Educational Technology & Society 6 (1) 2003
ISSN 1436-4522

ICT innovation: starting with the team
A collaborative design workshop on selecting technology for collaboration

Ingrid Mulder and Janine Swaak
Telematica Instituut
P.O. Box 589
7500 AN Enschede, The Netherlands
Phone: +31 53 - 4850499
Fax: +31 53 - 4850400



Virtual team members often face difficulties in their technology-mediated collaboration. Most of these problems can be related to sub-optimal technology or sub-optimal use of this technology. The solution seems to be simple: improve both the technology and its use. We are not the first to notice this. The issue is how we can improve technology and the use of this technology in such a way that it suits virtual teaming. We argue that collaborative design workshops in which prospective team members select their technology are a key to improving both use of technology and technology itself. In the current article, we describe our rationale and experiences on collaborative design workshops, and draw some preliminary conclusions.

Keywords: Collaborative technology, Design workshop, Optimal team support, Training program, Virtual team


Often, it is argued that virtual or distributed teams differ from face-to-face teams in a negative way. At the same time organisations, increasingly, depend on virtual teams. We argue that technology often just allows for collaboration; it makes collaboration faster by bridging time and place, however, it makes working together not easier, better or more fun. We found that most technology that supports distributed teams allows people to collaborate rather than stimulates people to collaborate. For example, it is possible to edit a book by means of using email. Several authors can write a chapter, exchange it by email, send attachments with revisions back, and in the end the editor collects all the final chapters. However, email does not support the editing a book of which iterations, feedback, and version management are essential parts. People define workarounds, if technology does not really support them to collaborate. In order to enhance virtual team collaboration, we assume we should provide group members with technology that does actually support their collaboration, i.e., technology that makes collaboration better, easier, and faster. If technology does not enhance the collaboration of people, we understand that most people prefer face-to-face collaboration.

An interesting finding based on analyses of several virtual teams is sub-optimal use of technology. Although all teams had the same huge mediaset available, each team developed an own specific way of using technology. An example was the use of videoconferencing systems. Though, team members had several innovative technologies available they stuck to their behaviour of showing printed versions before the camera. Even when they were aware that the image quality would be much better, only if they would use the digital version in their shared whiteboard. In other words, they kept on using the technology in a consistent fashion even though they realised their interaction with technology or their media choice was not optimal. We labelled this processes “media stickiness” (Steinfield et al., 2001; Huysman et al., 2003). 

Another sub-optimality in virtual teams is that subtle signals, non-verbal behaviour like gazing or lifting an eyebrow often stay unnoticed. In addition, we observed that virtual teams hardly use any explicit signals or habits; such as the use of a time-out sign or raise your hand which are common in face-to-face communication. This latter feature relates to the use of technology, the former to the technology itself. Note that the two are closely linked.


Collaborative design

The solution seems to be providing teams with its own proper technical and didactic support that enhances their group process. This is easier said than done. In our approach we train prospective virtual team members to cope with difficulties in virtual team collaboration. In defining proper technology for a team, a training program should also aim at selecting (or if not available designing) real collaborative technology with the team members instead of training them in using technology that is designed for them.

Current collaborative technology still fails to support real-life collaboration (Mulder & Slagter, 2002). Bardram (1998) argues that this problem is a direct result of not looking at the dynamics aspects of work. He claims that collaboration in not one thing, but different things at different times, and in different places. In designing technology that is able to support real-life interaction processes we need to pay attention to the fact that real-life situations are dynamic and involve complex tasks. A collaborative design approach (Mulder & Slagter, 2002) pays attention to this complexity and dynamics of teams. Key to success of this approach is the involvement of the team in the design of their collaborative technology.

Another feature of our approach is that it tries to avoid thinking in classical training models. As will become clear in the next paragraph, in our design workshops, we focus on the future interaction. Most training programs focus on simulating current work patterns and training people to use technology available more optimal. These differences can be compared to single and double loop learning (Argyris & Schön, 1978). Our goal is to enhance double loop learning, where team members reflect on their work patterns.


Design workshop

So far we have experience with three collaborative design workshops. As the team is central, our program ideally starts with the whole virtual team in one location. By this extra investment of having all in one place, the training is also an important means to socialise, to get to know each other (better), and to manage expectations of the collaboration and its results.

Having their ideal innovative collaboration in mind, they start brainstorming in terms of social and cognitive functions of a specific collaboration process. A topic, that is addressed more than once in our workshops, is how and when asking and addressing questions in virtual teams. Social and cognitive functions the workshop participants identified were: structuring a meeting, collecting answers, indicating a question has been answered, et cetera. Figure 1 (in Dutch) displays identified functions of questioning behaviour.


Figure 1. Social and cognitive functions of questioning behaviour


Note that by thinking out of the interaction, thinking in terms of features and technologies is avoided. All functions are discussed and clustered. Then, based on the selected functions, pairs of team members select and sketch their preferred technology. After this creative design, each pair presents their ideas to the rest of the group. The figures below (see Figure 2, 3, and 4 (in Dutch)) illustrate several designs of preferred technology to support questioning behaviour. 


Figure 2. A system control timer that reminds people that it is time for questions


Figure 3. In order to get attention for your question, one can press a button and a blinking question mark appears on the screen of the receiving party


Figure 4. All questions that are formulated during a meeting are collected in a bucket. If the bucket is full of questions or an urgent one has been thrown in the bucket, it empties on the videoconferencing screen


When all designs are presented the whole group discusses and reflects on the ideas. A trainer facilitates them to reach a common ground on which technology they prefer as their virtual team support. In case no experts were involved in the creative process so far, technical experts are invited to assist in the selection process, and help the team selecting or defining their collaborative technology.



We found that the collaborative design approach yields a lot of innovative and creative ideas and enthusiastic group members. In addition the workshop participants became less negatively biased against virtual collaboration. Perceived problems of virtual collaboration actually became challenges. We have no hard evidence yet, but we expect group members who participated in the design program will more optimally use their technology. We believe so as they reflect on their collaboration beforehand, and are more committed as they choose the support as a team. To recapitulate, social, cognitive, and motivational aspects are taken into account. We intend to organise more design workshops with prospective virtual teams.

One way to validate our approach is to compare groups collaborating with their own designed support with groups that use given support. Currently, we are evaluating a tool that support questioning behaviour in an experimental study of twenty virtual teams. The experimental conditions, in which we measure questioning behaviour, are videoconferencing with and without the designed tool.

It should be clear that this training is more than just training on how to use technology. It is mere a workshop on defining preferable interaction, and selecting proper technology support for these interaction processes. It focuses on the virtual team members and their ability to cope with difficulties in the future. Though this training seems to be prescriptive, it cannot be compared to a handbook or guidelines. It depends on the team, their processes, and the decisions of the team; these are we believe the keys to successful ICT innovation in companies.



Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978). Organizational learning, Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Bardram, J. E. (1998). Designing for the dynamics of cooperative work activities.Proceedings of the ACM 1996 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW '98).New York: ACM Press, 89-98.

Huysman, M., Steinfield, C., Jang, C. Y., David, K., Huisin 'tVeld, M., Poot, J., & Mulder, I. (in press). Virtual teams and the Appropriation of Communication Technology; Exploring the Concept of Media Stickiness. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, The journal of Collaborative Computing.

Mulder, I., & Slagter, R. (2002). Collaborative Design, Collaborative Technology: Enhancing Virtual Team Collaboration. Paper presented at the 6th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (SCI2002), July 14-18, 2002, Orlando, Florida.

Steinfield, C., Jang, C. Y., Huysman, M., Poot, J., Huis in 't Veld, M., Mulder, I., Goodman, E., Lloyd, J., Hinds, T., Andriessen, E., & Van derWerff, K. (2001). New methods for studying global virtual teams: towards a multi-faceted approach. Paper presented at the 34th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (HICSS-34),January 3-6, 2001, Maui, Hawaii.


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