Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Informal Problem Solving in the Technology-Mediated Work Place

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Informal Problem Solving in the Technology-Mediated Work Place

Article excerpt

This paper reports the findings of a three-year ethnographic study of problem-solving activities in a high-tech computer manufacturing company. Contray to the expressed belief that technology reduces the need for face-to-face interaction, we discovered that the mundane, commonplace, "in formal" activities performed by employees are not only prevalent but also critical to the achievement of collaborative problem solving. We identify this recurrent form of interaction as informal problem solving (IPS) and offer a detailed conceptualization of its forms and functions in the organization. Goffman's depiction of "focused gatherings," rather than traditional conceptions of small groups, is used to characterize the ad hoc, spontaneous manner of IPS meetings that are often not affiliated with a formal meeting or formal group.

Keywords: Informal Problem Solving. Focused Gatherings, Organizational Communication. High-Tech Organizations, Ethnographic Research

For some organizational members and scholars alike, it is commonly accepted that technology has distanced workers from each other. For many, Mowshowitz's dark prediction of office automation generally has been fulfilled: "Communication and interaction will increasingly be mediated by computers. Work will become more abstract . . . and opportunities for direct social interaction will diminish" (as cited in Kling, 1996, p. 5). Like other new communicative technologies, the proliferation of computers in the workplace has not come without worry, often generated by academic studies. As Walther (1996) reports, "early research on computer-mediated communication (CMC) led to its reputation as fostering impersonal interaction" (p. 5). According to Walther, Anderson, and Park (1994), several CMC theorists believe that the absence of nonverbal cues has led to impersonal communication. More specifically, these theorists hold that as communication channels filter out nonverbal cues, there is "less salience of the co presence of other people," and "the absence of nonverbal 'social context cues' causes users to become depersonalized and interpersonally hostile" (Walther, 1994, p. 475).

Conversely, others have argued that increased amounts of technology in the work place actually require increased amounts of personal, face-to-face interactions. Hummel (1994) has reasoned that because highly technological organizations provide vast amounts of information to employees through computerized systems, knowledge of work processes flows throughout the entire organization, creating new patterns of interactions. Zuboff (1988) suggests that additional interpretive processes are often required to translate symbolic data represented on computer screens into practical and meaningful information about the "real" production process. Because the abstract quality of data can be problematic for workers, "joint problem-solving activities are necessary" (p. 200). She notes that workers often stand in front of computer screens looking at abstract information and generating solutions with other workers. Hummel (1994) contends that what brings people together are the images on the computer screen. He argues, "the social structure of the late modern organization is built on reference to jointly experienced computer images" (p. 43).

Employing ethnographic methods to study how engineers, technicians, supervisors, and operators in a major computer technology manufacturing company collaborate to solve problems, we found that informal, face-to-face interactions were not only prevalent but also critical to the achievement of its collaborative work. Much communication, and in particular interactions that involved computer-generated information, was handled in informal, spontaneous gatherings of workers rather than in formal meetings or by other formal methods. In this paper, we describe and analyze informal gathering-at-work as a largely unnoticed, uniquely organized activity skillfully used by the participants to solve problems. …

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