Kraut Earns Lasting Impact Award for Paper on Proximity's Role in Collaboration
Zoom, Slack and Google Docs may be ubiquitous in today's workplace, but that wasn't the case 35 years ago. Yet many of the technologies underpinning the tools that allow us to work remotely or collaborate virtually have their roots in a research paper penned before cell phones could fit in your pocket or text messaging was a communications standard.
In 1988, Robert Kraut, now the Herbert A. Simon University Professor Emeritus in the School of Computer Science's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, worked at Bell Communications Research (Bellcore). There, he teamed up with a Bellcore colleague and a peer at the University of Arizona to study how proximity influenced both collaborative relationships between scientific researchers and how those researchers did their work. The resulting paper, "Patterns of Contact and Communication in Scientific Research Collaboration," earned the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing's (CSCW) most recent Lasting Impact Award, which honors a paper at least a decade old that's left an indelible mark on the field.
"Many of the claims are still relevant, including the challenges and importance of informal communication, building rapport and creating a sense of identity," said Pamela Hinds, the award committee's chair, during a video celebration of the honor. "While collaborative technology has utterly transformed since its publication, this paper continues to have impact."
In the paper, Kraut and co-authors Carmen Egido and Jolene Galegher studied the nature of collaborative work in an effort to test and implement technologies that supported it. The authors selected a sample of 93 researchers at Bellcore who had recently published at least two internal reports, one of which had a co-author. For each of the more than four thousand researcher pairings, the team obtained data on the details of that collaboration, how closely aligned the co-authors were on the company's org chart, office proximity and research similarity.
Their results clearly demonstrated that pairs whose offices were close to each other were more likely to collaborate, and that proximity was most important during the early stages of that collaboration. They also determined that proximity supports frequent, easy communication that often helps researchers identify and develop common interests with their neighbors. The cost of the communication also influenced the relationship: it's much easier to chat with someone in the office next door than to walk up the stairs to talk to a colleague or even arrange a telephone call.
Kraut's work didn’t stop there, though. Bellcore had a vested interest in technologies that could replicate in-person collaboration. The team's research showed that such technologies needed to increase the frequency and quality of interactions while also reducing physical and mental barriers to their use — they needed to be so easy to use that they required no planning. These technologies should also allow the researchers to provide the immediate feedback so vital to in-person collaboration. Kraut and his co-authors studied technologies available at the time and speculated that a video tool like a virtual hallway could fulfill the first requirement, while multimedia meeting tools could help with the latter.
John Tang, a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research, noted in a CSCW panel discussion that technologies like Slack and text messaging, video meetings, and telepresence robots overcame the barriers of distance based on an understanding of this paper. Judith Olson, the Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences in the Informatics Department at the University of California Irvine, said the paper influenced work on remote collaboration by defining where "distance" began (i.e., 30 meters, on another floor or in a different building), and the types of work best done together or apart. It also helped lay the groundwork for early technologies that led to programs like Zoom or Google Meet.
More than three decades later, the team's work still has a huge impact on how researchers think about technologies that allow us to work remotely with colleagues and teammates. Kraut believes that's because it was technology-agnostic.
"It wasn't really tied to any particular technology," said Kraut. "It was looking at fundamental social processes and work processes."
According to Google Scholar, the paper has been cited more than 1,100 times.