VOSS: Designing Effective Virtual Organizations

Project: Research project

Project Details


This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5). Virtual organizations - work organizations that rely fundamentally on the Internet rather than physical proximity for conducting their operations - promise to better leverage resources of all kinds throughout the world, and to improve the processes and the outcomes of collaborative knowledge work involving mutually remote partners. Their emergence as an increasingly standard paradigm for work has been meteoric, but has attracted relatively little empirical study. Much of the best empirical work on virtual organizations has documented modest (or worse) success, and primarily focuses on describing risks and failure patterns. Our project complements this body of research by investigating what effectiveness means for virtual organizations, how virtual organizations can achieve effectiveness, and how they can support knowledge work in new and distinctive ways.

The core of this project is an in-depth interpretive study of three established virtual organizations directed at developing a preliminary conceptual and empirical analysis of how they are effective. All of these organizations have been continually operating and growing for more than five years, and are recognized as successful by their stakeholders and members. These organizations have produced a variety of successful knowledge products and services, and exemplify three distinct types of virtual organizations.

We will use participation action research to engage and observe the domain expertise of our partners in real activity contexts, and to assure that our partners have appropriate input in shaping research activities. Our project will use qualitative, field-study methods to empirically characterize the ways in which the partner organizations are effective. We will use interview and content analysis methods to identify strategies the organizations use. We will codify these strategies as design patterns: standard solutions to typical problems. We will apply this patterns-based knowledge in three ways: (1) We will use member checking and participatory design with key informants of the three partner organizations to investigate how the design patterns are useful to our partners. (2) We will publish our patterns on the Web to gather critical reactions from a broader community of virtual organizations with respect to their prima facie validity and utility for understanding and designing virtual organizations. (3) We will incorporate and evaluate features and sociotechnical affordances from the patterns in a prototype virtual organization infrastructure.

Given the growing importance of virtual organizations as a standard paradigm for knowledge work, it is vital better understand how they can be designed to be effective. One way to do this is to investigate how longstanding and successful virtual organizations function, and to try to refine that understanding into actionable design guidance for future virtual organizations.

Effective start/end date9/15/099/30/13


  • National Science Foundation: $397,913.00


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