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    Exploring trust to reduce communication barriers in virtual world collaborations Chandra,S., Theng, Y.L., OLwin, M., & Foo, S. (2011). 60th Annual International Communication Association (ICA) Conference, Boston, U.S., May 26-30.

    Exploring Trust to Reduce Communication Barriers in Virtual World Collaborations

    Shalini Chandra, Yin-Leng Theng, May O. Lwin and Schubert Foo Shou-Boon

    Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information Nanyang Technological University



    Virtual worlds (VW) have paved a new and important channel for workplace collaborations. However, analysts have noted that several organizations that made a strong entrance into using VW as a nouveau channel for communication and collaboration are stepping back due to limited user response. Motivated by this fact, we propose a trust-theoretic virtual world model for communication and collaborations in virtual worlds. The model, grounded in literature on organizational communication and trust, theoretically examines the role of trust in developing behavioural intentions for using this rich virtual communication medium for collaborations. Results establish the important roles of perceived structural assurance and perceived social presence for fostering user trust in VW. Further, results also indicate that user trust is a key factor in influencing organizational members to develop behavioural intention to use the VW for collaborations. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

    Keywords virtual worlds, trust, behavioural intention, collaboration, organizational communication

    INTRODUCTION Virtual Worlds (VWs), referred to as three dimensional (3D) simulated virtual environments, have existed largely as game-oriented environments such as World of Warcraft, Sims Online and Everquest. Though originally conceived as a platform for game playing, VWs are gradually emerging into a communication media for social and commercial interaction. The enterprise version of online VW such as Second Life, are becoming highly interactive and collaborative. Some analysts and researchers have predicted that VWs will become the dominant means to access and share information over the Internet in the future (Gartner, 2007). In virtual world Second Life, several multinational organizations such as IBM, Nissan, Toyota, Adidas, Reebok, Dell and Vodafone are conducting operations. Universities like Harvard are holding classes and Edinburgh University runs an e-learning degree in part using Second Life (see http://www.education.ed.ac.uk/e-learning/). Information technology research and advisory firms such as Gartner and Forrester research note the major benefits of VW as a collaboration tool compared to the current collaboration tools such as web/video conferencing and teleconferencing suggesting a bright future of VW for workplace collaborations (Gonsalves, 2008; Lynch, 2008).

    Face-to-face communication is undoubtedly the richest medium of communication as it allows rapid mutual feedback and simultaneous communication of multiple cues (Daft et al., 1987). However, the multinational organizations are spreading their wings worldwide with distributed workforce. Employees are scattered across multiple offices located in different

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    countries around the globe. This calls to use new technologies that would enable disparate employees distributed around the world to communicate, collaborate and create more efficiently and effectively (Second Life, 2010). Answering to this call, VWs are emerging as a promising communication media for workplace collaborations. Virtual world collaboration is defined as the existence of mutual influence among [geographically dispersed virtual] members that enables open and direct communication, resulting in idea generation and conflict resolution and support for innovation and experimentation (Aram and Morgan, 1976). The high degree of involvement and engagement that one can experience in 3DVWs, coupled with the creative characteristic and richness of the environment, provide businesses with ample opportunities for collaboration and information sharing activities.

    However, many companies that made a strong entrance into VW during the first wave of creating virtual presence are stepping back. Despite a high failure rate, experts sense a big future of VW for workplace collaborations and compare the current problems in VW as the problems faced by the web in 1990s. Though the analysts believe that the VW mini-dot com boom has begun, many companies are still struggling to successfully use VW (Wagner, 2007). Though the researchers and practitioners note the potential for rich and engaging collaboration in VWs, they are concerned with the user reactions for the usage of VW. Davis et al. (2009) clearly state the need to understand the user behaviours in VW. Further, Gartner comments that 90 percent businesses fail in VW as these companies give extra emphasis to technology rather than understanding the needs, behaviours and motivations of VW communities (Gonsalves, 2008).

    Highlighting the need to understand the user needs, perceptions and behaviours, it is imperative to note that though VWs are interactive with multiple cues, yet, the collaboration among geographically dispersed and disparate employees involves several IT related security risks and problems of identity authentications as individuals interact via avatars, which are computer generated representations of individuals (Gartner, 2007). Consequently, users perceive several risks and uncertainties. Also, VW collaboration projects involve disparate teams, and virtual processes may differ from what the organizational employees are used to. VWs blur individual boundaries and thrust team members into unfamiliar interactions resulting in ambiguities in collaboration. This communication ambiguity or equivocality developed among geographically dispersed communicating members would lead to disagreement, lack of understanding and confusions (Daft et al., 1987).

    Uncertainty and equivocality inherent in interactions through virtual environments might influence people to revert to traditional face-to-face meetings and collaborations and thus may constrain virtual interactions. This high level of uncertainty and equivocality in VWs demand understanding and emergence of common perspective (Daft et al., 1987). Organizations and individuals must develop mechanisms capable of coping with ambiguous and unstructured environment (Daft et al., 1987).

    Trust, by definition, mitigates such constrains (Brown, 2004). In the VW, trust is a way to manage people whom you do not see (Handy 1995, p. 41). Hence, user trust, which reflects the users concerns about not revealing their true identities and the risks with technology-enabled interactions, seems to be essential for understanding interpersonal behaviour in virtual environments and motivating them to use this nouveau and rich collaboration tool (Paul and McDaniel, 2004). Trust is particularly important in virtual collaborations to reduce communication uncertainty and equivocality and to develop shared understanding and virtual collaborative relationships (McKnight et al. 1998; Newall and Swan 2000). The virtual members must develop trust in other members and listen to them with open minds, be supportive to other members and develop the nuances of working together virtually.

    Though trust is critically important in collaborations through VWs, it is difficult to create and maintain trust in such virtual environments. VW collaborations involve disparate team

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    members working together on the same project. Trust in such differentiated teams can be especially difficult to create and maintain (Luhmann 1979). Motivated by the imperative need to understand the usage of VW as a collaborative tool and positing user trust manifesting in VW as the key enabler for usage intentions of VW for collaborations, in this paper, taking a trust-theoretic stance, we first theorize and then empirically test the trust building blocks in VWs. Further, we also examine the role of trust for developing behavioural intentions (BI) to use VWs for collaborations. Though user trust has been studied in several contexts (Pavlou, 2003; Teo et al., 2009), its role in the context of VW has received scant attention. An understanding from the trust perspective can provide insights for usage of this new rich medium of communication for collaboration. The two specific research questions for this study are:

    1. How do the communication barriers of uncertainty and equivocality influence trust-building in VW collaborations?

    2. What is the role of user trust in developing BI for VW collaboration? There are three primary contributions of the current study. First, we introduce a trust-

    theoretic research model for BI to use VWs for communication and collaborations. To our knowledge, this is the first study that simultaneously investigates the antecedents and the consequences of user trust on VW collaborations. Second, we extend the literature on trust by integrating the literature on trust and research on organizational communication. There is no empirical work of this kind. Third, by conceptualizing the impact of perceived structural assurance and perceived social presence on user trust, the study highlights the means to reduce communication ambiguities and uncertainties in VW interactions drawing the attention of VW designers and developers implementing such systems.

    THEORY AND HYPOTHESES Drawing upon the literature on trust and research in organizational communication, this paper theoretically develops and empirically validates a research model as shown in Figure 1 that predicts usage intentions of VW for collaborations. The study investigates the facilitators of user trust and also the role of user trust in determining the BI to use VW for collaborations. User Trust

    Lewis and Weigert (1985) describe trust as a cognitive process that discriminates amongst persons and institutions that are trustworthy, distrusted and unknown. Luhmann (1979) suggested One should expect trust to be increasingly in demand as a means of enduring the complexity of the future which technology will generate (p: 16). VW are technology-enabled complex worlds. Trust is an effective complexity-reduction tool and a key enabler of virtual collaborations (Paul and McDaniel, 2004). Yet, trust in VW is difficult to build as compared to face-to-face interactions. Hence, understanding the factors accounting for trust in VW is critically important for developing VW usage.

    Zucker (1986) emphasized on institutional trust while Rousseau et al., (1998) argued that trust can be institutional or relational. Institutional trust is formed by providing assurances through various institutional structures that supports the risk-taking ability and develops trust behaviour in the user while relational trust is established by repeated interactions between trustor and trustee. Further, social scientists have identified three types of trust. System trust- is based on the reliance of a system, interpersonal trust- is the trust between the interacting parties or individuals on a personal level and applies to specific parties and contexts, or institution and dispositional trust is the general attitude of the individuals seeking trust and does not rely on any party or context (Leimeister et al., 2005). According to McKnight et al.

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    (1998), there can be no factor that can have direct effect on dispositional trust. In contrast, system trust and interpersonal trust are supported by specific factors. Consequently, in our study we examine user trust being established by system trust and interpersonal trust and determine factors for establishing both system and interpersonal trust. Nonetheless, we control for the dispositional trust in the research model.

    System Trust is the trust in the party established by assuring that all impersonal structures are in place for secured virtual interactions without any risk and privacy issues. Thus system trust gives assurance to the user that proper impersonal structures are in place (Pennington et al., 2003). Interpersonal Trust or the confident positive expectations regarding others conduct has been shown by previous IS researchers as an important factor in determining information sharing behaviours and a desire for future interactions (Naquin and Paulson, 2003). It reflects trust that has been cultivated over time (Pennington et al., 2003). System trust helps the user reduce the perceived risks and uncertainties associated with technology while interpersonal trust or the trust on the abilities and intentions of collaborating members helps reduce the ambiguities or equivocality (difference in opinions) amongst the team members during collaborations. Communication Barriers: Uncertainty and Equivocality To understand the workplace collaborations among geographically dispersed employees through VWs, it is important to delineate the two basic barriers it encounters. After discussing these barriers, we suggest the means by which they can be overcome so as to develop BI to use VWs for collaborations. Research in organizational communication suggests that there are two key problems while processing information in organizations- Uncertainty and Equivocality (Daft and Lengel, 1984; Daft and Lengel, 1986; Daft et al., 1987). In a similar vein, we suggest that workplace communication and collaborations among disparate employees in a virtual setting using VWs has two main obstacles- Uncertainty and Equivocality. The information richness concept (Daft and Lengel, 1984) provides the link between uncertainty and equivocality and the choice of media for communications. Information richness is defined as the capacity of information to provide substantial new consensual understanding (Trevino et al., 1990).

    Uncertainty means the absence of information. Thus, uncertainty is the gap between the data that is needed and the available data to solve a problem or an issue. In uncertain situations, consensual understanding already exists. The organizational theory suggests that uncertainty can be reduced by filling in the information gap and by assuring proper structure for the organizations through reports, rules and procedures (Daft et al., 1987; Trevino et al., 1990). Similarly, VW have several uncertainties due to IT related security risks, problems of confidentiality and lack of verifiable identity control as users can open several accounts and easily hide their true identities (Gartner, 2007). Consequently, uncertainties in VWs are the behavioural and environmental risks which the users perceive. Behavioural uncertainties are present due to the spatial and temporal separation between the interacting users and the lack of identity control. Environmental uncertainties are a concern in VW as it is a technology-enabled interaction. Several researchers suggest developing trust as a means to reduce...


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