JoAnn Hackos, PhD, Comtech Services, Inc.

If you’re like me, you have no idea what “propinquity” is. I wasn’t even sure how to spell it. The word appeared in one of the final chapters of our Best Practices 2008 Theme Book. At the September conference, we’ll be using the Influencer: The Power to Change Anything as a focus for our discussions of change. Authors Kerry Patterson et al. introduce the importance of physical proximity as a critical factor in change. The closer together people are, the more likely they are to build the best relationships. Better relationships should lead to better collaboration and teamwork.

Well—I had to look up “propinquity” in Wikipedia. Here’s the definition I found:

“In social psychology, propinquity (from Latin propinquitas, nearness) is one of the main factors leading to interpersonal attraction. It refers to the physical or psychological proximity between people. Two people living on the same floor of a building, for example, have a higher propinquity than those living on different floors.Propinquity can mean physical proximity, a kinship between people, or a similarity in nature between things.”

The term was introduced by Festinger and colleagues, who discovered that people interact in proportion to their physical distance from one another. “Residents of an apartment building living near a stairway, for example, tend to have more friends from other floors than others. The propinquity effect is usually explained by the mere exposure effect, which holds that the more exposure a stimulus gets, the more likeable it becomes.”

[Festinger, L., Schachter, S., Back, K., (1950) “The Spatial Ecology of Group Formation”, in L. Festinger, S. Schachter, & K. Back (eds.), Social Pressure in Informal Groups, 1950.]

At a time when technical publications groups are being dispersed, perhaps we should all learn a lot more about the qualities of propinquity. Glenn D’Amore, one of our Advisory Council members recently reported that his company is requiring people to work at home so that they can decrease their investment in office space. Glenn is worried that the new work arrangements will undermine the long process his team has gone through to build relationships and collaborate on content development.

The same may be said for managers who have dispersed teams. Writers, editors, project managers, and others work in different offices, different cities, different countries—and at home, making the collaboration required for successful content management more difficult. Single sourcing content, creating normalized topics that can easily be shared, maintaining consistent writing styles – all may be made more difficult by a lack of propinquity.

The Influencer’s authors make a very strong case for the critical importance of propinquity. They point to a study demonstrating that “bosses who interact the most frequently with their subordinates generally have the best relationships.” When bosses are located close to their direct reports, they are likely to interact often.

So what happens when everyone is dispersed in multiple locations, even to the extent, as I learned from CIDM members, that some colleagues have never met in person? Patterson and colleagues argue that when team members don’t meet informally and have time to chat, “bad things happen.” Cliques form, people say bad things about the others. The others are labeled as bad people, they contend, because they rarely see one another. It’s easy to blame the others for all the problems that have or may occur.

Even present-day family habits seem to be negatively affected by the lack of physical contact. The authors point to the drop in sales of dining room tables as a sign that families no longer eat dinner together. When every member eats alone, they lose time to talk face-to-face. Teenagers and parents grow apart, they argue, resulting in a loss of parental influence.

They also describe a study conducted at Hewlett-Packard by social scientist, Bill Ouchi. He found that messy desks actually increased collaboration. Colleagues would see interesting things happening in a pile of work on each other’s desks, resulting in more conversations, more collaborations, and more innovative ideas. Bell Labs discovered that collaboration among their scientists could be measured by the “distances between their offices.”

Influencers take advantage of the law of propinquity by moving people together so that they collaborate more effectively. We have certainly seen this practice emerge in the design of agile product development teams. Daily meetings of all the team members keep everyone moving in a coordinated direction with faster and better product design as a result (or so they contend).

By now, I hope you are thinking about two issues:

1. How do I get hold of that book, The Influencer? Go to the conference bookstore:


2. How do I encourage collaboration among my widely dispersed team members when I’m not likely to change corporate policy?


CIDM members have been successful at building collaborative teams even though people are in multiple locations and time zones, but it isn’t easy. At the Best Practices conference, managers have pointed to the importance of bringing people together from time to time, including traveling to India, China, or elsewhere to meet with team members, building personal relationships while visiting, and flying remote team members in to tech pubs conferences or other events (such as the Best Practices conference).

We have learned that some modest investment in propinquity makes a huge difference in the trust and respect that team members have for one another. The investment makes future remote collaborations more successful. Without the investment, we are more likely to hear stories in which the remote team members are blamed for all manner of shortcomings.

Technology Solutions

No doubt all of us believe that bringing team members together goes along way toward building trust, encouraging collaboration, and spurring innovation. However, we are faced with the reality of dispersed teams and increasingly expensive and time-consuming air transportation. We are concerned, rightfully so, with the deep carbon footprint of air travel. We, therefore, look for technology solutions that support communication among our team members.

At the Best Practices conference in 2007, we discussed the growing interest in wikis, blogs, and social communities to bring together internal information creators and external customers. Quite obviously, we are searching for technology solutions that help us communicate more effectively. In 2006, CIDM members read Thomas Friedman’s, The World is Flat, which suggests that much of the globalization of our companies and our economies is due to communication technology. We can bring technical writers from throughout the world into our teams because we can easily communicate electronically.

Just watch your children spend most waking hours (outside of school, we hope) sending text messages to their friends. We use phone calls, instant messages, chats, and email to stay in contact with colleagues. Because those colleagues are no longer in the next cubicle or down the hall, we use technology solutions to stay in touch.

Despite all of the existing solutions, it seems to me that they are inadequate. They don’t allow us to see the people we are talking with. I recently installed a video camera on my computer that works with my Skype account. I find that making visual contact with another person changes the nature of the communication. It’s also been especially useful for me to see our newest grandson. I don’t really know what he thinks about being plopped in front of a computer screen but it’s fun for us. Since he’s not yet ready, at four months, to text, blog, or phone, this communication solution is superb.

To build the family and business relationships we want, we still have to travel. Bill and I go to California to visit one grandson and to Pennsylvania to visit the other six grandchildren. We make an investment of time and money to ensure that we have a lasting relationship. How different this is than when I was growing up and lived in the same house with my grandparents. An aunt, uncle, and cousin lived on the second floor of my grandfather’s multi-family home, built purposely to keep the family close.

Now, when we travel to visit business colleagues and team members, we worry about losing time with family and friends. When we stay at home, we worry about losing contact with those business colleagues who have become personal friends. When we travel much of the time, we dread the hassle of long lines, myriad inspections, and cancelled or delayed flights. When we stay home, we wonder if we’re losing touch.

Our business models include all the current technology solutions but lack the critical need for face-to-face communication. Some studies indicate that looking at someone, being in the same room, helps us better understand the communication. They say that about 60 percent of a conversation is visual rather than verbal. Perhaps that’s why all the text messaging seems so disappointing.

Visual Solutions

Our colleague, Chris Kravogel, has been a strong advocate for the community, Second Life. He has established a DITA area in which he can hold discussions and training. He’s found that the communication of a small group is enhanced by the use of avatars. However, when I look at the avatars, I wonder how much we can expect from cartoon characters that really don’t act like the actual person.

The avatars help us to identify who is speaking, something that is so difficult in a conference call. The benefit, however, is limited when the real people are missing from the dialogue.

Joe Cardinali, a colleague at Cisco Systems, just introduced me to Cisco’s new TelePresence. I’ve used video conferencing in the past, never with a lot of satisfaction. The delays in voice and picture make the communication awkward. The new technology enables you to see details, much like high-definition television. More of the information conveyed by face-to-face meetings seems to be available. Perhaps solutions like this one, although quite expensive, will bring us into closer electronic proximity, mimicking the spatial proximity of propinquity.

Here’s a note from the Cisco website: “Telepresence is a term that has developed within the technology industry to describe a new form of digital communications. The Cisco TelePresence system creates unique, “in-person” experiences for people in their business and personal lives. It is enabling the “human network” by changing the way we live, work, learn and play. [Their] first telepresence product, Cisco TelePresence Meeting, uses extremely high-definition video and audio technologies–including life-size plasma TV screens, sophisticated spatial audio, and advanced cameras that provide eye-to-eye contact. All combined, these innovations radically reduce the barriers that have limited the effectiveness of traditional analog and digital communications for remote meetings. Participants can easily perceive the subtlest facial and body expressions of their counterparts. The audio realistically replicates sounds, so, for instance, if someone on the left side of a table speaks, you hear the sound on your left. There are no technical issues with managing how and when people speak, so participants can talk in their normal tone and style. All this combines to make it seem as if all the participants are actually in the same room together.”

Take a look at the website, and let me know what you think. My question to you is “Can we increase the propinquity of our teams through such technology solutions?” Is it enough? Do we make the connections that are essential to our new goals for information development?

For several years now, CIDM members and managers have recognized the need for increased communication, collaboration, and teamwork. If our goals for content management and effective customer communication are to succeed, we need to change the rules of engagement.

Read Influencer, our Best Practices theme book, and consider the authors’ case for the importance of the physical environment. Join us in September in Santa Fe, New Mexico for Critical Conversations. Use this opportunity to meet in person, in close physical proximity with colleagues who are all struggling with similar team-building and communication issues. Join the on propinquity (coming soon).