About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Distributed groups and mobile technology

A short history

Twenty years ago, I was working on a management training program for Hungary. The program, funded by USAID,the Pew Foundation, and USIA, was headquartered in the State University of New York's Office of International Programs in Albany, drawing on the resources of 26 campuses (university centers, colleges, technical colleges, and community colleges). In addition to the program headquarters, the program had a Center for Private Enterprise in Budapest which worked with affiliates in 3 provincial towns/cities as well as Budapest and a program group at the University of Buffalo (a SUNY research university). Each group had its own way of working, and my job as project manager was to coordinate it. We used faxes, conference calls, carriers, overnight/express mail, and towards the end, we were in the dawn of the internet, learning how to "program" emails, routing them through university servers from the US, to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, finally sending them to universities in Hungary who would hand deliver them to our Budapest offices.

Distributed groups back then required a core group through which communication would pass. If technology or even a vital member of the group was missing, the work of the group could be delayed for days or even weeks. While the majority of work being conducted was in English, Hungary was just coming out of the cold war years, so English was not a commonly spoken language. Due to Hungary's history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many spoke German as a second language. As the only German speaker in the group (and then it was limited), this meant that I needed to be available in case we had to communicate with the Center's clerical staff, who were in the process of learning English. I would go in many mornings for conference calls or our Center's managerial staff would have to stay late because of the time difference.

Fast forward to 6 years later, when I was asked to come to take over a project that was ending. There had been 2 previous project managers before me who had been moved to take over other more important projects. Again, this was a USAID funded project, but this time there was a head of project on the ground who handled most of the logistics. My role as Project Director was mostly administrative: financial approvals, budgets, report writing, communicating with the funding agent, writing contracts, making travel arrangements outside of Paraguay. By this time, however, we were communicating via computer (desktop dial up internet). In addition, the Head of Project had a cell phone that we could reach when he was not in the office (either at onsite training or after hours during the summer when there was a 2 hour time difference).

This helped distribute the power between the distributed group so there did not have to be one central location for decisions. In addition, the internet made communication more efficient as an email could be left overnight for someone to access the next day. However, due to the computer still being tied to a line, if a person was away from the office for any length of time, a colleague would need to access and review their emails. Our office, while multilingual, at times would not have a language specialist to translate correspondence. I was recruited a number of times to translate for our projects in Brazil and Mozambique because I could decipher Portuguese. However, we had to have emails written in Russian either translated into English, put on hold for our Russian speaker to return, or forward the email to another location for the Russian speaker to access. While some work could be distributed, the technology still required some central coordination. In addition, it was still time consuming.

How has mobile technology affected distributed groups?

So how are things different, 14 years later? Even the fact that I am aware of what my former colleagues are doing is a difference. I can keep up with their work peripherally through the web, facebook, and linkedin. When I asked one of my former colleagues for a letter of recommendation, she gave me her cell phone number. She might have been out of the country, but she checked her messages and email via cell phone when needed. She would bring her computer so she could work on projects while she was out of the country. This meant that for more urgent matters, she could make decisions that needed immediate attention. Of course, this also means she is multi-tasking more and team members may know less than they did before if she decides not to share her knowledge or information.

In a recent chapter I wrote about mobile technology, researchers (Ladner, 2008; Julsrud & Bakke, 2009) found that there is a blurring of the lines between work and home life. While a member of management may have more flexible time (as my colleague now has), he or she may also have more time taken out of their home life/leisure time as they are expected to be "on call" and available at all times in case of emergency. My dissertation also had evidence that the more important members of a distributed group are those that can "translate" information from one group to another. In this case, translate was not only to put into terms that others can understand, but also the language and cultural foundations needed to communicate across borders.

Distributed groups means that employees are working with other team members that they may never have met face to face. In any work team, individuals want to present a social identity that will make collaboration easier. In addition, a team prospers from members accessing the social and knowledge networks of other group members. Wallis and Law & Peng found workers controlled their identities in the workplace through mobile phone filters such as turning off the phone, limiting who had their phone number (including trading phones to get a new phone number, thus cutting off access to those with whom they did not want to communicate), and developing contact lists on their mobile phone. They developed different communication strategies for different social groups to limit how they presented their social identities for different contexts. The mobile technology gave them agency to communicate and behave as required by their social/knowledge networks (distributed group) and context. My own research supports this, with members of distributed groups sharing or withholding information depending on their perception of how their knowledge was valued within a group. The mobile phone allows group members to access knowledge and social networks, but either publicly (i.e. conference call, social media space), privately (texting, email) or personally (sharing texts or emails if they appear of value, yet acknowledging ownership to the individual rather than the group).

Mobile technology also allows the social networks related to distributed groups to create new in-group norms and values from those of the departments, social groups, or communities in which they work and live. A third culture that superseded their physical environment(s) can be created through mobile interaction within their social networks. Portus (2008) had these findings in her study on mobile phone use in the Philippines. This is a common outcome of distributed groups (Julsrud & Bakke , 2009), which mobile technology helps to maintain. Mobile technology allows for different pathways for interaction, group development, team culture and relationship building, and knowledge sharing.


Julsrud, T. E., & Bakke , J. W. (2009). Trust, friendship, and expertise: The use of email, mobile dialogues, and SMS to develop and sustain social relations in a distributed work group. In R. Ling, & S. Campbell (Eds.), The reconstruction of space and time: Mobile communication practices (pp. 159-190). New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Ladner, S. (2008). Laptops in the living room: Mobile technologies and the divide between work and private time among interactive agency workers. Canadian Journal of Communication, 33, 465-489.

Law, P., & Peng, Y. (2008). Mobile networks: Migrant workers in Southern China. In J. Katz (Ed), Handbook of mobile communication studies (pp. 55-64). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Portus, L. (2008). How the urban poor acquire and give meaning to the mobile phone. In J. E. Katz (Ed.), Handbook of mobile communication studies (pp. 105-118). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Wallis, C. (2011). (Im)mobility mobility: Marginal youth and mobile phones in Beijing. In R. Ling, & S. Campbell (Eds.), Mobile communication: Bringing us together and tearing us apart (pp. 61-82). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Wallis, C. (2013). Technomobility in China. New York: New York University Press.

Yonkers, V. (2012). The effect of workplace collaborative writing on the development of knowledge within distributed groups. Dissertation. University at Albany. Available on Proquest.

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