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Research Questions

  1. What are the benefits and the shortcomings of different modes of virtual collaboration?
  2. How can virtual collaboration tools be used to address the challenges that the lack of colocation poses to team effectiveness?

The geographic diversity of many military enterprises, along with that of their partners and customers, has made virtual collaboration indispensable for conducting daily operations. Virtual collaboration tools can enable intrasite and intersite collaborative analyses, allow for sites to provide more effective surge capacity, and allow the regional expertise developed at each site to be applied wherever necessary across the enterprise. But communication between non-colocated (virtual) teams poses important challenges, including potential difficulty building cohesiveness and trust among team members and difficulty establishing a common understanding of information or situations. This report addresses these challenges through an assessment of three modes of virtual collaboration, computer-mediated communication, audioconferencing, and videoconferencing, and recommends several ways for intelligence enterprises to tackle them using virtual collaboration tools. These recommendations include: (1) determine which virtual collaboration tools and features are most beneficial using experimental research involving simulated tasks and constraints that closely mirror the military enterprise's operational environment; (2) standardize the lexicon and communications practices associated with virtual collaboration — chat, in particular — and train personnel in these practices; and (3) explore the use of videoconferencing in real-time communications between personnel, their partners, and their customers at different sites. In particular, we recommend that Air Force intelligence enterprises consider the use of personal or webcam-based videoconferencing between intelligence personnel located at different sites, as well as between these personnel and remotely piloted aircraft flight crews.

Key Findings

Virtual collaboration tools vary in their ability to convey important verbal and nonverbal cues.

  • Computer-mediated communication, such as chat, is considered one of the least rich mediums of communication, given that it lacks both the visual and auditory cues found in face-to-face interactions. The lack of these cues can pose challenges to conveying complex and ambiguous information and to developing team cohesion and trust.
  • Audioconferencing is considered a richer communication medium than chat, given the addition of verbal cues, such as tone of voice. However, there are still some similar challenges in effective virtual collaboration, such as developing trust among team members.
  • Videoconferencing is considered the best proxy for face-to-face interaction and allows for the transmission of both verbal and nonverbal cues. However, research still finds that videoconferencing is often not as efficient as face-to-face communication for certain tasks, and many virtual collaboration difficulties, such as the development of trust, can still remain.

Secure chat may not always be the optimum virtual collaboration medium.

  • Currently, secure chat is the preferred virtual collaboration medium for real-time communication between military personnel and their customers and partners due to its capacity to provide immediate feedback and its low bandwidth requirements. However, text-based communication tools, such as chat, lack the "richness" of face-to-face interactions.
  • Text-based communication lacks personalization, cannot provide nonverbal cues capable of conveying complex and nuanced messages, and can lead to difficulty in building trust among virtually interacting team members. Scholars argue that the absence of these cues can interfere with the team interactions necessary for effective collaboration.
  • The shortcomings of text-based communication (including chat) may make it difficult for non-colocated teams to come up with a common assessment of an ambiguous or uncertain tactical situation.

The use of personal videoconferencing at the appropriate times may alleviate the shortcomings of chat to a certain extent.

  • Although videoconferencing still has limitations as a communication medium, it is the best proxy for face-to-face interaction because it is able to convey important verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Unlike chat and audioconferencing, videoconferencing provides nonverbal cues that allow for the expression of feelings and personalization, which, in turn, may provide a better opportunity for the development of interpersonal relationships.
  • Adding another communications requirement may present the risk of cognitive overload, but that risk can be avoided if webcam sessions are limited to noncritical times during an operation.
  • The higher bandwidth requirements of videoconferencing may preclude its use in some theaters of operation.

Recommendations

  • Determine which virtual collaboration tools and features are most beneficial using experimental research involving simulated tasks and constraints that closely mirror the military enterprise's operational environment.
  • Standardize the lexicon and communications practices associated with virtual collaboration — chat, in particular — and train personnel in these practices.
  • Explore the use of personal or webcam-based videoconferencing in real-time communications between personnel, their partners, and their customers at different sites.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    The Need for Effective Virtual Collaboration

  • Chapter Two

    The Impact of Different Types of Virtual Collaboration on Team Dynamics and Team Effectiveness

  • Chapter Three

    Computer-Mediated Communication

  • Chapter Four

    Audioconferencing

  • Chapter Five

    Videoconferencing

  • Chapter Six

    Evaluating the Performance of Virtual Collaboration Tools

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusions and Recommendations

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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