Enhancing Product Development with Computer-Mediated Communication Systems

By Robert C. Raciti, January 1996

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Challenges of Today's Business Environment

Markets are changing faster in the 1990s than in any other time in history. They are becoming global, product life cycles are shortening and companies are encountering increased pressure from international competitors (Adler, Riggs, & Wheelwrite, 1980). As generations of products evolve, they become more complex and generally require larger product development teams. As product development teams grow, members tend to become separated in location and in time zone making it more difficult to work together (e.g., in Allen, 1977).

It is imperative that corporations take advantage of advanced technology to compete in today's environment. The use of computer-mediated communication systems can be instrumental in improving organizational competitiveness by providing additional communication tools.

Computer-Mediated Communication Systems Applications

Some of the many computer-mediated communication systems are group decision support systems, electronic mail, voicemail, videoconferencing and groupware. A group decision-support system (GDSS) is an interactive computer-based system that helps groups of people solve unstructured problems (Gallupe & Desanctis, 1987). GDSS also facilitates disseminating, evaluating, recording and implementing ideas (e.g., in Gallupe & Cooper, 1993). Electronic mail is a tool that allows users to create and distribute electronic messages. In addition to electronic messages, many systems allow users to transmit binary file attachments. These attachments may contain application programs, graphic images, audio clips, video clips, word processing documents, spreadsheets, and a variety of other types of files. Voice mail is similar to electronic mail in that it allows users to create and distribute messages, but today's systems only handle audio messages. Video conferencing is a system that allows users to see and speak to individuals at different locations. In addition to seeing and hearing other parties, modern video conferencing systems allow users to transmit computer files over the data connection. This feature allows many users to work on the same computer file and application while on the video conference. Groupware is computer software that creates a "shared workspace" that allows people to work together without time or space constraints (Buford, 1994).

Computer-Mediated Communication Systems Enhance Organizational Communication

Computer-Mediated Communication Systems are designed to help people work together more effectively. With the help of these systems, voice mail will deflect unanswered phone calls to devices such as voice response units, car phones, and hand held personal communication devices. Additionally, video conferencing, groupware, electronic mail, and GDSS systems can assist in coordinating activities such as product development, strategic planning, training, and systems design, development and implementation. These systems allow individuals throughout the world to work on a single project, participate in brainstorming sessions, and attend classes without leaving their offices. It is important that computer-mediated communication systems be considered as alternatives to traditional communication methods because they provide a variety of tools that allow users to communicate. These new communication alternatives help solve time and space constraint problems that are imposed on groups.

A time-space matrix is used to describe cooperative systems that operate at the same time and same place, same time and different place, different time same place, and different time and different place (e.g., in Ellis, Gibbs & Rein as cited in Shneiderman, 1992). Each computer-mediated communication system fits into one or more of the four locations in the time-space matrix and may enhance the effectiveness of communication by allowing many individuals to work on a single project regardless of their location or working hours. For example, video conferencing allows users in different locations to communicate at the same time, electronic mail allows users in different locations to communicate at different times, and Group decision support systems fit into all matrix locations and allow users to communicate at the same and different locations at the same and different time.

In addition to allowing individuals to communicate without space or time constraints, some computer mediated communications systems can improve the effectiveness of a group effort. For example, Laudon & Laudon (1994) point out different ways that GDSS may enhance communications during a group decision making process. These include increased group participation and improved pre-meeting planning, they permit open collaborative meeting atmosphere, criticism-free idea generation, evaluation of ideas instead of people, the documentation of meetings, and enable retrieving meetings at a later time. These enhancements improve the effectiveness of communication and usually lead to better decision outcomes. Computer-Mediated Communication Systems State of the Art

This author believes that the state of the art of Computer-Mediated Communication Systems exists using network-centric computing systems. Network-centric computing places the intelligence of the mainframe computers, mini computer, or personal computers into the "network." Therefore, users will access and use common applications and common data. By having all of the users common network resident applications and data, users' applications are easier to integrate (IBM, 1995). Therefore, network centric computing will ease the integration of Computer-Mediated Communication Systems computer applications such as group decision support systems, electronic mail, and groupware. Integration of applications and data will help individuals work together on projects because the network will enhance the flow of information to all members on the project team. Network centric computing will soon allow video conferencing and voice mail as soon as companies migrate these applications to their corporate backbones. Problems with Computer Mediated Communications Systems

Computer mediated communication systems can be complex and require a wide variety of computer hardware and software. Equipment can range from the most sophisticated super computers used for multimedia servers to a personal computer used as a dumb terminal. Communication bandwidth may also vary from high speed fiber optic communication links to a conventional telephone line. Because the complexity and cost of these systems vary, it is necessary to define users' requirements and select the hardware and communication systems that most cost effectively contribute to achieving organizational goals. Improvements may be measured using metrics such as dollar value, competitive advantage, and marketshare. Although these complex systems can solve real world problems, they might not provide a significant amount of return on their investment. Therefore, a problem associated with computer- mediated communication systems is in justifying the investment required to use them.

Many problems with computer-mediated communication systems are associated with human nature. For example, some systems allow users to view other's calendars or offices (e.g., in Tan & Rua, 1994), therefore, people are hesitant to use a system that may invade the user's privacy. Additionally, because the use of these systems often requires additional learning, problems are encountered when people must change the way they communicate. Research shows that people will generally resist change (e.g., in Rogers, 1980). It is important to realize that computer-mediated communication systems are not independent entities, but must work in conjunction with individuals who are willing to use them.

The Future of Computer-Mediated Communication Systems

Many industry analysts (e.g., Buford, 1994) believe that Computer-Mediated Communications Systems will incorporate multimedia capabilities. This author agrees with the industry analysts primarily because people tend to retain more of what they see and hear (multimedia) than what they see on a computer screen (e.g., in a study by Fletcher cited in Ogozalek, 1994). This enhanced capability will make Computer-Mediated Communications Systems more effective by increasing their ability to communicate information to the end users. In addition to the incorporation of multimedia, these systems will permeate organizations that traditionally do not use advanced systems to do their work.


Institutions desiring growth should rely on improved communications as a major tool in achieving their goal. The primary reason for using these types of tools is to allow members of organizations work together without time or space constraints. Companies can focus talent that is located throughout the world on specific corporate projects. These project teams can be allow a company to be more competitive because critical projects can get the talent they need regardless where the "experts" reside. Therefore, computer professionals should evaluate how computer-mediated communication systems can help in the design, development, and implementation of information systems.

Areas of future research include quantifying the effectiveness of using computer-mediated communications systems and understanding how they can accelerate projects that involve the design, development, and implementation of large information systems.


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