By Monica Nakamine
November 22, 2002
The System Design and Management (SDM) program delivers an education to its students that grants them a single degree in engineering and management. But aside from the courses, the faculty, and fellow classmates, one of the cool elements of the program is the not-so-obvious deliverable that makes SDM unique and extremely valuable to students and alums – learning how to communicate and collaborate virtually.
Jan Klein, senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management (pictured at right), is heading up a research project funded by NASA and Ford Motor Company that is investigating how to enhance the SDM experience for both on- and off-campus students. The study includes a survey administered every six months covering such topics as communication technology, the virtual classroom, virtual interaction, and so on.
“We looked at the survey data for three time periods, particularly where there were significant differences in responses either in improvements, or decline in students’ attitudes,” said Klein. “One group of questions addressing the effectiveness of virtual collaboration showed a significant improvement over a year’s period. We knew we had made some improvements to the orientation program to better prepare students and made some minor changes in the technology but were surprised by the magnitude of the perceived student improvement.”
As Klein defined it, virtual collaboration is working with people across geographical boundaries via multiple technologies. Virtual communication technologies provide an opportunity to open doors for students by allowing them to participate in a class discussion without having to actually be there. On the flip side, technology, if implemented ineffectively, can also alienate people, physically and psychologically.
The NASA Connection
To better understand these attitude changes, Klein followed up with a group of NASA students who had responded to each of the surveys. Klein found that the main source of improvement was individual student learning.
For many of these NASA folks, face-to-face interaction was the norm, so using technology was something for them to learn and get used to. Because the SDM program utilizes virtual collaboration tools as a primary mode of communication, students were forced to work and think differently in order to meet the demands of their courses.
“Before I entered the SDM program, my experience with virtual collaboration was limited to teleconferences,” said SDM alum Tim Brady, who is the Project Manager in the EVA Project Office at NASA. “In general, this worked well for collaboration on very specific deliverables with clearly defined interfaces.”
But now Brady is working on a project involving over 50 people throughout the world. While he continues to use teleconferencing as a communication tool, he is no longer limited to this one option. He also incorporates web-based meetings and Instant Messaging, which is a technology that gives users the ability to exchange messages with people online, but in real time, as part of his toolset.
“Learning how to use virtual collaboration tools gave me real experience in working with dispersed teams and showed the intangible aspects of collaboration,” said Brady. “It’s just a new way of life. I think large numbers of co-located teams are going to be few and far between.”
But even for those NASA folks who were already savvy about virtual collaboration before coming to SDM, the program has allowed them to become increasingly familiar with it, providing them with greater options in order to work smarter.
“Although I was relatively comfortable with virtual collaboration, it was a tool of last resort,” said SDM student Russ Wertenberg, an electronic engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “SDM allowed me to expand the selection of tools I normally use and incorporate virtual collaboration as a regular part of my day-to-day work.”
Klein said that the positive feedback she has received on SDM’s virtual collaboration tactics is due to several reasons:
- A more reliable bridge has been installed on the MIT campus.
- Technicians have learned what to display on the camera.
- Students now use Instant Messaging.
- The learning process has been accelerated due to better transfer of best practices.
- Knowledge is being transferred between new and existing SDM students.
- Students are increasingly becoming more comfortable with technology.
Klein will continue to survey SDM students for another year, if not longer. So far, her response rate has been very good – well over 50 percent each period. She hopes that the data she collects will further support virtual collaboration. Backed by her research and findings thus far, she has been transferring this knowledge to SDM students at quarterly Business Trips to instill in them the importance of learning and using new technologies to work together, from various locations.
“Even if people prefer to work face-to-face, you also have to work with people who are not,” said Klein. “You have to learn how to use and be comfortable with different forms of communication. There are a lot of communication skills that you just don’t get taught [at work]. But, through SDM, they’re learning to use virtual collaboration tools and technology to work more effectively and efficiently with each other.”