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Virtual Proximity and Collaboration

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VIRCOLLAB (Virtual Proximity and Collaboration)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The project set out to investigate virtual temporary proximity as compared to physical temporary proximity as vehicles for enhancing knowledge production, co-production and diffusion. Virtual proximity has been made possible with the advancement of communication technologies and increased penetration of the Internet, where virtual meetings have been proposed as a cost- and time-effective alternative to physical conferences.

The project informs to both managers (especially of technology-intensive or science-based firms) and policymakers (at the country or regional, such as EU, levels) in terms of strategic knowledge production and spillover. Despite common critiques of some temporary events, the results show them to be worthwhile to attend, both in terms of disseminating work among peers and finding suitable collaborators. Our results suggest that policymakers in scientific funding agencies should consider supporting and fostering temporary colocation events as an effective alternative form of proximity that brings individuals together temporarily to exchange ideas and create ties outside of a researcher’s usual sphere of interactions. This is important especially since studies have shown that diverse views and breadth of knowledge lead to more impactful and creative innovations (Simonton, 1999).

Hence, temporary and virtual colocation provides a forum for interactions that can be cheaper and more effective alternative that affords managers some degree of flexibility before (over)committing (Ghemawat et al., 1998). Furthermore, temporary colocation also enables the formation of more distant ties (Sorenson et al., 2008) in addition to the more common local ties, hence diversifying the types of ties as well as the ideas that flow into the organization. More specifically, this work also informs whether managers of science and technology-intensive firms should pledge substantial funds for employees to participate in professional or academic conferences, as these events impact the subsequent direction of R&D activities. Thus, managers should be careful to choose conference topics that are appropriate for their organization’s innovation strategy, whether they are looking to exploit or explore existing technology portfolios and know-how.

Virtual conferences have the promise to considerably change the way researchers organize and meet temporarily to exchange ideas outside of their immediate geographically proximate neighbors, as the results of this study show that indeed their relative effects especially as a vehicle to establish further collaborative connections are greater than physical conferences where attendees can interact face-to-face. Thus, there is also great potential for policymakers and managers to employ this vehicle of virtually meetings as a cost and time effective alternative to physical conferences, as well as an even more cost effective alternative to permanent colocation.
The scientific results show that both physical and virtual temporary colocation both enhance knowledge spillover, however, their effect sizes are quite different since the audiences that attend them are very different. These findings imply that while both physical and virtual temporary colocation events can be used by researchers and managers to enhance knowledge spillover and the search for collaborators, choosing the right setup is crucial and dependent on the intended cost, time commitment and envisioned impact.

The scientific objective of the project was to produce publishable papers that investigate and compare virtual temporary proximity and physical temporary proximity in terms of their effect on knowledge productivity, collaboration and spillover. Hence the milestones and deliverables were all geared toward gathering, cleaning and analyzing quantitative as well qualitative datasets to address the research question. For the quantitative analysis, a panel dataset of virtual and physical conference participants and their publication history was garnered and matched to a set of non-participants and their publication history. For the qualitative analysis, interviews were performed and transcribed. Instead of only doing interviews, it was decided to also use surveys in order to reach more individuals. The data gathered was then analyzed and summarized into results tables. Finally, following feedback from attending conferences and research discussions, two academic papers were written instead of the single proposed one, as well as a practitioner article summarizing the academic publications.
"Physical conferences
The first paper titled “Knowledge Spillover and Collaboration through Temporary Colocation”, focuses on the premise that the flow of knowledge is closely linked to proximity. The flow of knowledge is closely linked to proximity. While an extensive literature shows that long run geographic proximity increases knowledge flows and affects work behavior, relatively little is known about how short term colocation affects future work behavior. Conferences bring people from different locations and organizations together for short periods of time to share information about their work. Using data on participants at Gordon Research Conferences in life sciences, we estimate difference-in-differences and instrumental variable models that show that conference attendees who have not previously worked with other conference attendees are more likely to collaborate with other attendees in the future than otherwise comparable non-attendees, and that the scientists who have worked previously with other attendees are likely to continue those collaborations post the conference more than scientists who did not attend the conference continue their collaborations. We also find that junior researchers, researchers who are located closer to the conference venue, researchers with established prior ties and researchers with similar profiles to the average conference attendee draw more collaborative benefits from temporary colocation than do others. Thus, going to a conference alters both the creation and dissemination of collaboration.

Virtual conferences
An interesting extension to this work is to explore the same research question above but in the context of virtual proximity. I do so in the paper titled ""Virtual or Physical Colocation: Productivity, Collaboration & Diffusion"". With the advent of the Internet and more economical and reliable means of telecommunication, virtual conferences and their promise of cost and time effectiveness are becoming more prevalent. However, little empirical evidence that assesses the subsequent productivity and collaborative impacts of virtual conference participants is available. I introduce the concept of virtual proximity and investigate how the participation in a virtual conference affects attendees’ career trajectory in terms of subsequent productivity and collaborations. I use interviews and surveys to better understand how participants view virtual meetings and why they choose to participate. I then use a difference-in-differences setup to contrast a sample of researchers who attended conferences to a matched sample of qualitatively similar researchers who did not attend, before and after the attendance of a BioConference Live event. I also contrast participation in virtual conferences with traditional physical conferences.