Collaborative Practices at KME
Collaboration abounds at KME. Employees share best practices and engage in joint problem-solving. Collaboration in this technology-intensive firm takes place both FTF and via CMC. We asked participants in the questionnaire to indicate how often they used each of three media (FTF/phone, email, and IM) to communicate at each of three distances (work group, intra-organization, and extra-organization). The scale used to measure frequencies ranged from 1=“never” to 7=“daily.” For the purpose of the present analysis, the original 7-point scale was transformed into days per year: “never”= 0; “a few times a year”= 5; 1/month = 12; “1/week”= 52; “several times a week”= 130; “1/day and several times a day”= 365. Table 2 shows the mean frequency of use (standardized into days per year) of FTF and telephone, email, and IM for within group, intra-organizational, and extra-organizational communication.
Table 2. Communication practices at KME: days per year and percentages of communications media
| ||26%||36%||36%||54%|| |
| ||19%||40%||41%||33%|| |
| ||11%||53%||37%||12%|| |
|Total Media %||360||622||593||1,575|| |
| ||23%||39%||38%||100%|| |
Communication within the group relies more on email and IM than on FTF, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all intra-group communications. Nevertheless, because of physical propinquity, the highest frequency of contact within the work group is FTF/phone.
Intra-organizational communication relies even more on CMC: Email and IM are each used more than twice as often as FTF and the telephone. Email is preferred even more for extra-organizational communication, accounting for about half of all such communication, with IM accounting for about one-third. Both social distance—IM is a more informal medium—and incompatible IM systems limit its use in comparison to email. Where the daily use of email extra-organizationally is one-half of intra-organizational use, the daily use of IM extra-organizationally drops to one-third of intra-organizational use. Moreover, because KME's clientele and supply chain are national and international rather than local, there is little FTF extra-organizational communication.
While we often think of CMC as primarily aiding communication at a distance by bridging time and space constraints, the primary use of email and IM at KME is for contact within the work group. About half (52%) of all IM and email (49%) communications are within the group. This high use of CMC occurs even though the employees work in the same building. The two groups occupy relatively small, densely organized, open-plan spaces on two floors of a small, three-story office building. Each group is located together on a different floor. The size and configuration of their workspaces encourage FTF and telephone contact rather than online interaction. Nevertheless, employees in this co-located setting access human sources primarily via CMC.
Informed by our findings at KME, we introduce the term local virtualities1 to describe physically bounded places where people communicate via computer-mediated means, creating dense networks of collaboration. The fact that people are not interacting visibly in public spaces does not mean that they are isolated. They go online to send and receive emails, and they use IM to talk with colleagues. This finding is contrary to theories of network and virtual organizations that argue that CMC creates sparsely knit, boundary-spanning structures (Monge & Contractor, 1997, 2003). The fact that KME's CMC has created local networks of collaboration suggests that CMC can lead to new and unexpected forms of interaction and community that blend both local and distant communication.
Collaborative Practices in IM
In this section, we describe how employees at KME manage their IM systems on a daily basis, how IM promotes collaboration, and how new forms of collaboration emerge through the use of IM. Although email is used as much as IM for group and organizational communication at KME, in this article we focus on the less-frequently studied use of IM. Our findings are in accord with previous studies (Nardi et al., 2000) that have found that employees use IM to exchange information; pose quick questions and clarifications; arrange and coordinate FTF and telephone meetings, both formal and impromptu; conduct simultaneous conversations over multiple media; and solicit immediate responses. We also found that IM speeds up the exchange of information and creates new forms of collaboration among employees.
When employees arrive at their workstations in the morning, the first thing they do is log on to the IM system. The IM system then displays the online presence of the employee to all other members of the organization who are also logged on to the system. Although KME has no explicit norms around collaboration, employees implicitly understand that those who are physically present at KME are expected to be logged on.
Employees perceive being logged on to the IM system as providing them with opportunities for communication. Even when employees are not at their desks, but at a meeting or out for lunch, they continue to be logged on to the system. In those cases, the system then changes their status from available to idle. If the employee chooses, the system also replies to incoming IMs with a customized message, such as “out of the office,”“in a meeting,” or “right back.” This information is important because it gives other employees more detailed information about each other's availability, allowing them to estimate when colleagues will be available for consultation. Availability information is particularly crucial for KME in that most projects are collaborative and the input of other employees is often central to completing a task.
Most collaboration via IM consists of asking questions about specific aspects of work. The questions often involve clarification or codified knowledge. Most of these informal collaborations take place one-on-one rather than in groups. IM is used most commonly for one-on-one exchanges in which an individual contacts another individual to discuss needed information. It is also used, to a more limited extent, for in-depth problem solving, where one person helps another make sense of a problem and think through various strategies to find a solution. In other instances, help consists of referrals to others who can provide answers or help solve problems.
Through information about colleagues' availability, opportunities for interaction open up. In the framework of social translucence, information availability provides a social affordance that makes others aware of the possibility for collaboration. One employee expressed how the system allowed them to ask others for help: “I see that they are online, I need an answer now, I need to talk to them now, I will ping them.” Furthermore, at KME, IM not only provides opportunities to collaborate; it also plays a role in the collaborative process. As one programmer reported, employees perceive IM as a principal way of connecting with each other: “I just know that if you call or send an IM, you will get a faster response than email.”
IM fundamentally affects the nature of collaboration at KME. It allows employees to ask for advice on demand. When a problem is difficult or demands expertise in another area, employees reach out to their colleagues for help. This occurs on an ongoing basis, creating a culture where most problems are solved by a network of people drawn into the problem-solving process whenever necessary. This new form of collaboration facilitated by IM is in synch with the notion of an “active social network,” in which the only relationships active at any time are those useful for the particular task at hand. It saves time and effort on the part of other colleagues, who can work on their own projects and are only asked to participate when needed. Unlike traditional stable work groups, KME employees are forever reconstituting their active ties to deal with issues at hand. Of course, such reconstitution is not random: Over time, people develop comfortable working relationships through prior collaboration and socializing. One employee described how IM is used to obtain answers quickly, on demand:
I use IM a lot. IM is great if you have one question that you just need an answer to. When you need to explain something in detail—an outline, kind of a business case for doing something, or for getting somebody to take action—email is the best.
Implicit norms at KME dictate that IM takes priority over other media. It even takes precedence over FTF, despite the more abundant media cues present in FTF. Employees know that others rely on them to respond quickly. Our observations discovered that as soon as an IM message appeared on someone's screen, they would glance over and read the message. In almost every case, they immediately responded, either with a substantive reply or with a short reply indicating that they received the message and would provide a full response later. As part of the culture at KME, people feel compelled to reply, even if it is only to say that they are in a meeting and will respond later.
The precedence of IM over other forms of communication may be a result of IM's functionality, in which a pop-up window automatically appears on the screen when an IM message is received. In this respect, IM is different from email, which requires the user to launch the program in order to read or send messages. As a result, an IM cannot be ignored as easily as an email. At KME, this difference influences message-sending as well as message-responding. Senders recognize IM as the best medium when timeliness is crucial. Email is used when the message is less urgent.
Employees use FTF/phone interactions less often, and perhaps differently, because they perceive them to be more disruptive than IM to their colleagues' work process. Unlike a FTF/phone interaction, users can choose to reply substantively at a later time, or, in rare cases, not at all—choices that could be difficult or awkward in a FTF setting. IM thus occupies a useful niche within the range of communication media available to employees: less interruptive than a face-to-face interaction or phone call, but offering a greater potential than email for obtaining an immediate response.
Collaboration at KME occurs in an “always-on” mode (Gray et al., 2003; Quan-Haase & Wellman, 2000) because employees spent most of their time working at a networked computer. Communication occurs almost simultaneously through multiple media, rather than sequentially. For example, workers answer an IM while having a conversation. Employees do not switch between media and people to communicate, but use various media simultaneously to interact with different people.
In sum, the always-on mode allows employees to be aware of one another: 1) when someone logs on at the beginning of the day or logs out when they leave work; 2) when someone is away from their desk; and 3) when someone is busy. Communication practices at KME reflect a shift from the traditional way of working, where communication usually occurs outside the regular workflow. Because work at KME is conducted primarily online, communication occurs simultaneously with other tasks. Workers treat IM as simply another task within a multitasking work environment. However, as will be discussed below, this is not to suggest that adoption or adaptation is easy for all workers (for a more general discussion, see also Quan-Haase & Wellman, 2000).
Social Processes in the Use of IM
We noted earlier that IM is an important means of collaboration at KME. IM provides employees with an alternative form of asking for help, solving problems, and exchanging information. However, to understand fully the use of IM for collaboration at KME, it is important also to examine characteristics of the application and how these characteristics interact with social factors. We use a combination of the social translucence of technology (STT) framework (Erickson & Kellogg, 2000) and social network analysis to describe how social processes play a role in the use of IM.
Characteristics of Actors' Relationships
Through its ability to convey some awareness of a person's availability, IM creates a sense of connectedness (Nardi et al., 2000). Most participants at KME see visibility as a positive feature of the system; they feel that it is important to be able to see if colleagues and friends are online. However, many do not perceive visibility to be a positive feature in all contexts: Its value depends on the relationship, especially the closeness of the relationship, and the interdependency of tasks.
If two individuals share a friendship relationship, they feel comfortable using availability information to contact each other. One KME worker describes such a relationship this way:
I enjoy communicating with him—I can say: “What is going on?” and “by the way I have this technical question.” Whereas other people I wouldn't want to IM because I don't have that kind of relationship with them. Unless it was really important, then I would, but I would be less likely to IM because I would not want to disturb them without a real excuse.
Thus, although awareness information is available to everyone on the system, it may have greater utility for those in a close relationship.
This characteristic is related to the limited capability of current IM systems to display more detailed information on availability. Although IM systems attempt to accommodate this need with icons or customized messages (e.g., “I'm on a conference call”), such messages cannot convey the many nuances of availability that exist in the workplace (e.g., “I'm available to others, but not to you”). As a result, people are not fully aware of whether it is convenient to contact another person. Clearly, eliminating one barrier (lack of awareness) does not eliminate other barriers (social, hierarchical) that may exist to the free flow of communication.
When two individuals are working on the same project, they feel comfortable asking each other questions via IM. In other words, there is a recognition that, when work tasks are interdependent, input is often required in order for individuals to be able to continue their work. IM in this case breaks down social barriers and allows individuals to ask questions and tap into each other's knowledge. Therefore, being able to monitor others' availability is useful for people working interdependently.
Sense of Community in Instant Messaging
IM supports one-to-one communication (user to user), one-to-many communication (user to multiple users), and many-to-many communication (where a user can initiate a session in which all invitees can interact with one another). Many-to-many communication can foster a sense of community among participants, since users become more aware of one another and their opinions, understandings, likes, and dislikes (Nardi et al., 2000; Rheingold, 2000). With features such as buddy lists and presence indication, IM extends this awareness to patterns of behavior, allowing users to become more conscious of—and potentially more involved with—the dynamics of their groups and social networks.
IM's community-reinforcing potential occurs within a user-centric context (Alvestrand, 2002). Only those individuals who are added to the buddy list become part of a user's community. At KME, employees typically download a buddy list consisting of all employees of the company and install that list on their computer. Hence, the system creates higher awareness of others' availability throughout the company. However, employees are free to add or delete names from their list, and to create categories to make close colleagues more visible and others less so. Our findings showed that users are usually aware only of the availability of their friends and colleagues who work on interdependent projects. Awareness is strongly influenced by social relationships among IM users, and data on presence or availability alone does not create a sense of community with others.
IM does not always create greater connectivity. KME employees also see IM as a useful tool because it creates distance between themselves and their superiors. When they have to deal with difficult decisions or discuss sensitive topics where they know that they may disagree with their superiors, they often prefer to communicate via IM rather than FTF. The reason is that IM allows them to reflect on their superior's opinions and provides them with time to think about their own reactions. IM in this case provides a barrier between communicators, albeit a barrier that has positive benefits for employees.
Organizational Control via IM
While awareness can make interactions easier and more efficient, it can also create the potential for control where users are not equal in status or power. Because of the KME norm to log on to the IM system upon arrival at the office, everyone knows who has arrived and is available for contact. People have flexible work hours, especially at higher levels in the organization, and work hours are not explicitly monitored or controlled. Nonetheless, while IM is not explicitly used for control at KME, the fact that the system provides the potential for accountability makes some employees uncomfortable.
One functional aspect of the IM system used by KME is particularly important. The user name appears in black if the person is actively typing on the keyboard, and becomes shaded once the user stops for more than a couple of minutes. (Users can configure the time interval or disable this feature altogether, although it is not clear that all employees know this or feel their superior would approve.) In this way, the system shows not only if the person is present at his or her desk, but also if they are using the keyboard. Some employees indicated that managers could use keyboard activity as an indicator of work being performed and expressed concern about this as an abridgement of their privacy or a mechanism for control. One of the managers interviewed said that the system allowed her to check who was in the office (and, by extension, who was out of the office). Accordingly, employees reported that they would log on specifically to make sure that others saw that they were at the office. Thus, the fact that the system creates visibility means that it also creates accountability and a means for monitoring.
Another form of accountability is that employees feel compelled to reply to messages because as receivers they know that the senders are aware that they have received the messages. Thus, the awareness of others' availability leads to expectations in the sender about how long it should take the recipient to reply. If a recipient does not reply promptly, he or she may be interpreted by the requestor as evidencing a lack of respect or concern for the requestor's needs.
To avoid misunderstandings, users who are unavailable to respond often activate the automatic reply feature within IM. This feature sends one of several standard messages, or a message created by the user, to indicate that the user is not available. This feature is often used to negotiate accountability:
If I know I am going to be busy or I need some time to concentrate on an issue, I turn one of the following messages on: “I am on the phone, get back right away,” or, “There is someone in the office, will email when free.” One of my colleagues uses “Of course I am not here now.”
People feel accountable to respond to the messages that they receive. In most cases, messages are replied to quickly: within one minute. Even during FTF meetings, workers monitor their computer screens and, if an important IM pops up, they reply while continuing their FTF conversation.
I just know that if you call or send an IM, you will get a faster response than email. Although sometimes I have to resend them, like “HELLO.” And they say: “I don't remember getting this.”
The downside of social translucence in IM is that a user may not always want to convey social information about him- or herself. We observed at least three situations in which workers did not want their social information to be displayed. First, employees working under time pressures often did not want their availability information displayed because this meant others could interrupt them. Second, employees often wanted to be available to a sub-group of employees, but not to all employees—at least not all the time. Third, if employees were working on a difficult problem, they did not want to be interrupted. Many problems require full attention and employees felt in these cases that IM distracted them from the task at hand.
When workers do not want their social information displayed, they sometimes engage in subversive strategies. Alice, for example, did not log on when she had a pressing deadline. Others leave their computers and IM application running 24 hours a day, to eliminate the logging on/off activity that could be used by others for control purposes. In the first case, a worker who is present appears to be absent; in the second, a worker who may be absent appears to be present. These subversive uses of technology are in accord with social constructivist views that emphasize the distinct uses of technology (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1999; Markus & Keil, 1994). Therefore, while the system sometimes provides more social information than users may want to provide, it also provides more flexibility than is available in real physical settings. In real physical settings, one cannot easily deceive others about one's presence or absence. The IM system provides occasion for both disclosure and concealment.
Visibility information in IM is limited to a person's online status. The system does not convey information about what the user is doing, with whom the user is currently engaged, etc. While future systems could convey these types of information, it is unclear what their social consequences are and how they would be received by users, especially considering the potential overrun of privacy boundaries (Gray et al., 2003).
Status Relationships and IM
A person's status within the hierarchy of the organization plays a key role in how their messages are replied to. For example, Leonard, a senior manager, received two IM requests during our interview. When a message popped up on the screen, Leonard glanced over quickly and read it. Both times he excused himself and initiated an exchange that lasted for 2-3 minutes. When asked what had happened, he replied: “I usually do not answer messages while I am engaged in a FTF meeting unless they are short questions or are urgent.” When asked who had sent the message, he said that it was from his superior. We noticed similar reactions from other interviewees. As soon as an IM message appeared on their screen, they would glance over and read the message. As part of the culture at KME, people feel compelled to reply, even if it is just to indicate that they are in a meeting and will get back to the request later. Clearly, IM often comes before FTF, despite the more abundant social cues present in FTF. With IM, the status of the communicator and the urgency of the message can be more compelling than the physical presence of someone FTF.
One worker reported that he preferred IM because it gave him social distance from his superior. This distance was afforded by the absence of social cues in IM. Although the lack of cues in CMC is often seen as inhibiting communication, here it is perceived as positive and used strategically.
Instant Messaging as a Dyadic Process
There are clear variations in how people communicate via IM, suggesting that IM use is in large part a dyadic process. Over time, people develop a good understanding of each other's media preferences and user habits. A programmer reports on her understanding of her boss's use of IM:
I know that my boss prefers to be reached over the phone because he finds IM disturbing. I prefer IM, but if I know that it is going to be a longer message I will pick up the phone and call him. With everyone else I just send an IM message. It is so easy and fast. I know they will get it right away.
People use the media that their communication partners prefer. Besides having a good understanding of individual preferences in media use, people also know the best way to reach particular people.