Examining Virtual Organizations through Socio-Technical Analysis

Research site: https://evosta.ist.psu.edu/

As the options for obtaining and sharing scientific information and problem-solving expand, there is an increasing need to understand and support the sociotechnical requirements of distributed scientific collaboration. While considerable attention has been directed at technical infrastructures for distributed science and engineering, little is known about how these entities function as virtual organizations – how they formulate and pursue shared goals, acquire and manage resources, plan and implement tasks, and so on. This research aims to study these issues in the context of a hybrid two-layer structure common in scientific communities: a persistent loosely-coupled virtual organization that itself consists of emergent distributed projects.

The subject for sociotechnical analysis is the virtual organization that has emerged around a rare piece of scientific equipment, a High Resolution Computed Tomography (HRCT) scanner, one of three such scanners worldwide. The scanner belongs to the Center for Quantitatitve Imaging (CQI), a research center associated with Penn State’s Department of Anthropology; it is used to generate three-dimensional internal maps of physical structures for human and animal subjects. The availability of these high-quality images has promoted many cross-institution and international research collaborations within the scientific community of physical anthropology. The HRCT virtual organization (henceforth HRCT-VO) is complex because it has a two-layer structure that is constantly changing shape. In one layer it provides persistent support for managing the scanning tasks and resulting data; in the other layer it supports emergent projects that overlap in timeline, personnel, and resources. Because at any given point in time, the set of distributed projects supported by HRCT-VO are at different points in their lifecycles, the associated requirements for coordination and communication may also be quite varied.