Beyond Being There

Posted by Neil Patel on May 28, 2014
6183 reads  
In one of my favorite research papers, Beyond Being There, Jim Hollan and Scott Stornetta suggest that technology that tries to emulate and replace in-person interactions is misguided.  Rather, technology should address needs that aren't met by in-person interactions.  Here's the introduction:
 
Face-to-face conversation provides a richness of interaction seemingly unmatched by any other means of communication. It is also apparent that living and working near others, whether that be in the same house, adjacent offices, or the same city, affords certain opportunities for interaction that are unavailable to those not co-located.

Research has clarified and substantiated both of these commonsense intuitions. It has been shown, for example, that there is a predictable fall-off in likelihood of collaboration between two researchers as a function of separation distance, even after correcting for factors such as organizational distance and similarity of research interest. This is understood to occur because of the large number of informal interactions necessary to create and maintain working relationships. There are also well-developed theories of interaction that predict why some interactions seem to only work when face-to-face, while others can work over the phone, and still others through written correspondence.

This research supports the idea that we as humans have developed a broad range of mechanisms for social interaction, which seem to meet well our needs for initiating and
maintaining friendships and working relationships, for discussing, negotiating, planning, and all other types of social interactions. These are known to be complex processes, and ones which physical proximity facilitates.

Many of us in the telecommunications field would like to create systems that allows the same richness and variety of interaction, but with distance no longer an issue. Ideally, these systems should work so well that those at a distance should be at no disadvantage to those who are physical present. This in large measure is the telecommunication problem. But how best to accomplish it?

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Comments (1)

  • Deven P-Shah wrote ...

    Hi Neil: Loved idea of technology complementing other interactions and not replacing them. 1. I have done work while teams are in different time zones, and not just that, being in different countries, also in a very different cultural mindset and climate. I don't think I quite completely figured it out as to how best to communicate. Have tried a couple of things - whenever feasible, see how all team members can express themselves over discussion threads over discussion boards like wiki, for example or other web based project management tools. Give them channel to express themselves at their own time and pace. It made understanding others so much easier, and made others feel more involved. Conference calls and one-on-one emails became so much easier. 2. When working in the same office l [...] See full comment.
    Hi Neil:

    Loved idea of technology complementing other interactions and not replacing them.

    1. I have done work while teams are in different time zones, and not just that, being in different countries, also in a very different cultural mindset and climate. I don't think I quite completely figured it out as to how best to communicate. Have tried a couple of things - whenever feasible, see how all team members can express themselves over discussion threads over discussion boards like wiki, for example or other web based project management tools. Give them channel to express themselves at their own time and pace. It made understanding others so much easier, and made others feel more involved. Conference calls and one-on-one emails became so much easier.

    2. When working in the same office location, I have experienced at times that effectiveness of communication could be better. While reading your thoughts, I thought maybe, we should use wiki and online tools for one-office environment as well. It does provide an avenue for individuals to express themselves. And maybe, use that to advantage for in-person group meetings as well.

    I have read and experienced that emotions play such a powerful impact in everything we humans do. Physical senses express and capture emotions so much better. When all are together in one location, that is an awesome opportunity to leverage.

    Another Q I can think of is how technology can enable communication that could foster more trust and empathy. Could there be additional options, avenues to express and listen? I would love to hear more on it.

    Nice thoughts and topic, I can't learn enough about it.

    Thank you for starting this conversation,

    -Deven Hide full comment.