December 6, 1999
Volume 52, No. 14
Joe Porac watches the watchers in his meta-research
Don't blame Joe Porac if he's used to looking over his shoulder.
Professor of organization and management for the Goizueta Business School, Porac and six colleagues are studying the electronic infrastructure that supports scientific coalitions among geographically distributed members of the National Computational Science Alliance.
An undergraduate research assistant watches Porac's team, which is in turn watching the alliance's various coalitions. To evaluate the development, evolution and effectiveness of that virtual structure, they observe the knowledge exchange of multidisciplinary research teams in such fields as environmental hydrology, cosmology and chemical engineering.
The project, "Can Knowledge Be Distributed?" is one of only 30 National Science Foundation proposals funded last year out of more than 650 applications made to the NSF's program in knowledge and distributed intelligence. This past summer, Porac brought his portion of the $1.4 million project with him from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he and several other cohorts have formed a virtual scientific team. Two members of the crew remain at UIUC. Others work from the University of California at San Diego and the University of Wisconsin. Team members work together through desktop videoconferencing and web-based tools.
"We're building and evaluating our own infrastructure for virtual collaboration-as we observe others doing the same," said Porac, professor of organization and management. "It makes for interesting social science."
Current research on how knowledge in organizations is distributed suggests a critical conflict between the goals of technological support and the social psychology of knowledge exchange. It has been observed that the most effective means of creating and sharing knowledge has been through face-to-face interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, technology, unlimited by time or space, has mobilized a broader distribution of knowledge. This issue grows in importance as government, universities and industry invest millions of dollars in building systems to facilitate virtual collaboration and knowledge diffusion within and among their organizations.
Porac suggests that this investment raises compelling practical questions. "Most research universities have embraced electronic technologies and the promise of cyberspace as a place for doing science," he said. "Yet, these same universities are spending millions of dollars in capital programs to provide additional physical space for scientists to share ideas and do their work. Is this a contradiction? We're not sure, but it certainly is a fascinating set of issues to examine."
The alliance is a particularly important case study for the NSF. The organization is one of two NSF-funded coalitions within the Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program, comprising more than 60 educational, government and industry partner organizations. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at UIUC is the leading edge site for the alliance.
The "Can Knowledge Be Distributed?" team is itself interdisciplinary. Seven researchers from social science, computer science, history, business, psychology, philosophy and information science are exploring the social processes involved in virtual collaborative work. The investigation is intended not only to assess current communication and knowledge processes, but also to determine how technology might facilitate knowledge production in other alliances.
The alliance's six applications technologies teams focus on the interrelations of group history, infrastructure use and knowledge characteristics. Porac and his affiliates are examining how these factors jointly shape the tension between "embedded" and "mobile" knowledge.
"We are using both qualitative research methods-ethnography, structured interviews and qualitative document analysis--and quantitative research methods like social network and event history analyses and citation counts," Porac said.
"This project is a new direction for me, no doubt. I have not previously done research on scientists," Porac explained. "However, my main area of research for the last 10 years has been knowledge and cognitive processes in organizations, and this is a natural extension for me. It also takes me into currently hot areas of social science research such as virtual organizations, alliances, science and technology."
The website for the NSF project is www.ncsa.uiuc.edu.