Distance Matters: Intellectual Work Among Geographically Separated Group Members

Gary M. Olson & Judith S. Olson, School of Information, University of Michigan
gmo@umich.edu, jolson@umich.edu

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 24, 1998


It is widely believed that effective intellectual work can be done among team members who are geographically dispersed. We have studied this in both the field and the laboratory, and are beginning to understand the boundary conditions on when such effective work can be achieved. Our research goal has been to understand what kinds of tasks can be carried out effectively, and what kinds of technology support are needed to support effective task outcomes. In the field we have studied distributed teams of scientists working in "collaboratories" (e.g., www.si.umich.edu/UARC/, a longitudinal project now in its sixth year) and teams in global corporations as they try to work together across great distances (cf. www.crew.umich.edu). We find that closely coupled work is still difficult to support at a distance.

Similarly, such critical stages of team work as establishing mutual trust appear to require some level of face-to-face interaction. However, we have seen that teams of scientists are able to carry out effective work, and indeed evolve totally new ways of working that have great impact on their science. We have also examined cross-national teams, and the support issues for them are somewhat different than for within-nation teams. In the laboratory we have compared face-to-face and distributed groups, and we have done intensive analyses of the process as well as the outcome of work under both kinds of conditions. We draw general conclusions about the nature of distance-based work, including both the technical challenges involved in supporting it and the social and organization processes that mediate it.


Gary M. Olson is Professor and Associate Dean in the School of Information and Professor of Psychology, all at the University of Michigan. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in cognitive psychology, and has been at Michigan since 1975. He is also a Professor at the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Science.

Judith S. Olson is Professor in the School of Information, Professor of Computer and Information Systems in the School of Business Administration, and Professor of Psychology, all at the University of Michigan. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in psychology, and did a postdoc at Stanford University. She has been at Michigan since 1970, except for three years (1980-83) when she was manager of a human factors group at Bell Labs.

The Olsons current research interests are in the cognitive and social aspects of computer use, with a particular focus on how people use computing and communiation technologies to enable group work at a distance. Their work involves both laboratory and field research on a variety of collaboration technologies. The field work has been conducted in both companies and in science communities.


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