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2 Future work, mobility and virtuality

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6 Collaboration in Mobile Virtual Work: a Human Factors View


notions of reach, clearance, fit and sight lines. Now, to take a particular

example, if work is carried out by teams who meet physically at some

times and virtually at others, using a variety of technical systems, then the

workspace includes the virtual media in which they meet and the social

structures they form there, as well as the equivalents of these in physical

and co-located space. In the Future_Workspaces Roadmap project1 new

ideas for work and living spaces were said to now be stimulated by moves

to service and knowledge-based economies, global networking and customer responsiveness, underpinned by rapidly developing ICT. New ways

of working were predicted, unsurprisingly, to include teams of all types,

collaborative networks, remote agents, virtual environments, advanced

visualisation and ambient interface tools, knowledge communities, and

self-directed home-, tele- and hotel working. Even if we are cautious about

how many of these developments will really happen in any widespread

fashion, and how much is really desirable, it is evident that our conceptions of what are workspace and work environments, i.e. physical, social,

psychological and emotional, must change, and therefore so must our research methods, design criteria and design guidelines.

The examination of collaboration and collaborative work in this chapter

is in a context of virtual work structures and groupings and in circumstances where people and/or their work are mobile. Therefore a brief word

or two is in order about these concepts of mobility and virtuality at work,

although of course more substantial contributions to the debates and discussions will appear throughout this book.

Descriptions of work as mobile and virtual can refer to many different

types of organisational structure. Virtual is used in many ways to describe

work, and the roles and structure of individuals, groups, systems and organisations – as in virtual enterprises, virtual manufacturing, virtual teamwork, virtual reality (VR), virtual environments (VE) etc. In other words,

the meaning of “virtual” is rooted in the noun it is used to modify. The implications of “virtual” include: being not physical or not real, as in a digital

simulation; being not anchored to a specific (central) location, as in a virtual worker; being computer-or simulation-based, as in VR/VE or virtual

manufacturing; implying flexibility and a temporary nature, as in a virtual

project team; involving a distributed network, as in virtual communities;

and implying cooperation and collaboration, as in virtual teamwork. The

most common use of virtual as a description is where there is an absence

or reduction of hardware or solid artefacts: that is, there are no bricks and

mortar to make offices which house project teams and allow co-location








John R Wilson

and face to face meetings; or no metal and other materials making up process lines and machines for a manufacturing system.

Mobile also can be used in several different – and valid – ways to describe how people work. The individual can be mobile, either continually

or from point to point. The equipment and computer systems can be portable or moveable, wearable or personal, or at least relatively easy to pack

up and move. Or the experience itself can be mobile, basically allowing

collaborative networks to cooperate.

In some senses virtual mobile work has always been with us – the travelling salesperson or delivery driver for instance. But technical opportunities and business needs are changing work systems even for these groups

and moving many more functions into the ambit of mobile virtual work.

To these jobs we now add those who are able to be peripatetic and mobile

by virtue of technical – computer – systems support, whether this is fairly

standard conferencing and networking equipment or more advanced

VR/VE and personal and ambient technologies. Such systems of work

usually make up complex distributed sociotechnical systems which include

remote agents – train drivers, meter readers, inventory checkers, and repairers – as well as centralised staff – control room or head office – and

distributed computers (Wilson 2000).

A typification of mobile virtual and collaborative work in terms that are

predicated on the technology being available, and therefore necessary, is

dangerous. As well as virtual working not being new in itself, it also may

not be required or wanted in many cases. Before any decision is made on

what technical systems to implement in support of mobile and virtual

work, we need to question: Why would mobile virtual work be of value?

Who would gain from it and in what way? What functions carried out

where and when should be performed in this way? Only after addressing

those questions should we then consider the “how” – what technical support should be specified, assessed, trialled and implemented. In this, implementation of mobile and virtual work is no different to other systems

change in which human factors are key: thorough business- and end-user,

domain, function, task and social system analyses must be carried out.

Businesses need a clear understanding of the advantages and disadvantages

from mobile virtual work. The former include: greater flexibility, mobility

and collaboration amongst a work group, reduced costs, of central facilities

including buildings, improved performance in terms of quality, quantity or

time measures, improved capacity for knowledge management, greater

work satisfaction, and better work/life balance. Set against these will be

any potential losses and downsides, including costs, ineffective – even

white elephant – technology, loss of inter-personal relations, changing

work practices that eliminate some former unacknowledged yet highly

6 Collaboration in Mobile Virtual Work: a Human Factors View


valuable flexible or innovative activities or skills, and removal of chances

for personal broadening of horizons through travel.

6.3 Collaboration

Collaboration is critical for mobile virtual work, in both a direct and indirect sense. Organisations will often install technical and organisational systems to allow a mobile worker to be part of a virtual team, and hence to

collaborate. Also, a critical success factor for any virtual network or grouping is the extent to which it can coordinate itself to communicate and

achieve common goals – in other words, to collaborate. In its simplest

sense, collaboration means any number of people engaged in interaction

with each other, within a single or series of episodes (meetings) to reach

common goals; in this it is close to defining what true teams are about.

As yet our research understanding needed to underpin design of complex distributed socio-technical systems is not substantial, although there

are interesting and potentially valuable contributions from the computer

supported cooperative work community (CSCW) (eg McNeese et al. 2001)

and from approaches such as distributed cognition (eg Hutchins 1995).

Even where theories, approaches and methods exist to help with explanation of collaborative working, it is only with great difficulty, at best, that

these can be translated into usable design support for systems and other


There is a surprising lack of real understanding of what it is to collaborate (or not) and how to best support this. Such lack of understanding is

found for “traditional” work settings as well as for newer digital communities. Ironically, although it is near certain that the key human factors contributions of the future will be based around understanding of complex systems, distributed groups and collaborative activity, the discipline of human

factors (ergonomics) to date shows only little evidence of a shift in focus

away from the purely (and individually) cognitive to the social (Boff 2000;

Wilson 2000). McNeese (2001) differentiates a focus on what is inside a

person’s head from a focus on what a person’s head is inside. There is a

glut of theories and models for the former, much less for the latter. There

appears to be little to build on for development of understanding in such

settings as virtual teams, collaborative virtual environments and video and

electronic conferencing. Our own work in trying to understand social organisation, social work artefacts and complex distributed socio-technical

systems led us in 2003–4 to join a network with Universities of Oxford and

Manchester amongst others. This network – CABDYN – was set up to in-


John R Wilson

tegrate the study and understanding of complexity, and in particular complex networks. Because the state of knowledge about collaboration and

complexity in socio-technical systems was insubstantial, we wished to try

to learn and adapt lessons from others in the network, in terms of their

work on complexity in domains such as zoology, biology, mathematics

and financial systems.

The difficulties in understanding collaboration and collaborative work,

and by extension in contributing to better design and implementation of

mobile and virtual work, to an extent reside in the ill-defined, rapidly

changing and unstructured nature of such work. Cooperative activity, embracing teamwork and collaboration, is dynamic, situated and influenced

by its context. Social activity is fluid and relies heavily on nuance; exceptions are normal and goals are multiple and frequently conflict (Ackerman

2000). In addition, collaboration embraces conversation – an intellectual

and a social process – and social cues (Erickson and Kellogg 2000). Extending from a study of design teams, Arias (2000) adds to these requirements for collaboration and the relevant ICT, the support of exploration of

alternatives, providing a meaningful structure, allowing ‘what if’ simulations, supporting reflection and giving a common language, both cultural

and technical as well as linguistic.

Of course studies of collaboration and collaborative work activities have

taken place over a long time, for instance carried out by sociologists and

anthropologists (eg Goffman 1967; Argyle 1969; Kendon et al. 1975).

Those promoting the ideas of distributed cognition have used this framework to try to understand, in a unified sense, all the entities and activities

involved in collaborative work (e.g. ship navigation – Hutchins 1995; network engineers and hospital radiologists – Rogers and Ellis 1994). In a

forerunner to studies that will take place of ICT for future collaborative

networks, there have been a number of researches into audio conferencing,

video conferencing, CSCW etc (e.g. Gaver et al. 1993; Finn et al. 1997;

Hindmarch et al. 1998), despite, or perhaps because of, the many usability

and utility problems found with such media. More recently the wider human factors community has started to get to grips with understanding such

collaborative work systems accepting that cognition is not just purely

thinking but embraces embodied action (e.g. Clark 1997), through studies

within the naturalistic decision making field and in domains such as emergency control rooms (Artman and Waern 1999), air traffic control (Mackay 1999; Cox et al. 2004) and rail network control (Farrington-Darby and

Wilson 2005).

So, to sum up: although there are studies of collaboration in the literature, focussed on both collocated physical workplaces and distributed networks, this is still not a dominant theme in cognitive ergonomics research.

6 Collaboration in Mobile Virtual Work: a Human Factors View


The bias towards laboratory studies in academic fields such as psychology

still tends to support research into individuals with individual tasks and interfaces. Where field studies exist, some of these tend to describe cultures

and behaviours rather than provide structured ideas for design, especially

the ones by researchers from an ethnographic persuasion. And anyway,

field studies are extremely difficult and time consuming to carry out, interpretation is often open to question, and translation into design or implementation guidance is not straight forward.

6.4. Examining mobility

If so little is known, or at least widely accepted, about what collaboration

at work really is, it may seem strange that we can propose requirements for

the implementation and support of mobile and virtual collaborative work.

However, we can make some suggestions for this based upon best practice

in fields such as participation and participatory management, teamworking, virtual teams and human computer interaction. In this section we first

of all address social and organisational support and then more on to requirements for technical systems support.

6.4.1 Social and organisational support

There are strong parallels between the notions of collaboration and participation – as philosophies, approaches, processes and structures. Moreover,

and following the socio-technical system principle of compatibility, if we

want a successfully collaborative, or participative, work system then this

should be implemented through collaboration and participation. We can

then learn much from the widely accepted requirements and success factors for participation (see Haines et al. 2002 and Morris et al. 2004).

At the outset, as we are preparing to implement participatory processes

and systems, then – as with all change implementation – there is a need to

cultivate interest, involvement and agreement amongst all those involved:

“you can take a horse to water but cannot make it drink”. Moreover, both

the organisation and the individuals within it must perceive gains for themselves from setting up and working within a participatory or a collaborative culture. The need for commitment must be widened; senior management interest and support, being more than lip service, is vital, and trade

unions must also be embraced in the early pre-planning stages.

Critically, again as with any change implementation, a champion is desperately needed. The role and attributes of such champions are interesting.


John R Wilson

Often they will become the facilitator also, a role fraught with difficulty

which is paralleled by the role of the co-ordinator when collaborative work

becomes operational. Although in principle collaboration between colleagues should occur naturally in circumstances where there are no great

internal relationship problems, in fact like participation it usually needs

someone to drive it (gently), someone who can give direction but without

being dictatorially directive, who can be empathetic yet decisive, who is

comfortable with both people and technical systems, respected by all involved. In other words, the collaborative work facilitator or co-ordinator is

a rare beast indeed.

Collaboration, like participation, will thrive best in a culture and climate

where there is already a very good experience of change initiatives, where

industrial relations are not damaged, and especially in organisations with

appropriate knowledge at all levels of an open, communicative structure.

Ideally, participation and collaboration will snowball; we can see this as a

virtuous circle. As people collaborate more they gain confidence, pick up

technical, organisational and inter-personal skills and improve the process

and outcomes of work, and therefore generate the motivation to use these

skills in further and deeper collaboration, and so on.

Three concepts related to team working have particular relevance to collaboration at distance and especially to virtual teams (Edwards and Wilson

2004). The first concept is trust. In the context of collaborating teams this

has several manifestations. There is the trust that each team member has in

each other, to be able to do their own job and to perform in such a way that

the overall performance of the team is not impaired. There is also the trust

that team members need to have about the inputs that they receive from

other team members, in particular how reliable communications are and

the quality of hardware and software that are passed amongst the team

members. A particular case of this is uncovered in the author’s current research into knowledge management (KM), where those providing their

knowledge to be incorporated into KM systems must have trust that their

services will not be dispensed with as a result, and those using the systems

must trust in the advice or instructions that are delivered. The third manifestation of trust is less to do with the actual work for which the team is

employed and more to do with trust in the sense that we have confidence

in colleagues not to let us down and not to side with a higher authority

against us. All these aspects of trust are difficult enough to develop and

support in co-located teams, and difficult to measure; for virtual teams

there is the added point that it is generally going to be harder to build trust

since day to day and face to face contact are lacking. Trust is a vital ingredient in a successful organisation, but is very fragile and is compromised at

a company’s peril.

6 Collaboration in Mobile Virtual Work: a Human Factors View


The second concept of interest from co-located and virtual teams is the

shared or team mental model (Bristol 2004; Langan-Fox et al. 2004). A

mental model refers to the way in which we perceive and conceive of a

situation, a product, a system or a task. It is made up of our own expectations as we approach a task or a product and of what confronts us at that

time. One way of thinking about mental models is that they are simulations

that we run inside our own heads to help us with tasks or use of products

or dealing with other people. A team mental model, then, is an explanation

of the types of beliefs, perceptions and knowledge that might be held

across a whole team; they may well be variable in number and quality, and

may be concerned with the form, functions, state or purpose of things or

people. A shared mental model is the extent to which individuals in a team

will have parts of a mental model in common, so that they can work with

common understanding of problems and can hand over tasks or functions

to each other without there being a breakdown in their performance. In

some situations a distributed mental model may be preferred, where individuals differ in their model but the bringing together of the different

views and perspectives can be very powerful. Such notions of team and

shared mental model are of great interest when we look at collaboration in,

for instance, air traffic control or emergency coordination centres. Considerable research is required to know how we can support a team mental

model and the sharing of mental models when people are distributed in

space and time within mobile and virtual collaborative work.

The third concept is that of the team boundary and its management.

Team boundary usually means the limit of functional responsibility and

authority. For instance, with a co-located manufacturing team the extent to

which they are responsible for process quality and how they liaise with the

quality engineers are amongst the indicators of where we set the boundary

to the team and then how we manage transfer of information and decision

making across it. In general we have to decide what lies within the boundary, which is to do with the selection of team members and determining

the size of teams and their composition. Then we have to specify the

boundary, deciding on the clarity with which we set roles for the team and

how we allow the team to identify with itself and its place within the wider

organisation. Boundary permeability is the extent to which the team is

open to external inputs and to which the wider organisation is open to contributions from the team. Boundary spanning is to do with the actual interactions that take place with other groups or personnel and how these are

done. Finally, boundary crossing is to do with how we enable members of

the team to exit or leave the team, and how we allow new members to enter or join the team. In developing, setting up, implementing and managing

mobile, virtual collaborative work systems, all aspects of the boundary


John R Wilson

must be carefully considered, as should structures and processes to promote trust and to inculcate an appropriate team mental model.

6.4.2 Technical systems support

When we consider the ICT to support mobile virtual collaborative work we

have a choice of philosophies. If we wish to try to replicate face to face

collaborative activity we will want to develop and implement ICT which

provides a structure for common “language”, supports reflection, subtlety,

nuance and exploration, allows a fluidity in relationships and ideas, gives

social cues, and enables co-operative diagnosis, prediction, problem solving and decision making. These requirements are, of course, easier to define than to achieve, and the alternative philosophy is to accept that mobile, virtual ICT will be very limited in some respects and so not try to

replicate those subtle or sophisticated elements of face to face communication, instead applying the processing resources to functions the ICT can do

very well. As just one example, if provision of facial expressions on avatars in collaborative virtual environments, or high definition pictures of

faces in video conferencing, still do not give participants the feelings they

get face to face then there is an argument not to bother, and to apply the

processing resources to another part of the system or else use something

else entirely, for example audio conferencing.

Only after understanding user needs, including whether collaborative

computer systems are needed at all and the settings and circumstances for

use, should we consider the technical systems to support collaboration.

Decisions about technical support for virtual and mobile collaborative

work should be made against a number of criteria. By reviewing the resulting profiles in the light of needs for their own organisation, companies can

start to make rational technical choices (Edwards and Wilson 2004).

Functionality is the capability of the ICT system and its interfaces; in

other words, what can it deliver? Functionality can be a two edged sword,

with the danger of providing either too little or too much, the latter being

especially relevant with mobile and virtual technologies. Virtual teams and

their facilitators must first address the question of what it is they really

need to do, now and in the future, and how they wish to collaborate. Then

they should think about: who will be doing this, when and where; how

they will be working in practical terms – i.e. on the move, at home etc; and

why they will be working in this way. Only then should they consider

which ICT best meets their needs. Two particular elements of functionality

are archiving and security. Archiving is the capability of the technology to

create a historical record of team information exchange, interactions and

6 Collaboration in Mobile Virtual Work: a Human Factors View


decision-making. The very nature of virtual work – with people working

out of the office, often in relatively insecure homes or on the move in public, and information being transmitted over external networks – means that

security takes on extra importance, with all that overly aggressive fire

walls bring.

At the heart of human factors of ICT is the notion of usability. Organisations should consider ease of learning, interface consistency, on-line and

off-line help, support for navigation, comprehensible coding systems,

health and safety and the motivation of the worker to actually employ the

ICT rather than to work around it. Good usability will mean that users can

get the most out of the system’s functionality, giving it high utility. Lessons learned from collaborative technologies in the past are that the sheer

effort of using the interface sometimes takes time, concentration and energy away from the actual collaborative tasks. The quality of humanhuman, human-computer, and human-computer/telecommunications –

human interactions will be crucial for usability of the ICT and for good

collaboration. Sensor-based interaction will, arguably, be the most important technical support for the mobile and virtual worker, collaborating using personal devices or devices embedded in the environment. Rogers and

Muller (2003) define opportunities for the sensor-based system designer to

support perception, awareness, reflection and dealing with uncertainty and

unexpectedness, and such capabilities will be of great value for distributed

collaborative socio-technical networks.

The functionality and usability of a system combine to create the values

of social presence, information richness and salience. Social presence is

the extent to which a technology makes people feel a personal connection

with others. Interactions with high social presence tend to be synchronous

and have an open and friendly environment. Face to face meetings should

have high social presence (but in practice many may not!), and videoconferencing attempts to provide this (although technical deficiencies often detract from this). High social presence is not always a good thing;

some communication may be easier when not faced with the reactions,

emotions and gestures of others or of their avatars, and in such cases it

may be better to use systems with lower social interaction. Reduced social

presence is inherent in systems such as email, which are relatively asynchronous, but this does not detract from the fact they are very useful for

many purposes. Information richness reflects the variety in the content and

format of information that will be transferred between team members. An

information rich resource – for instance providing graphical images and

audio as well as text - can reduce confusion and misunderstanding, but additional complexity may come at a price of less reliability. Figure 6.1 illustrates several forms of technology to support collaboration, classified on


John R Wilson

the time dimension of asynchronous/synchronous and the dimension of information richness. Salience is the meaning of the message or interaction

implied by the technology and especially the user perceptions of this.

Fig. 6.1. Classification of information and communication technologies to support

collaboration in virtual teams. Source: Edwards and Wilson 2003

People may be more responsive if there is the increased (virtual or real)

human interaction. Surface mail in these days of email overload may assume a greater subjective importance, because of the sender’s care that it


As well as attributes of the ICT system itself, technical choice should

also be based upon organisational parameters. There needs to be clear understanding of the organisational readiness for implementation of different

ICT to support virtual teams, a mobile workforce and for collaboration itself. Particular attention should be paid to the in-house ICT support capability that a company has. An organisation will usually want to choose ICT

which matches the existing infrastructure if possible and which can be implemented and supported and serviced by their existing staff. Some local

area networks may only have a relatively small bandwidth, and a rich

communications media will suffer consequent quality problems – which

will impair communications and give low motivation for use. Cost is an

obvious criterion, whereby the benefits from being mobile and collaborating virtually must outweigh the costs of implementation (tangible and intangible). Highly related to this is the project life or period of time over

which the ICT will actually be employed.

6 Collaboration in Mobile Virtual Work: a Human Factors View


6.5 Methodological considerations in studying

collaborative work

The development of mobile virtual work should be based upon research to

investigate and analyse current collaborative work networks, both colocated and distributed, and including formative and summative evaluation

of the full socio-technical system that emerges, not just of the technical

systems. Such research is not straightforward however. The traditional

laboratory setting will be of only limited value, with the main need being

for careful field research. Good quality simulations – of social as well as

technical systems interactions – may have a role for future systems at the

concept stage, but these would be very difficult to design, especially to

capture all the social interactions – planned, contingent and serendipitous –

that characterise collaborative work in complex distributed systems. For

future and current systems we can use scenario walkthroughs and scenario

analysis in which groups of, scientific or subject matter, experts assess the

structure, processes and outcomes for collaboration in any proposed or actual system of work.

Where people are currently working in collaborative settings, field

methodology may borrow from ethnography (e.g. Engstrom and Middleton

1996; Heath and Luff 2000), naturalistic decision making (e.g. Klein

1998), distributed cognition (Hutchins 1995; Rogers and Ellis 1994) and

work domain analysis (Vicente 1999). We may use questionnaires and interviews to establish opinions and collect evidence of successes and failures. Various techniques of direct observation of behaviours and events,

interviews, archive analysis, verbal protocol analysis, textual and content

analysis will help us to examine what is happening within a collaborating

group, why and how All of these methods have strengths and weaknesses,

and in most studies we would certainly use more than one. A period of familiarisation and examination of archives and incident reports for domain

analysis may be followed by extensive periods of observation and interviewing, followed by debriefing, further group or individual interviews,

and validation exercises. The data collected must be collapsed otherwise

they cannot be reported in any coherent form, but the process of reduction

must be transparent and supportable at every stage and can take a long

time (e.g. Farrington-Darby et al. 2005 in press). In our studies of planners

and schedulers, which is presented below, each investigator spent weeks at

a time shadowing one focus job holder, returning several times to gain

greater insight into what had been observed and to validate the interpretations that had been made; such studies can take months and years.

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2 Future work, mobility and virtuality

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