The Socio-Technical Virtual Organisation

The Socio-Technical Virtual Organisation

Rob Smith (Newcastle University, UK) and Rob Wilson (Newcastle University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0879-5.ch501
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A Virtual Organisation (VO) or Virtual Enterprise is a loosely-coupled group of collaborating organisations, acting to some extent as though they were part of a single organisation. This implies that they exhibit some properties of a conventional organisation without actually being one. In practice, this involves overcoming organisational boundaries, which tend to make collaborative working difficult. The authors of this chapter propose that this is a socio-technical problem, requiring both a technical (software) infrastructure and a sociological approach to building, deploying and operating the VOs supported by it. This joint approach can help to overcome some of the problems associated with collaborative working, ranging from poorly coordinated activity, to ineffective problem solving and decision-making. The authors describe a socio-technical approach to building and operating VOs in highly dynamic environments and present two factual scenarios from the chemical and health industries. They describe a platform supporting such VOs, which was developed as part of the EPSRC E-Science Pilot Project GOLD.
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It has been remarked that there are as many definitions of “Virtual Organisation” as there are researchers in the field (Metselaar & Van Dael, 1999). In practice, these definitions tend to fall roughly onto a spectrum with an emphasis on the sharing of physical resources such as storage and processing power at one end and an emphasis on exploiting novel aggregations of knowledge, skills and capacity at the other. At the more ‘resource-oriented’ end of the spectrum, VOs are often characterised by relative stability; well-defined central or hierarchical management; well-defined access to resources across simple interfaces; easily-defined tasks; and a set of well-understood, well-communicated common goals (Foster, 2001). An example is an outsourced data processing facility, where data is securely shipped off-site for manipulation by third-party algorithms using grid technology because the client does not possess either appropriate algorithms or required processing power in-house. The problems and issues associated with these types of VO are largely technical, including:

  • How to overcome local technical restrictions such as firewalls; details of internal networks etc.

  • How to provide secure, governable access control to shared resources.

  • How to coordinate resource use across organisational boundaries

  • How to protect information security

  • How to generate evidence of activity in the event of disputes

  • How to federate different technologies, processes and standards

  • How to provision and deploy services, tools and applications

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