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Building bridges: Connecting virtual teams using narrative and technology

Stephen M. Fiore (University of Central Florida)
Rudy McDaniel (University of Central Florida)

Editor's note: The following piece kicks off a forum of ideas about current or potential roles of narrative in the activity of distributed teams. Over the coming months, we will be publishing commentary from several different contributors. If you are interested in submitting a response to one or more of the questions and issues raised in this piece, please contact the editors.

Distributed Teams as Disconnected Human-Systems

An implicit understanding of narrative and storytelling is essential, and, thankfully, is natural, when communicating and sharing knowledge in organized groups. Much research has explored the cognitive ancestry of story as an organizing framework and tool for knowledge acquisition and categorization (Bal, 1997; Carroll, 1995; 2000; Carroll, Mack, Robertson, & Rosson, 1994; Denning, 2001; 2004; Fiore, Jentsch, Becerra-Fernandez, Salas, & Finkelstein, 2005; McDaniel, 2004; Snowden, 1999). Stories are used on a daily basis as we educate, entertain, inform, and persuade in our everyday societal interactions. In this forum, we encourage a discussion of the ways in which explicit understanding of narrative and the narrative form can be used to capitalize on our native understanding of storytelling in order for us to better communicate and function in distributed teams.

Distributed teams are formed for any number of reasons, from educational purposes to business process redesign, creating innovative software, or solving engineering problems. In today's global marketplace, for example, it is not uncommon to have distributed software development teams with a project manager overseeing the effort from one location while programmers with varied specializations (e.g., database design; user interface) are located in different places. Furthermore, such teams can exist in academia, industry and the military and can be composed of many different kinds of people. These teams must coordinate their tasks over time and space and typically do so using information technology specifically designed to support differing facets of teamwork (e.g., collaborative writing; virtual meetings). Thus, we define a "distributed team" as a team that functions in the absence of a common location through the use of electronic tools and interactive media technologies. These teams work together across time and space in order to achieve some goal.

We define a "story" in this context as an expression of a team member's experiences in achieving some goal or overcoming some obstacle, whether told from a first person perspective or otherwise explained from a peripheral vantage point. A story must also be situated in some time period and should include at least a minimal discussion of the environment in which the story takes place. We use the terms "story" and "narrative" interchangeably; both words refer to the form of expression described here. In this definition, a story/narrative therefore includes a protagonist (the team or a team member), an antagonist (some obstacle to be overcome), a time, a place, and a central theme or concern, which is generally straightforward and has to do with the protagonist overcoming his or her barriers in order to succeed in a team task.

While it makes much sense to acknowledge the power of story as a tool for virtual teamwork on an intuitive level, is there something about the nature of story that makes this form especially well-suited for distributed teamwork? Such a question leads us to briefly consider the problems normally associated with this type of virtual interaction.

Most generally, the problem associated with virtual teamwork has been described as the idea of team opacity, in which normally transparent interaction is made opaque through the absence of traditionally present contextual information (see Fiore, Salas, Cuevas, & Bowers, 2003). Team opacity arises from the decreased awareness of team members and an attenuation of the auditory, visual, and social cues normally available to teammates when they interact in a common physical space. This hinders the development of shared knowledge within a team because the distributed interaction does not easily afford the implicit or explicit learning of ones teammate's responsibilities and capabilities (see Fiore et al., 2003). This, in turn, may lead to discrete problems in teams coordinating over time and space, and, overall, produces problems in team development with concomitant diminished productivity.

With this as a stepping-off point, our discussion of narrative and distributed teamwork leads us to formulate four key questions that can be used to explore distributed collaborations in which story might be juxtaposed with networked technology in order to improve the virtual team experience and achieve better outcomes. We expect that these general questions will be reformulated, clarified, and refined in the responses to this piece.


Question 1: Why might stories be useful for distributed collaborations?

In dealing with the general problem of team opacity, we have suggested that certain properties of narrative can aid in the development of shared mental models within teams. To this end, narrative might act as a structure to support an understanding of team members' collective experience by uniquely highlighting roles and responsibilities of the team (Fiore, Johnston, & McDaniel, 2005).

For example, the ability to adjust point-of-view and narrative perspective can be useful in overcoming limitations in distributed interaction. After a distributed team completes a task, a debriefing session which collects a first person account of a person's actions in accomplishing their objective and then switches to a higher-level third person vantage point, for example, can be useful in providing distributed team members with differing views of the entire distributed exercise (Fiore et al., 2005). By leveraging the power of varied perspectives via a well-crafted team narrative, the members can gain a better understanding of their teammates which, in turn, strengthens later coordination.

Additionally, we have outlined how the primary features of narrative (Bruner, 1991) can be utilized to scaffold prior experiences of the team to support a shared learning experience (Fiore, Johnston, & McDaniel, in press). Here we have argued that it is the unfolding of events in distributed teamwork and the interaction of actors within this work that produces the elements to be conveyed in a team story.

Such an awareness of activities beyond a particular teammate's own isolated experiences is critical to effective coordination. Because narrative has the ability to provide such common cognitive ground, it has been described as a tool for negotiating intersubjectivity, or the "ground of shared understandings necessary for productive intellectual collaborations" (Smart, 1999). Narrative may be particularly suited to handle certain types of distributed teamwork, and identifying these is a task worthy of consideration. Considering additional ways in which narrative can scaffold cognition in teams could produce important research questions involving the intersection of teams and the narrative form.


Question 2. How can the affective elements of story be used to create bonds among distributed team members?

We have noted how a rich array of cues normally experienced in co-located teams is absent during distributed work. Related to this is an experience of diminished trust. In a co-located environment, collaborators have access to cues such as body language and vocal inflection that even the most high-fidelity video conferencing systems cannot fully reproduce (cf. Dirks, 1999; Jones & George, 1998). In a virtual environment, such cues are not present, and as a result, trust can be diminished (e.g., Bos, Olson, Gergle, Olson, & Wright, 2002). As a good story has been known to enhance the ethos of a speaker or writer in order to connect this speaker to an audience holding dissimilar attitudes or beliefs, might it do the same thing to establish trust in an interactive team environment? How would the conveyance of personal stories, even if only task related, be better able to support the building of trust within teams?

Related to trust within teams is a sense of collective efficacy, defined as a team's shared belief in their competence to perform a task (Whitney, 1994; see also Bandura, 1986; Guzzo, Yost, Campbell, & Shea, 1994). Some researchers have suggested that important aspects of collective efficacy include shared beliefs in the team's abilities at communication and perceived competence for coordinated group activities (Zaccaro, Blair, Peterson, Zazanis, 1995; see also Paskevich., Brawley, Dorsch, & Widmeyer, 1999). Distributed interaction may hinder the development of this efficacy within teams. How might collective efficacy be served by the use of narratives? Can these be developed such that the absence of co-located experience no longer matters, or matters less? For example, distributed teams may benefit from capturing success stories of past projects. This could involve an explicit record of an accomplishment where some obstacle was overcome via effective teamwork. Capturing this significant event and conveying it using the narrative form could produce a powerful and compelling record that would aid in building a strong foundation for a team's collective memory.

Such an approach is surely worthy of consideration in order to explore how a story could be used to record successful teamwork. Additionally, a team story could be an effective preamble for the team by functioning as an introductory mechanism or preface to the interaction (e.g., the story of the team's first experiences working together). Finally, its utility as a sustaining framework for the entire conversation or collaborative experience could also be explored.


Question 3. How might the social or cultural dimensions of distributed teamwork be affected by use of the narrative form?

Another issue worth exploring is how the properties of narrative might be used to reclaim the type of social dynamic that is possible with co-located teamwork.

Structuralist studies of narrative exist in many disciplines (e.g. Genette 1980; Bal, 1997) but such studies generally spend little time exploring the social component of story as a connective framework between individuals of varying backgrounds and knowledge paradigms. For example, Dautenhahn (1999) has argued that one of the foundational elements of human social understanding involves "biographical reconstruction, the interpretation of another person's behavior and appearance based on the situatedness of another's mind in time and space" (p. 61). Dautenhahn suggests story has played a critical role in bridging social chasms; her Narrative Intelligence Hypothesis describes storytelling as a form of communication that evolved in response to the increasingly social demands of society and the need to communicate information about third-party relationships (2003).

By mapping out narrative elements such as plot, character, and environment; and by studying the ways in which these elements function in a social framework, it may be possible to devise sets of stories of varying lengths and complexities in order to meet the specialized demands of different types of online collaborative endeavors. For example, how might metaphor work as a bridge to connect a teammate communicating from one side of the world with a teammate from the other? Must such a metaphor be situated within a story to be effective, and, if not, how might the inclusion of other narrative elements such as plot and character help to give this metaphor new power in shaping and communicating the experiences or thoughts of one team member to another? Could archetypal character representations be mapped to virtual avatars in order to increase the ease with which unfamiliar teammates interact with one another in online space? Many such questions can be generated from the rich relationships formed when narrative and networked technologies are combined.


Question 4: What can we learn about story as a tool for online collaboration from an interdisciplinary analysis of the narrative form?

Formulating a set of guidelines or best practices for using narrative as a tool to improve distributed team interaction will necessarily be an interdisciplinary task. After all, such a process requires an understanding of both the human and technological issues involved in this collaborative interaction as well as of the nature of the message itself. Our understanding could benefit from the insight and expertise of cognitive and organizational psychologists, computer scientists, literary theorists, and technical communicators, among others. For example, computer science researchers have been using narrative as a tool for developing scenario narratives (Carroll, 1995; Carroll et al., 1994). Here the notion is that the narrative helps system designers articulate the manner in which actors (i.e., users) will actually engage a system to meet some predetermined goal.

By investigating the ways in which humans process information in both co-located and distributed team settings, we can learn about the differences in cognitive function that may prove compatible with narrative supplementation. By exploring the ways through which computers can represent narrative data, we may find more powerful uses of narrative and storytelling within distributed collaborative activity. Finally, by discussing the function of story as it operates in a connective social framework, we may gain insight into the ways in which narrative serves as a scaffold and a cognitive bridge between humans interacting over time and space.


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Acknowledgements

Writing this paper was partially supported by Grant Number SBE0350345 from the National Science Foundation and by contract number N61339-04-C-0034 from the United States Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command, to the University of Central Florida as part of the Collaboration for Advanced Research on Agents and Teams. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors only and do not necessarily represent the official position of the National Science Foundation, U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the University of Central Florida. All correspondence regarding this paper should be sent to Dr. Stephen Fiore, via email at sfiore@ist.ucf.edu or via regular mail at the Institute for Simulation and Training, 3100 Technology Parkway, Orlando, FL 32826.

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