7(2), April 1990, pages 35-46

Leadership Dynamics of Computer-Supported Writing Groups *

Janis Forman

Those of us interested in both collaborative writing and in how technology affects writing will need to turn our attention to how technology affects collaborative writing. And, from a purely practical standpoint, those of us who instruct students looking for jobs in industry will need to know something about computer-supported group writing in order to prepare these students for the work environment of the 90s where computer tools for group work will increasingly be the norm.

For the past four years, a colleague and I have been conducting IBM-sponsored research on the computer-supported group work of student project teams. Our study suggests several conclusions about how technology is used by student groups to manage their writing assignments. One set of findings concerns how teams choose technology and how they choose to use it in handling a writing task. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how the leadership dynamics of these student groups contributed to the teams' choice and use of technology.

The essay begins with a brief overview of the research project followed by a consideration of student work groups and their leaders, research methods, findings of the study, and suggestions for further research and for instruction.

The IBM Project

My co-principal investigator and I chose an extended student consulting project as the subject for our study of how technology influences group writing. For 20 weeks of their second year, MBA students at the Anderson Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at UCLA work in groups of three to five to define and solve a problem for an organization. Once teams have solved the organization's problem, they present solutions to their client in a written report of approximately 25 pages. The report serves in lieu of a masters thesis and is graded by an AGSM faculty member who meets with the team periodically.

In the first year of our research project, my co-principal investigator and I studied two teams with limited access to computing (a variety of un-integrated word-processing and graphics packages) in order to learn about their group processes, uses of technology, and writing and revision practices. Then, in consultation with vendors and computer specialists, we determined what kinds of technology might best support the teams' group work.

This preliminary investigation enabled us to select a package of computer-based tools to assist teams. Ideally, the package would help teams overcome scheduling and time pressures, make contact easy among team members and advisors, and allow integration and revision of report sections. The package consisted of portable personal computers with portable printers and modems; an integrated software package with word-processing, spreadsheet, and database capabilities; and a telecommunications package allowing for electronic messaging, electronic file transfer, and electronic filing/bulletin board functions.

Single elements of AGSMs or individual student's equipment might have been of higher quality (for instance, better quality printing), but none was standardized or configured to meet the group-writing needs of teams. However, the archiving, messaging, document transfer, access control, and merging capabilities of the equipment made it far superior for group work than other equipment available to students.

In the second year, we asked four teams (two teams of three students; two teams of four students) to participate in our study. In exchange for use of the computer equipment and training, teams agreed to allow us to observe and monitor their work. The offer of free computer equipment made teams eager to participate.

In addition to computer equipment, students were given a variety of opportunities to learn how to use it: training sessions, help from trained assistants, simplified versions of manuals tailored to their needs, and group meetings to identify and solve problems with technology. As further incentive to use the new technology, teams were reimbursed for telephone expenses incurred in the use of telecommunications.

Assumptions About Student Groups and Their Leaders
As a composition specialist and writing instructor, I was primarily interested in the identifiable writing activities of the teams. But, paradoxically, to study the teams' writing activities required going outside of composition paradigms and looking at the data by using assumptions that a management specialist in small group dynamics or in the management of information systems would use. More specifically, understanding how groups use technology to handle writing tasks required knowledge of student groups and their leadership dynamics.

Two characteristics seem to set apart student groups from other groups. First, they are informally organized and nonhierarchical--in contrast, let's say, to most corporate groups which have formal structures with designated superiors, associates, and subordinates. Second, with few exceptions, student groups are immature. [1] That is, teams have not worked together before undertaking a class project, in this instance a computer-supported writing task. As a result of the group's immaturity, students have limited knowledge of each other's abilities, values, work styles, and goals. It is only in the course of working together on the computer-supported writing project that students learn about and develop their work styles and task responsibilities.

The immature student group may be contrasted with other groups whose collaborative writing and use of technology have been studied--co-authors who have worked together on several writing projects (Ede & Lunsford, 1983, 1986), and task groups in industry that work together repeatedly on the same kind of projects. By and large, in the case of the latter groups, team members have established norms and defined roles for working together. And in the case of co-author or industry writing groups using technology, some of these groups have even worked out what technology to use and how to use it (Forman, 1986).

Student groups are, then, nonhierarchical and immature, and therefore somewhat amorphous in structure and ill-defined in the ways they operate. The characteristics of these groups suggest certain features of technology leadership within these groups that may, in fact distinguish them from co-author or industry groups. Technology leadership, as I use the term, refers to those who most influence the team's choice and use of technology. [2] The technology leader initiates and/or sustains the technological dimension of the writing task.

How, then, does the technology leadership in student teams differ from that in mature groups, co-authors, and industry groups? First, the technology leadership of student groups emerges rather than being previously established from past collaborative experience or imposed from above as is the case in industry whenever top management decides policies on the use of technology. The emergent leadership on student teams derives its authority from the tacit or explicit consent of the group (Hollander, 1964). Student leaders may emerge in a variety of ways: through default (no one else is willing to take the job), through consensus about a student's expertise in computing, or through the need or brute determination on the part of an individual to be the leader--regardless of his or her talents to assume the role. Second, student leaders, in contrast to leaders in formally hierarchical and mature groups, may influence decisions but, lacking formal authority, may not dictate them. Third, perhaps due to immaturity or to lack of formal hierarchy, student teams may develop technology leadership that is split among team members, or "floats," as it were, from one member to another.

Research Methodology

My co-principal investigator and I used a multi-pronged research methodology because the questions we addressed individually and jointly were complex and because our research interests, although sometimes overlapping, were occasionally divergent.

Research methods for the study consisted of the following:

  1. Four interviews with each student individually over the course of the study: (a) an early interview on technology experience, work schedules, preferred medium for communicating, attitudes toward use of technology, writing experiences (individual and group), attitudes toward writing (individual and group), group experience, and expectations about the project; (b) an interim assessment of the Field Study project and technology use; (c) a final assessment of technology use; and (d) a final assessment of writing and project experience over the course of the project.
  2. Students' weekly, self-reported logs, which record frequency, channels, purposes, and recipients of communications.
  3. Computer-monitored data on the use of the telecommunications package for messaging and document transfer. Data consisted of the following:
  4. Direct observations and recording of meetings in which teams outlined, critiqued, and revised major written products.
  5. Post hoc questioning of individuals and teams on decisions about the structure, content, and style of drafts and the final report. Individual questionnaires on group processes and group writing processes for an early document, followed by a taped group interview of team's responses to the same questions.
  6. All written notes, outlines, drafts, and final documents.

Data analysis addressed many issues relating to group writing and technology and to the uses of the technology for group work. Only findings pertaining to the leadership dynamics of the groups are reported here.


Five findings about technology leadership in writing groups emerged from data collection and analysis:

  1. Two kinds of student technology leaders, the technology expert and the technology advocate emerged. These are new categories derived from the study. The technology expert was the person in the group who knew the most about technology. By technology expert I do not mean to imply that the individual was a professional programmer; rather, he or she was proficient in one or more software packages and may have had experience using telecommunications and graphics packages prior to the project. [3] The technology advocate, on the other hand, was the individual who was most interested in initiating and sustaining the use of new technology throughout the writing project. It is possible for technology experts and advocates to be one and the same person, but they are not necessarily so. Making distinctions between the two kinds of leadership is, I believe, important to understanding how student groups in this study used technology to handle their writing tasks.

  2. Surprisingly, technology experts did not necessarily champion the use of new technology for handling group writing. Several disincentives for learning new hardware and software packages contributed to the experts' failure to advocate usage:

  3. Technology advocates were not the technology experts. ln some cases, the technology advocates forced others on their team to use the new technology, because they, the advocates, wanted to use it. Rather than being the technology experts, the advocates were, instead, those with the greatest personal incentive to use the technology. For instance, they advocated a certain piece of technology because it was the only equipment they had at home, or because they perceived the equipment to be better than anything else available at school. On one team, the technology advocate claimed that the telecommunications best served her team's needs for transferring early drafts among themselves. She forced two others to upload and download drafts of the report. On another team, the advocate forced a team member to receive the names and addresses of clients via electronic messaging rather than over the phone because the advocate said electronic messaging conveyed the information more quickly and accurately.

  4. Technology advocates had spotty influence; technology experts had sustained influence on their group's choice and use of technology. Technology advocates pressured team members to use telecommunications for transferring drafts or for receiving data, but it was the technology experts on the teams who, in general, decided which hardware and software were used and for what purposes. For instance, on all four teams, experts decided how conversions between 5 1/4- and 3 1/2-inch machines were handled. The burden of these conversions also fell to the technology experts as the team members most knowledgeable and tolerant of technological details. Teams made different choices--some used modems; others hand-carried diskettes--but in all instances the preferences of the technology expert were the deciding factor. Advocates initiated technology use, but their leadership was incomplete because their choices were not accepted as the overall package and approach for the writing task. Experts were the successful leaders. [4]

  5. Technology leadership was associated with leadership in managing the writing task. On three of the four teams, the technology expert was also the writing leader. He or she had a major role in defining the scope and the goals of the report, and in outlining, drafting, revising, and editing.


In each of these student groups which were free to choose what technology to learn and how to use it, a team's leadership dynamics influenced the team's shared experience with technology. Powerful individuals, experts and advocates, determined how the group used technology to support their group writing.

Further Research
The results reported here focused on the central role of leadership dynamics in students' choice and use of technology. But only further research can determine how important leadership dynamics are to a writing team's choice and use of technology. Additional investigations may be able to show whether the distinction between technology expert and technology advocate is a useful one.

The findings suggest several questions for further research:

On the basis of further research, we, as instructors, may be able to determine whether we should encourage certain kinds of leadership patterns in student writing groups using technology. We may find, for instance, that depending upon the size and composition of a writing group and the complexity of its writing task, some leadership patterns are more productive than others. On the other hand, even with more knowledge of optimal and dysfunctional leadership dynamics, many of us may still decide to minimize our influence on writing groups if our pedagogical goal is to maximize students' collaborative learning experience as equals free to experiment with group process.

For now, we must, I think, conclude from the findings that our approach to teaching students how to use computing for group writing should be interdisciplinary. To use technology effectively for their group writing tasks, students must be taught (1) about the nature of student groups, leaders, and group dynamics; (2) about what allows for successful use of groupware; and (3) about how effective co-author and industry writing groups establish policy and informal norms for using technology to support collaborative writing activities, and what procedures these mature groups use to make the best use of technology. To offer interdisciplinary instruction, we should ask our colleagues in social psychology to provide short lectures or workshops on group dynamics, and our colleagues in the management of information systems to provide similar assistance on the uses of groupware in the workplace. Especially in those institutions with established writing across-the-disciplines' programs, the climate for interdisciplinary teaching of this kind is good; in this instance, writing instructors will be seeking rather than providing expertise.

The findings also suggest that there ought to be a place for students' "empowerment" in their institution's choice of and use of technology. Rather than committing huge expenditures and human resources to groupware on the basis of expert opinion alone, schools may want to experiment with several groupware products to determine which product best meets the needs of students. Students' experience with and assessment of these products should be considered in schools' final adoption of technology.

* An earlier version of this article was presented at the 1989 4Cs in Seattle. This paper reports results from a research project jointly conducted with Dr. M. Lynne Markus, Assistant Professor of Management & Information Systems at the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA (AGSM). The research was supported, in part, by a grant from IBM, with principal investigators: Professors Jason Frand, Michael Granfield, Carol Scott, and E . Burton Swanson, all of AGSM. Professor Markus and the author gratefully acknowledge the participation of our research subjects and the assistance of Douglas Reese, Christopher Wasden, and Mary Kawahira in data collection and analysis.

Janis Forman designed and now directs the writing program for the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA. She is currently editing a collection of critical essays on collaboration for Boynton/Cook and is also the author of The Random House Guide to Business Writing.

  1. For an excellent discussion of group development, and especially group maturity, see Linda N. Jewell and H. Joseph Reitz's Group Effectiveness in Organizations.
  2. I am adapting Tannenbaum, Weschler, and Massarik's definition of leadership: "We define leadership as interpersonal influence, exercised in situation and directed, through the communication process, toward the attainment of a specified goal or goals" (p. 24).
  3. In the computer literature on learning technology, "technology expert" generally refers to a programmer. See, as an example, Susan Wiedenbeck's "Novice/Expert differences in programming skills." The definition used in this article departs from that tradition.
  4. In Leaders, Groups, and Influence, E. P. Hollander establishes this distinction between successful and unsuccessful leadership. Successful leaders' initiations are sustained; unsuccessful leaders' initiations are not sustained.


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