NSF Workshop Summary: Building Effective Virtual Organizations

The National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a workshop on Building Effective Virtual Organizations (EVOs) in Washington, DC, 14 - 16 January 2008.

The workshop was primarily focused on virtual organizations as they impact science and engineering projects funded by the NSF. With the expanding reach of the internet and the growing capability of and need for scientific researchers to work in geographically dispersed collaborative teams, the NSF recognized a need for focusing on improved effectiveness of these virtual organizations. The workshop was designed to bring together 'virtual organization veterans' and 'social scientists with years of experience studying what makes virtual organizations succeed (and fail)' with others in the scientific research community who have a strong interest in learning more about how to build EVOs and an equally strong interest in expanding the knowledge base about the effectiveness of virtual organizations, especially with respect to e-Research or e-Science. A stated goal was for event attendees to "learn what is required to make virtual organizations successful, and to establish new connections that will help you succeed in your research and education projects in the future."

Although my attendance at the event was a bit misplaced due to my current focus being more on entrepreneurial activities and regional economic improvement than on scientific research, the event was highly worthwhile for me in terms of making valuable new contacts and highlighting interesting new directions and possibilities. One project benefiting from the workshop is the FireSeed Streaming Supercomputer ad hoc tech project (FS3). As a result of discussions and connections at the workshop, we will be exploring options for NSF involvement in the basic science research aspects of FS3 such as many-core parallel processing and the dynamics of a virtual organizations involving 'open source' and informal 'flat world' concepts. Another example of workshop attendance benefits are some great new connections and opportunities for the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Women Soar program focusing on STEM opportunities (science, technology engineering, math) for high school girls.

The workshop started with an evening reception on 14 January which gave people a chance to meet new people or talk with acquaintances, colleagues and friends. Because I received a list of workshop participants on 9 January, I had developed a list of people I wanted to connect with during the event and had contacted a number of them via email to initiate the connection. As a result of those emails, on 14 January I met three of the targeted contacts -- a person heavily involved with and knowledgeable about Internet2, a researcher from University of New Mexico involved with ecoinformatics and biodiversity, and an Indiana University researcher heavily involved with telecollaboration tools.

A full slate of activities began bright and early on 15 January with the 7 AM continental breakfast, followed by a good mix of informative presentations, panel discussions, multi-track interest group sessions and several break periods which allowed time for making more of my targeted attendee connections. The conference organizers did an especially helpful job of facilitating connections by providing a packet with 150-word bios, pictures and contact info for each of the workshop attendees. This packet made it much easier to know which attendees it would be beneficial to meet and also made it easier to find them in the midst of a couple hundred unfamiliar faces. Scheduled workshop activities for the day concluded with a poster session where many attendees displayed posters detailing their activities related to virtual organizations. By the end of the day my head was buzzing with new ideas and info about EVOs, new names and faces, and a few more items on my to-do list.

The agenda for 16 January started with breakfast at 7:30 AM, giving attendees an additional half-hour of either sleep or time to work on some of the tasks they were trying to accomplish in addition to attending the workshop. Activities for the day included a good mix of presentations and discussion sessions with two additional highlights. The first highlight was a talk by Dan Atkins, Director of the NSF Office of Cyberinfrastructure, presenting his suggestion that a new NSF initiative be considered which will address the critical need for High Performance Collaboration. See an earlier post on this blog for more details regarding that initiative. The other highlight was a working session which divided the workshop attendees into small groups to address four issues related to EVOs, such as how would the attendees define a virtual organization and what should be done to continue the 'conversation' about EVOs after the workshop was over. The workshop wrapped up at 3:30 PM on 16 January. On the second and third days of the workshop, I met 24 new people. Following up with all these new contacts will keep me busy for the next couple weeks.

For a detailed workshop agenda, check out the official online agenda.

For anyone interested in the new world of work and how geographically-scattered people from multiple organizations should work together to most effectively achieve their goals, this was an interesting and highly useful workshop. It would takes months or years of networking independently to make the same connections one could make in the two and a half days of the workshop among people who are highly involved in utilizing EVOs to pursue e-Research.

Three suggestions should be considered by NSF for the next workshop they organize which is focused on virtual organizations.
  1. Consider inviting 10 - 15 people outside the scientific research field who are knowledgeable about and involved in issues highly relevant to EVOs. Although the focus of NSF is on scientific research and education, input from a few people outside the NSF 'regulars' could bring in some new blood and useful ideas because of the different perspective of the non-research world.
  2. Involve a few college freshmen, some college seniors who are planning on grad school research, and a significant number of grad students. This demographic will undoubtedly have some worthwhile suggestions for building communities, networks and virtual organizations which operate in ways that make sense to the next generation of researchers. This generation was conspicuous by its absence at the NSF workshop. Strategies which produce effective organizations for 40 - 60 year old researchers might not be the only strategies which should be used or considered when dealing with 20 - 30 year old science research students.
  3. Incorporate more remote participation components in future workshops. In-person participation in workshops and meetings is invaluable for making new connections and building relationships, but there will be many benefits to having significant components of workshops involving remote participation. Some options to consider are small groups (10 - 20 people) meeting at several remote locations, having audio or webcasts available for all sessions along with online remote text input relayed to all participants by several moderators, having blogging and podcast interviews during the workshop, have a wiki set up to which workshop participants can contribute and have a Flickr tag designated and publicized for workshop pictures. Lots of other possibilities... The January 2008 workshop was in no way diminished by not having more remote components, but future events should consider more online activity.
Options will be followed up on regarding involving NSF in some of my projects which have a significant need for effective virtual organizations. However, even if none of these projects make it to the NSF grant stage, this workshop was still highly worthwhile and will, I hope, result in improved effectiveness of the virtual organization component of these projects.



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