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Informal communication, e.g., unplanned “water-cooler” conversations, has been suggested to play important roles in collaborative work and organizational innovation. It provides opportunities among employees for exchanging work-relevant information, initiating potential collaboration, maintaining awareness of workplace context; and supports social functions such as transmission of office culture and maintenance of common ground and a feeling of connectedness between co-workers. (Johnson, Donohue, Atkin, & Johnson, 1994; Kraut, Fish, Root, & Chalfonte, 1993; Nardi, 2005; Whittaker, Frohlich, & Daly-Jones, 1994).

Even as Computer-Mediated Communication (e.g., through phone, IM, emails) has extended our capability of communicating with colleagues and co-workers across distance and time, people continue to suffer from a lack of informal communication in today‟s computermediated distributed work, especially with colleagues outside their daily work circles (Perlow, 1999). Researchers and practitioners have been seeking ways to simulate catching-up interactions within the space of computer-mediated communication. However, the best ways to support informal communication among co-workers across walls and geo-locations, still remains as an open and challenging research problem.

Microblogs, a relatively new phenomenon, provide a communication channel for people to broadcast information that they likely would not share otherwise using existing channels such as email, phone, IM, or blogs. Microblogging has become popular quite quickly, raising its potential for serving as a new informal communication medium at work, providing a variety of impacts on collaborative work (e.g., enhancing information sharing, building common ground, and sustaining a feeling of connectedness among colleagues).

The exploratory research reported in this dissertation aims at first obtaining a baseline understanding of why people choose to microblog and as part of that, to characterize the technology affordances of microblogging. It continues an exploratory research path by exploring the perceived impacts of microblogging as a means for informal communication in the workplace, summarizing these observations as opportunities and challenges that are presented by microblogging as an aid to informal communication. Scenario-based design (Carroll, 2000; Rosson & Carroll, 2002) is adopted in the final phase of the dissertation, where in I synthesize scenarios, tradeoffs and themes from the field studies and use these to guide the design, prototyping and evaluation of a novel microblogging system GroupBuzz.


Chapter 1 

Introduction – Informal Communication in the Workplace

Informal communication often consists of unplanned and brief “catching-up” conversations among employees in organizations, the type of spontaneous interaction that has often been termed “water-cooler” conversations (Kraut, Fish, Root, & Chalfonte, 1993). Informal communication is generally mediated by physical proximity and often occurs spontaneously; typical examples are the chats that take place when people bump into each other in the hall, or at a shared coffee machine. In the workplace, informal communication has been observed to play important roles for collaborative work and organizational innovation. It supports sharing of work-relevant information among employees; coordination of group activities; creating potential collaboration opportunities; and social functions such as transmission of office culture and maintenance of common ground and a feeling of connectedness between co-workers (Johnson, Donohue, Atkin, & Johnson, 1994; Kraut, Fish, Root, & Chalfonte, 1993; Nardi, 2005; Whittaker, Frohlich, & Daly-Jones, 1994).

IWC in Computer-Mediated Collaborative Work

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies have extended our capability of collaborating with co-workers over distance and time boundaries. As communication patterns have shifted from primarily face-to-face interactions to a significant reliance on phone, email, and instant messaging (IM) in the workplace, the need for supporting informal workplace communication (IWC) has become more crucial than ever. However, due to the spontaneous

nature of IWC, finding ways to evoke and support it has been a challenge. Businesses have access to well-established computer technologies for scheduling meetings and sharing reports, but virtually nothing that supports bumping into a colleague in the hall.

Researchers and practitioners have been exploring a variety of approaches to encourage spontaneous catching up conversations through CMC. For instance, media richness theory and social presence theory suggested that because social cues are beneficial in promoting spontaneous conversations, we should design systems that make better use of such cues (Erickson & Kellogg, 2000; Kraut, Fish, Root, & Chalfonte, 1993). However, tool designs guided by theory and empirical studies have not yet shown that increased social cues in CMC systems will lead to more impromptu conversations and informal social exchanges (Whittaker, 2003). More recent research looked at social software use in organizations and impacts on collaborative work, including corporate blogs (Efimova & Grudin, 2007; Huh, Jones, Erickson, Kellogg, Bellamy, & Thomas, 2007; Jackson, Yates, & Orlikowski, 2007), social tagging (Millen, Feinberg, & Kerr, 2006; Thom-Santelli, Muller, & Millen, 2008), and social networking sites (DiMicco, Millen, Geyer, Dugan, Brownholtz, & Muller, 2008). However, none of these technologies have been reported as successful in enacting spontaneous conversations or sharing catching-up information.

Microblogging as a Channel for Computer-Mediated IWC

In recent years, microblogging has emerged as a popular new phenomenon in social online world, and raises interesting possibilities for IWC. Microblogging refers to the activity in which users to broadcast brief text updates about small and relatively unimportant things happening in their daily life and work activities, such as what they are reading, thinking, and experiencing (McFedries, 2007). Currently microblogging is enabled by a variety of online social networking tools, including, Twitter,Jaiku,Pownce, and Facebook. Microblogging is used to achieve a wide variety of social purposes and has gained popularity as an option for online social networking. Using, people update their daily life activities with friends, families, and co-workers; share information, news, and opinions with interested observers; and seek knowledge and expertise in public tweets (Java, Song, Finin, & Tseng, 2007; McFedries, 2007). Emotionally, people seem to use microblogging to achieve a level of cyberspace presence, a sort of being “out there” that allows them to feel another layer of connection with friends and the world (McFedries, 2007). The increasingly popular use of microblogging for lightweight communication in the world of social computing makes it a candidate CMC channel for IWC.

However, at the time this dissertation project was conducted (2008), microblogs were a relatively new phenomenon in online social networking, and had received little scholarly attention. In particular, there was no solid understanding of how and why people microblog, and there was no research studying the potential impacts of microblogging on informal communication at work. As a result, the exploratory research project described in this dissertation was designed to take a step in this direction, seeking to build a rich understanding of why people use microblogs and exploring how the characteristics of their microblogging behaviors might enable IWC.

The work reported in this dissertation follows an exploratory research agenda that investigates the opportunities and challenges presented by microblogging technologies, as an aid to informal communication within a workplace context. The primary focus is on developing a rich description of microblogging practices and associated issues, in both a general and workplace setting. Furthermore, by focusing on both the strengths and weaknesses of microblogging as a support for IWC, it begins to explore the design space for improved technologies. In particular, it adopts the methodological guidance provided by scenario-based design (Carroll, 2000; Rosson & Carroll, 2002), extracting scenarios, tradeoffs and themes from field studies and using these to guide the design, prototyping and evaluation of a novel microblogging system.

The dissertation is organized as follows. After first developing a conceptual framework for the research program (Chapter 2), I summarize the research approach and the questions that guide the work (Chapter 3). Chapters 4 and 5 present findings from two field studies of existing microblogging tools, and Chapter 6 presents the design arguments that led to the novel tool (GroupBuzz). Chapter 7 summarizes a small scenario-based evaluation of the prototype tool and is followed by a final chapter that draws general lessons and conclusions.


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