Past Projects

Many of these projects, especially those completed in WTO’s early years, established the reputation the group has today in the field of organization and technology studies.

How the Internet is Changing the Work of Car Salesman
2003 – 2014
Faculty: Stephen R. Barley

Drawing on ethnographic data collected over a two year period in two car dealerships, this research employs role theory and a dramaturgical analysis of sales encounters to show how the internet has changed the relationship between car salesmen and their customers.

The Effects of Communication Technologies on Availability
2008 – 2011
Faculty: Stephen R. Barley, Debra Meyerson
Students: Stine Grodal

Over the last several decades, people have become increasingly concerned about their inability to manage the boundary between work and family. During the same period of time the number of communication technologies that people employ have expanded to include email, voicemail, chat rooms, video conferencing and internet messaging. Some people argue that these new technologies enable us to juggle the demands on our lives more effectively. Others claim that they are intrusive and are blurring the boundary between home and work. Yet, few researchers have studied how these new communication technologies are affecting our availability and our notions of what it means to be accessible. Using data collected from communication logs, interviews and observations, this study examines how communications technologies affect the boundaries between work and the remainder of our lives and how they shape our sense of what it means to be accessible.

Transformation Of Engineering Design: Digitization and Global Distribution of Engineering Work
2004 – 2008
Faculty: Stephen R. Barley, Diane Bailey (University of Texas, Austin)
Students: Vishal Arya, Will Barley, Jan Chong, Daisy Chung, Yosem Companys, Ingrid Erickson, Aamir Farooq, Alex Gurevich, and Paul Leonardi
Research Partner: General Motors

This project investigates how information technologies that employ sophisticated mathematical techniques are reshaping technical work through a process that we call intensification of abstraction. The intensification of abstraction centers on the replacement of the physical by the virtual: the manipulation of symbols that represent and substitute for objects. We investigate the impact of this process in the context of automotive engineering design. Specifically, we study the way in which tools that employ techniques like finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics are bringing about changes in how engineers think about and do engineering, changes in organizational structures and processes, changes in the nature of engineering knowledge, and changes in the division of engineering labor. We also trace how these technologies alter relationships between automotive firms and their suppliers and pave the way for outsourcing engineering design and analysis.

Ethics and Nanotechnology: Mapping the Views of the NNIN Community
2004 – 2007
Faculty: Robert E. McGinn
Research Partner: National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

I am engaged in studying the nanotechnology-related views about ethics held by over a thousand scientists and engineers performing nanotech R&D work at the 13 U.S. universities comprising the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.

Collaborating Across Companies and Context
2003 – 2007
Faculty: Pamela J. Hinds, Mark Mortensen
Students: Tsedal Neeley, Ingrid Erickson

The Social Construction of Telecommuting
2002 – 2007
Faculty: Stephen R. Barley, Diane Bailey (University of Texas, Austin), and Andrew Nelson (University of Oregon)
Students: Dana Wang

We investigate the social construction of telework by conducting a rhetorical analysis of over 3000 abstracts published on the topic since the term was first coined in the early 1970s. Our aim is to show how and why the concept of telework persisted over decades even though estimates of the number of teleworkers has always fallen far short of predictions. We find that actors could construe the concept of telework to address a variety of social and organizational problems over time, including transportation and energy concerns, working women, work and family balance, high real estate costs, and compliance with legal regulations, including the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Structuring Distributed Work
2001 – 2007
Faculty: Pamela J. Hinds, Cathleen McGrath (Carnegie Mellon University)

Scholars have recently argued for flatter, organic organizational structures that enable workers to deal more effectively with dynamic and uncertain environments. This presumption, however, has been challenged in distributed work, particularly when workers are globally distributed. In an initial study of 33 R&D teams, we found that although this network form is associated with more smooth coordination in collocated teams, the opposite is true for geographically distributed teams. In fact, an informal hierarchical structure was associated with more smooth coordination in distributed teams. These results add to the scant literature on networks in teams and provide insight into important differences in the structure of geographically distributed and collocated teams.

Robots at Work
2001 – 2007
Faculty: Pamela J. Hinds, David Wettergreen (Carnegie Mellon)
Students: Justin Chung, Hank Jones, Taemie Kim, Yuechuan She, Rosanne Siino, and Kristen Stubbs
Collaborators: Terry Roberts

How do humans develop an understanding of a world in which humans and robotic assistants are interacting and coordinating work together? The work environment raises certain issues, such as teamwork and productivity, which are less evident in non-work settings. In this series of studies, we examine social and organizational issues such as autonomy and responsibility for outcomes, worker satisfaction, and coordination across workers. To study how robotic assistants will interact with people in the work environment, we have explored the mental models that workers develop of robotic assistants and of the social system in which the robotic assistant functions. We are also exploring the relationship between autonomy, disclosure and transparency, that is, when robots are more autonomous, how is transparency achieved? What is the role of self-disclosure (e.g. about its decision processes) by the robot?

One study examined how members of a science team used a remote rover to collect science data. The goal of this research was to gain a thorough understanding of the Life in the Atacama human-robot system through a set of systematic observations conducted simultaneously of the remote science team (in the U.S.) and the engineering team and rover in the Atacama desert in Chile. By conducting in-depth ethnographic observations, Pamela Hinds (Stanford), Kristen Stubbs (CMU), and David Wettergreen (CMU) developed a better understanding of the mental model scientists had of the rover, what capabilities they attributed to the rover, what contributed to errors and confusion when commanding the rover, and how the scientists interpreted data provided by the rover. Through these observations, we make recommendations for improvements to the human-robot system including the scientist-robot interface and the rover itself.

We also conducted a study of the HelpMate robot deployed in hospitals. Our goal was to better understand how workers make sense of a robotic assistant, how these robots are integrated into the work environment, and how they affect the work practices of the hospital workers. We conducted an ethnographic “before-and-after” comparison of processes and structures; that is, observations began when the technology was first purchased but had not yet been delivered and continued as the technology was integrated into the setting. One paper from this data focuses on how different groups within the hospital made sense of the robot differently and considers how these differences contribute to conflicts around the use and acceptance of the technology.

Conflict in Distributed Teams
2000 – 2005
Faculty: Pamela J. Hinds, Diane Bailey (University of Texas, Austin), and Mark Mortensen

Conflict is said to be more severe and harder to manage in distributed teams. In several studies, we have compared the dynamics of conflict in collocated and distributed teams. In our theoretical work on conflict in distributed teams, we develop a theory-based explanation of how geographical distribution provokes team-level conflict. We do so by considering the two characteristics that distinguish distributed teams from traditional ones: namely, we examine how being distant from one’s team members and relying on technology to mediate communication and collaborative work impacts team members. Our analysis identifies antecedents to conflict that are unique to distributed teams. We predict that conflict of all types (task, affective, and process) will be detrimental to the performance of distributed teams, a result that is contrary to much research on traditional teams. We also investigate conflict as a dynamic process to determine how teams might mitigate these negative impacts over time.

In our empirical work, we examine conflict, its antecedents, and its effects on performance in distributed as compared with collocated teams. Our goal is to understand how conflict plays out in distributed and collocated teams, thus providing insight into how existing models of conflict must be augmented to reflect the trend toward distributed work.

Knowledge Transfer and Knowledge Use
1998 – 2005
Faculty: Pamela J. Hinds, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Laurie Weingart (Carnegie Mellon University)
Students: Kristina Dahlin (Carnegie Mellon University), Michael Patterson

In this series of studies, we examined the factors that contributed to and inhibited knowledge sharing and knowledge use among workers. We conducted field studies and laboratory experiments on the limitations of expertise and, more generally, on the cognitive and motivational challenges of sharing expertise, especially within organizations. We also conducted a study of the factors that facilitated the use of knowledge in diverse teams.

Knowledge Brokering and Innovation
2000 – 2003
Faculty: Robert I. Sutton
Students: Andrew Hargadon

We have been studying business units and companies that are connected to diverse and otherwise disconnected pools of knowledge. Sutton and Hargadon have studied companies including 3M, IDEO Product Development, and Boeing to understand how these “brokers” use that network position to transfer knowledge from where it is plentiful to where it is rare and how they mix their diverse knowledge to invent useful new combinations of existing technologies.

Assessing the Role of Technology in the Work of Modern Engineers
2000 – 2003
Faculty: Stephen R. Barley, Diane Bailey (University of Texas, Austin)
Students: Fabrizio Ferraro, Hemi Gefen, Mahesh Bhatia, Julie Gainsburg, Lesley Sept, Jan Chong, and Carlos Rodriguez-Lluesma
Research Partner: General Motors

We know very little about what engineers actually do all day, the technologies they employ, and the extent to which their knowledge and tasks are being commodified, for example by being digitized and stored in engineering design databases. Our ignorance in these matters severely limits our ability to successfully design engineering workspaces and tools, to manage engineering groups, to educate and train engineers, and to understand the larger role of the engineer within the firm and in society. In this research project, WTO researchers pair up with experts from civil engineering and electrical engineering to study two types of engineers: structural engineers who design buildings and electrical engineers who design chips. Employing ethnographic techniques involving observation and interviews, we seek to answer three questions: (1) What do engineers do, and how does what they do vary by engineering discipline? (2) What technologies do engineers employ to accomplish work, and why? (3) To what extent and in what manner do these technologies embody engineering knowledge and tasks?

Designing Work Systems for Innovative versus Routine Work
2000 – 2003
Faculty: Robert I. Sutton

This stream of research that builds on James March’s distinction between exploration of new possibilities and exploitation of existing skills, knowledge, and markets. Sutton’s research shows that to organize for innovative work, a company or team needs work practices that bring in diverse ideas, to see old things in new ways (which he calls vu ja de, a kind of reverse déjà vu), and to break from the past, with the goal of making money later. In contrast, to organize for routine work, a company needs to drive out variation to assure consistency in actions and products, see old things in old ways, and replicate past and proven knowledge and actions, with the goal of making money now.

Turning Knowledge into Action
2000 – 2003
Faculty: Robert I. Sutton, Jeffrey Pfeffer (Graduate School of Business)

We examine how forces including metrics, precedent, fear, and dysfunctional internal conflict stop firms from acting on proven knowledge, and especially, how firms overcome and avoid these problems.

Contingent Work in Silicon Valley
1998 – 2003
Faculty: Stephen R. Barley, Gideon Kunda (University of Tel Aviv)

The use of contract and contingent workers is growing throughout the U. S. economy, but nowhere is this more true than among engineers and software designers in the Silicon Valley. Reliance on skilled contingent workers represents a sharp break with employment practices of the recent past and provides fertile ground for studying the emergence of new labor market institutions. This program of research explored the social and institutional ecology of contract engineering in the Silicon Valley and focuses on identifying emerging organizational patterns that structure the market for highly skilled contractors. Professors Barley and Kunda conducted detailed ethnographies of staffing firms with different business models, compiling life histories with contractors from the Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and did observational studies of project teams in client organizations that were staffed by a combination of contractors and full time employees.