DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5986-5.ch003


This chapter discusses the concept of group informatics (groupomatics), which is one of the topics in the Information View of Organization (IVO). An attempt of balancing technological and cognitive issues is made, building on the idea that the IS field and small group theory can benefit from cross-pollinating their perspectives. One running theme in the chapter is the emphasis on cognitive aspects of work groups. The emphasis comes from a metaphor of intelligence applied to work group. Experimental research on Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS) has initiated this focus with study of problem solving/decision making in the 1980s, while conceptions of group intelligence were introduced much earlier. Another running theme is communication. Communication capabilities are always a function in Group Supports Systems (GSS), although they can be analytically separated. An argument for a need of a deeper engagement of communication theory is developed. Communication is to be approached beyond the convenient but limiting conduit metaphor. The chapter also addresses the theme of uncertainty and ambiguity plaguing the deployment of teamwork and GSS. Interactions between group, technology, and the social context complicate the understanding and management of GSS. Ample evidence indicates unexpected outcomes of deploying GSS. Sometimes, a GDSS may shield group perception from groupthink biases, but at other times it may not. The same applies to the quality of the brainstorming output generated via GDSS. Sometimes GDSS can help to manage conflict-ridden problem solving, while at other times a group uses its system without a productivity gain. Distributed (virtual) teams and Distributed GSS (DGSS) bring up new issues and challenges. Trust among dispersed teammates may or may not appear at random, classical management controls may bring surprising results, DGSS may be appropriated in an opportunistic rather than utilitarian fashion, and the group capabilities may compensate for shortcoming of communication technologies. Significant challenges of distributed teams engender a host of requirements for design and management of DGSS.
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Work groups or teams have become a popular topic since the 1980s. In parallel, interest in technology for supporting groups has been developing. Group decision support system (GDSS) used to be the technology of the day, typically implemented in the same place/same time mode for brainstorming purposes. The topic of workgroups, thus, became legitimate in the IS field. Along with this topic came experimental design as the research methodology, which previously had been just occasionally used. Much of the research had a focus on technology use and impacts on quantity and quality of data generated by using GDSS. GDSS technology was in the focus, along with certain aspects of GDSS sessions, although this IT was treated abstractly as a modus of making decisions as opposed to the face-to-face modus.

Another stream of research evolved around systems for supporting workflow, collaboration, communication, and sharing of knowledge. These are often called group support systems (GSS). The champion technology was Notestm, a programming environment for group applications, and the staple research method was a case study. This research has sometimes been labeled with terms “collaboration work and technology” and “groupware.” Generally, a more balanced approach in addressing both cognitive and technological informing agents has been achieved in research. The next surge of interest in groups and IT was marked with a shift toward teams with dispersed membership. This research stream was somewhat inspired by perspective of virtual organization. An example of virtual organization aspects is the development of trust between spatially distributed teammates. Communication technology became the center of attention. An emphasis on behavioral group issues is the social complement in this research, while problems of group cognition have not been given sufficient attention. More recently, attempts have been made toward bridging GDSS and communication systems research.

Communication is an indispensable part of the group context. Group support technology, therefore, needs to have data transfer capabilities. This is particularly so in the context of distributed groups. Collaborative work processes are carried out by communication channels, and thus communication is instrumental in sharing data, opinions and expertise, group thinking, the development of knowledge, and management of group memory. In the IS field, this communication is usually called “computer mediated communication” (CMC) or “computer assisted communication;” in other fields the label “telecommunication” may be used. Data in this sort of communication still take the form of text and audio for the most part, even though image and video formats steadily increase their share with technological advances and cost reduction. Also, wireless communication gradually claims its place alongside wired communication or even dominates in geographical regions that have never seen elaborate telephone and computer networks.

Scholars have disagreed with regard to the role of group systems and their relationships with structure, process, action, and, apparently, methodological issues. While some look at GDSS as an instrument for achieving better ideas and decision making, others maintain that random social effects can be nonetheless valuable. While some researchers find that people supported by email and the telephone can develop trustful relationships in the dispersed team context, others discover that even custom-built group support systems have just a limited value. A remarkable message from all this research is that groups and the associated informing agents do not yield easily to the efforts of understanding and controlling them. Technology in particular is the subject of more complex social processes than in the individual user context. The themes of “open-ended” character of group support systems (Weick, 1990; Orlikowski et al., 1995) and technology's “drifting” (Ciborra, 1996) characterize well this challenge to management control.

The discussion in this chapter will touch on all of these research streams, while “reconstructing” the discourse according to the IVO framework. A particular emphasis will be given to understanding groups as a form of intelligence, which is an agency performing cognitive processes similar to individual cognition. The title of the chapter comes from words “group” and “informatics.” The term informatics reflects the IVO approach of looking at organization of group from the perspective of informing agents.

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