Out of Synch

Unlike face-to-face conversations, many online communications are asynchronous. That means that people write, read and respond to one another over time rather than immediately. An example of this is e-mail. A discussion over e-mail can stretch over several hours as people check and respond to messages. While that means some projects may take longer to complete because of this delay, it also makes it easier for people working in different time zones to collaborate since they don't all have to be online at the same time. Certain online communication methods like instant messaging and chat rooms are synchronous, because participants communicate with one another in real time.

Social Barriers to Online Collaboration

The way people interact in a physical setting and how they work online aren't always in alignment. While studies focusing on online behavior don't all agree on what those differences are, many suggest differences do exist. There are several contributing factors.

One of those factors is trust. Trust is important for any collaborative effort, whether it's between two individuals or multiple corporations. If the collaborative parties don't trust one another, it's difficult to engage in teamwork. Even with the best technology, a collaborative project can collapse if there's a lack of trust. One party might hold back vital information, for example.

Another issue is the concept of intellectual property. For example, if multiple parties work together to create a product, to whom does that idea belong? How do the parties divide up the ownership? It's not always easy to answer this question, particularly if one party feels it contributed more than any other party involved.

If the collaborative environment allows contributors to be anonymous, group dynamics can change. In a face-to-face environment, it's easier for leaders to guide discussion and maintain control. In an anonymous online environment, participants might feel a sense of equality. Sometimes this means the collaboration will generate more innovative ideas, because people aren't as worried about losing face. But it can also mean discussions can become more heated and chaotic than they would in a physical environment. Some people might even make comments that are rude or insensitive. Because online communication usually doesn't allow people to transmit visual and tonal cues to one another, it can be easy to misinterpret communications.

Some studies suggest that people are more likely to engage in risky decision making through an online discussion than they would in a physical meeting. But online collaboration is also easier to review. In the end, people can weigh online discussion before making critical decisions.

Companies that address technical and social challenges in online collaboration will be able to use the Internet's ability to connect people to achieve business objectives. Who knows? Before long we might all commute to work by logging on at home and sending an avatar to a meeting.

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