Usage of communication portfolios in distributed work environments
First Monday

Usage of communication portfolios in distributed work environments



Abstract
The purpose of this study is to examine the use of communication portfolios in distributed work environments (DWEs). A communication portfolio refers to a mix of information communication technologies (ICTs), consisting of either single ICT or multiple ICTs, that organizational communicators use for communication in the workplace. Our results demonstrate that a variety of communication portfolios with different sizes, contents and structuring mechanisms were used organization members in DWEs.

Contents

Introduction
Background
Methodology
Results
Discussion
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Advances in ICTs (information communication technologies) have enabled geographically distributed individuals to work together to solve and coordinate business functions in a distributed work environment (DWE) (Maznevski and Chudoba, 2000). In fact, most DWEs provide a vast array of ICTs — ranging from asynchronous shared workspaces to synchronous audio, video, and data conferencing technologies — to support distributed work functions (Watson–Manheim and Bélanger, 2007). It is not surprising that organization members in DWEs are increasingly relying on a mix of ICTs for communication and collaboration (Boczkowski and Orlikowski, 2004; Watson–Manheim and Bélanger, 2007).

The recent proliferation of unified communications technologies in workplaces reinforce the notion that organization members are relying on a mix of ICTs to support their organizational communication activities. Specifically, a unified communications environment refers to a highly integrated communications environment that combines, or unifies, text, voice, video, and data communications (Dunbrack, et al., 2008). Technologies supporting unified communications include e–mail, telephony, voice mail, instant messaging, video, Web conferencing, and short message service (SMS). It has been estimated that worldwide spending on unified communications technologies approached US$5 billion in 2007 and it is predicted that such spending will grow to about US$17 billion by 2011 (IDC, 2007). Although, there is significant interest in unified communications from many organizations, no single vendor product on the market adequately addresses all of an organization’s unified communications needs and concerns (Elliot, 2008). Hence, understanding how organizational members combine and use ICTs in an environment where multiple ICTs are available for use is an important and significant research topic that will contribute to the development of, as well as advancements in, unified communications technologies.

The study of how organization members combine and use multiple ICTs, particularly those within a DWE, has not been well documented in the literature. Past studies tend to focus on examining a single ICT in isolation from other ICTs in an organization (Boczkowski and Orlikowski, 2004; Lee, et al., 2007). In fact, much of the debate on ICT usage within the literature of information systems (IS) and communications over the past few decades has centered around the usage of a single ICT (e.g., Daft, et al., 1987; Straub and Karahanna, 1998; Dickey, et al., 2006). Specifically, most research on ICT use has largely assumed that individuals use a single ICT per task (Stephens, 2007), thus ignoring issues related to the use of multiple ICTs in the workplace.

Using the concept of a communication portfolio introduced by Lee, et al. (2007), we attempt to address this gap. Specifically, the objective of this study is to examine communication portfolios used by organizational members in a DWE where multiple ICTs are available for use. According to Lee, et al. (2007), a communication portfolio refers to a mix of ICTs that organizational members use for communication. The communication portfolio may contain a single ICT or multiple ICTs. Hence, our general research question is as follows:

In a distributed work environment where multiple ICTs are available for use, which communication portfolios are used by organizational members?

 

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Background

Distributed work environments (DWEs)

Organizations are increasingly relying on DWEs to take advantage of resources available in different locations and countries. For instance, software development teams are increasingly spread across multiple countries (Carmel, 1999) to take advantage of resources at different sites. DWEs include environments ranging from global distributed teams and global project teams which are transnational, transorganizational, and transcultural (Boudreau, et al., 1998) to telecommuting (Davenport and Pearlson, 1998). The dynamic and fluid nature of DWEs provides organizations a great deal of flexibility to respond in a rapidly changing and competitive business environment (Boudreau, et al., 1998; Cascio, 2000).

Challenges in DWEs have also been widely reported in the literature. Given the lack of face–to–face interaction in the distributed environment, obstacles to effective communication, coordination and collaboration will become more salient in DWEs (Jarvenpaa and Leidner, 1999; Jarvenpaa, et al., 1998). Specifically, Straus and McGrath (1994) found that teams relying on technology had a more difficult time comprehending each other than teams relying on face–to–face communication. In addition, other studies found that teams in DWEs were less cohesive and less effective when compared to traditional teams (Mortensen and Hinds, 2001). Some research has also highlighted the difficulty to work towards a common goal when members of a DWE had dissimilar background, understanding, and viewpoint (Cramton, 2001). Additionally, Kraut, et al. (2002) reported that sharing complex information could be difficult for teams within a DWE because of the limitations of technologies, differences in time zones, and dissimilar experiences and perspectives at distant sites. In sum, our review shows that it is indeed challenging for organizations to operate in DWEs. The use of communication portfolios may help to manage these challenges.

Use of ICTs in the distributed work environment

Hinds and Bailey (2003) remarked that the differences between regular organizations and organizations in DWEs were that organization members in DWEs were physically and/or temporally distant and they had to rely on communication technologies to facilitate their interactions. Early research on technologically enabled interactions was primarily based on information richness theory or media richness theory that focused on matching media characteristics with types of tasks (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991). Later research extended this theory by considering the social norms and contextual cues of the environment (Markus, 1994). In fact, several studies in this research stream showed that communication patterns and the use of ICTs in DWEs were influenced by norms, practices, and social context (Spears and Lea, 1994; Orlikowski, 1993; 2002). For example, DeSanctis and Jackson (1994) found that the benefits of using more complex communications technology increased as the task became more complex. Hinds and Kiesler’s (1995) study on lateral and extra–departmental communication revealed that telephone rather than e–mail or voice mail was more effective for lateral and extra–departmental communication. Zack (1993) discovered that the more shared a group’s interpretive context was, the more members were able to communicate using seemingly less sophisticated technologies.

More recent studies on technologically enabled interactions paid more attention on the technologies used to support communication in DWEs. For instance, Hightower, et al. (1998) elaborated the use of computer–mediated communication systems in a DWE. Dimitrova and Salaff (1998) found that employees with complex, interdependent networks, dealing with more political information, tend to rely more on the telephone for communicating. Other studies highlighted the importance of textual communication to support interaction in a DWE. For instance, Dickey, et al. (2006) highlighted the usefulness of text–based communications, particularly instant messaging, on helping organizational members within a DWE to develop communication practices to help structure and convey meaning through their text–based communications. Other studies compared the use of a specific ICT with face–to–face communication in DWEs. In particular, Goodman and Darr (1998) concluded that face–to–face communication was needed to disseminate best practices between geographically distributed sites since most of ICTs were not well suited to support knowledge–sharing initiatives in DWEs. Some studies also noted the usage of ICTs may differ over time. Specifically, Majchrzak, et al. (2000) revealed that usage of ICT was typically reduced over time in DWEs but the usage may increase subsequently in situations where a collective understanding was required. These studies have made substantial contributions to our understanding on ICT usage in DWEs. However, important issues such as how multiple ICTs are combined and used within DWEs have not been addressed.

In sum, our review shows that ICTs used to support DWEs have evolved from simple electronic mail software to more sophisticated software such as knowledge repositories and workflow management. Indeed, rapid advances in ICTs offer new opportunities for engaging in geographically distributed work. It is apparent that organizational members in DWEs have to communicate and collaborate using a variety of ICTs. Although an increasing number of organizations are operating in DWEs (McDonough, et al., 2001), it is still not clear how these ICTs are used by organizational members in DWEs where multiple ICTs are available for use.

Communication portfolio

Over the past two years, some studies have observed that organizational members are increasingly relying on a mix of ICTs for communication and collaboration in the workplace (Watson–Manheim and Bélanger, 2007; Lee, et al., 2007; Stephens, et al., 2008; Coopman, 2009). Since there is a wide array of ICTs available for organizational members to use within a DWE (Watson–Manheim and Bélanger, 2007), it is likely that these organizational members are likely to use a mix of ICTs independently or in combination to help them to overcome the constraints of distance and time. In this study we draw on the concept of communication portfolio introduced by Lee, et al. (2007) to examine the mix of ICTs used by organizational members in DWEs. Communication portfolios can be examined via three dimensions — size, content, and structuring mechanism. The size of the communication portfolio refers to the total number of ICTs use by the sender and receiver during the communication. The content of the communication portfolio refers to ICT use or the combination of multiple ICTs during communication. The structuring mechanism of the communication portfolio refers to the usage of a single ICT or combinations of ICTs. They proposed three types of structuring mechanisms: sequential (switching from one ICT to another), concurrent (using two or more ICTs in parallel), and repetitive (using the same ICTs more than once). Hence, we aim to investigate communication portfolios used by organizational members in a DWE by examining communication portfolios via three dimensions: size, content and structuring mechanism. Thus, our specific research questions are:

  1. In a distributed work environment where multiple ICTs are available for usage, what are the sizes of communication portfolios used by organization members?

  2. In a distributed work environment where multiple ICTs are available for usage, what are the contents of communication portfolios used by organizational members?

  3. In a distributed work environment where multiple ICTs are available for usage, what are the structuring mechanisms of communication portfolios used by organizational members?

 

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Methodology

The DWE chosen for this study was the software application development unit of a global IT consulting company. Employees in this unit are geographically and temporally distributed with some employees located at the headquarters in India and other employees located at different clients’ sites in the U.S. Forty–seven employees from two global project teams were selected as respondents for this research. Nineteen respondents were located in India while 28 respondents were located at their clients’ site in the U.S. The primary reason for choosing this site was that all the respondents had to rely on ICTs to communicate with their overseas counterparts on a daily basis. All respondents were required to keep a one–day communication diary where they recorded all their communication events and the ICTs used to support these communications for a typical work day. Table 1 below shows a summarized profile of the respondents.

 

Table 1: Summarized profile of respondents.
LocationsU.S.India   
Count (Percent)28 (60)19 (40)   
 
GenderFemaleMale   
Count (Percent)5 (11)42 (89)   
 
Organizational tenure in years1–56–1011–14≥15Unknown
Count (Percent)13 (28)29 (62)2 (4)0 (0)3 (6)
 
Job titleProgrammer analyst/IT consultantIT project leader/IT managerOther  
Count (Percent)30 (64)14 (30)3 (6)  

 

Communication portfolio

We follow Lee, et al. (2007) and examine the communication portfolio via the following three dimensions: size, content and structuring mechanism. The size of the communication portfolio refers to the total number of ICTs used during a communication event. The content of the communication portfolio refers to the types of ICT used during communication. The ICTs available to all respondents in our study included instant messaging, e–mail, NetMeeting™, telephone/teleconferencing, software project management system, shared electronic repository (i.e., shared file server), and a problems–reporting application (i.e., software problems tracking system). The structuring mechanism of the communication portfolio refers to how ICTs are used. Specifically, sequential structuring mechanism refers to the way one ICT is switched to another; concurrent structuring mechanism refers to the way that ICTs are used together in parallel; and, repetitive means using the same ICT repeatedly several times during the same communication event.

 

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Results

Summary of communication events

From the 47 respondents who participated in the study, we collected 445 communication events. A significant amount of communication occurred with non–collocated communication partners (65.8 percent) with no face–to–face interaction. Around 17.3 percent of the communication events occurred with both collocated and non–collocated communication partners and around 16.9 percent of the communication occurred with collocated partners.

Size of communication portfolio

Figure 1 illustrates the overall size of the communication portfolio. The largest communication portfolio size is five and the smallest size is zero (no use of ICT). Communication portfolios of size two were used most frequently (31 percent), followed by communication portfolios of size one (24.9 percent) and communication of size zero (16.9 percent). Communication portfolios of size five were used least frequently (5.2 percent).

 

Figure 1: Size of communication portfolio
Figure 1: Size of communication portfolio.

 

Content of communication portfolio

Figure 2 shows the eight most frequently used communication portfolios. Overall, single ICT communication portfolios comprised of e–mail (13.5 percent) were most frequently used followed by telephone/teleconferencing (9.4 percent). Multiple ICT communication portfolios comprised of e–mail and telephone were the next most frequently (8.8 percent) followed by another multiple ICT communication portfolio comprising of instant messaging, e–mail, telephone, and NetMeeting™ (5.8 percent).

We further examine the content of communication portfolios of different sizes. As shown in Figure 3, e–mail (13.5 percent) and telephone/teleconferencing (9.4 percent) were the two most preferred communication portfolios of size one. NetMeeting™ and the software project management system were never used in communication portfolio of size one, indicating that these two ICTs were not used independently to support communications in our study.

 

Figure 2: Most frequently used communication portfolio
Figure 2: Most frequently used communication portfolio.
Note: EM: e–mail, CALL: telephone/teleconferencing, IM: instant messaging, NET: NetMeeting™, SR: shared electronic repository.

 

As shown in Figure 4, among the communication events that used communication portfolios of size two, the combination of e–mail and telephone/teleconferencing was used most frequently (28.5 percent). This is followed by the combination of telephone/teleconferencing and shared electronic repository at 17.5 percent.

 

Figure 3: Content of communication portfolio of size one
Figure 3: Content of communication portfolio of size one.
Note: EM: e–mail, CALL: telephone/teleconferencing, IM: instant messaging, SR: shared electronic repository, PRA: problems reporting application.

 

 

Figure 4: Content of communication portfolio of size two
Figure 4: Content of communication portfolio of size two.
Note: EM: e–mail, CALL: telephone/teleconferencing, IM: instant messaging, SR: shared electronic repository, PRA: problems reporting application, SPMS: software project management system.

 

As illustrated in Figure 5, the combination of instant message, e–mail, and telephone/teleconferencing was used most frequently (30.3 percent) for communication portfolios of size three. This was followed by the combination of e–mail, telephone/teleconferencing, and problems reporting application at 18.2 percent.

 

Figure 5: Content of communication portfolio of size three
Figure 5: Content of communication portfolio of size three.
Note: EM: e–mail, CALL: telephone/teleconferencing, IM: instant messaging, SR: shared electronic repository, PRA: problems reporting application, SPMS: software project management system.

 

The combination of instant messaging, e–mail, telephone and NetMeeting™ was used most frequently (78.8 percent) among communication events with portfolios of size four. Among communication portfolios of size five, the combination of instant messaging, e–mail, telephone/teleconferencing, NetMeeting™ and Software Project Management System was used most frequently (87 percent). Figures 6 and 7 show the contents of communication portfolios of size four and five.

 

Figure 6: Content of communication portfolio of size four
Figure 6: Content of communication portfolio of size four.
Note: EM: e–mail, CALL: telephone/teleconferencing, IM: instant messaging, SR: shared electronic repository, PRA: problems reporting application, SPMS: software project management system.

 

 

Figure 7: Content of communication portfolio of size five
Figure 7: Content of communication portfolio of size five.
Note: EM: e–mail, CALL: telephone/teleconferencing, IM: instant messaging, SR: shared electronic repository, PRA: problems reporting application, SPMS: software project management system.

 

Structuring mechanisms of communication portfolio

Figure 8 shows the overall structuring mechanisms adopted by respondents during communication. A sequential structuring mechanism (52.8 percent) was most frequently adopted, followed by a concurrent structuring mechanism (37.1 percent). A repetitive structuring mechanism (16.9 percent) was the least frequently adopted mechanism. Approximately 33.9 percent of communication events did not use any previously identified structuring mechanism.

 

Figure 8: Structuring mechanisms
Figure 8: Structuring mechanisms.

 

 

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Discussion

The results showed that employees in the study preferred to use multiple ICT (size more than one) communication portfolios to single ICT (size=one) communication portfolios to support communication in this DWE. Specifically, communication portfolios of size two were most frequently used and the maximum size communication portfolio in our study was five. It should be noted that a communication portfolio of size zero was also used rather frequently, indicating that face–to–face communication (FTF) without using any ICT was still an important component in DWEs. This suggests that geographically distributed organizations should plan to inject some elements of FTF communication as part of their organizational communication strategies. Additionally, we found that communication portfolio of sizes four and five were also used but not so frequently. To a certain extent, it is rather surprising to learn that more than half of the communication events in our study were conducted using multiple ICT communication portfolios since single ICT communication portfolios are likely to be perceived as less costly and more efficient to manage than multiple ICT communication portfolios. Furthermore, Clark and Brennan (1991) have suggested that individuals tend to choose to use an ICT requiring the least amount of effort. A plausible explanation for such a finding could be that there might be other constraintsm such as tasks or location, that influence the willingness of individuals to invest time and effort to use a more complicated communication portfolio with multiple ICTs. Hence, an important area for future research will be investigating the possible constraints that may influence how organizational members combine multiple ICTs for use.

One of the important findings from our study is that multiple ICT communication portfolios, consisting of e–mail and telephone/teleconferencing, were popular in this DWE. This is not surprising since e–mail can be used to share extensive critical information effectively or to refer to complex objects during communication by attaching documents to e–mail messages. Telephone/teleconferencing was able to offer immediate feedback on this information shared via e–mail. Hence, the different features of e–mail and telephone/teleconferencing are complementary. Their combined usage offers significant resources to organizational members in the DWE under examination. It should also be noted that several communication portfolios consisted of only one ICT, such as e–mail or telephone/teleconferencing, were also frequently used by respondents in our study. This shows that even though multiple ICTs may offer diverse resources, organizational members may still choose to use a simple single ICT communication portfolio if they do not need diverse resources.

Interestingly, we found that instant messaging and NetMeeting™ were often combined with telephone/teleconferencing. Instant messaging was often combined sequentially with telephone/teleconferencing to coordinate tasks and initiate a given meeting. NetMeeting™ was often combined concurrently with telephone/teleconferencing to share real time contextual information such as software applications. This indicates that in multiple ICT communication portfolios, different resources offered by different ICTs are generally complementary to each other (Clark and Brennan, 1991; Olson and Olson, 2000). Specifically, ICTs used strictly for communication purposes, such as the telephone, work well for information sharing with tools in this case such as NetMeeting™. Hence, our findings indicate that the structuring mechanism of communication portfolios is an important dimension describing how complementary resources, provided by the different ICTs, can be combined and used.

 

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Conclusion

Geographically distributed organizational work environments provide a variety of ICTs for employees to use in performing specific activities. In this research we investigated the use of multiple ICTs, using the concept of a communication portfolio in a real–life DWE. We examined communication portfolios via three dimensions: size, content and structuring mechanism. We found that different types of communication portfolios that varied in sizes, contents, and structuring mechanisms were used by organizational members in a DWE. Specifically, our study found that multiple ICT communication portfolios were used more than often than single ICT communication portfolios in DWEs. Furthermore, our study also showed that FTF communication was still an important component in a DWE. Lastly, our study also suggested that e–mail, telephone/teleconferencing, instant messaging, and NetMeeting™ were important ICTs in the DWE under study.

Our findings on the size, content, and structuring mechanism of communication portfolios used by organizational members in a DWE have important implications for developers and researchers working on evolutionary unified communication systems (Evans, 2004; Harper, 2003) or sometimes known as pervasive communication environments (Coopman, 2009). Unified communication systems or pervasive communication environments broadly describe an integrated communication infrastructure that has text, audio, video and voice capabilities and focus on providing maximum communication flexibility to users by unifying messages from different communication devices available to users (Harper, 2003; Coopman, 2009). Thus, our findings highlight the maximum size of communication portfolios that organizational members can handle in a DWE and the different ICTs that can co–exist and combine together which are all important design considerations for developing unified communication systems and pervasive communication environments. Additionally, the use of a communication portfolio to examine multiple ICTs and single ICT uses provide us with a multidimensional view of ICT use. Instead of the traditional unidimensional view of ICT use, a multi-dimensional view enables us to study how and which ICTs are used. From this study, we hope to expand our knowledge on how communication portfolios (mixes of ICTs) are used by organizational members in DWEs.

We realize the generalizability of our results is limited as this research was conducted within a unit of one company. As this is an exploratory study investigating the use of communication portfolios in two global project teams in a DWE, our research design allows us to explore ICT use across teams within the same organization in a DWE. Future replication of this study in other contexts (e.g., other teams, other countries or industries) will be extremely useful. End of article

 

About the authors

Chei Sian Lee is an assistant professor in the Division of Information Studies of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Direct comments to leecs [at] ntu [dot] edu [dot] sg

Mary Beth Watson–Manheim is an Associate Professor of Information Systems in the Information Decision Sciences Department of the College of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Arkalgud Ramaprasad is a Professor in the Department of Information and Decision Sciences of the College of Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 7 July 2009; accepted 27 July 2009.


Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Copyright © 2009, Chei Sian Lee, Mary Beth Watson–Manheim, and Arkalgud Ramaprasad.

Usage of communication portfolios in distributed work environments
by Chei Sian Lee, Mary Beth Watson–Manheim, and Arkalgud Ramaprasad.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 8 - 3 August 2009
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2595/2249





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