Those of us interested in both collaborative writing and in how technology affects writing will need to turn our attention to how technology affects collaborative writing. And, from a purely practical standpoint, those of us who instruct students looking for jobs in industry will need to know something about computer-supported group writing in order to prepare these students for the work environment of the 90s where computer tools for group work will increasingly be the norm.
For the past four years, a colleague and I have been conducting IBM-sponsored research on the computer-supported group work of student project teams. Our study suggests several conclusions about how technology is used by student groups to manage their writing assignments. One set of findings concerns how teams choose technology and how they choose to use it in handling a writing task. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how the leadership dynamics of these student groups contributed to the teams' choice and use of technology.
The essay begins with a brief overview of the research project
followed by a consideration of student work groups and their leaders,
research methods, findings of the study, and suggestions for further
research and for instruction.
My co-principal investigator and I chose an extended student consulting project as the subject for our study of how technology influences group writing. For 20 weeks of their second year, MBA students at the Anderson Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at UCLA work in groups of three to five to define and solve a problem for an organization. Once teams have solved the organization's problem, they present solutions to their client in a written report of approximately 25 pages. The report serves in lieu of a masters thesis and is graded by an AGSM faculty member who meets with the team periodically.
In the first year of our research project, my co-principal investigator and I studied two teams with limited access to computing (a variety of un-integrated word-processing and graphics packages) in order to learn about their group processes, uses of technology, and writing and revision practices. Then, in consultation with vendors and computer specialists, we determined what kinds of technology might best support the teams' group work.
This preliminary investigation enabled us to select a package of computer-based tools to assist teams. Ideally, the package would help teams overcome scheduling and time pressures, make contact easy among team members and advisors, and allow integration and revision of report sections. The package consisted of portable personal computers with portable printers and modems; an integrated software package with word-processing, spreadsheet, and database capabilities; and a telecommunications package allowing for electronic messaging, electronic file transfer, and electronic filing/bulletin board functions.
Single elements of AGSMs or individual student's equipment might have been of higher quality (for instance, better quality printing), but none was standardized or configured to meet the group-writing needs of teams. However, the archiving, messaging, document transfer, access control, and merging capabilities of the equipment made it far superior for group work than other equipment available to students.
In the second year, we asked four teams (two teams of three students; two teams of four students) to participate in our study. In exchange for use of the computer equipment and training, teams agreed to allow us to observe and monitor their work. The offer of free computer equipment made teams eager to participate.
In addition to computer equipment, students were given a variety
of opportunities to learn how to use it: training sessions, help
from trained assistants, simplified versions of manuals tailored
to their needs, and group meetings to identify and solve problems
with technology. As further incentive to use the new technology,
teams were reimbursed for telephone expenses incurred in the use
Assumptions About Student Groups and Their Leaders
As a composition specialist and writing instructor, I was primarily interested in the identifiable writing activities of the teams. But, paradoxically, to study the teams' writing activities required going outside of composition paradigms and looking at the data by using assumptions that a management specialist in small group dynamics or in the management of information systems would use. More specifically, understanding how groups use technology to handle writing tasks required knowledge of student groups and their leadership dynamics.
Two characteristics seem to set apart student groups from other groups. First, they are informally organized and nonhierarchical--in contrast, let's say, to most corporate groups which have formal structures with designated superiors, associates, and subordinates. Second, with few exceptions, student groups are immature.  That is, teams have not worked together before undertaking a class project, in this instance a computer-supported writing task. As a result of the group's immaturity, students have limited knowledge of each other's abilities, values, work styles, and goals. It is only in the course of working together on the computer-supported writing project that students learn about and develop their work styles and task responsibilities.
The immature student group may be contrasted with other groups whose collaborative writing and use of technology have been studied--co-authors who have worked together on several writing projects (Ede & Lunsford, 1983, 1986), and task groups in industry that work together repeatedly on the same kind of projects. By and large, in the case of the latter groups, team members have established norms and defined roles for working together. And in the case of co-author or industry writing groups using technology, some of these groups have even worked out what technology to use and how to use it (Forman, 1986).
Student groups are, then, nonhierarchical and immature, and therefore somewhat amorphous in structure and ill-defined in the ways they operate. The characteristics of these groups suggest certain features of technology leadership within these groups that may, in fact distinguish them from co-author or industry groups. Technology leadership, as I use the term, refers to those who most influence the team's choice and use of technology.  The technology leader initiates and/or sustains the technological dimension of the writing task.
How, then, does the technology leadership in student teams differ
from that in mature groups, co-authors, and industry groups? First,
the technology leadership of student groups emerges rather
than being previously established from past collaborative experience
or imposed from above as is the case in industry whenever top
management decides policies on the use of technology. The emergent
leadership on student teams derives its authority from the tacit
or explicit consent of the group (Hollander, 1964). Student leaders
may emerge in a variety of ways: through default (no one else
is willing to take the job), through consensus about a student's
expertise in computing, or through the need or brute determination
on the part of an individual to be the leader--regardless of his
or her talents to assume the role. Second, student leaders, in
contrast to leaders in formally hierarchical and mature groups,
may influence decisions but, lacking formal authority,
may not dictate them. Third, perhaps due to immaturity
or to lack of formal hierarchy, student teams may develop technology
leadership that is split among team members, or "floats,"
as it were, from one member to another.
My co-principal investigator and I used a multi-pronged research methodology because the questions we addressed individually and jointly were complex and because our research interests, although sometimes overlapping, were occasionally divergent.
Research methods for the study consisted of the following:
Data analysis addressed many issues relating to group writing
and technology and to the uses of the technology for group work.
Only findings pertaining to the leadership dynamics of the groups
are reported here.
Five findings about technology leadership in writing groups emerged
from data collection and analysis:
In each of these student groups which were free to choose what
technology to learn and how to use it, a team's leadership dynamics
influenced the team's shared experience with technology. Powerful
individuals, experts and advocates, determined how the group used
technology to support their group writing.
The results reported here focused on the central role of leadership dynamics in students' choice and use of technology. But only further research can determine how important leadership dynamics are to a writing team's choice and use of technology. Additional investigations may be able to show whether the distinction between technology expert and technology advocate is a useful one.
The findings suggest several questions for further research:
On the basis of further research, we, as instructors, may be able to determine whether we should encourage certain kinds of leadership patterns in student writing groups using technology. We may find, for instance, that depending upon the size and composition of a writing group and the complexity of its writing task, some leadership patterns are more productive than others. On the other hand, even with more knowledge of optimal and dysfunctional leadership dynamics, many of us may still decide to minimize our influence on writing groups if our pedagogical goal is to maximize students' collaborative learning experience as equals free to experiment with group process.
For now, we must, I think, conclude from the findings that our approach to teaching students how to use computing for group writing should be interdisciplinary. To use technology effectively for their group writing tasks, students must be taught (1) about the nature of student groups, leaders, and group dynamics; (2) about what allows for successful use of groupware; and (3) about how effective co-author and industry writing groups establish policy and informal norms for using technology to support collaborative writing activities, and what procedures these mature groups use to make the best use of technology. To offer interdisciplinary instruction, we should ask our colleagues in social psychology to provide short lectures or workshops on group dynamics, and our colleagues in the management of information systems to provide similar assistance on the uses of groupware in the workplace. Especially in those institutions with established writing across-the-disciplines' programs, the climate for interdisciplinary teaching of this kind is good; in this instance, writing instructors will be seeking rather than providing expertise.
The findings also suggest that there ought to be a place for students'
"empowerment" in their institution's choice of and use
of technology. Rather than committing huge expenditures and human
resources to groupware on the basis of expert opinion alone, schools
may want to experiment with several groupware products to determine
which product best meets the needs of students. Students' experience
with and assessment of these products should be considered in
schools' final adoption of technology.
* An earlier version of this article was presented at the 1989
4Cs in Seattle. This paper reports results from a research project
jointly conducted with Dr. M. Lynne Markus, Assistant Professor
of Management & Information Systems at the John E. Anderson
Graduate School of Management at UCLA (AGSM). The research was
supported, in part, by a grant from IBM, with principal investigators:
Professors Jason Frand, Michael Granfield, Carol Scott, and E
. Burton Swanson, all of AGSM. Professor Markus and the author
gratefully acknowledge the participation of our research subjects
and the assistance of Douglas Reese, Christopher Wasden, and Mary
Kawahira in data collection and analysis.
Janis Forman designed and now directs the writing
program for the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.
She is currently editing a collection of critical essays on collaboration
for Boynton/Cook and is also the author of The
Random House Guide to Business Writing.
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