From: Stefan Marti <>
Critique on Sproull and Kiesler, Chapter 4 "Electronic Group Dynamics"

How do people behave in electronic meetings.
Sproull and Kiesler compare face-to-face group meetings with electronic group meetings. (At the beginning, they are very unclear about what they mean by "electronic meetings". It turns out later that it's a combination of on-line chatting and email.)

The authors usually get their data from observations of natural electronic groups. But this time, they rely heavily on controlled experiments, because "experiments often reveal hidden processes that manager and group members should attend to" (p. 59). Does this mean that observations do only reveal obvious things? Such observations would not be very useful, I think.

The main difference between face-to-face group meetings and electronic group meetings is that status in face-to-face mode has an influence on how much you participate, how much you talk, etc. Because it is harder to convey status cues in electronic messages, high-status people do not dominate the discussion in electronic groups as much as face-to-face. So if groups should favor expertise over position, then electronic discussion can lead to better-quality decisions. (How can you measure the quality of a decision?)

They mention another difference: electronic communications seems to increase emotions people will show in comparison with their face-to-face-behavior. They explain it with the general group effect that groups usually take a position which is more extreme than the average of the individual positions held by group members. But they give no explanation for THAT--it's just their "observation".
Or do they mean that the reduction of conformity and convergence causes flaming?

Another observation is that electronic group meetings lead to riskier decisions: not only in so called "loss choices" (e.g., choice (1) losing $20,000, vs. choice (2) 50% chance of losing nothing and 50% of losing $40,000), but also in "gain choices" (e.g., choice (1) gaining $20,000, vs. choice (2) 50% chance of gaining $40,000 and 50% of gaining nothing).

I do not agree with Sproull and Kiesler that "a real problem (...) comes from the lack of social information in electronic discussions." (p. 69) That's just too simple! Of course it takes a bit longer to realize the social status of the partner of an electronic meeting, but experienced users find this out pretty fast!
And even worse: "... people communicating electronically have more trouble imagining what others are feeling." As if we would do a better job in face-to-face meetings! Of course they mean "perceive what others are feeling", and of course the medium is different and therefore requires different strategies for getting this sort information, but in my opinion, it is only a question of how experienced the participants are.

The section on "When are electronic groups appropriate" simplifies the "real world" too: managers do NOT have only three choices for a decision situation (no meeting, electronic meeting, and face-to-face meeting). The differences among the different electronic meeting types are big enough to differentiate at least between asynchronous (email) and synchronous (on-line chatting) media--not to speak of all the non-computer mediated, but nevertheless non-face-to-face possibilities like audio conference and video conference.

At the end of chapter 4, they are getting very careful and general--but also not very helpful: "Electronic meetings are not equivalent to face-to-face meetings." (p. 74) That indeed is true! Next sentence: "When face-to-face meetings are not possible, electronic meetings may be an improvement over no meeting at all." May be--but this is VERY trivial!
"Finally, when face-to-face meetings produce conventional and predictable decisions and what is wanted is something less conventional, electronic meetings offer an alternate forum." Okay, at least this one I can accept as a helpful rule for managers.

Stefan Marti