Rebecca Burnett-Department of English - Carnegie Mellon University

Conflict in the Collaborative Planning of Coauthors: How Substantive Conflict, Reprentation of Task, and Dominance Relate to High-Quality Documents

Author: Rebecca Burnett
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1991

This dissertation presents an observation-based theory and model of conflict in collaboration. The emerging theory supports substantive conflict (i.e., considering alternatives and voicing explicit disagreements) as an essential part of successful collaborative decision- making for coauthors who plan rhetorically complex documents. The model shows that deferring consensus gives coauthors the opportunity to engage in substantive conflict.

The theory and model are based on a study of coauthors in three sections of an upper-level communications course. In three out-of-class sessions, 24 pairs of coauthors collaboratively planned a recommendation report that was part of an assigned workplace simulation. The primary data used for the analyses in this study include tapes of the coauthors' initial planning sessions, tapes and transcripts of their second planning sessions, their final documents, and their individual retrospective reflections that were written after the project was completed.

The study explored three factors in collaborative decision-making and correlated them with the quality of the document the coauthors produced. Two of these factors--initial representation of task and the percentage of substantive conflict during collaborative decision-making--proved to have a statistically significant correlation with document quality. The third factor, dominant-subordinate interaction, did not have any statistically significant correlation with document quality; however, two important patterns were obvious: in ethnically mixed pairs with native speakers of English and bi-lingual speakers, the native speakers were nearly always dominant; in mixed-gender pairs, the male coauthor was only marginally dominant.

This study demonstrates that accurately representing a rhetorically complex task and engaging in a high percentage of substantive conflict about content and rhetorical elements affect collaborative decision-making and, thus, the quality of the coauthors' documents. Specifically, coauthors whose initial representation of the task was complex produced higher quality documents than coauthors whose initial representation of the task was simple. Similarly, coauthors who deferred consensus and engaged in substantive conflict produced higher quality documents.