Public Release: 

Making cyberspace collaboration succeed

University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR---As research, commerce and industry become increasingly global endeavors, the need to collaborate effectively has never been greater. And as the technology that allows collaboration over distance and time improves, the "collaboratory"---a virtual center where people in different locations work together as easily as if they were all in the same place---is gaining appeal in science and education, as well as business and industry. So much so that funding agencies such as National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have taken note and are encouraging grantees to form collaboratories.

But a host of challenges and issues must be dealt with if collaboratories are to live up to their potential, researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University say. In an article in the June 29 issue of Science, Stephanie Teasley, a senior associate research scientist in the U-M School of Information's Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work, and Northwestern University Prof. Steven Wolinsky report on some of the benefits and opportunities collaboratories offer, as well as the stumbling blocks associated with a distributed problem solving environment.

Teasley and Wolinsky are working together on an NIH-funded virtual Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), through which scientists at four Midwestern universities collaborate. Wolinsky, an AIDS researcher, directs the project, and Teasley is coordinating and studying the group's use of collaborative technology. In the Science paper, they identify several important issues for collaboratory users---or potential users---to consider:

  • Social and organizational readiness. "You have to have a group of people that are at a point in their work when they really want to work with someone who is not right next to them, and they've already resolved some of the trust issues and boundary issues about data ownership and authoring publication," says Teasley.
  • Technological readiness. "This is user-centered technology. It should follow function," notes Teasley. Her research group begins with a needs assessment, and then prescribes voice, video and data communication technology, troubleshooting everything before it gets to people's desks and coordinating the technology at various sites. The software used in setting up a collaboratory can be quite simple; with the CFAR group, "we used all off-the-shelf technology and haven't had to custom write anything," says Teasley. For other collaboratory projects, the software is built from the ground up to meet researchers' specific needs.
  • Rewards and incentives for technophiles In-house technological expertise can be a boon to any collaboratory. But while a lab benefits from a technologically savvy member, it is essential to find ways to recognize and reward the contribution of researchers who have gotten off the mainstream track of doing science to manage the technology that supports the science.
  • Finding time Once the technology is in place, another hurdle can be fitting time for cyber-collaboration into already overloaded schedules. "A lot of the richness and real value that people are finding in these collaboratories is this opportunity for real-time interaction," says Teasley. "That is real time though; you have to make time to go over the data, and you've got to make time that coincides with your collaborator's time." In addition, data can pile up more quickly when researchers work together than when they labor alone, and that is a mixed blessing. "More data is always great but it can be a headache," notes Teasley. "How do you manage it? What form it will take? Where will it reside, and who will have access to it?"

Once a lab has cleared the hurdles to getting a collaboratory going, the rewards can be great and the applications broad. A cyberstep beyond asynchronous data sharing, in which researchers just take what they want from an online database and leave, the collaboratory allows researchers at remote locations to interact with each other; hold lab meetings and dynamically manipulate data, all in real time.

For example, a clinician who collected a tissue sample from one of his patients can interact with a second clinician at another site who did a microscopic analysis of the sample and with a pathologist who interprets the sample. In some instances, collaborative technology simply allows people to do better and faster something they already were doing. For example, a group of the CFAR scientists developed a clinical protocol in an hour and half, a process that previously took months to negotiate when done asynchronously with e-mail, faxes and phone calls.

In other cases, innovation in scientific practice can also result. In a collaboratory for upper atmospheric space scientists, computer modelers work closely with instrument specialists. The collaboratory allows them to run the model simulations just minutes before a radar reading is recorded. The modelers get immediate feedback from the radar people on the accuracy of their model, the radar specialists get feedback about where to direct the instruments to capture the best data available. "The fact that those two types of scientists are working together and publishing together represents an innovation for that field," says Teasley.

"In short," says Teasley, "whether providing support for existing practice to occur between geographically distributed colleagues or creating the opportunity for distant colleagues to make innovations in their field, collaboratories offer great promise for science, industry and education."


The University of Michigan
News Service
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