Communication, Knowledge and Social Processes in Virtual Organizations: From Socioware to CyberOrganism


Communication, Knowledge and Social Processes in Virtual Organizations: From Socioware to CyberOrganism

Lee Li-Jen Chen and Brian R. Gaines
Knowledge Science Institute
University of Calgary
Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4
{lchen, gaines}


The Internet has become a major resource for virtual organizations, and it has given new prominence to human discourse as a continuing source of knowledge. With the growth of usage of list servers and the World Wide Web, it is important to model and support the processes by which knowledge is acquired and disseminated through the net. The global virtual organizations of distributed intelligent agents, that is the Internet community at large, provides a 'cybernetic living expert system' with a scope and scale well beyond that yet conceivable with computer-based systems alone. In developing new support tools is one asks "what is the starting point for the person seeking information, the existing information that is the basis for their search." A support tool is then one that takes that existing information and uses it to present further information that is likely to be relevant. Such information may include relevant concepts, text, existing documents, people, sites, list servers, news groups, and so on. The support system may provide links to further examples of all of these based on content, categorization or linguistic or logical inference. The outcome of the search may be access to a document but it may also be email to a person, a list or a news group. This articles develops a socioware conceptual model for communication, knowledge and social processes in global virtual organizations; describes various forms of support tool on the Internet, and categorizes them in terms of the model; and finally integrates those processes in global virtual organizations within a CyberOrganism framework.



In large-scale organizations, geographically separated sub-units may be working together in joint collaborations. With geographical separation, it is difficult for each unit to keep the other continually in mind and therefore to keep their common goals in mind. Naturally, most people attend to what is close at hand and ignore what isn't. In addition, priority isn't perfectly correlated with proximity, hence remote communications are essential even in highly decentralized organizations. Yet they can be difficult. (Kiesler & Sproull, 1991). Increasingly there are commercial pressure to decentralization and a growing recognition that organizations can successfully conduct their business by providing a distributed workforce with cost effective telecommunications devices. The expectation is that cost-effective telecommunications can recreate a fully functioning virtual organization. (Sheehy & Gallagher, 1996).

Organizations are just starting to incorporate computer-mediated communication technology to create new inter-organizational linkages, to solve out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem, and to create dynamic structures (Kiesler & Sproull, 1991). Creating global virtual organizations using computer-mediated communication technology will inevitably alter communications processes that create a sense of what it feels like to be with an organization. Increasing the communications facilities available at the networked workstation affords new opportunities for organizational members to sustain a high level of routine conversational flow (Sheehy & Gallagher, 1996).

The growth of the Internet has provided major new channels for the knowledge creation and dissemination in virtual organizations. Increasing international connectivity has made the net accessible to special-interest virtual organizations world wide, and electronic mail and list servers now provide a major communications medium supporting discourse in these communities. Until recent years, limitations on the presentation quality of on-line file formats restricted the publication capabilities of the net to rapid dissemination of files printable in paper form. However, advances in on-line presentation capabilities now allow high-quality typographic documents with embedded figures and hyper-links to be created, distributed and read on-line. Moreover, it has become possible to issue active documents containing animation, simulations, and supporting user interaction with computer services through the document interface. The major part of this functionality has become accessible through the protocols of the World Wide Web, and the web itself is seen as a precursor to an information highway subsuming all existing communications media.

The development of the net has been very rapid with little central planning, and, despite its widespread use, there is little information as yet on the social dynamics of net technologies. Many systems have been developed cope with the information overload generated by direct access to the net. The wide variety of indexing and search tools now available have in common that they support selective attention and awareness in the communities using the net. It would be useful to be able to analyze the design issues and principles involved in these tools in terms of the knowledge and communication processes in the virtual organizations using these tools (Chen & Gaines, 1996).

This article presents the socioware model: a five-components conceptual model of virtual organizations on the web/net. It can be used to classify the types of support tools existing and required. Finally it is integrated in a living systems framework called CyberOrganism in which global virtual organizations are studied as a whole as a cybernetic living organism.


The section examines computer-mediated communication processes involved in virtual organizations. It is tempting to consider the Internet as a new publication medium in which electronic documents emulate paper ones, and where the basic human factors issues are those of indexing and information retrieval. This makes the vast existing literature on information retrieval, its techniques and human factors, relevant to the net. However, this addresses only one aspect of computer-mediated communication, neglecting its function of supporting discourse within communities. Much of the information retrieved from the net is generated as needed through discourse on list servers--the Internet is a mixed community of publications and intelligent human agents that both stores knowledge and generates it on demand. When the information needed cannot be found through retrieval then it may be requested through discourse, a phenomenon prophesied in the early days of timeshared computing:

"No company offering time-shared computer services has yet taken advantage of the communion possible between all users of the machine...If fifty percent of the world's population are connected through terminals, then questions from one location may be answered not by access to an internal data-base but by routing them to users elsewhere--who better to answer a question on abstruse Chinese history than an abstruse Chinese historian." (Gaines, 1971)

The society of distributed intelligent agents that is the Internet community at large provides an `expert system' with a scope and scale well beyond that yet conceivable with computer-based systems alone. Computer-based discovery, indexing and retrieval systems have a major role to play in that community, but are only one aspect of Internet information systems.

Krol (1993) captures the essence of these consideration in Internet RFC1462 which replies to the question "What is the Internet" with three definitions:

  1. a network of networks based on the TCP/IP protocols,
  2. a community of people who use and develop those networks,
  3. a collection of resources that can be reached from those networks.

These are complementary perspectives on the net in terms of its technological infrastructure, its communities of users, and their access to resources, respectively. Models of computer-mediated communication must taken into account all three perspectives: how agents interface to the network; how discourse occurs within communities; and how resources are discovered and accessed.


In examining the utility of the net and web it is useful to classify all the major services in terms of the significant distinctions that determine their relative utilities which characterizes the major net services in terms of their utility for computer-mediated communication, access to services or search (Gaines, Shaw & Chen, 1996).

Figure 1 Internet services in terms of dimensions of computer-mediated communication

Figure 1 is a concept map presenting the major services on the net in terms of a small set of fundamental distinctions:-

The less well-know systems classified are: Internet Address Finder which provides an index of email addresses; LISZT which assists users to search for a list server by its name; and CHRONO (Chen, 1996) which indexes a web site in reverse chronological order to provide automatic "what's new" pages. MUDs, multi-user dungeons/dimensions, are interesting in providing a mix of services supporting both discourse and resource access. Web browsers such as Netscape are interesting in providing a single tool accessing nearly all the services shown except talk and chat (Gaines, Shaw & Chen, 1997).


The exponential growth of the web and the growing availability of collaborative tools and services on the Internet have facilitated innovated knowledge creation/dissemination infrastructures, such as: electronic libraries, digital journals, resource discovery environments, distributed co-authoring systems and virtual scientific communities. Collectively, the web/net can be considered as a large scale groupware for supporting special interest communities and virtual organizations (e.g., high-energy physics research community).

Large scale groupware for virtual organizations differs not only in the quantity, but also in the quality of cooperative interaction (Dennis, Valacich & Nunamaker, 1990). The fundamental nature of interaction on the web can be characterized as virtual cooperative interaction. The word "virtual" has two senses here: first, it denotes the notion of virtual space, i.e., the cooperative interaction occurs in a non-physical space which allows participants to be situated in geographically separate locations; second, it denotes that the intention to engage in cooperative interaction itself may not necessary pre-exist or be conscious. Traditional notions of groupware focus on the first sense (tele-presence in virtual space), but there is a need to extend the notion of cooperative interaction to encompass the latter sense of virtual cooperative interaction also (Chen & Gaines, 1997b).

Frequently, information resource contribution and exchange on the web involve cooperative interaction without pre-planned coordination. In fact, participants on the web may have no intention to cooperate in the first place. Quite often, a resource provider and a resource user are unaware of each other's existence until their first interaction. Nevertheless, the interactive process between them is still loosely cooperative in nature. It differs from the traditional team-oriented cooperation where group tasks, goals, and purposes are usually well-defined.

A classical social exchange model like Interactional Matrix model (Kelly & Thibaut, 1978; Cook, 1987) cannot readily account for this unusual form of cooperation where a resource provider might never know the identity of her resource users, nevertheless still continues to contribute anyway. On the web the only feedback she may receive might be the frequency of accesses to her information resources. What does she gain in return in such a seemingly one-way cooperative interaction? Is it simply an expression of altruism? What are some possible motivations for her to contribute to the web? In general, how would one ensure the continual contribution of an information provider? These questions can be answered more clearly in the context of socioware.

The present article defines socioware as: computer-mediated environments (CMEs) for supporting communication, knowledge and social processes which expedite virtual cooperative interactions. Information inquiry and response, dissemination of ideas, and social networking are examples of virtual cooperative interactions. USENET news groups and list servers are two prototypical socioware that support dialogues within well defined special-interest communities on the Internet.

The proliferation of personal home pages with cross-linkage of web pages by people who share common interests has made the exploration process on the web (i.e., net surfing) a social experience. Such a seemingly intrinsic rewarding experience can often be characterized as serendipitous and not necessarily task-oriented (as in traditional groupware).

Through home pages, individuals create their own virtual persona on the web without any awareness of whom their eventual audience might actually be (i.e. without extensional awareness of particular recipients). However they often have a sense of who the potential audience might be (i.e. with intensional awareness of the type of recipient). Sometimes individuals provide information resource to the web as a by-product during some self organization processes of their own knowledge. As observed earlier, this form of apparently cooperative behavior is prevalent on the web (Chen & Gaines, 1996).

In essence, the goal of socioware is to facilitate emergent pro-social behaviors for self-organized, virtual organizations.


This section describes a detailed model for that encompasses collaborative activities supported by traditional groupware and by emergent socioware. The model analyzes the following five basic elements for virtual cooperative interactions in CMEs:

  1. discourse patterns
  2. time-dimension of virtual interactions
  3. awareness hierarchy
  4. motivations for cooperative behaviors
  5. emergence and maintenance of virtual cooperative interaction

Together they present three aspects (what, why, and how) of the conceptual model: (i) the descriptive aspect comprised of the first three elements which characterize and classify virtual cooperative interactions; (ii) the prescriptive aspect that provide motivational reasons for individuals to participate in virtual cooperative interactions; and (iii) the operational aspect of how virtual cooperative interactions initiate and function.

Some Definitions

Before describing the conceptual model in detail, the definitions of some frequently used terms in the model are introduced in this subsection.

The term social entrainment refers to some endogenous biological and behavioral processes that are captured, and modified in their phase and periodicity, by powerful (internal or external) cycles or pacer signals The notion of entrainment contains two kind of synchrony: (i) The mutual entrainment of endogenous rhythms to one another; (ii) the external entrainment of such a rhythm by powerful external signals or pacers (McGrath, 1990).

When individuals participate in virtual cooperative interactions, depending the nature of their present focus (e.g., discuss an idea, co-reviewing a book), there is a natural cognitive processing time involved in each activity. This processing time generates an endogenous rhythm within individual participants. This natural rhythm of interactions consequently creates mutual entrainment in sustaining continuation of virtual cooperative interactions. The processes of social entrainment are important in the time-dimension of virtual cooperative interaction.

One can regard a virtual organization as a set of individuals that provide resources to one other with the most significant dimension relating to the coordination of the virtual organization being that of the awareness of who is providing a particular resource and who is using it (Gaines, Chen & Shaw, 1997).

A Punctuated Discourse Model of Computer-Mediated Communications

Figure 1 presents a conventional model of Internet services in terms of their utility, but it does not provide an integrative model of the way in which they support communities. Such a model can be developed by noting that what distinguishes discourse from publication is that in discourse it is expected that the recipient responds to the originator, whereas publication is generally a one-way communication. However, on list servers some material is published in that the originator expects no specific response, and material published in electronic journals or archives often evokes a response. Computer-mediated communication offers a very flexible medium that breaks down the conventions of other media. The following diagrams show the different characteristics of the main Internet services in terms of these issues.

Figure 2 shows email discourse as a cycle of origination and response between a pair of agents communicating through a computer-mediated channel.

Figure 2 Email discourse

Figure 3 extends Figure 2 to show list server discourse as a cycle of origination and response between agents that is shared with a virtual organization through a computer-mediated channel. The virtual organization involvement leads to more complex discourse patterns in that: the originator may not direct the message to a particular recipient; there may be multiple responses to a message; and the response from the recipient may itself trigger responses from others who did not originate the discourse. For a particular discourse sequence this leads to a natural division of the virtual organization into active participants who respond and passive participants who do not.

Figure 3 List server discourse

Figure 4 modifies Figure 3 to show web publication as an activity in which the channel is buffered to act as a store also. The material published is available to a virtual organization and the originator is unlikely to target it on a particular recipient. Recipients are not expected to respond direct to the originator, but responses may occur through email, list servers or through the publication of material linked to the original. Because the published material is not automatically distributed to a list, recipients have to actively search for and discover the material.

Figure 4 World Wide Web publication

The common structure adopted for the diagrams is intended to draw attention to the commonalties between the services. List server discourse is usually archived and often converted to hyper-mail on the web. Web publications do trigger responses through other services or through links on the web. A search on the web may not discover a specific item but rather a related item on a news group, list or by an author, and result in an request for information to the news group, list or author. Individuals and communities use many of the available Internet services in an integrated way to support their knowledge processes.

Figure 5 subsumes Figure 2 through Figure 4 to provide an integrated model of Internet knowledge processes that captures all the issues discussed. It models the processes as discourse punctuated by the intervention of a store allowing an indefinite time delay between the emission of a message and its receipt. It introduces two major dimensions of analysis: the times for each step in a discourse cycle; and the awareness by originators of recipients and vice versa.

Figure 5 Punctuated discourse


Time Structure of Punctuated Discourse

The four times shown in Figure 5 are:

Note that agent processing times and channel delays have been lumped. A study focusing on the impact of communication delays would want to consider them separately, otherwise there is no significant distinction--a general principle might be that communication delays should not be greater than agent processing times. Note also that the diagram is to a large extent symmetrical--the recipient becomes an originator when responding.

An important overall parameter is time cycle: the round-trip discourse time, t1+t2+t3+t4. If this is small, a few seconds or less, we talk in terms of synchronous communication. If its is large, a few hours or more, we talk in terms of asynchronous communication. If it is infinite, so that there is no response, we talk in terms of publication. However, this analysis shows that there is a continuous spectrum from synchronous through asynchronous to publication.

The discovery times, t2 and t4, are very significant to publication-mode discourse, and attempts to reduce them have lead to a wide range of awareness-support tools that aid potential recipients to discover relevant material and originators to make material easier to discover.

The Time Dimension in Virtual Cooperative Interaction

Awareness and coordination of cooperative interaction involve the processes of social entrainment. This subsection examines the relationship between the time cycle of virtual cooperative interactions and the relative strength of extensional and intensional awareness.

When two or more individuals participate in virtual cooperative interaction, they often take on dual roles of originator and recipient in punctuated discourse. Gradually they become locked into social entrainment processes. Computer-mediated environments, such as news groups (Resnick et al, 1994) and shared drawing systems (Ishii & Kobayashi, 1992), provide specific external signals which set the pace of virtual cooperative interactions for participants. For example, the average time cycle for posting to a news group and receiving a feedback is about one to few days. Whereas the partial time cycle (t1+t2) for moving a mouse cursor in a real-time shared drawing system is around one to ten seconds. External entrainment occurs when the actual time cycle of a virtual interaction fall into the range of the expected time cycle anticipated by individual participants. When there is a wide discrepancy between the expected and the actual time cycle of interaction, participants often feel frustrated and decrease their desire to interact. For example, if cursor movements in a shared drawing system begin to take more than a few seconds to complete, the participants will tend to stop their interaction.

Continuation of virtual cooperative interaction can also break down when mutual and external entrainment processes are not synchronized with one another. When co-reviewing a book, the natural time cycle for mutual entrainment is in days and weeks, since it often take that a mount of time to read a book and absorb the material properly. It is unlikely that co-reviewers will want to use Internet Relay Chat (Reid, 1991) to disseminate and exchange their reviews. Such a fast time cycle of interaction is not well suited for activities involving deep, reflective cognitive processes.

The relationship between the time cycle and the relative strength of extensional/intensional awareness in virtual cooperative interactions can be illustrated in a time-dimension diagram (Figure 6). If the time cycle is relative short, say in few seconds or minutes, we have an interaction that can be characterized as synchronous (real-time). If it is longer, we have interaction that is often described as asynchronous (delay-time). The key notion here is that the types of virtual cooperative interactions are differentiated on a temporal continuum rather than by discrete categories.

Figure 6 Time Dimension of Virtual Cooperative Interaction

In intensional oriented interactions, the level of intensional awareness is relatively high compared to extensional awareness; whereas in extensional oriented interactions, extensional awareness predominates. Many groupware systems (e.g., co-authoring systems, shared workspace systems) have been designed to support collaborative teams in which interactions are between known group members. Therefore, in these CMEs, the virtual cooperative interactions focus on extensional awareness. In contrast, interactions in USENET news groups involve both extensional and intensional awareness of targeted audience. For example, one can respond to a question from a specific individual (an extensional oriented interaction) but do so publicly with the intention to address others who may have a similar question in mind (intensional oriented interaction).

The time cycle in virtual cooperative interaction often varies according to cognitive processes involved in any given moment of an activity. For example, during a collaborative writing session (Neuwirth et al, 1994): when co-authors' focus is on correcting sentences or paragraphs, the time cycle involved is usually around few minutes; and when they focus on reviewing chapters, the time cycle involved shifts to hours. Therefore co-authoring systems are classified in the range of time cycles from second to day, in addition to be extensional oriented.

The time dimension diagram of virtual cooperative interactions allows us to visualize CMEs in terms of an interaction area they encompass as shown in Figure 6. The area denotes the range of time cycle and the degree of intensional vs. extensional awareness.

The figure shows talk and email involving extensional awareness of the individuals involved but with the email cycle time being longer, corresponding to talk being `synchronous' but email `asynchronous.' The figure makes it clear that it is important to think of the degree of synchronity as an analog dimension not a binary distinction. Chat is shown as overlapping talk but usually involving some lesser awareness of other participants and longer time cycles in discourse.

List servers and news groups operate on time cycles of hours to days and involve extensional awareness of only a few participants but reasonably strong intensional awareness of the type of participant. The web operates on even longer time scales from a day up to years and generally involves little extensional awareness of participants--readers may know particular authors, but writers generally do not know their readers. The question mark indicates that the web has been operating for such a short period that any long term estimates of its impact as a publication medium are speculative projections.

MUDs, as noted previously, are anomalous in combining chat- and web-like services, and span a major part of the plot. This may seem strange in that they are not ubiquitous like the other services shown, although there are significant uses of MUDs to support professional communities (Evard, 1993) However, web browsers are being extended to integrate the chat facilities of MUDs as well as providing access to email, news, new collaborative tools and audio-visual interaction. Hence, as happened to Gopher, the web is subsuming MUDs and the entire spectrum of services shown in Figure 6 will appear to the end-user as an integrated service. However, the human factors distinctions between the different forms of discourse being supported will remain (Gaines, Chen & Shaw, 1997).

Awareness Structure of Punctuated Discourse

One can regard a virtual organization as a set of agents that provide resources to one other with the most significant dimension relating to the coordination of the virtual organization being that of the awareness of who is providing a particular resource and who is using it.

Awareness Issues in Virtual Organizations

Many workflow processes in team-work environments share a common goal of trying to assist people to work collaboratively as a cohesive team and to provide them with a sense of common purposes (e.g., completion of the group task). A critical requirement in shared tasks is maintaining situational awareness (Norman, 1993) by keeping everyone adequately informed. In an environment where each member has a well defined role, the need to have face-to-face communication in order to perform a cooperative task becomes less necessary if mechanisms for situational awareness have been well established between members. For example, the navigation of a large ship requires effective coordination of various people with differing roles (Hutchins, 1990). Many key members of the navigation team (conning officer, plotter, bearing takers, deck log keeper, bearing-timer recorder and fathometer operator) are geographically separated (pilot house, chart house, and port and starboard wings) and communicate with each other by a common telephone circuit. The common audio channel and the physical layout of the pilot house provide opportunities for the navigation crews to observe and be aware of each other's work, contributing to partial redundancy in their joint knowledge. They also support maintenance of the group over time to provide fault-tolerance if some group members fail to perform their roles.

Thus, one of the important criteria for achieving group cohesiveness is the situational awareness of what other group members are doing. It can be achieved through either face-to-face (as on the pilot house) or telephone communication (as between the port and starboard wings). Together the functional specificity of the team members (e.g., the navigational crews) and the cognitive artifacts that facilitate situational awareness (e.g., the single telephone circuit, the pilot house with high visibility among navigational team members) can create an effective collaborative system.

The emphasis on the importance of social interaction and cognitive artifacts (such as the telephone circuit described previously or the Internet) as the means to enhance human abilities has also been echoed by Norman (1991). A cognitive artifact is defined as "an artificial device designed to maintain, display, or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function." The power of a cognitive artifact comes from its function as a representational device. However, artifacts do not actually change an individual's capabilities. Rather, they change the nature of the task performed by the person. When the informational and processing structure of the artifact is combined with the task and the informational and processing structure of the human, the result is to expand and enhance cognitive capabilities of the total system of human, artifact, and task.

Hence, when designing a computer-supported collaborative system, system designers need to keep the representational aspect of the whole system in mind (i.e., people, machines, situations, information, and tasks). A system designed with this holistic perspective in mind can provide tools that enhance communication, coordination and social interaction capabilities. Therefore, the collaborator's intentions can be easily transferred to each other and common goals can be achieved with mutual satisfaction. In various studies on the subject of team work, situational awareness has acted as an important coordination mechanism among collaborative groups.

Collective Awareness

Recently, Smith (1994) has proposed a collective intelligence theoretical model that provides a holistic perspective on the nature of computer-supported intellectual collaboration. It focuses primarily on project groups and/or relatively small, close-knit teams within larger groups in designing/creating artifacts (e.g., committee reports, computer software). He calls such a group-artifact-task arrangement, artifact-based collaboration (or ABC). His comprehensive model takes into account cognitive processes within individuals, artifacts to-be-built, and situated actions.

The following subsections describe a taxonomy of group awareness (what Smith calls collective awareness) based on the collective intelligence model. Using human self-awareness model and cognitive Information Processing System (IPS) architecture (Newell and Simon, 1972; Newell, 1982) as references, two analogous forms of awareness can be identified for collective groups: awareness of the group's collective long-term memory (LTM) and awareness among and of each other.

Awareness of the Group's Collective Long Term Memory

The collective LTM has two parts: the artifact (the objective of the group task) and the body of shared intangible knowledge (that is, the information carried out in the heads of group members originally). Since awareness of the artifact exists only in the minds of the human beings who comprise the group, awareness of the artifact can also be seen as part of the group's intangible knowledge. Awareness in groups exists at several levels of detail:-

Global Awareness -- The most general level is the body of intangible knowledge that is shared by all member of the groups. It includes the overall goals of the project, its ways of operating, the strategies it uses to develop the artifact, its current status and problems, the relation of the project to the external environment, etc. This awareness is not deep, if the project is large, but it provides each member with a sense of the whole.

Deep Awareness -- At the other extreme is the deep, detailed, often technical, knowledge held by individual members. Depending on the project, a single individual is often responsible for a particular part. Thus, the level of awareness and expertise required to generate a segment of the overall artifact (project) is significantly greater than that required for another person to understand it.

Peripheral Awareness -- Between the extreme of general, shared knowledge and deep, individually specialized and generative knowledge, is an intermediate level: the thick knowledge of adjacent or near specialty areas. It takes the form of understanding, rather than generation. Thus, it is shared with individuals or the team responsible for developing other parts of the artifact, but it is not as deep as their knowledge nor is it shared with the entire project. This critical peripheral awareness is ultimately responsible for the integrity of the group's work. It provides a context for the interfaces between areas. Thick shared knowledge can be developed through informal interactions, such as conversations, but it can also be developed through more formal mechanisms, such as institutionalized reviews (e.g., structural walk through process in a software project).

Thus, the model identifies three forms of awareness with respect to a group's LTM:-

  1. close, detailed, deep awareness of particular segment of the artifact;
  2. less detailed, but still substantial, peripheral awareness of the artifact's adjacent parts;
  3. the much thinner, global awareness of the artifact as a whole that is shared by the entire group.

Awareness Members Have of One Another

A different kind of awareness is the awareness members have of one another. This category of awareness is closer to the notion of situational awareness described earlier.

Resource Awareness -- One of the primary reasons for assembling a group is to assemble the expertise required to carry out a project. Therefore, the issue becomes one of providing the group (as a whole) with a collective awareness of its members' respective specialized knowledge and expertise. Thus an extremely valuable resource for a group is shared knowledge of who is an expert on what.

Task-Socio Awareness -- Another form of awareness involves the interaction between social and intellectual processes operating within in the group. It would be simple if groups were purely intellectual organisms, but they are not: tensions exist and factions develop. These developments are inevitable. For example, one member may oppose an idea voiced by another not because the idea is objectionable but because of who said it. The opposite condition -- support an idea because of friendship or attraction -- is equally bad. These so very human situations are unlikely to go away, but a group should be aware of itself as a dynamic, functioning organism as well as be aware of the artifact it is developing to insure that the integrity of its work is not compromised by them.

Chronological Awareness -- A third form of awareness is the instantaneous awareness that an individual has regarding the activities of other individuals. This is what constitutes chronological awareness. For example, one member of the group may be aware (or wish to know) what another member of the group is working on in a nearby part of the artifact. This behavior is monitored at a very low level by the collaboration support system in its concurrency control mechanisms to insure that two members do not attempt to change the same part of the artifact at the same time. These mechanisms, however, do not prevent one member's access from blocking that of another, or prevent one member's subsequent work from affecting earlier work done by another. Groups may need help in monitoring domains of activity. For example, members may want to see where colleagues are working; they may even wish to see a display over time of the "tracks" left by colleagues.

Thus, the model identifies three forms of awareness among members of one another:-

  1. cognitive-guide-map like, resource awareness for locating specific knowledge and expertise among the group members;
  2. emotional, but rationalized, task-socio awareness concerning social and political dynamics within the group in relation to the artifact/task.
  3. and more situational, chronological awareness about when and what by whom something in the collective system is changing.

The above collective awareness taxonomy provides a useful starting point for an overall conceptual framework for awareness mechanisms in global virtual organizations.

Awareness Hierarchy of Global Virtual Organizations

In the tightly-coupled team, each person is usually aware of who will provide a particular resource and often of when they will provide it. In logical terms, this can be termed extensional awareness because the specific resource and provider are known, as contrasted to intensional awareness in which only the characteristics of suitable resources or providers are known.

In a special-interest virtual organization resource providers usually do not have such extensional awareness of the resource users, and, if they do, can be regarded as forming teams operating within the virtual organization. Instead, resource providers usually have an intensional awareness of the resource users in terms of their characteristics as types of user within the virtual organization. The classification of users into types usually corresponds to social norms within the virtual organization, such as the ethical responsibilities in a professional community to communicate certain forms of information to appropriate members of the community. Resource users in a special interest virtual organization may have an extensional awareness of particular resources or resource providers, or an intensional awareness of the types of resource provider likely to provide the resources they require. This asymmetry between providers and users characterizes a special interest virtual organization and also leads to differentiation of the virtual organization in terms of core members of whom many users are extensionally aware, and sub-communities specializing in particular forms of resource.

In the community of Internet users at large, there is little awareness of particular resources or providers and only a general awareness of the rich set of resources is available. Awareness of the characteristics of resources and providers is vague, corresponding to weak intensional awareness.

These distinctions are summarized in Figure 7 and it is clear that the classification of awareness can lead to a richer taxonomy of communities than the 3-way division defined. Analysis of awareness in these terms allows the structure of a virtual organization to be specified in operational terms, and in complex communities there will be complex structures of awareness. The coarse divisions into sub-teams and sub-special interest virtual organizations provides a way of reducing this complexity in modeling the virtual organization.

Locus of responsibility Team Special-Interest Virtual Organization Community at Large
Originator Extensional awareness of actual recipients.

Use email to notify.

Use CHRONO to index.

Intensional awareness of types of recipient.

Broadcast to list server.

Establish HTML links.

Use CHRONO to index.

No awareness of recipients, or only weak intensional awareness of types of recipients.

Broadcast to news groups.

Register in Yahoo.

Initialize Alta Vista.

Recipient Extensional awareness of actual resources and originators.

Use email to inquire.

Check CHRONO index.

Extensional awareness of actual resources and originators, or intensional awareness of types of resources and originators.

Subscribe to list server.

Follow HTML links.

Check CHRONO index.

Use WebWatch, Katipo or URL-Minder

No awareness of resources or originators, or only weak intensional awareness of types of resources and originators.

Read news groups.

Browse Yahoo.

Search with Alta Vista.

Search with MetaCrawler.

Figure 7 Communities and tools distinguished in terms of awareness

The differentiation of communities in terms of awareness draws attention to the significance of supporting various aspects of awareness in a CME system. Resource awareness, the awareness that specific resources or resources with specified characteristics exists, may be supported by various indexing and search procedures. However, there is also a need to support chronological awareness, the awareness that a resource has changed or come into existence (Chen & Gaines, 1997). Figure 7 also shows the way in which current tools for awareness support are classified within this framework.

CHRONO: Chronological Awareness Support Tools

CHRONO is an HTTPD server-side system which generates chronological listings of Web pages that have been changed recently at specific sites. It provides a basic awareness-support that let of a Web site visitors (e.g., members of a group, an organization, or other net surfers) see which Web pages have been modified since their last visit (Chen, 1996). Currently, the CHRONO system is implemented on a UNIX platform and has been made widely available for use at other sites.[1] As shown in Figure 8, CHRONO presents to the visitors an HTML document that lists the titles of Web pages at the site in reverse chronological order. This chronological listing of Web pages also functions as a collection of hyper-links to the listed pages.

Figure 8 CHRONO in use at a PC user group website

This time-line dimension allows frequent visitors of a Web site an immediate awareness on what have been changed since their latest visit. The changes they see may be some Web pages in which they have particular prior-interests of or may be some pages that they have never seen before but now appeal to them. Hence this chronological browsing characteristic is analogue to spatial (subject-category) browsing characteristic that library patrons have often experienced when looking for books on open book-shelves (i.e., accidentally finding (more) relevant books near by the books that they are looking for originally).

What is different here is that instead of finding relevant information via browsing the near by subject-categories, now the users may find relevant information via browsing the concurrently modified/created web pages. Sometimes, conceptually related documents are created (or modified) around the same time, however their author(s) may not remember to update the HTML links to them. Unlike a manually updated what's new page in which the users have to rely on the timely updates made by a Web-master (or by the document authors), CHRONO provides the time-line dimension to the users automatically, in a reliable, periodic fashion (Chen & Gaines, 1996b).

WebWatch (Specter, 1995), Katipo (Newberry, 1995), and URL-Minder (NetMind, 1995) are other chronological awareness tools that track changes in specified documents. WebWatch is a client-side chronological awareness system for keeping track of changes in selected Web documents. Given an HTML document referencing URLs on the Web, it produces a filtered list, containing only those URLs that have been modified since a given time. Katipo is another client-side chronological awareness system built for Macintosh that shares many similar concepts as WebWatch. It reads through the Global History file maintained by some Web browsers checking for documents that have changed since the last time a user viewed them. It writes a report file (in HTML format) listing all such documents in a format that allows you to easily visit the updated documents. URL-Minder is a centralized system that keeps track of resources on the Web, and sends registered users e-mail whenever their personally registered resources change. Web users can have the URL-Minder keep track of any Web resource accessible via HTTP. It can be anything, not just Web pages that users personally maintain (Chen & Gaines, 1996b).

Further Developments

The CHRONO research program is now at a stage of measuring the structures and time constants of discourse on the Internet from empirical data. Studies are being carried out of the rates of diffusion of information and the various knowledge acquisition paths and processes whereby individuals become aware of information on the net. List server archives are being analyzed to determine the fine structure of discourse and to track the trajectories of ideas. CHRONO was issued in May 1996 and is now being used at a number of sites. A new program META-CHRONO is under development which will collect and collate information from multiple sites running CHRONO and provide awareness of activities being carried out on a distributed basis (Chen, 1996).

Motivations for Participation in Virtual Organizations

This subsection examines the motivational dimension of virtual cooperative interaction. Here, a theory of collective social exchange attempts to explain the behaviors of participants in terms of exchange theory, effects of norms in virtual organization, capacity of power and social influence. These motivational explanations together with social learning theory (in the next subsection) examine the fairness and reinforcement issues involved in virtual cooperative interactions.

When many individuals participate in a multitude of punctuated discourses (Figure 5), a chain reaction occurs. The accumulative effect generated by this chain of inquiry-response-reaction-response-reaction (and so on) is an evolving topical thread that can become a part of shared knowledge among members of a virtual organization. Through automatic archival services such as Hyper-mail or some individual efforts such as FAQs (Frequently Asked Questioned) and web pages, the shared knowledge persists and grows. An interesting question is: why should individuals contribute to this pro-social process? Correspondingly, how does the virtual organization ensure its participants to contribute to the growth of the knowledge pool?

First, why would individuals want to participate in virtual cooperative interactions? Generally, interpersonal behavior can be characterized as a social exchange between people, and these social exchanges typically involved both rewards and costs to participants. On a balance, an individual will perform those actions which produce the greatest rewards at the least cost (Shaver, 1987). Therefore according to this cost-benefit calculus, a perceived potential for rewards must exist for individuals to participate and contribute in a cooperative relationship.

In contrast with classical social exchange theories (Cook, 1987) (e.g., Kelly and Thibaut's (1978) Interactional Matrix model) which emphasize dyadic interactions between individuals, collective social exchange theory focuses on interactions between individuals and their virtual organization. Conceptually, the Internet community is viewed from a collective stance (Gaines, 1994) as an entity to `whom' individual participants exchange information resource with. This collective entity offers participants a valuable informational service (namely, as a pool of human knowledge (Berners-Lee et al, 1994) in exchange for their contributions.

The norm of reciprocity is fundamental to social exchange and leads to contributing behavior. The reciprocity norm creates an obligation for repayment that must be satisfied if the interaction is to continue (Shaver, 1987). However, the way reciprocity operates in collective social exchange is more subtle than in conventional social exchange between individuals. Why should one reciprocate (through contribution) in a situation where social responsibility is relatively diffused among members in a virtual organization?

One motivation for contributing to the net is for individual to gain positive self-image (Jones & Pittman, 1982). In this case, an individual has internalized the norm of reciprocity and acts according to the principle of equity theory: that is, a person will seek to maintain his ratio of rewards to costs as the same as that of relevant comparison persons (Walster, Walster & Berscheid, 1978). A sense of guilt would occur if the individual perceives he has not contributed enough to the virtual organization. Hence, he would want to reciprocate fairly.

Another more subtle motivation is that of contribution as an investment in social power, that is, the capacity of a person or group to affect the behavior of another person or group (Schopler, 1965). Contributions made by an individual may not only help others but may also help her to gain name recognition from peers. The more one contributes publicly and receives recognition for one's contributions, the more one gains the capacity of power to influence others or the virtual organization as a whole. The added weight in recognizing who is first to contribute relevant information also motivates individuals to volunteer information resource more readily. The competition for priority in contribution has been well documented in Merton's studies on the reward system in scientific discovery (Merton, 1973).

The motivational dimension of the model illustrates the importance of feedback loops (Losada, Sanchez & Noble, 1990) in the reinforcement of virtual cooperative interactions. It provides a coherent explanation for the apparent altruistic behavior of information providers on the web/net.

Reinforcement of Virtual Cooperative Interaction

One question raised earlier in the article is that: why people publish information resource to the web in the first place? Usually a resource provider might never know the identity of her resource user, nevertheless she contributes even without any potential and apparent playbacks for her effort. Two possible motivations described earlier for providing information resource on the web are gaining positive self-image and name recognition. How does such a pro-social behavior initiate and continue?

The concern here is with the relationship between the effect of an individual's behavior in a virtual cooperative organization and its impact on the individual's later behavior. This is the basic to operant conditioning, the learning process by which behavior is modified by it the consequences of previous similar behavior (Ritzer, 1992). An individual emits some behavior. The virtual organization in which the behavior occurs in tern "acts" back in various ways. The reaction--positive, negative, or neutral--affects the individual's later behavior.

Social learning theory suggests that novel social behavior is first learned through imitation of actions taken by others who act as (social) models (Bandura & Walters, 1963). The reinforcement received by a model serves as information to the person about which behaviors are acceptable and appropriate for the circumstances. Once a novel action has been acquired through imitation, its probability of continuation is depended on the reinforcement it receives. Vicarious reinforcement, as well as direct reward or punishment, can play a part in social learning (Shaver, 1987).

On the web, an individual's first successful encounter with a home page full of relevant information resource provides a positive role model for imitation. Her subsequent positive net-surfing experience will further increase her exposure to other positive models. Once an individual internalizes the web culture which encourages construction of personal home page (which coincidentally also provides virtual persona for self-image), she will come to view that contribution to the web as a pro-social behavior and act accordingly. The dynamic of social exchange then comes into play here, if the costs of putting up information resources (e.g., research papers, hyper-links to relevant web pages) are relatively low to her (e.g., she has necessary skills and resources), she would contribute to the web. In addition, an original intention to contribute to the web community does not need to exist, she may coincidentally using her home page to organize her knowledge resource and contribute to the web community as an after thought (or as a by-product). In this situation, the extensional audience is herself together with a vague sense of intensional awareness of other potential resource users.

How does reinforcement come into the picture? Frequently, one would encounter some home pages that had been constructed months or years ago without any revisions or new contributions. Their authors have neglected them and ceased to contribute. Once a novel behavior has been acquired, it needs to have intermittent, positive reinforcements to sustain the behavior (Bandura & Walters, 1963). In order for reinforcement to take place, there must exist a feedback loop. The round-trip cycle of virtual cooperative interaction provides an individual the necessary awareness of the effectiveness of investment in social power which is crucial to reinforcing the behavior and leading to similar future actions.

An observable measurement of the effectiveness of social power on the web is the relative popularity of a web site. The popularity of a home page can be inferred from recognition earned by its visitor frequency counter, commentaries in its public guest-book, awards given by reviewers of popular web sites, and the number of other web pages linked to the page, etc. These gauges of popularity (which measure the relative power for social influence) provide direct reinforcements (can be either positive or negative) to an information provider. They also offer indirect, vicarious reinforcements to other information providers by providing social models for comparisons.


The previous section presented a socioware model of the virtual cooperative interaction in global virtual organizations. The model consists five components in addressing communication, knowledge and social processes within virtual organizations: (i) the descriptive aspect comprised of the first three elements which characterize and classify virtual cooperative interactions; (ii) the prescriptive aspect that provide motivational reasons for individuals to participate in virtual cooperative interactions; and (iii) the operational aspect of how virtual cooperative interactions initiate and function. Now, the current section takes a more integrative approach in conceptualizing the global virtual organizations.

Many visions of humanity working in groups suggest the analog that people with in the web are organized like neurons in a brain. They ask the questions as to whether, when connected together appropriately (with the right rules of interconnection) the human race, with the entirety of its computers, will in fact be capable of significantly greater things than today. Certainly, networked computer society will act as a whole, as an organism (Berners-Lee, 1997). The effect of working together that some envisage is greater than that. If the whole were really to behave like an organism, then it would be beyond the wit of any individual to comprehend the state of operation of the whole. The organism as a whole develop its own goals and ways of achieving them (Berners-Lee, 1997).

This section uses the living systems theory (Miller, 1978) as a fundamental blue print to sketch a preliminary framework for conceptualizing the psycho-socio dynamics in the global virtual organizations. The Internet and the virtual organizations will be considered as the integral parts of a cybernetic living system at the meta-community level in the living systems theory.

When the collective intelligence model (Smith, 1994). is viewed with in the context of the living systems theory (LST), its basic concepts of human-computer symbiosis, collective awareness, and collective control can be extended to formulate a broader conceptual framework for the Internet. This LST-oriented conceptual framework characterizes the net as an emergent living system which is called CyberOrganism (Chen & Gaines, 1997).

Living Systems Theory

Organizations are open systems. That is, a organization maintains a relatively stable structure and boundary while receiving inputs from the environment, processing them, and extruding outputs. The human components of organizations-- individuals and groups-- are also open systems. Furthermore, these open systems are composed primarily of living entities-- cells, organs, and organisms (Tracy, 1989).

Figure 9 Levels of Living Systems and Nonliving Environment

Viewed from this open systems perspective, the Internet and the global virtual organizations can be considered as the integral parts of a cybernetic living system at the meta-community level. It is natural, therefore that living systems theory should be applied to the understanding of this emergent CyberOrganism and its psycho-social behaviours. Such an ensemble from the human-machine-environment triad can be conceptualized as a cross-over between CyberSpace and Virtual Communities (Jones, 1995). The CyberOrganism context is mainly focused on the four levels: organism (individual), group (team), organization, community of living systems theory (the shaded areas in Figure 9).

Critical Subsystems in Living Systems Theory

This subsection briefly describes the basic concepts in living systems theory (LST) as a foundation of a basic overall conceptual framework for the Internet. The basic living systems theory was built upon a search for the common properties of all living systems. It should be noted at this point that the basic theory is in flux, and may continue to be. LST demonstrates that living systems exist at eight levels of increasing complexity from cells, organisms, to groups, communities, and supranationals (Bailey. 1994).

Originally, the book Living Systems presented 19 basic subsystems at seven levels, and since then, James Grier Miller and his long time collaborator Jessie L. Miller, have added a 20th subsystem, the timer, and an eighth level, the community (Miller & Miller, 1992). The community level was added between the organization and the society. The timer subsystem was added to the original list of nine information-processing subsystems, making a total of 10 (not counting the boundary and reproducer, which process both information and matter-energy). The 20 subsystems (shown in Table 1) are responsible for the ongoing day-to-day operation of the living system, it is these subsystems which keep the system alive (Bailey, 1994).


Table 1 The Twenty Critical Subsystems of a Living System


1. Reproducer

2. Boundary

3. Ingestor 11. Input Transducer
  12. Internal Transducer
4. Distributor 13. Channel and Net
  14. Timer
5. Converter 15. Decoder
6. Producer 16. Associator
7. Matter-Energy Storage 17. Memory
  18. Decider
  19. Encoder
8. Extruder 20. Output Transducer
9. Motor  
10. Supporter  

Source: Adapted from Miller (1978); Tracy (1989) and Miller & Miller (1992).

Critical Subsystems

The survival and health of individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and societies depend on performance and coordination of a set of essential processes. In all, LST identifies 20 critical subsystems carrying out these processes at every level. For example, a channel and net subsystem to convey information from one part of the system to another was found to be necessary in cells as well as societies. The nature of that subsystem might vary but the function remained the same. Some critical subsystems process matter-energy, some process information, and some process both (Tracy, 1989). From this holistic perspective, the chronological awareness for community can be viewed to be one of the fundamental components (in the intersection of the timer critical sub-system and the community level) in the living systems theory. A comprehensive presentation of the critical sub-systems in the LST, is given by Miller (1978) and Tracy (1989). For the purposes of this article the timer sub-system is most relevant to chronological awareness. The following subsections provide brief descriptions and examples of the 20 critical subsystems in the LST.

Subsystems Processing Matter-Energy and Information

Reproducer. the subsystem which carries out the instruction in the genetic information (template) or character of a system and mobilizes matter, energy, and information to produce one or more similar systems. For examples: in the group level, parents who create a new family; in the organization level, any individual, group, or department that produces a new organization with an implicit or explicit charter similar to that of the original organization; and at the community level, national legislature that grants state status to territory.

Boundary. The boundary is the subsystem at the perimeter of a system that holds together the components which make up the system, protects them from environmental stress, and excludes or permits entry to various sorts of matter-energy and information (Miller, 1978). At the group level, matter-energy: inspect soldiers of a platoon; information: TV-viewing rules in a family. At the organization level, matter-energy: security guards at entrance to a firm; information: librarian. At the community level, matter energy: agricultural inspection officers; information: movie censors in a town.

Matter-Energy Processing Subsystems

Ingestor. The Ingestor is the subsystem that brings matter-energy into the system across its boundary. At the group level: refreshment chairperson of a social club. At the organization level: receptionists and personnel department process inputs of people. And at the community level: Airport authority of a city.

Distributor. The distributor subsystems carries matter-energy throughout the system wherever it is needed. The matter-energy may come from the environment through the Ingestor, from another internal process, or from storage. At the group level: father who serves dinner. At the organization level: assembly line. And at the community level: county school bus drivers.

Converter. the subsystem which changes certain inputs to the system into forms more useful for the special processes of that particular system. At the group level: work group members who cuts cloth. At the organization level: operators of an oil refinery. And at the community level: city stockyard organization.

Producer. The producer subsystem takes matter-energy inputs directly or from the converter and synthesizes them into new materials. These new materials may be used by the system to provide energy, repair damage, or grow. They may also be extruded as trade goods or waste. At the group level: family member who cooks. At the organization level: machinery artifacts in manufactures. And at the community level: bakery and restaurant.

Matter-Energy Storage. The subsystem which places matter or energy at some location in the system, retains it over time, and retrieves it. At the group level: family members who put away groceries. At the organization level: stockroom personnel. And at the community level: county jail officials.

Extruder. The extruder subsystem transmits products and wastes across the boundary and out of the system. At the group level: kids who put out trash. At the organization level: employees in packaging, shipping, and mail room. And at the community level: city sanitation department.

Motor. The motor subsystem moves the system itself or parts of it, as well as components or the environment. At the group level: drivers of family cars. At the organization level: earth movers or cranes and their drivers of a manufacture. And at the community level: subway system and city transit authority.

Supporter. The support subsystem separates the various components of the system and maintains the proper spatial relationship between them so that they do not crowd each other. At the group level: housing construction crew. At the organization level: land and artifacts such as buildings and platforms. And at the community level: maintenance crew at capital building.

Information Processing Subsystems

Input Transducer. The input transducer subsystem serves the same function with respect to information that the ingestor serves for matter energy. The input transducer brings information-bearing markers across the boundary and into the system. (A marker is a physical representation in form of a structure, pattern, or interaction of matter-energy.) At the group level: lookout of a gang of thieves. At the organization level: people in such departments as marketing research, sales, purchasing, legal, accounts, and receivable, and product research. These people obtain information from the environment. And at the community level: representatives who report from a state capital to local voters.

Internal transducer. The internal transducer subsystem receives information-bearing markers from other subsystems or components of the system and converts the markers to nerve impulses. It is the sensory subsystem that receives markers changing them to other matter-energy forms of a sort which can be transmitted within it. At the group level: group member who reports members' opinions to group decider. At the organization level: employees who makes internal reports on the status of, or changes in, variables of the system's components or subsystems, such as a factory quality control unit. And at the community level: neighborhood watch groups.

Channel and Net. the subsystem composed of a single route in physical space, or multiple interconnected routes over which markers bearing information are transmitted to all parts of the system. At the group level: person-to-person communication channels among group members. At the organization level: people at nodes of organizational networks, such as switchboard operators, secretaries, managers at all levels. And at the community level: telephone linesmen in a city.

A timer subsystem transmits information to a decider subsystem about time-related environmental states or about of components of the system. This information signals the deciders of subsystems to start, stop, alter the rate, or advance or delay the phase of one or more of the system's processes, to coordinate them in time. The timer consists of one or more oscillators known as clocks or pacemakers, the phase of which can be reset. They measure duration or order in time or underlying rhythms of various sorts. The timer synchronizes internal processes of the system and coordinates the system with its environment (Miller & Miller, 1992). For example, at the group level, a mother wakens other family members on time; at the organization level, workers take regular monthly inventory; and at the community level, artifacts such as clocks mark the opening and closing of schools and buildings, as well as regulating traffic lights and parking meters. The same can also be applied to a larger time scale, in terms of annual community celebrations of local and national holidays.

Decoder. Each living system has its private code for information. Data obtain through the input and internal transducers must be decoded and recorded into this private code by the decoder subsystem. At the group level: member who explains rules to a project team. At the organization level: manager who decodes the angry countenance of an employee into thoughts about the employee's attitude. And at the community level: attorney general of a state who interprets law.

Associator. The Associator subsystem carries out all the learning processes of forming links or associations among various items of information. The associator is analogous to the producer in the sense that an association between two or more bits of information is a new bit of information. That is, putting bits of data together is like combining elements such as carbon and oxygen; the result is more than the sum of its parts. At the group level: parents who teach good behaviours to their children. At the organization level: people who train new employees. And at the community level: city school teachers, religious leaders in a neighborhood.

Memory. The memory subsystem completes the learning processes. It stores original bits of information and associations so that the total information in the system can grow over time. Memory processes involve input (recording or memorizing), maintenance (retention and recording as well as forgetting). and output (retrieval or remembering). Humans use artifacts like books, memos, diaries, files, and recordings to aid the memory subsystems. At the group level: father who keeps family records and history. At the organization level: accounting department keeps financial records or filing department of a firm. And at the community level: operators of computer data bank at a central police department.

Decider. The decider subsystem is the most essential of all, according to Miller. It is the executive center that receives data from various sources through out the channel and the net and sends control information (orders) to all parts of its system (Miller, 1978). Decision involves four stages: (i) establishing purposes and goals; (ii) analyzing discrepancies between the current state and variables and their desired state; (iii) synthesizing and choosing a plan of action to attain the desired state; (iv) implementing the plan by issuing appropriate commands. Human artifacts of this subsystem include handbooks, algorithms, and computers (Tracy, 1989). At the group level: parents, family council. At the organization level: the top echelon of the decider may be the board of directors as a group or an individual such as the chief executive officer. And at the community level: governor, legislators, judges of a state.

Encoder. The subsystem which alters the code of information input to if from other information processing subsystems, from a "private" code which can be interpreted by other subsystems in its environment or by other living systems. It reverses the processes of the decoder. At the group level: writers of a group communication. At the organization level: billing, advertising, public relations, and legal departments that handle bills, advertising copy, and other messages that must be encoded for transmission to other systems. And at the community level: writers of city ordinances.

Output Transducer. The output transducer transfers information from internal markers to external markers that are suitable for carrying information in the system's environment. It changes the internal markers into other matter-energy forms which can be transmitted over the channels in the system's environment. At the group level: jury foreman who speaks for the jury as a whole. At the organization level: employees who deal with the public, such as salespeople, secretaries, spokespersons, and labor negotiators. And at the community level: representatives from a state to a regional legislature.

The following subsection tentatively sketches out a preliminary, structural-functional description of the emerging CyberOrganism (i.e., the Net as an emergent phenomenon/artifact from organizational, group, individual sub-levels). Global computer networks (like the Internet), workstations, etc. become its matter-energy infrastructures and WWW, Mosaic, CSCW, etc. become its information processing infrastructures.

Collective Intelligence Model

Smith's Collective Intelligence Model (Smith, 1994) can be characterized as a cognitive model within the living systems theory. It focuses on two system levels: the individual (organism) and the group levels (the lightly shaded inner areas in Figure 9). The model regards collaborative groups as a form of information processing system, analogous to Newell and Simon's IPS model of individual cognition (Newell, 1982; Newell & Simon, 1972).

Within the model, a collective memory system includes subsystems that provide a collective long-term memory (LTM) for tangible knowledge, built and maintained in a computer system, and for intangible knowledge, carried in the heads of the human beings that comprise the group. The memory system also includes working memory (the currently attenuated awareness) for both types of information.

A collective processor includes the fine-grain operations used by groups to develop, access, and maintain the information stored in the memory system. The collective processor as a whole can be viewed as a loosely coupled distributed system that includes multiple independent processors, joined by communications and social networks (Smith, 1994).

Collective strategy enables coherence in collaborative work. Individual processes occur not in isolation but in purposeful sequences. These strings of operations are analogous to statements in a language intended to accomplish a goal or to communicate a message. The system responsible for generating sequences of operations is analogous to the grammar individuals used to generate a string of words. Therefore a collection of collective strategies become a work-flow model for the collaborative group.

Finally, the model considers two meta-cognitive issues: collective awareness and collective control. Many collaborative projects are too large and too complex to be understood by any one person. However, people often expect groups to produce work with the same integrity and consistency sometimes found in work produced by a single good mind working alone. By developing thick, overlapping areas of shared knowledge, groups may be able to piece together a form of collective, but distributed peripheral awareness that is sufficiently coherent to achieved this goal. Control must also be distributed over a group. Otherwise, information will not flow across boundaries, and the group and its work will be brittle. However, although many decisions can, and probably made by consensus, authority must ultimately be centralized in order to resolve disagreements and to preserve the integrity of the group's work (Smith, 1994). Here chronological awareness provides essential information for groups to exercise distributed, collective controls that maintain smooth coordination (Chen & Gaines, 1997).

Critical Subsystems at the CyberOrganism Level

This subsection outlines a preliminary, structural-functional description of the emerging CyberOrganism which the web/net becomes an emergent cybernetic living organism from organizational, group, individual sub-levels. Global computer networks (like the Internet), networked workstations, etc. become its matter-energy infrastructures and WWW, Netscape, Alta Vista etc. become its information processing infrastructures (Chen & Gaines, 1997).

Reproducer: Matter-Energy: Corporations (usually multi-nationals) and governmental agencies (e.g., NSF, ARPA) that build computer networks and communication infrastructures which use the Internet as their blue-print/foundation. Information: Communication system-engineers who design communication protocols, networking software, and operating systems for the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Boundary: Matter-Energy: network routers, networked personal workstations. Information: computer networks administrators; referees of electronic scientific journals.

Ingestor: purchasing departments that are responsible for acquisition of computers and networking gears; local-telephone companies that act as common networks carriers; local power utilities which bring in electrical power source for the computer networks.

Distributor: long-distance telephone companies that provide the networking backbone infrastructures for the Internet.

Converter: packet switching network servers that converts raw data into data packets for transmission. e.g., ATM networks.

Producer: telecommunication and computer companies that produce workstations, networking hardware, etc.

Matter-Energy Storage: computing centres at university campuses that store computer equipment, spare parts, etc.

Extruder: data processing departments that produce billing letters, advertising mails, etc.

Motor: telephone linesmen, computer networks installation crews.

Supporter: chief information system officers in corporations who maintain over all integrity of company computing resources.

Input Transducer: data processing operators who input information; software programmers who input computer codes into computers; anyone who operates computers that are tied to the Net directly or indirectly.

Internal Transducer: client-side networking programs (like Mosaic and Netscape browsers) that receives markers from the input transducers or other subsystems and convert them into HTTP network protocols for transmission in the web.

Channel and Net: various LAN's; the Internet information technology; World Wide Web.

Timer: chronological awareness support subsystems like CHRONO (or WebWatch) that periodically update the information about the time-related states of the environment (or of components of the system) to other subsystems.

Decoder: operating systems that handle data packets and low-level protocols like TCP/IP.

Associator: hyperlinks in Web pages; subject hierarchy systems like Yahoo; editorial departments that keep what's cool site information; educational institutions that teaching computer skills; USENET newsgroups, MOO, IRC, and Web conferencing systems (such as HyperNews) for collaborative learning between individual users or project groups that are often instigated by individual inquiry, followed by collective idea-generation process.

Memory: long-term: ftp archives, list servers, gopher or Web documents, etc. short-term (working memory): USENET, e-mails (could become long-term if necessary, however such STM to LTM transformation are often selective).

Decider: technology policy departments in national government; industrial consortia; individual research groups.

Encoder: HTTPD CGI (common gateway interface) servers that encode relevant information into HTML (hypertext markup language) documents for the web.

Output Transducer: computer users who get information from the Internet and act upon it, such as customer-service, accounting, and credit-checking departments, field technicians, private detectives who counsel the Internet information services for data retrieval.


The 1990s have seen the emergence of large scale collaborative activities on the Internet using email, list servers, news groups and the World Wide Web. There have also been developments of systems using some of these technologies to support smaller closely-coupled teams. In terms of the standard time/space taxonomy for CSCW, these uses of the Internet are generally virtual in space and range from highly synchronous to highly asynchronous interactions. However, many of the major applications of the Internet raise new issues that are not adequately addressed by existing models and taxonomies of CSCW (Chen & Gaines, 1997b).

Small groups of individuals working together generally have well-defined roles and mutual awareness of roles, tasks and activities. However on an Internet list server, a discussion may be initiated with only a vague concept of other potential participants but with strong expectations that a collaborative activity will result. On the World Wide Web, material may be published without only a vague conception of potential users yet that material may play an essential role in a collaborative active in some community, possibility not involving the originator, and perhaps a community of which the originator is not part. These phenomena are common in various collaborative scientific communities conducting interdisciplinary research. Those loosely collaborative virtual organizations are moving their knowledge acquisition processes to the Internet and the web. It is interesting to know whether they can be modeled and supported using some extended CSCW frameworks.

The article presents a conceptual model for virtual cooperative interaction which encompasses the communication processes and collaborative knowledge acquisition activities from closely-coupled teams to those of the very diffuse virtual organizations. It analyzes these activities in terms of the punctuated discourse processes, breaking down the cycles of action and response involved into a continuous temporal dimension. It analyzes them also in terms of awareness by originators of recipients and vice versa. The temporal dimension and awareness hierarchy enable the existing taxonomies and models of CSCW to be extended to encompass a very wide range of systems operating in both the short- and long-term and ranging from small teams to large communities. The model analyzes motivational aspects of virtual cooperative interactions. It gives rise to natural structural analyses of the activities which allows the types of communities involved to be identified from their observed activities. It can also be used to categorize computer-mediated environments roughly into groupware and socioware (Figure 10).

The conceptual model presented in the article implies that for successful maintenance of continual virtual cooperative interactions, the following criteria must exist:

Groupware Socioware
Awarenessstrong mutual
weak mutual
Time cycle of Interaction short to medium

(seconds to days)

medium to long

(days to years)

Motivation for Cooperation individual social
collective social
Power Relations well-defined roles as part of team definition emergent roles from investment in social power capacity

Figure 10 Groupware and Socioware comparisons

The current model also identifies the types of socioware systems that are needed to expedite collaborative activities, and provides a framework for classifying existing tools in use on the Internet. It focuses on participants' motivations and power relationship which determine their social roles, goals, expectations in virtual cooperative interactions. They are generally implicitly defined in groupware by the nature of group tasks (Mandviwalla & Olfman, 1994) and organizational structures (Kling, 1980). The article contributes to organization science research by drawing attention to the significance of large-scale socioware such as the web where social and organizational structures are fluid and less well-defined. The conceptual model for virtual cooperative interaction expands the scope of groupware research. It provides a framework encompassing all forms of distributed knowledge creation and dissemination processes from teams through organizational work groups to diffused, evolving CyberOrganism (Chen & Gaines, 1997). Modeling and supporting virtual cooperative interactions on the Internet are important new challenges for research in computer-mediated communication and organization science.


The purpose of the research reported in this article has been to develop a finer-grained conceptual model for communication, knowledge and social processes that occur in global virtual organizations. In order to support and improve those processes through new and better services, the model developed suggests three levels of analysis of services:

The key question to ask in developing new awareness support tools is "what is the starting point for the person seeking information, the existing information that is the basis for their search." A support tool is then one that takes that existing information and uses it to present further information that is likely to be relevant. Such information may include relevant concepts, text, existing documents, people, sites, list servers, news groups, and so on. The support system may provide links to further examples of all of these based on content, categorization or linguistic or logical inference. The outcome of the search may be access to a document but it may also be email to a person, a list or a news group.

The net is a vehicle for discourse in which the goals of individual agents are supported through social knowledge processes, and support tool design needs to be based on increasingly refined models of those processes. Much of our current research is concerned with the empirical studies of discourse processes on the net through analysis of information diffusion, list server archives, and so on (Chen & Gaines, 1996b). We conjecture that tools that develop models of such processes and make them available to the participants may themselves result in improved usage of net resources. By considering the net as a whole in the CyberOrganism framework, we attempt to model and track the evolution and ecology of new net services as they inevitably emerge to fill functional niches, very much like chronological awareness mechanisms have done so.


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[1] To obtain a copy of CHRONO, see

Last update: 2002-03-27 by Lee Chen

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