Collaboration and virtual organizations

Report from the APLIC 2009 conference, submitted by Claire Twose

Presentation by Thomas Finholt, Professor and associate dean for research and innovation, School of Information, University of Michigan (April 29, 2009)

Dr. Finholt’s overall argument was that we are in the midst of a significant change in kind of virtual collaborations and virtual organizations that are active and therefore we also need new research approaches to understand and model them.

He framed the presentation in three “acts”: theoretical basis, learning from past research, and future directions.

First Act: Theory

Three ways to describe the shift that affects theoretical approaches:

  1. from small group to crowd: i.e. from a focus on traditional research teams of from 5-8 to online collaborations like Wikipedia and many others
  2. from Human Computer Interaction to social computing (from understanding page design and usability to the social dynamics of Facebook/mySpace)
  3. from psychology (how are we parsing/navigating a screen; social psychology) to economic and sociological approaches that are tailored to model the behavior of large groups

Second Act: Lessons learned from earlier research

Dr. Finholt drew lessons on the clash of work cultures from a study of the NSF funded George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES).

The analysis of cultures he described was along four broad dimensions:

  1. Hierarchy
  2. Collaboration
  3. Masculine/feminine (social monitoring low to high)
  4. Orientation to risk: seeking or not seeking novelty

The NSF study brought together civil engineers and the best IT staff (“hackers”), who only shared one similarity on these four dimensions–they were both “low” social monitors. Civil engineers in general are extremely hierarchical and individualist, the most conservative of engineers (who are already very conservative), and very low risk orientation. The ‘hacker’ IT programmers on this project by contrast had a flat, collectivist culture, with a high risk orientation, always wanting to try new things.

Lessons learned included:

  • It’s important to manage first contacts, script them, help people get over barriers of language
  • Communication has to be intentional activity
  • Find or create common ground, common goals
  • And, the technology is pretty much irrelevant to success: people, managing relationships are the big challenges.

Third Act: New Collaborations

Dr. Finholt then described several examples of new technologies that were virtual collaborations or fostered such collaborations.

  • Ultra-resolution collaboration: Images of the Optiportal at Michigan were shown, an environment to support “radical virtual collocation” using wall-sized displays that researchers in different locations can simultaneously observe. One recent example of the impact of such collaboration was the response to the SARS outbreak. Julie Gerberding, then director of the CDC, reported that video conferencing was instrumental in sharing research and analyzing the virus as quickly as they did.
  • “Crowd sourcing”: E.g. Innocentive.  Finholt gave an example of a New Orleans barge operator who needed to get silt out of barges. The barge operator put out his problem on the site, along with what he was willing to pay for a successful answer. Someone from upper states responded with an idea that worked.
  • “Clickworkers”:Small, incremental contributions from many people, harnessing human computation ability.
    • Scoring mars craters–it took 3 weeks to do what would have taken one expert 4.5 years to complete. Quality assessments of this project showed the voluntary contributions were at or better than expert level.
    • Picassa–creating tag fields for images

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