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Mary Beth Watson-Manheim earned her PhD from Scheller in 1995.
Mary Beth Watson-Manheim earned her PhD from Scheller in 1995.

PhD Alumni Profile: Watson-Manheim Explores Workplace Changes Enabled by Communications Technology

Everywhere you go, people are focused on their cell phones: talking, texting, answering email and checking social media — and much of this activity is job related. In an age when it's possible to be engaged electronically with the world all the time, it's worth considering, How are computing technologies changing the way we work?

This is the basic question that interests Mary Beth Watson-Manheim, a professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is an alumnus of the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, where she earned her PhD in Information Technology Management.

Prior to joining the UIC faculty in 2006, she spent three years as an assistant professor at the University of Florida. She was awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Scholarship to India for 2009-2010.

Although not everyone texting in a restaurant is conducting business, a growing number of people are finding themselves performing job-related tasks via the Internet outside of the office and traditional work hours.

Among the reasons for this, according to Watson-Manheim, is the 24/7 accessibility of electronic communication, which means the hours demanded by some jobs are no longer framed by time and location. With the emergence of a global economy, the world is open for business all the time, and people have come to expect immediate responses to their questions, needs and concerns, she says.

Telecommuting has re-defined work for at least 3.3 million full-time employees, according to 2013 figures compiled by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. More important from Watson-Manheim's perspective, telecommuting blurs the distinction between professional time and personal time in a profound way.

"Because they're at work and home at the same time, telecommuters don't have the physical separation between the company office and the home office," she explains. "Their personal life is integrated with their work life, and some people are quite comfortable with this arrangement. But many others have to make a conscious effort to set boundaries and decide, When is the end of my work day?"

One of Watson-Manheim's recent research projects examines how project teams, comprised of individuals from different technical backgrounds and in different locations, many of whom have never met in person, rely on communications technology to work together to produce a particular scientific innovation.

"We saw that people have gaps in communication that can make it difficult to share information and collaborate at a distance," she says. "If, for example, members of a particular group don't share the same first-language background, it can be difficult to convey ideas in an email exactly as you intend for them to be understood."

Members of these distributed teams sometimes prefer asynchronous communication because "it gives time to reflect and make sure the email said what they wanted it to say."

Meeting face-to-face even once can help facilitate future communication, she adds, because "communication is also reflected in nuanced ways like body language and personality, so that if you have a 'feel' for a person, you're better able to understand what they're trying to communicate to you."

Watson-Manheim, who retains the soft accent of her native South Carolina, received her bachelor's degree from Columbia College in Columbia, S.C., and spent the next several years working for Southern Bell, first as an assistant manager in building design and construction, and then as a network engineer.

The 1980s and early '90s were a groundbreaking time to work in the communications industry.

"I was there when we bought our first desktop computer, an Apple," she recalls. "We used the furniture budget because there was no budget for desktops — everything was mainframe."

She was intrigued by the access to information provided by the new technology. Watson-Manheim wrote a software application to manage her division's budget and accurately predict how much it would spend. Her innovation won an "Ideas in Action" award at Southern Bell, but she was getting restless.

"My job was interesting," she says, "but I realized that I'd rather explore the changes that technology brings to an organization and to the nature of work itself, so I decided to go into academia."

The management college at Georgia Tech was one of the few institutions offering a PhD degree in the management of information technology.

"I liked the technology focus that infuses everything that's done at Georgia Tech, so that was exciting for me," she says. "I liked that the faculty were interested in new technologies and the larger implications of what they mean to society and organizations. I think that's a lot of what Georgia Tech is about."

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