Master of Arts in Educational Technology (OMET) Pepperdine University  
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Journal Entry - Seven [posted Thursday,October 9, 2008]

The Kindness of Strangers: The Usefulness of Electronic Weak Ties for Technical Advice by David Constant, Lee Sproull, Sara Kiesler

I found this article to have important useful information derived from a study conducted at Tandem Computers in Silicon Valley. The study centered on information providers and information seekers. The authors explored the process of giving and receiving technical advice over Tandem’s computer network. Eighty-four company employees from diverse backgrounds, locations, and skills agreed to participate in the study. The researchers examined the practice of distant employees (strangers) exchanging technical advice through a large organizational computer network. The strength of this research suggests that strangers offer an advantage over friends and colleagues in obtaining useful information (Granovetter 1973, 1982). This is the one of the pieces of evidence that I have been searching for in order to support my Action Research Project.

The researchers offered five hypothesizes:

  1. Advice from more people will be more useful than advice from fewer people
  2. Advice from more diverse ties will be more useful than advice from less diverse ties.
  3. Advice from people with more resources will be more useful than advice from people with fewer resources.
  4. Advice from people who are more organizationally motivated will be more useful than advice from people who are less organizationally motivated.
  5. On the average, information providers will represent a pool of people whose resources for helping are at least as good as and perhaps better than those of information seekers.

The researchers pointed to some obvious weaknesses in their hypothesis, some of which I have already anticipated and addressed in my force field analysis. I will point out the weaknesses and along with a reasonable solution.

  • The person asking the question has no direct way of knowing if the information is reliable. I have thought of ways to overcome this potential problem. With the type of help requests that I assume will be asked, the seeker would know whether or not the information is reliable (almost instantl)y because it will solve (or not solve) the immediate problem/question to their satisfaction.
  • The motivation of strangers to help may be poor. The authors posed a very poignant question, “Why would someone respond to a request for help from a stranger when the likelihood of direct personal benefit is low? They added that computer networks do not provide “a very rich medium for proffering esteem and gratitude.” Along with identifying this particular weakness, the authors put forth reasons that people might participate willingly: technical expertise might be one of the information provider’s strengths and helping someone else might give them self-identity; increased self-esteem, personal identification with the organization; self-respect; and, respect from others and feelings of commitment. Organizational citizenship, with its norms of generalized reciprocity, are as important as direct personal benefits.
  • It would prove too costly for a company to allow their employees online help from their peers. Participants reported in a post survey that the support they received was very valuable. Companies, such as my own, that places a high value on this type of reciprocity of information sharing, incurs the cost of kindness as a social institution.
  • The open opportunity for abuse for personal use or political gains is not worth the benefits. The study disproved this concern. Most all participants focused on just the task at hand and not on abusing the system. “Technical information is relatively ore likely to be exchanged in a computer network weak-tie environment and are other kinds of information such as strategic, political, or personal information.”

 

One important piece of information that I broached in my force field analysis is that employees cannot always get useful, local advice. Immediate answers are not always available locally and finding out who has that expertise might be difficult. The authors originally thought that it might be difficult to induce those who do have the answer to share their knowledge. The results of the study indicated something different. People were willing to address the needs of others largely do to the desire to be “a good company citizen” putting the benefits to the organization first and foremost.

The researchers provided ways in which the exchange of questions and answers might be effective. The study looked at a system that had been in place for over six years. The fact that it has been working successfully for a number of years provides stability for the process of a peer-to-peer help system.  Although Tandem Computers uses a different method than the one I am proposing in my ARP, it is very similar in nature. One of the major differences in their peer support system is the exclusive use a “second class” email broadcast to the entire company. I will not use WestEd’s email structure as a platform for peer-to-peer networking. My preference is to use more innovative, web2.0 tools that I am learning about in the OMET program.

The outcomes were encouraging. The results of the study indicated that information providers gave useful advice and solved the problems of information seekers despite their lack of a personal connection with the seekers. In addition, there is a greater opportunity for collaborative exchanges [peer support] via computers than in face-to-face interactions.