and confirmed what they had done/decided. Additionally specific information was promised for the next day or so. The group members congratulated themselves, and commented on their progress.

Discussion and Conclusion

While this represents only one typical session for a larger group project, use of a stage based framework highlights the following. Information needs surface at Stage 2, but are not activated until Stage 3, where there are several forms of directed information seeking and retrieval. Articulation of information needs, and direct seeking and retrieval using a range of tools and artifacts increases through Stage 5, as the group moves from discussion to decision and work. In Stage 6 the group reverts to identifying information needs, and referring them to specific individuals. The shifts observed in group affect reflect the work of Kuhlthau (1991) on the individual level, and Hyldegård (2006) at the group level. This work extends the emerging research on the collaborative information behaviours of groups (Blake & Pratt, 2006; Dennis, 1996; Fidel et al., 2004; Poltrock et al. 2003; Prekop, 2002; Reddy & Jansen, 2007). Of interest as well is the relationship between time and information seeking; the awareness of the passing of time was seen as a trigger to activate information seeking. The observed behaviours and affects will be confirmed through the analysis of other groups, using the same methods. The refined framework can be used to guide the development and selection of specific tools to aid groupwork at specific stages. The poster will represent this framework and integrate data from other group studies.


Research was supported by Canada Research Chairs Program and NECTAR.