Research on Collaboration. Business Communication, and Technology: Reflections on an Interdisciplinary Academic Collaboration

Article excerpt

Interdisciplinary research is often recommended and occasionally studied, but little has been written about the personal, practical, and methodological issues involved in doing it. In this article, the authors describe one particular research collaboration between a business communication scholar and an information systems researcher. They present their observations about the political pitfalls and personal benefits of their interdisciplinary collaboration. As they attempt to generalize from their experience, the authors conclude that politics in the broadest sense of the term is the most critical challenge to the conduct of interdisciplinary research.

Keywords: collaboration; interdisciplinary; computer-supported writing; management communication; information systems

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Following publication of the Forum in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of Business Communication (JBC), the topic of collaborative writing again comes to the pages of JBC. Although enough research has been done on the topic to warrant a review (Forman, 2004; Thompson, 2001), important areas of collaborative writing research remain relatively underexplored. One such area is interdisciplinary academic collaborations on the topic of collaborative writing.

In academia, interdisciplinary research is often recommended, both as a general value and as an approach to understanding particular research questions, but little has been written about the personal, practical, or methodological issues it entails (Barton, 2001; Lowry, Curtis, & Lowry, 2004; O'Connor, Rice, Peters, & Veryzer, 2003). Interdisciplinary collaborations bring an extra element of difficulty to an already challenging task. As Larry Smeltzer (1994) notes in commenting on Kitty Locker's (1994) thoughts about interdisciplinary research:

   She states that business communication is interdisciplinary;
   however, I am not sure that many of us are interdisciplinary. We
   simply bring our own disciplinary training to the forum and tend to
   ignore valuable contributions made by those using a different
   perspective. (Smeltzer, 1994, p. 158)

Similarly, in the field of organizational behavior, O'Connor et al. (2003) point out that "researchers run the risk of interpreting ... data through their own 'thought worlds.' ... [T]hought worlds exist in academia ... and work against researchers' achievement of a thorough understanding of complex phenomena" (p. 354).

Investigations of computer-supported collaborative writing qualify as a "complex phenomenon" to which the divergent academic disciplines of business communication and information systems can usefully be brought to bear. From 1985 through 1987, we undertook an interdisciplinary collaborative research project on that topic, hoping to learn from the convergence of our respective fields. In 1993--a few years after the study was completed--we wrote up our observations on our collaboration. For various reasons, these observations were never published, but the recent JBC Forum on collaborative writing recalls our project to mind. Reflecting on those observations in 2004, we believe that they remain current today--and add to the discussions on collaborative writing and interdisciplinary research.

DISCIPLINES AND INTERDISCIPLINARITY: BUSINESS COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS

The core and boundaries of the academic fields of business communication and information systems are hotly contested. (See, for example, Blyler, 1995, Forman, 1998, and Smeltzer, 1993, on business communication, and Benbasat & Zmud, 2003, and Briggs, Nunamaker, & Sprague, 1999/2000, on information systems.) Each field issues periodic calls for diversity and openness to other points of view. And each field has periodic crises of faith in which members wonder if the field will ever achieve disciplinary status. (See Dulek, 1993, Graham & Thralls, 1998, Rentz, 1993, and Shaw, 1993, on business communication and Banville & Landry, 1989, Baskerville & Myers, 2002, and Benbasat & Weber, 1996, on information systems. …