Face time vs. Facebook time?

There has been an recurrent question about the viability of telework ever since we first started our research. The focus of the concern was the need—or lack thereof of—for face-to-face interaction in order to have success at X, where X is whatever work outcome is at issue. That is, is your average teleworker at a disadvantage because she substitutes Facebook (or Skype or Twitter) time for in-office face time? On 15 November 2010 the Financial Times published two articles, both focusing on business education, relevant to this problem. The first article, on page 16 of the US edition, discussed the plans of the Kenan-Flagler School at the University of North Carolina to offer an MBA via distance learning. As to the demand for such a program:

“It really brings together a lot of trends we have seen around the world,” says the dean, in particular students’ willingness to use the technology. “The population of students, people in their 20s and 30s, are so comfortable with technology and technology-mediated learning.”

Further into the article we have:

“Five years down the line I think essentially everything we do will be online,” [Chris Brady, dean of the business school at BPP] says. He believes students will be able to choose whether to study online or in a classroom, depending on convenience and cost. “Even if you are a student studying face-to-face, you would still have access to everything online.” He believes this will be the path taken by most mid-range schools. “If they don’t, they can’t grow.”

All this is particularly interesting to me since Stanford University and the University of Southern California began giving MS in Engineering degrees in the early 1970s, 35+ years before this innovation among the business schools. But then, engineers don’t really need to be able to talk to other people face-to-face, right? In general, these engineers showed up on campus only twice: once to register for the courses, the next time to accept their MS degrees. Now, of course, they can register online.

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Definitions revisited

Ever since the early-1970s, when I coined the words, people have been asking me what telecommuting and/or telework mean. I’ve given some structured definitions on the JALA website but those are often not seen by visitors or may still be unclear. So here’s another attempt at clarifying the terms, plus a little background on their origin.


It all started in 1973 when I and my colleagues at the University of Southern California (USC) began work on a grant from the National Science Foundation. The title of the grant was Development of Policy on the Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. It was part of NSF’s Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) program and was designed to explore the federal policy implications of encouraging people to forego using their cars to get to and from work and to use telecommunications technology instead. The title of the grant derived from my rocket scientist days when we were really into terms like tradeoff and system design. But after watching the eyes glazing over  as I told people we were working on the telecommunications-transportation tradeoff  (our team called it T-cubed for short) it became clear to me that a snappier term or terms was needed, something that had a more intuitive feel. Telework and telecommuting were the result. But to further make the concept understandable I insisted that we test it in real business situations, where the proverbial bottom line was the measure of success.

At the time we did the initial research the available technology was far less powerful than it is today. The personal computer had yet to appear on the scene. Computer communications was confined to messaging between mainframes and/or minicomputers over phone lines at speeds like 30 characters per second. Only large organizations could afford the technologies. Broadband networks essentially did not exist, certainly at the national level, except possibly for very large high tech organizations. Therefore my emphasis in those early years was on assessing telecommuting because that’s where the greatest near-term impact would be: reducing energy use and pollution impacts from the numbers of cars involved in the daily commutes between homes and workplaces. Even then, with what we would now call primitive technologies, telecommuting was demonstrably effective.

Today the underlying technologies have morphed though many generations of improvement, to the extent that extremely powerful information processing and communications capabilities are quite inexpensive in the developed world and also are becoming so in emerging economies. So let’s see how those developments have changed the situation.

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