Montana State University

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Laura BlackA Montana State University professor and a team of researchers have won a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand their study of virtual organizations.

Laura Black, a management professor in MSU's College of Business, said the grant will allow her and the people with whom she is working to study how virtual organizations - or businesses and organizations made up of people who are not physically in the same place -- can be more effective
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The team's research has been focused on what Black says are communication breakdowns among people trying to do innovative work. They hope their research will shed light on why it is hard for virtually organized workers to stay on the same page, as well as provide steps people can take to overcome some of the challenges.

For example, some companies have workers scattered throughout different states and time zones, which can create communication issues. While computer networking and teleconferencing technology has allowed people to work together while located in different places, challenges still arise when people with different expertise try to identify cross-organizational dependencies in their work, Black said.

"Because innovation involves doing something that hasn't been done before, it is often hard to integrate everyone's knowledge," Black said. "Sometimes people don't even know when a miscommunication has occurred until work has progressed for some time, making it harder to correct the work and recover the schedule."

Often collaboration on new innovations brings together companies and organizations that have different perspectives and resources. Black said these efforts are characterized by an absence of both shared governance and shared understanding of the work that must be done.

"To make matters more challenging, there is no unifying organizational culture to surface and resolve problems," Black said.

Black's team thinks there are ways to make virtual organizations work more smoothly. They have discovered, for example, that collaborating as early as possible often produces better outcomes.

"People usually believe the better the first draft the better the final product will be," Black said. "But it's actually better to share a weak document or sketch and interact more times over it -- even if it's 'ugly.'"

The team uses qualitative data from interviews and observations, as we as computer model simulations, which can illuminate useful information that could otherwise be lost, Black said.

"When we run scenarios (with computer models), we check the internal consistency and the variety of possible outcomes we think can play out," Black said. "Sometimes there are holes in our understanding, and sometimes we find a point of leverage we didn't get from other analysis."

Along with Black, members of the grant team include Black's husband, Don Greer, who is an individual research associate hired by MSU to work on the grant; Paul Carlile, a management professor and expert on qualitative research methods and sociological theories from Boston University; David Andersen, a professor of public administration and simulation expert from the University of Albany; and Richard Adams, who works at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research development center.

The team is studying data collected between 2005-2007.

The team hopes the findings could have a positive impact on a variety of organizations, Black said.

For instance, it could help organizations working on military programs prevent what are known as Nunn-McCurdy breaches, which occur when the cost of a major defense development program grows 25 percent more than was originally projected.

Beyond that, the research could be useful to organizations and businesses worldwide, Black said.

"It could help anyone who is trying to do something that hasn't been done before, with people who are not co-located and do not share a common organizational culture," Black said. "We think this is relevant far beyond the industry in which we collected the data. For example, we think it has practical applications for international aid organizations."

Dan Moshavi, dean of the MSU College of Business, agreed the research is important.

"Laura's work will help organizations -- especially those that are comprised of virtual networks of collaborators -- avoid communication breakdowns, improve collaboration and enhance innovation," Moshavi said.

"I'm excited about the work itself," Black said. "The fact the National Science Foundation thinks it might be worth more study is terrific reinforcement."

Laura Black, (406) 994-2056 or lblack@montana.edu

November 6 , 2008 -- By Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service