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Communications of the ACM


Collaborating Across Boundaries

I was up at 6am this morning for a conference call with colleagues distributed across our worldwide research labs (New York, Tokyo, Haifa, Beijing, Zurich). Tomorrow night, I will stay up past my bedtime to join a call with a development team in Bangalore. My 9pm local time corresponds to their 9:30am; as my day is ending, theirs is just beginning.

In today's world, collaboration is more than just working with the guy down the hall. Collaboration means working with people in remote locations, separated by thousands of miles and multiple time zones, who belong to a different culture with different social norms.

Yet, despite advances in technology, collaboration--and communication--remain difficult. The lowest common denominator technology--the telephone--has serious usability problems. It can be difficult to know which person on a conference call is talking. Subtle cues such as what people really think about your idea don't make it through the phone lines. High-definition video-conferencing units enable two people in different cities to see each others' facial expressions and detect subtle body language cues, but the time zone problem persists.

At the same time, economic pressures and a growing focus on sustainability are conspiring to reduce opportunities for travel to face-to-face meetings. More and more of our business will start to be conducted over virtual channels, using the Internet to connect us.

This is an unprecedented opportunity for HCI to make a difference in the world. How should we solve the problem of high-bandwidth communication across different time zones? How do we enable people to work together effectively when they may not even speak the same language? Are there different styles of teamwork that can more effectively connect global teams? And how do we bring these tools to the desktops of everyday knowledge workers?


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